Finding the Way 5: Drawing Books (1977-2023)

When I was an undergraduate student, we’d no more call a drawing book a sketch book than a photograph a snapshot. The term ‘sketch’ suggested something vague, half-hearted, and unfinished. Whereas ‘drawing’ implied focussed observation, intelligent selection, and a commitment to making representations that could be ends in themselves. Today, however, I appreciate that the ‘sketch’ has a distinguished and eminently practical tradition. Artists from Raphael to Constable sketched preliminary designs for large-scale, finished paintings, and used books to set down visual ideas quickly, as well as explore compositional variations.

John Harvey, section from a map of the Abertillery and Six Bells district (1930s) & John Harvey, study (made for Abertillery I (1995)) from a prospect below St Illtyd, pencil on paper, 17 ×40 cm, ‘The Large Black Drawing Book’ (1981-2).
John Harvey, Abertillery I (1995) acrylic and pencil on board, 36 × 40.5 cm.

Throughout my education and subsequent career I’ve drawn in books for all the above reasons, as well as others besides. But my aversion to the term ‘sketch’ persists. ‘Study’ is the preferred locution and synonymous with ‘drawing’ in my practice. Moreover, for me, ‘drawing’ signifies the act of visualising not only using graphic, paint-based or collagist mediums, but also any means by which ideas may be extracted from the object under scrutiny. Thus conceived, writing can be ‘drawing’ too.

John Harvey, two attempts to define visual analogues, pencil, ink, and carbon-tone type on paper, 21 × 17 cm, ‘Working Drawings’, Book 1 (1980).

The first drawing book that I produced was stolen by a fellow student on my foundation course, in 1977. The experience taught me much about (un)professional jealousy and greed, as well as letting go something of personal value with equanimity. For no one could steal what I’d learned by making those drawings.

During the second and third years of my BA (Hons) Fine Art degree (1980-81), I maintained three successive and identical ‘Working Drawing’ books; they were always at my elbow in the studio. The books contain preliminary process and compositional designs; explorations with media; trials of ideas; and an extended investigation into the analogical and metaphorical relationships between the South Wales’ landscape, pocket bagatelles, school photographs, piano interiors, advent calendars, Orthodox icons, and typewriters and their manuals. (My mother was once Personal Secretary to the Manager of the Prudential Assurance, in Abertillery. Her office typewriter was my joy.)

John Harvey, three studies of typewriters (1980) pencil, ink, acrylic, and Tippex on paper, 23 × 17 cm (×3).
Malcolm Hughes, rotation sequence (first four permutations) [n. d.] ‘Working Drawings’, Book 1 (1980).

They also include attempts to solve problems — set by my tutor, Keith Richardson-Jones — arising from systemic geometrical progressions, based on drawings by the constructivist artist Malcolm Hughes (who’d be my external examiner for the fine art element of the MA Visual Art degree, in 1983); quotations from art books; visual notes made while visiting museums and galleries; evidence of a passionate preoccupation with Paulo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano (1438-40); studies of landscape and interiors, interfused; etching-based collages; magic slate cut-outs; colour studies; drawings from memory of Abertillery (my home town); and a postcard of Jean-Étienne Liotard’s Landscape Near Geneva (1750), which I’d bought at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, in 1980. The image has haunted me ever since.

Jean-Étienne Liotard’s Landscape Near Geneva (1750), pastel, 58 × 45 cm (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons).

These volumes are an index to, and a visual diary of, my undergraduate studies in fine art. They bear witness to times of restlessness and quiet desperation; as well as to times when I took the left path when I should’ve chosen the right. Tutors never intervened to prevent students from either making a wrong decision or pursuing a course of action that was likely to lead to failure. Mistakes were an indispensable part of the educational process. No one told me: ‘Do this!’, when I hadn’t a clue what to do next. That would’ve infantilized me, and forestalled an experience of maturation that success could never offer. From day one of the degree course, students were expected to devise their own trajectory. There were no set projects to follow. Drawing books became my principal means of finding the way.

John Harvey, study for an untitled painting (1979) pencil on paper, 12 × 12 cm & Untitled (1979) acrylic, emulsion, and PVA on canvas, 125 × 125 cm.

In Book 3, there’s one study that was not made by my hand. It’s by one of my tutors, Jack Crabtree. He wanted to explain an approach to landscape composition that he was presently engaged with. What better way of showing than by drawing. As a teacher, I always took a notebook to tutorials on the assumption that, sometimes, words don’t suffice.

Jack Crabtree, didactic drawing, pencil on paper, 24 × 36 cm, ‘Working Drawings’, Book 3 (1981).

