Touching the Surface

Wendy Smith’s work is about line: an accumulation of single, straight, hand drawn lines that are forged through a process of repetition and refinement into various relationships until a final image emerges from the surface as an object suspended in space like a fragile structure. The initial impact of each finished work is one of astonishment that such objects can be handmade.

Edifying philosophers want to keep space open for the sense of wonder which poets can sometimes cause – wonder that there is something new under the sun, something which is not an accurate representation of what was already there, something which (at least for the moment) cannot be explained and can barely be described. 1

Northern Lights - pen & ink drawing on board

Northern Lights – pen & ink drawing on board

Touching the surface is primarily what my practice involves. Being an artist, I am preoccupied with the effect this touching has on the surface and, in turn, the effect it has on me. Of course there is rather more to be said about the nature of this ‘touching’ and, indeed ‘surface(s)’ but, for now, I like the thought that however deeply one is tempted to delve, the surface is all there is. Vigorous and sustained though the digging might be, what is revealed is simply surface after surface after surface. In short, I want to resist the notion that ‘surface’ equates with the superficial appearance of something as opposed to its real nature.

It occurred to me with considerable force very early on in my career that every painting, (drawing, etching, and so on), from one of Goya’s most detailed miniature portraits, say, to the vast colour field paintings of Barnet Newman, were made on a surface. Moreover, however ‘illusionistic’, naturalistic, abstract, or flat as flat, they might be, their every effect depended on how a single surface was touched. The artist Maurice Denis famously stated: ‘Remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude, and anecdote or whatnot, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order’. And it’s this arrangement (of pictorial elements) in a certain order that is of particular interest to me. Much is made of what the artist brings to the surface in terms of intention of one sort or another: emotion, psychological state, and so on; what has far more impact for me is not the artist’s potential but that of the surface itself.

Shudder - pen & ink drawing on board

Shudder – pen & ink drawing on board

The mathematician Roger Penrose has claimed drawing to be an invaluable aid to his mathematical thinking and an essential ingredient of most of his mathematical expositions. No one would think it amiss if Penrose said that his mathematical work was not motivated mainly by the need to express himself or to communicate (with non-mathematicians in particular). However, in my experience, it is considered altogether odd if an artist says as much. Equally, no one is discomfited when a scientist enthuses about something amazing that his or her work has revealed about the way reality is, yet if an artist were to do so it would be thought immodest, hubristic, or simply inappropriate. Whether or not an artist’s work reveals something remarkable about reality – human perception, say – is not for her or him to say, it is for others to judge. The problem is, that whilst its perfectly plausible that others might share my interests and be inquisitive about the same kind of phenomena (in fact, implausible to suppose otherwise), my absorption in a question or problem, my direct experience or observation(s), are just that: mine and mine alone. I can affect interest or puzzlement but I cannot deceive myself concerning what interests or puzzles me and in that sense no one else can be engrossed or puzzled on my behalf and no one can be the judge of my perceptual experience. The artist is moved to touch or mark the surface in a certain way; the spectator looks to observe the effect of this touching or marking, to see what he can learn from it, to see what is revealed in, and about, the surface so touched. The drawings survive its creator in more senses than one: the artist’s birth as reader (or spectator) succeeds her death as author (or instigator). That is to say, I am necessarily both artist and spectator.

I cannot altogether account for why I came to be preoccupied with drawing specifically. Initially, perhaps it was merely that pencil and paper were relatively cheap and readily available. I do recall that it seemed important to travel as light as possible so that I would be able to work anywhere and at any time, just so long as I had some sort of surface to draw on and something with which to mark it – not unlike a writer in fact. Another watchword in the earliest days was: ‘keep it simple’, though that should not be understood as any kind of commitment to reductionist or Minimalist principles. As much as anything, ‘keeping it simple’ means taking nothing for granted, being clear about the focus of attention and not getting sidetracked. This entails having a clear methodology at the outset and sticking with it.

