Ralph Oswick: What makes great art really is subjective
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.