In the same book there’re two thumb-nail studies for an unrealised image based upon the account of Christ feeding the multitude. It was one of the first expressions of my endeavour to build a bridge between art and the Bible. However, it took another eighteen years before this particular narrative found its form in the 5000 Series (1999-2000) of artworks, from The Pictorial Bible I suite (45). Which demonstrates that, first, some possibilities present themselves long before they can be acted upon (and only when the artist has been seasoned by experience over time) and, secondly, while you may have finished with a drawing book, it may not have finished with you. Therefore, cherish them. The English sculptor Henry Moore preserved every drawing that he made — whether on art paper or the back of an envelope — and filed them away in the belief that some might prove to be the seeds of major works one day.

John Harvey, studies for feeding the multitude, pen and pencil on paper, 11 × 11 and 8 × 8 cm, ‘Working Drawings’, Book 3 (1981) & 5000 Series: Matthew (1999-2000) multi-part inkjet print, 71.25 × 142.5 cm (American Standard Version).

During my MA studies (1982-4), and professional career up to 1995, the function of the drawing books narrowed considerably. They served, chiefly, as either the ground for compositional development or a gymnasium for training perception and manual dexterity.

John Harvey, three studies for an abstract landscape, pencil on paper, 15 × 9.5 cm (×3) ‘The Small Black Drawing Book’ (1985-91).

In respect to the latter, for example, I maintained the habit of objective drawing everyday for several months at a time. The drawings represent scenes seen around the home and through windows looking onto the street and garden (often at night). I imposed several stipulations on the practice. The drawings: should take no longer than half-an-hour to complete; be made using one pencil only; and can’t be amended. (Erasers were banned.)

John Harvey, self-portrait (1985) 14.5 × 9 cm; Jacqueline knitting (1987) 14.5 × 8 cm; and Jacqueline knitting (1988) 11.5 × 9 cm, pencil on paper, ‘The Small Black Drawing Book’ (1985-91).
John Harvey, three studies of Elysian Grove, Aberystwyth, pencil on paper, 10 × 14 cm (×3) ‘The Cornelissen Drawing Book’ (1991).

Some fell into place, effortlessly; others were laboured, and sank under their own weight. The exercise ceased when I’d exhausted my interest in the subject matter. On another level, the practice was conceived as a discipline — like that to which musicians subject themselves: a regular, sustained, and concentrated engagement with an instrument, to the end of bettering one’s playing.

John Harvey, study of Elysian Grove, Aberystwyth, pencil on paper, 10 × 14 cm, ‘The Cornelissen Drawing Book’ (1991) & study of Elysian Grove (garden), Aberystwyth, pencil on paper, 10 × 12 cm, ‘The Daler Drawing Book’ (1992).

Out of these drawing books emerged larger-scale and more prolonged drawings, and a fruitful period of relief-painting based upon proximate landscapes.

John Harvey, Bird-Hop (1992) acrylic and sheet metal, 52.5 × 46 × 12 cm.

With the development of The Pictorial Bible series (1999-2015) — a text-based, abstract, systemic, and codifying mode of image-making — the drawing book morphed variously into a studio diary (for writing), graph books (for charting), and software-based programmes (for generating initial working designs). The type of work we produce determines the nature and definition of the drawing book we use.

John Harvey, studies for The Pictorial Bible I suite, pen, carbon-powder toner, acrylic, and tracing paper on paper, 28 × 42 cm, ‘The Studio Diary’ (1990-2007).
John Harvey, study of graphs for ‘The Work of … Fingers’ (Psalm 8) (2000) The Pictorial Bible I, pencil, acrylic, pen, and tracing paper on paper, 11 × 33.5 cm, ‘The Chartwell Notebook’ (1999-2007)
John Harvey, inverted study for A Wordless Gospel, Excel spreadsheet & A Wordless Gospel (2014) The Pictorial Bible III & The Aural Bible I, carbon-powder toner and liquid gold on paper, 25.2 × 33 cm (Authorised Version).

The drawing book (in all its guises) vanished entirely with the dissolution of the visual image that ensued the inauguration of The Aural Bible series (2015 to date). The sound artworks have neither drafts nor preliminary studies. They’re constructed within the framework of a Digital Audio Workstation, directly. However, the visible and material aspects of my modus operandi — the audio technology used to manufacture and project the sound — has given rise to a its own version of the ‘sketch’: the preparatory bluprint schematic. Like electronic circuit diagrams, this type of drawing is functional, testable, rational, and relational. It doesn’t render objective reality so much as plan for it. These Klee-like drawings variously represent: a map; a route for electricity; and the journey of a sound.

John Harvey, digital-blueprint schematic for tabletop rig (2019) pencil and pen on paper, 21 × 29.7 cm.

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