I recently finished reading Edmund de Waal’s wonderful new book, “The White Road, a Pilgrimage of Sorts” and it made me very much more aware of white and the role it plays in my life as an artist. De Waal went on a fascinating odyssey seeking out porcelain centers, history of porcelain and as he did in his previous book, “The Hare with Amber Eyes”, the whole story is interwoven with his own life as a potter in England.
White, so much the basis of visual artists’ world, is especially present when one is drawing, on paper surfaces. Silverpoint/metalpoint is traditionally drawn on a white or cream ground, and although I love to work on a black ground, I seem recently to have reverted to working on white. This has led to stray thoughts about the relationship of white and the silver marks I am making. Is the white the negative or the positive in what I am trying to say? What is the balance in each drawing between the drawn and the left undrawn white? Should the white be clearly delineated or is it better to let the silver softly fade away and merge like a whisper into the white?
These questions seem to be at the back of my mind as I work on drawings, and they remain unanswered, save that I keep on drawing and each drawing provides a different version of an answer. Perhaps that is the way it should be. As De Waal says right at the beginning of his book, “If you make things out of porcelain clay, you exist in the present moment.” That is true for every artist. Only that moment counts for me – the next moment brings another thought, another drawing stroke, another implicit decision about the white question. Then you pause, draw breath, look critically, and that little voice of experience inside says, “right, now try this” or “that is the next thing to do.”
De Waal quotes the American philosopher, John Dewey, describing art-making: “as process, like the flight and perching of a bird. You are in it. Then you pause and see what it is. And then back to absorption, the flight of music.” That is a lovely way of dealing with white – “the flight of music”. It seems to marry whites dancing across the surface of paper most delightfully.
Perhaps this question of white - where, how much, how important or unimportant - is implicitly guided by past experience of looking at art, at the world around one with the play of light and dark, of living with awareness and curiosity. Subconsciously, all that past is part and parcel of the present, and it becomes a question, in art and in so many other aspects of life, of wanting to create, to do something; the rest follows, the whites and darks in the silverpoint fall into place. It reminds me a little of a lovely line in Dominique de Saint Pern’s book on” Baronne Blixen”, aka Karen von Blixen of “Out of Africa” fame. Describing a conversation, in the book, that the Baroness had with a French cavalry officer when he described how he had trained to ride and jump, he purportedly said, “ Il faut commencer par jetter le coeur par-dessus l’obstacle; ensuite, rien de plus facile que de faire passer le cheval”. (You should first imagine throwing your heart over the obstacle, and then it becomes the easiest thing in the world to jump it with the horse.) De Waal also talks of the poet, Paul Celan, writing about the "routes into poems". He says that you send yourself ahead, in search of yourself. The imagery is of paths, of setting out, of digressions and a "kind of homecoming. There is no straight road to finding yourself, to making something."
In the same way, in drawing, I suppose that whites and darks are part of the whole balance and process of living life in the moment. Since we frequently don’t know what the present moment will lead to in life, the same pertains in the art-making dance. Perhaps that is why Edmund de Waal got so caught up in his world of white porcelain and why I find silverpoint on white grounds so interesting and addictive.