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‘Talk and Draw’ At The National Gallery

The National Gallery’s ‘Talk & Draw’ events are pretty much exactly what they say on the tin. First, participants listen to a brief talk about a painting housed within the gallery, and then respond by creating their own work in an online artist-led drawing session.

So, what did our writers (and, for one week only) drawers, make of it all?

Two people study a painting at the National Gallery. The woman on the right is pointing, appearing to be explaining something.
(Credit: Lemos & Crane)

 Jayne

I have had very mixed feelings about the National Gallery’s ‘Talk and Draw’ sessions in the past. It has always been something I was largely interested in taking part in, but then also never took the leap because I often find guided art making to be quite restrictive. To put it bluntly: I have always been worried that I would find myself perhaps limited and frustrated with whatever I would be able to create, and I am pleased to report that in some ways the activity far surpassed my expectations, while in others, lived up to them exactly. 

‘Talk and Draw’, as you might expect, is split into two halves. The talking comes first; we are introduced to the piece of the month “Saint Veronica with the Sudarium”. One thing I do have to commend the speakers (Fiona Alderton and Hannah Cushion) on was their ability to spark an interest in me for this particular piece. Art is very much like food, I find, everyone has different tastes and I don’t particularly enjoy religious based art. Nor do I find myself enamoured with a painting simply because it’s old. I like personality, and after a first glance I wouldn’t have given this work a second. 

Until the Gallery Educators opened a discussion about it, that is. It still won’t be taking top spot as my favourite painting ever but I do look at it with a little more respect. I was fascinated to learn that the artist is in fact an anonymous individual that has come to be known as ‘The Master of Saint Veronica’, like a superhero of artwork masking their identity. It gives the whole work an air of mystery, a secret that just happens to also be displayed in one of the country’s most prominent art galleries. 

The second half was where I felt myself lose the thread of fascination, though I don’t consider this to be a fault of the event or it’s speakers. As previously mentioned, I had been worried about my ability to create under the circumstances of a group and in response to a work of art that as much as I found interesting, had no real connection to. Sadly, this was exactly the case. I ended up making something more in my style of art (abstract with a seasoning of surrealism) and from an outsider’s perspective you would never have guessed that the two items – a neon pastel work surrounding the idea of anonymity up against an aged work surrounding the idea of sainthood and religious legend – were in any way related to one another. 

That being said, I still think there is a great value in sessions like these. For the first time in weeks, I made art. As a creative, I often find that real life can really get in the way. I need the 9-5 job to pay my bills but it often leaves me so drained that my real passions in life can get away from me. If nothing else, scheduling a ‘Talk and Draw’ session can give me that allotted time in among the drag of real life to make. And I think, that may just be the whole point. It doesn’t matter if you leave the talk liking the work they’re discussing, it doesn’t even matter if you make something related to what they’re discussing. I think, in the end, it only matters if you feel like you engaged with something you love. I know I certainly did, and I will be back again next month. 

The painting, 'Saint Veronica with the Sudarium'
“Ok, who accidentally put a Jesus head in with the whites wash again?” (Credit: The National Gallery)

Wayne

There’s a line in Eugenio Montale’s poem Don’t Ask Me for Words, recited during this session, that goes “Don’t ask me for secrets that can reveal new worlds”. But that’s exactly what lecturer Carlo Corsato and artist Hannah Cushion did.

Between the birth of my son and the pandemic, it’s been a while since I’ve stepped foot in an art gallery. I’ve always loved drawing and have been longing for an excuse to pick up a pencil again. An exercise for the mind as much as it is for the hands and eyes, I found this talk and draw event focused on the painting “Saint Veronica with the Sudarium” fascinating and quite therapeutic.  

There’s something about making that first mark on a piece of paper, of something slowly taking form, the sometimes-serendipitous nature of it all that you try to cling onto for the rest of the draw. Hannah touched on that during the first exercise, which focused on the carefully designed and intricate pattern of the halo surrounding the head of Christ, which I was glad we had to interpret rather than replicate.

She also spoke about the importance of texture. The weight it lends to a piece of art, how it brings everything to life, how touch helps us connect to it and the past. Not something I’d considered while sketching or painting when art galleries and museums sear the message “don’t touch” into your mind. Although what the eye doesn’t see, right.