Seismic Event - pen & ink drawing on board

Seismic Event – pen & ink drawing on board

I am preoccupied with (the) surface, its image-generating potential and/or capacity. My concomitant interest in ‘reality’ in this context relates to visual perception and more specifically to ‘image recognition’, for want of a better term. Clearly, both are aspects of the ‘real world’ and it’s hard to see how the one could be explored without the other. It might be said that they comprise a ‘field of research’. Put like that, it might not sound much like an art practice to some but it does perhaps clarify what I mean when I say I draw from a position of unknowing: of having no preconceived idea, or image in my mind’s eye, as to what will emerge from procedures that are so precisely methodical. I draw simply to find out more about the world: I draw to investigate what is possible on this surface in the here and now. The drawings themselves explore a rich seam between figuration and abstraction which, rather in the spirit of Jasper Johns, I regard as one of Modernism’s most potent legacies.

Towards the end of The Intelligent Eye Richard Gregory writes: ‘We have to learn to live with non-sensory data, and the resulting non-perceptual concepts of physics. We are left with a question: how far are human brains capable of functioning with concepts detached from sensory experience? Our future depends on the answer . . . The Intelligent Eye is for the first time confronted with an essentially unpredictable future, where present object hypotheses are bound to fail. As we create so we must adapt to what we have created; the danger is that we may create a world beyond the restraints of our intelligence: a world we cannot see.’

Avalanche (phase 3) - pen & ink drawing on board

Avalanche (phase 3) – pen & ink drawing on board

It seems to me artists are challenged to make the world seeable. The experience and understanding that drawing affords is, in the first place, sense perceptual. Drawing makes possible a certain sort of comprehension that is otherwise unavailable to me or to anyone else. It’s not merely that drawing is capable of expressing thoughts and feelings, drawing makes certain ideas conceivable. I am an explorer of a kind and my purpose is to test pictorial possibility which entails probing visual perception. To explore is to examine or investigate, especially systematically. I see no contradiction between precision and mystery or between intentionality and not knowing: when one is seriously in the dark there is little choice but to be methodical.Drawings – my drawings, anyway – are themselves ‘propositions’ of a kind that cannot be voiced, can only be shown. They become articulate (or not) in the process of their making.

Richard Wollheim has written: ‘. . . it is clear that no one could set himself to produce a surface, unless he had some answer to the question what it was the surface of: nor could he endeavour to accentuate or work up a surface unless, once again, he thought of himself as accentuating or working up the surface of this or that kind of thing.’3
As it happens, these drawings do precisely what Wollheim implies is impossible. They ‘picture’, or image, surfaces without specifying what kinds of surface they are or what they are surfaces of. On the face of it, the idea of drawing a surface without drawing a surface of this or that thing just does not seem feasible. But then, the idea of making a line drawing of something without drawing an outline, or making drawings of things in which lines do not represent edges, might also strike one as . . . well . . . unimaginable.

Shape or Form - pen & ink drawing on board

Shape or Form – pen & ink drawing on board

A line has position and length but neither breadth nor depth. A line is ‘a straight or curved continuous trace having no breadth, that is produced by a moving point . . .’ A line is ‘any straight, one-dimensional geometrical element whose identity is determined by two points’.4

A line is not a thing it is an idea, a concept: it’s all in the mind.

A point is defined as having definite position but without extension; or that which has position but not magnitude (as at the extremity of a line). A point is a ‘place’, having definite spatial position but no extent, or of which the position alone is considered. A point has no dimensions, its position is located by means of its co-ordinates. A point is plotted – located and marked – but the point is not even the mark which locates it, as on a graph. The mark on a graph can be seen, what it represents or symbolizes cannot – so that’s all in the mind too.

A plane is a flat surface in which a straight line joining any two of its points lies entirely on that surface. Surface has position and it has length and width but not depth; surface is a continuous, two-dimensional configuration.

These definitions aspire to be nothing more than precise formulations of the draughtsman’s stock in trade: point, line, surface. They are not poems but, like poetry, they are at once concise and imaginatively challenging. There is also particular appeal in that they serve as a leveller: common ground for professional and non-specialist alike. A line is amenable to practical application and theoretical conjecture, it is of a piece with the humdrum and the sublime. The line welcomes all-comers; more to the point in this context, it does not exclude the man who cannot draw – as Henry Miller remarked: even an idiot can draw a line.

