Feature / March 2023
Drawing’s Acolyte: C. Lucy R. Whitehead, Drawing, and the Sketchbook
By Mark Harley
While I’m not usually one to cite Jerry Saltz, the New York Magazine writer posted on Instagram what I feel to be valuable advice to younger artists: always keep drawing. Each practice is different, of course, and one should be wary of one-size-fits all pronouncements, but a commitment to the sketchbook hardly harbours many downsides. It becomes a place for experimentation and, necessarily, failure, while serving both diaristic and archival purposes. While I’m sure some of art’s great masterpieces have been produced in a spasm of creative genius, more have been the result of careful planning and repeated trial; the finished product a composite of all that had come before it.
Considering a devotion to the sketchbook, London-based artist C. Lucy R. Whitehead is an attendant acolyte. It was through her sketchbooks that I first came to understand the nature of Lucy’s work; in fact, I almost tripped over one during our first studio visit. During one of the few lapses in lockdowns, I had asked to visit the studio, each of us unsure of what the process looked like when you were not meant to see each other’s faces, let alone shake hands. Fumbling through our meeting, I saw a sketchbook peek out from under studio detritus, filled with reams of loose notes with errant charcoal brushes shooting across the paper. When I asked to look at it, Lucy seemed unsure at first; who was I to see the inner workings of her practice?
Eventually she relented. Inside, tens — if not hundreds — of drawings smattered the pages, filling up any space the paper had to offer. I began to recognize certain images; those that had later been transposed to canvas, or more often, those bearing elements of what later became multifaceted paintings. While nominally sketches, Lucy’s attention to detail and precision was noteworthy — had she ripped a page out and handed it to me, it would have felt at home on a gallery wall. Importantly, qualities that I had previously considered very painterly in Lucy’s practice revealed themselves to be products of the sketching process. Her knack for colour mixing and subtlety of tone were elements of her drawing practice too: even the loosest jots were shaded with impeccable gradations of colour.
I left that meeting with Lucy understanding her practice entirely differently than I had beforehand. While the seed had only just been planted, the paintings of hers that I had seen had shifted from discrete objects — finished and modular things unto themselves — into merely the tips of much larger icebergs. Beneath the surface lay countless revisions and endless consideration; each work was more like a carefully choreographed dance than a stroke of serendipity.
While Lucy’s painting has developed significantly since that meeting, the foundation of her practice remains the same. With that said, as the focal point of her work has shifted, so too have the parameters of her drawing. Now pushing the bounds of figuration through delicate portrayals of human flesh, palette and colour-mixing have become much larger parts of her painted images. In some respects, this way of making work runs contradistinctively from drawing, particularly drawing in monochrome: the suppleness and depth that Lucy creates through the careful blending of tones is impossible when creating in gradations of single colours. Still, her drawing has taken new forms: shading and hashing have become stand-ins for where Lucy later applies paint, while giving their own unique sense of depth. Lucy’s key forms still emerge first on paper; building blocks compiled over notebook pages.
Increasingly, the body of work that Lucy compiles in her notebooks has become a highlight in and of itself. While drawings have featured in Lucy’s exhibitions for several years, it was only for her most recent solo exhibition Stranger., staged at GROVE in October 2022, that she had made drawings specifically for exhibition. Drawn on 36 gsm Awagami Washi Japanese paper in crayon and framed in Sapele wood, the works counterbalance her paintings more than they directly support them. The delicacy of Lucy’s marks in her sienna-shaded crayon serves as a sharp contrast to the large scale works on canvas. While the bodily forms are comparable to those she’s working with in paint, Lucy uses the specific medium to her advantage, subscribing to different imperatives on paper.
Take, for example, the Untitled drawing demarcated by the stock number CLRW-081022 (each of Lucy’s drawings were untitled in this exhibition). While substantially smaller in size than any of her paintings — the framing itself is only 33.5 x 31.5 cm, with only a tiny window within the frame for the work — it has much the same construction. Notably, it is a comparable form to those of the two Interval paintings. However, the figure in the drawing diverges in some critical ways. Whereas Lucy’s paintings tend to push right up against the boundaries of the canvas, this drawing is far more comfortable with negative space. The kind of horror vacui that at times distinguishes Lucy’s compositions is almost entirely absent. Instead, the curvature of the body is made clear, with quick lines by way of shading accentuating the shape of the hip. Additionally, Lucy’s light shading contrasts with the deep tones she employs in her paintings. The effect is a sense of gentle sloping and shape; a generous depiction of the body, in opposition to some of her less-forgiving portrayals. The capacity for the medium to explore different elements — to be manipulated towards fundamentally different ends than painting — is captured in full effect.
Of course, Lucy remains primarily a painter, and a painter on stretched materials (canvas, linen) particularly. Her recent production of drawings aside, her focus is still with paint and its capacity as a medium. A recent studio visit left little doubt of that, with stretch canvases scattered around, her clothes covered in oily specks of pigment. However, were I to doubt the continued value of drawing to Lucy’s practice, piles of notebooks continue to accumulate around her workspaces, each filled to the brim. Asking once more to flip through them, a familiar feeling came over me: I could still spot the working-out of each canvas, taking shape in front of me on the paper.
1-2. Images Courtesy of GROVE; Photos by Ollo Weguelin
3. Image Courtesy of GROVE; Photo by Ben Deakin