As Hannah pointed out, it was an odd parallel to be studying a cloth imbued with the blood and sweat of Jesus Christ on his march to Calvary surrounded by his followers when all we’ve heard for the last year and more is to avoid other people’s tissues and social distance. It made me think of the power and faith with which people can imbue seemingly mundane things in times of trouble. 

Despite its small size, relative simplicity, and lack of narrative or movement, it was a powerful image and I felt that while trying to sketch my version. I doubt my attempt will become an object of devotion for the faithful like the original. It makes Spanish pensioner Cecilia Jimenez’s go at restoring the depiction of Christ at the Santuario de Misericordia de Borja Church look like a masterpiece.

The talk itself, led by Carlo, was enlightening and entertaining. His screen freezing after he described Christ as “some cool dude”, was one of many light moments littered throughout what could’ve been heavy going given the anonymous artist’s inspiration. It was also a reminder that sometimes art demands nothing more from you than to simply look at it and engage with it using your heart not your head.

I thought having a screen in the way of the speaker and instructor would hamper the process, but it didn’t. Hannah guided everybody through the drawing process with patience and passion. I never once felt out of my depth or that I’d fallen behind. 

We hadn’t done our big shop so finding materials to create texture was a little difficult. Luckily, we’re never short of empty sweet wrappers… There were some top tips on experimenting with colours, tones, how to map out drawings, etc. She’s a much better teacher than my embarrassing effort would suggest.

I wasn’t brave enough to share my attempt at the end of the actual event. Some people believe artists see different to others. In this case, my Jesus Christ looks more like Noel Fielding in a forest. I think more sessions are needed.

Wayne's attempt to recreate the above painting
Wayne’s attempt at recreating ‘Saint Veronica…’ aka a MASTERPIECE (Credit: Wayne)

Becky

I set up in a hurry, but as soon as the intro started I found myself settle down into the session quickly. “Saint Veronica with the Sudarium” is, at first, unassuming. If I were to walk through the National Gallery, I don’t think it is a piece that would catch my attention. It turns out that would be a shame. Listening to the talk about this piece re-affirmed that there is always something more to be found, even in a piece that doesn’t immediately catch your eye. There was an explanation of the background of the piece, and they also helped us understand the scale with a handy shoebox diagram. (The piece is the size of two shoe boxes, in case you were interested).

It was so fascinating hearing about the context of the piece. For example, the tradition says that the named Saint Veronica featured in the painting had offered her handkerchief to Jesus whilst he was carrying the cross to wipe his forehead. When he gave back the veil, it had an image of his face. There was a discussion about how this handkerchief almost became imbued with him. They then compared this with the artistic process. For example, photographic processes, with the photograph being revealed in the darkroom. I really enjoyed this discussion and I loved this link being drawn between the piece’s story and artistic processes themselves.
Then we moved onto the creative portion and were taken through a creative task.  I had my pencil and paper, but I had forgotten to get something to experiment with texture, so I text my partner to bring me up some quinoa. He was bewildered, which was fair. I jogged downstairs and recieved the mug he was holding full of quinoa. 

“It’s for the art thing!” I said as I hurried away, popping my head back around the corner for a sincere thank you. 

We worked with texture first, experimenting with scattering the textures underneath our paper and then using the pencil to capture the texture. Then we had a go at recreating the image of Christ on the veil. I loved experimenting and drawing in this way; there was no pressure, and I did begin to let go and be freer with my piece.

I wasn’t brave enough to share at the end. My piece was not destined for anyone to see it. Ever. But I loved this session.

As someone with a creative job, it was fantastic to have the opportunity to simply make something. It didn’t need to be good. It didn’t need to be anything really. It was about being creative and having fun, and that was great. It was a chance to be creative for me. Not for anyone else, which has made me realise this is something I need to do more. And although the final piece is likely destined for the bin, I did have a lovely time sharing it with my partner (who was starting to understand why I needed the quinoa). I’ll be booking onto another one of these sessions as it’s nice to get involved in an artistic process that is about the process and not a finished piece. Where I didn’t need to worry about anything other than giving it a go and learning.

Find out more and book your free place for the next Talk & Draw on The National Gallery website.

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