Cosmati Paving - pencil drawing on board

Cosmati Paving – pencil drawing on board

Dictionary entries are written in plain language with the sole objective of making clear and explicit the meaning and etymology of words. The brief is to be clear and concise, not poetic; yet sometimes a formal and concise statement of the meaning of a word issues in something akin to poetry. In other words, there are times when language at its most prosaic commands and captures the imagination. On such occasions, the meaning of words is sought deliberately but not so their imaginative appeal or impact which, nevertheless, rests on the clarity and precision of definition. The meaning, which must be grasped imaginatively, resists any tendency to poeticize yet is couched in terms that succeed in being both exact and strange. In this they bear comparison with the drawings reproduced here which are, in effect, essays on line and surface.

Generations of art students were taught ‘there are no straight lines in nature’. This seemed to mean, it was certainly taken as meaning, that straight lines have no place in the drawing studio either. A further presumption was that drawing is, first and foremost, a skill deployed in the making of drawings and not a means of inquiry or speculation in its own right. It might be supposed we had come a long way in more recent times. After all, today, ‘research’ is very much the name of the game and drawings are seen to consist in, and of, not merely (straight) lines but every conceivable shape and form, colour, material, medium and style. In point of fact, this plurality looks ever more like a further entrenchment of an old prejudice. For this burgeoning category of what counts as drawing prioritizes what drawings are (as distinct from what drawing is). Which is to say, drawing is defined not so much as a process but as (every kind of) thing.

Tower (working drawing) - pen & ink on paper

Tower (working drawing) – pen & ink on paper

On the face of it, the principle of the grid is inescapable when it comes to speculating on what constitutes (a) line. As for making a line, a line cannot be drawn – described – without implicating both ‘point’ as an idea and practical necessity and ‘surface’ as material thing and abstraction. For those so motivated,the grid is an indispensable tool.The grid is a straightforward means of situating and plotting surface area, positioning and locating marks on it and subdividing the spaces in between.

There is a profound difference between the the plane surface and the picture plane; that is, between the physical and the ‘pictorial’ dimensions of drawing. ‘Working directly on the picture plane’ is jargon for ‘nonfigurative painting/drawing’ or, more precisely, ‘painting/drawing that eschews perspectival illusion’. This notion of working on the picture plane is both mistaken and misleading, not just because it implies that geometrical perspective is the only ‘illusion’ possible but because there is more at stake in this context. No artist can work directly on the picture plane because the picture plane is not a material thing. Graphite and ink are applied to the surface of the drawing, not to the picture plane. The picture plane is not a physical entity, it is phenomenal, available only to visual perception.

My position is that there is no difficulty in opening up the picture plane, as is commonly supposed. On the contrary, the problem for the artist is not that of creating the illusion of depth on a flat surface, it is how (s)he might set about marking the surface, how it might be organized, so as to limit the scope of the picture plane. The potential depth of the picture plane owes nothing to perspective; rather, perspective is one way of restricting it. Perspective sets limits on this otherwise unfathomable space.

The artist drawing - photograph

The artist drawing – photograph

In physical terms, the white surface of paper or board is scribed with ink and/or graphite. This disposition of marks on an otherwise white surface is a two-dimensional relationship. In pictorial terms there is nowhite surface for the (black) line to be ‘on’. Rather, the line is freed from its fixed position on paper or board, which dematerialises on the picture plane. The blankness of the white paper becomes, instead, the emptiness of space, pictorially-speaking. The relationship we are now invited to observe is not merely two-dimensional but spatial. The physical properties of a work of art form no part of the picture plane which they are instrumental in creating. The picture plane is an optical transformation of medium into image.

Via Lactea - pen & ink drawing on board

Via Lactea – pen & ink drawing on board


1. RORTY, R. (1989), Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd., p. 370

2. GREGORY, R. (1975), The Intelligent Eye, London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, pp 154/166

3. WOLLHEIM, R. The Work of Art as Object. In Harrison, C and Orton, F (eds) (1984) Modernism, Criticism, Realism, London and New York, pp 10-17

4. Collins English Dictionary, 1998. HarperCollins: Glasgow

5. MILLER, H. (1941) The Colossus of Maroussi, Colt Press: San Francisco



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