The Art of Paul Foxton
You can learn how to draw better – that is the lesson of the blog Learning To See, written and illustrated by artist Paul Foxton.
In late 2005, Foxton returned to painting after a gap of many years. As he started rebuilding his artistic muscles, Foxton chronicled the long and labor-intensive process in a very public manner: by posting his progress regularly on his blog, Learning to See. The record of his journey is a wonderful resource to anyone trying to draw better, or understand the process by which artists master this fundamental component of their craft.
The site has dozens of interesting passages, including notes on how to practice more effectively, the mysteries of composition, and sight-size drawing. Foxton is also generous with more than his growing expertise: the site is liberally illustrated with his own work. This is a gift to any serious student, for while looking at a finished drawing is useful, watching the process of drawing, including the missteps and excisions, is a god-send.
Visitors to Learning to See can also see Foxton’s casual ‘café sketches,’ where he captures life on the fly with his sketch pad, as well as his efforts to copy the lithographs of 19th Century French Academician Charles Bargue (1827-1883) that were circulated around the ateliers of the time for students to copy.
Among the many things to admire about Foxton are his rigor and his honesty. Opinions held at one time and not altered later on as his views evolve, honestly chronicling his journey. He is also quite a terrific writer: anyone who has tried to learn to draw from books knows that one of the biggest obstacles is often the ham-fisted prose of the artist! That is not a problem at Learning to Draw, as Foxton’s pen is as fluid as his pencil. For example, here is Foxton thinking aloud while explaining the planes of the head, “One of my original ideas when I came back to painting was that I wanted to get back to portrait painting. I find portraits fascinating, and am often to be found skulking around the National Portrait Gallery. But all the portraits I've done in the past have been of the cheesy copied photo variety. When I was a street artist in my twenties, every now and again people used to ask me to copy poor quality snaps of their nearest and dearest, which I used to do quite happily for them. I couldn't say the work was particularly inspiring and the results were invariably awful; they were crimes against art for which I should have been excommunicated, but along with the change people threw into my hat they paid the bills.”
Though Learning to See is not a portfolio site, Roxton does have several of his paintings on view. His work reveals a delicate sense of coloration and a sure brush-stroke. His still life paintings have a serene beauty that makes an interesting contrast to his more muscular drawing style. I am particularly enamored of his painting Wedgwood Saucer, Bottle and Silver Egg Cup (made all the more valuable by his write up detailing its creation).
Paul Foxton was gracious enough to take time from his busy schedule and answer a few questions for us.
Did you draw as a child? And, if so, how did you fall out of the habit?
Yes, I did draw. I used to like to spend time on my own, still do actually, and a lot of that time would be spent drawing. I don't remember when it started, but I do remember that getting approval for drawing well was a nice feeling. I think that's probably how an early skill with something grows. As a kid you want the approval of the people around you. If something you do tends to get you that approval, you'll do it more.
Drawing was also a way to escape into another world. I used to copy drawings from Marvel comics, Spider Man, that kind of thing. I mostly liked to draw Spider Man. As I got better I suppose I became known amongst friends and school mates as someone who could draw. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way, you draw well because you draw well. By the time I was in my teens at school, I was doing uncomplimentary cartoons of the teachers that went down pretty well with my class-mates.
Drawing is one of those things you could be good at at school without being thought of as a swot. It's not like being good at maths or science, which would mark you out for bullying. After I left school, I rebelled, dyed my hair, became a punk. This was in a small town in the north east of England, where being different wasn't looked on very favourably. I remember sitting in a pub one evening and bunch of what used to be the hard kids at school sat on the next table. One of them started making loud comments about the way I looked, it looked like it was about to get nasty. But the leader of the group said “Leave him alone, he's a good artist.” Drawing can even save you from getting beaten up, apparently.
I don't know how I fell out of the habit. I was doing commercial work as I got older which I became disillusioned with. I hated the work. I think that partly killed it. Drawing and painting became something else. It was no longer a world that could be escaped into that represented freedom. It was about marching to someone else's tune. Just like the rest of life. Perhaps that was it. I stopped drawing and painting and put what creative energy I had into music instead.
What first inspired you towards art? Were your parents encouraging?
I think I've answered the first part of this question as well as I can above.
As for the second part, I think my parents believe that they did encourage me yes, but they were worried that I wouldn't be able to make a living from art, quite understandably. They wanted the best for me and they didn't see art as a viable alternative. I was required to take other, more academic subjects along with art, which I hated. It was something of a bone of contention.
In The Practice and Science of Drawing, Harold Speed contends that aspiring artists should be actively discouraged, because only those who can't be discouraged will keep going. It's one of the few things I disagree with him on, and vehemently so. It's important to have encouragement early on, very important.
What did you do in the period between your initial drifting away from art and your return in 2005?
All sorts. In a way I was lost. I did a lot of music, I learned about computers, I got a proper job for the first time in my life. I could see it as a mistake, and in a way it was. But the important thing is to learn from experiences and to move on. There's still plenty of time left, for all of us.
I met my wife Michelle in that period, without who's love and support I doubt I would have made it this far, so I wouldn't go back and change things even if I could. It's not so much where you've been, it's where you're going that matters I think.
Some drawing teachers will tell you that when a person drew in their youth, that actually is a deficit in learning to draw in adulthood. (Something about hard-wiring bad habits, I believe.) Do you agree, and, if so, how do people overcome that?
I think that's complete nonsense, frankly. Who gets to decide what is a good and what is a bad habit? Some teacher who wants you to draw the way they do? Drawing regularly, practicing any skill regularly, builds and reinforces connections in your brain. Neuroscience tells us this. It's how we learn. Practice may be more or less effective, but it's never a waste of time and never counter-productive in my opinion.
A lot of kids these days like to copy manga. That's art to them. From one perspective, you could say that they're not using their own creativity, that they're just copying, but they're also stretching the mental muscles required to draw. If that's what they like to do, that's what they should do. It's never going to be bad for them and it'll motivate them to practice. How can that be bad?
What artists were particularly inspiring to you?
Were or are inspiring? When I was a kid I was fascinated by comic art, fantasy art too. I wanted to draw like that. I used to copy Spider Man and Hulk drawings and was fascinated by the way they drew the muscles, how the shadows made the the forms.
The artists that inspire me the most now are people I'm lucky enough to know, if virtually; people I see struggling on despite difficulties, motivated to get better and improve; people like Lisa Gloria, Sadie Valerie, Julian Merrow-Smith, Shaun Day, Linda Tracey Brandon. There's more. My online painter friends. These are the artists that inspire me now.