Ralph Oswick: What makes great art re­ally is sub­jec­tive

Bath Chronicle - - OPINION - Ralph Oswick was artis­tic di­rec­tor of Nat­u­ral The­atre for 45 years and is now an ac­tive pa­tron of Bath Com­edy Fes­ti­val

A friend of a friend who is an award-win­ning book­binder made me a beau­ti­ful lit­tle mono­grammed sketch­book for my re­cent 70th birth­day. Those of you who know me for my on and off stage thes­pian gal­li­vant­ing may not re­alise it, but I’m a dab hand with a pen or pen­cil. For years my com­i­cal draw­ings of hol­i­day­mak­ers were a reg­u­lar fea­ture of Visit Eng­land pub­li­ca­tions, for ex­am­ple. And my charm­ing greet­ings cards are top sell­ers in the bou­tiques of Wid­combe.* Mind you, I can’t paint for tof­fee. My dad was an ac­com­plished wa­ter­colourist de­spite his gnarled mar­ket gar­dener’s hands and could ex­e­cute a flaw­less sky wash sec­ond to none. But my hands are too shaky. I need some­thing firmer than a paint­brush to lean on and so I haven’t pro­gressed be­yond colour­ing in my ad­mit­tedly pretty nifty out­lines. The sketch­book in ques­tion has the finest of pa­pers be­tween its hand­some cov­ers. So fine in fact that I was afraid to put pen to pa­per. Then I re­mem­bered my first day at art school. It was ter­ri­fy­ing. The whole class had to go out into the woods with the tu­tor, who was a Royal Aca­demi­cian and of­fi­cial war artist no less. We all had our brand new draw­ing boards un­der our arms and had stretched our pa­per to the reg­u­la­tion smooth­ness. Ev­ery­one had their pen­cils im­mac­u­lately sharp­ened and each of us car­ried a lit­tle fold­ing stool. Sir re­galed us with bon mots in the man­ner of ‘Ob­serve the shapes be­tween!’ and ‘Make ob­jec­tive marks, not sub­jec­tive marks!’ But we were too scared to make any marks at all. No­body wanted to be the first to at­tack the fright­en­ingly blank white­ness of the pa­per. For a start, we didn’t know the skills of our newly met group. What if some­one was a bud­ding In­gres and showed us up as in­ad­e­quate am­a­teurs? What the hell was the dif­fer­ence be­tween ob­jec­tive and sub­jec­tive marks when they were in town? We all stud­ied the shapes be­tween, or found our pen­cils in need of yet more sharp­en­ing. The next five years of the de­gree course stretched be­fore us. Five years? I doubted I’d last five days. But sir had years of ex­pe­ri­ence and sim­ply told us to scrib­ble all over our pris­tine pa­pers. We thought he was mad, but as it turned out, a sul­lied sheet is far less scary than a glar­ing white one. Soon we were mak­ing sig­nif­i­cant marks, sub­jec­tive and ob­jec­tive, with gay aban­don. And to my relief, I cer­tainly wasn’t the worst artist in the class. The same with the afore­men­tioned sketch­pad. Much as I hated do­ing it, I scrib­bled on a few pages and it be­came less of a pre­cious ob­ject and more of a re­cep­ta­cle for my graphite me­an­der­ings. Ap­par­ently, even the old masters were in awe of the blank can­vas and em­ployed le­gions of as­sis­tants whose sole task was to scrib­ble on po­ten­tial great works. Now, that’s a job I’d re­ally en­joy! *N.B. Ad­di­tional costs may be in­curred if signed by the artist him­self.

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