Part 1, Project 1, exercise 1 – Gesture: the limits of the body’s reach

Part 1 of this module is titled Painting and/as performance which, from the introduction quoting Harold Rosenberg’s (1952) description of abstract expressionism as ‘not a picture but an event’, seems to be positioning physicality as a critical component of any art work such that it merits its own listing in the credits. Clearly, and especially pre-digital, the physical actions of the maker of the work will heavily influence the eventual product. At a very simplistic level, I am left handed and could not replicate the gestural work of righthanders, so that even my copies (for practice) of well known pieces are unique at that very basic level. Presumably this works both ways.

Norman Bryson (b 1949) is an art historian who described in his 1982 book, Vision and Painting, the effect seeing a slow motion film of Matisse painting had on his perception of the painting process: the movement of the brush, the hairs bending, the gradual appearance of the pigment. He talks about the brush being unaware of the other changes that propel it on its way and reflects his experience back to another with a Chinese scroll* where, now, he doesn’t have to imagine the fluidity of the gestural work that made it. I think we’re all much more familiar with slow motion filming now with sports replays and the like, which is not to downplay Bryson’s experience, more to elevate it because it sounds to have been an epiphany, an eye-opening jolt to his customary ways of perceiving and understanding. Suddenly, there were the brush strokes, the intentional movements, the gaze preceding them, laid bare by the manipulation of time. Not quite Inception but mind blowing all the same.

The first project is predicated on that insight and is designed to draw attention to that movement; that essential transition between the minute and the massive, the tiniest tickle of one finger’s touch to the sweep of a limb. Dance does this whether it’s the Royal Ballet describing the drama of Virginia Woolf’s descent into depression and eventual death (Woolf Works, 2015) or Stormzy vossi bopping his barely contained joyful energy across the main stage at Glastonbury in 2019. And anyone who’s ever jumped out of their seat or up in the air with arms flung wide at a goal or a personal best or a safe landing on another planet does it too.

In a throwback to Freudian interpretive psychology, tiny tight marks would often be described as anal whereas the larger ones might be seen as grandiose. There was often no winning with Freud, or at least with his non-nuanced proxies. Clearly though, small is a scale manageable behind a crooked arm and taking up no space at all whereas large requires a certain degree of personal front – at least as much as Blackpool – especially if you do it in public.

More often, I suspect, the choice is as much about resources such as space, and physical capabilities that might include limitations.

This exercise asks for the whole range in one go – fingers, wrist, lower arm, whole arm – and with a piece of something like graphite on the end. I used willow charcoal, then found it impossible to resist adding soft pastel marks in similar tight and tiny tics and dots, sweeps and spirals. I realised later that I’d fantasised a description of quarks**, which suddenly added an entirely new perspective to the enterprise.

A1 flip chart paper, willow charcoal, coloured charcoal, and soft pastels.

There are six flavours of quark. Did you know?

There’s the baryon (not Barron) quark (not Trump)

The quark quark – that’s like a duck so it must be one

And there’s an anti-quark meson which is the floor between floors that can be in two places in the universe at once.

Come back when you die.

Be a boson on a light ship, or an atom in the feather of a ptarmigan’s wing.

SCH 2021. Words drawn from an explainer in hyperphysics at Quarks (

Sketch/notebook entry.

At a personal level, I know how much has changed in my practice since beginning this degree back in 2018. In those days I used almost exclusively A5 or even A6 cartridge, anything larger feeling like an existential threat – what if someone actually saw this, and how could I make those tiny twiddly bits of detail at that scale? The horror of it!

But then two things happened – I was forced into A1 by course requirements and my close vision, almost in peevish response, refused to focus on anything much smaller than A4 even with glasses. Now larger is my preference and, if I could, I’d paint on walls, roll around on the floor being a human spirograph, or swim down the lane on a current of wallpaper. My role there may have to be more directorial though.

The point here, I think, is to increase the distance between conscious motor control and execution of gestures. To prioritise experience of the movement and textures above the intent. My first discovery was that moving just my fingers or just my hand, or even just my lower arm, was almost impossible and so it became an exercise in restraint as much as anything – very conscious and very deliberate – until I could release my whole arm and fling it across the paper. Which is where my liberated unconscious popped up to reproduce the subatomic particle tracks.

It’s also muscle memory – those are quite habitual marks for me, and easy to make without thought. Dancers learn steps so thoroughly they don’t have to think about them, drivers do the same with the controls of their vehicle and musicians their instruments***. It leaves spare capacity for dealing with the flourishes (smiles and eyes and added extras) and the unexpected (dog or child in the road, pothole, or a UFO alongside the cockpit).

There was some discussion about Jackson Pollock’s expressive abstracts being entirely random but they most likely weren’t. He said they were a product of his unconscious (he was evidently receiving analytic psychotherapy at the time) and as such, it seems likely to me that this would rely on habitual rather than novel movements. There may have been a study too****, comparing the marks on the paintings with those on the floor around the edges, the second group showing more indications of randomness than the first. Conclusion: it’s quite hard to be random because your unconscious will scupper it by doing what it knows.

30th April. Had to be done:

Animated in MotionLeap. No audio.

Bryson, N. 1982. The Invisible Body. In: Vision and Painting. Yale University Press. Epilogue, Pp 163 – 171.

Rosenberg, H. 1952. In Ninth Street Women. Gabriel, M. 2018. Little, Brown, and Company. P 447.

*Chu Jan scroll, dated ~ 10th century which at the time was in Cleveland. [Online]. Available at Stockfoto Attributed to Chu Jan A Buddhist Monastery ( Accessed 29 April 2021.

**This collection of images illustrates the capture in bubble chambers of traces of sub atomic particles Google Image Result [online] Accessed 29 April 2021.

Woolf Works. 2015. Royal Ballet, music by Max Richter, with the voice of Gillian Anderson and also Virginia Woolf. The music itself is stunning but the visuals even more so, particularly the final scene with a rolling slow motion sea behind the single figure on stage.

***Levine, R.A. 2017. How overlearning can solidify a skill. Psychology Today. [Online] Available at How Over-Learning can Solidify a Skill | Psychology Today UK. Accessed 29 April 2021. This is a very simplified account and doesn’t address the free capacity issue although it does suggest the role it plays in preserving the memory against interference from a second task.

****The randomness or not of Pollock’s paint drips: this is from one of my previous blogs Part 5, research point 2 – abstract expressionism and tachism – Conboyhillpainting ( Accessed 29 April 2021.

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