Beuckelaer’s fish

Regular followers will know of my fondness for drawing from paintings. To de-construct an artist’s composition and narrative, priorities and hierarchy of characters, is an incredible process and one that makes me want to make ambitious pictures myself. To plan, pose, and picture elements into a whole that will take me from a draughtsman into an artist. Recently I was set with the task of drawing a painting in the National Gallery for a total of five days. I am used to drawing fast, so I was unsure as to how exactly I could spend so long on one image. I set out to find a complicated picture, with an array of elements to give me occupied, but also a challenging arrangement and different levels of perspective. Just over a year ago I had a lot of fun recording Joachim Beuckelaer’s ‘Fire’ and decided to return to the Flemish master. Another in the series, set in the magical but busy octagonal thoroughfare of Room 11, was ‘Water’, it grabbed me.

It’s an exciting portrait of fish sellers, their stall and their wares: the wonders of the natural world. Behind the pointed arch is the scene of Christ appearing to the disciples for the third time after his Resurrection, performing the miracle of  filling Simon’s nets after the fishermen’s own unsuccessful night. The combination of the scenes is touching in relating contemporary fishermen with Christ’s strong links with the water (walking on water, loaves and fishes for the 5,000, and at least four of the disciples were fishermen…) , as well as celebrating the harvest of the often perilous sea, the choice of fish no doubt boosted by extensive travel and trade in Europe in the Sixteenth Century.

As I drew, I found myself slowing, becoming engaged with each fish in turn as much as each human, so distinct were their characters. Normally I might do my best to get the people’s faces ‘correct’, but quickly I realised that the excitement of this pictures, like the rest of the series, was its arrangement, its confidence in distorting multiples sets of perspective to display so much, and create careful channels in the spaces in-between things -the objects, people, and intermediate are carefully made to hang of each other, and the result is a dense tapestry.

I can’t say that drawing in one of the busiest rooms of the gallery is the most enjoyable experience. It was difficult, sitting for so long balancing a huge board on my legs untill they became numb with pins and needles. The light constantly changing from skylights and -. I had to sit close enough to see details, but craned my neck and worried the perspective would be distorted from below. As much as attention is flattering, the more the drawing progressed the more visitors huddled around me, and with them came inevitable interruptions. In such circumstances I tend to keep my eyes to the wall and turn my mp3 player up to shut out distraction. But it had been a worthwhile journey, for every irritating tap on the shoulder and gaggle of school children standing in front of me, there were also some lovely conversations with visitors, discussing why I’d picked that picture, and why I felt it might help my own work. So here’s the pretty-much-finished drawing, at just under A1 size. It’s now on my bedroom wall gazing down on me, and congratulating me on approximately 30 thirty hours of work, I think the longest I’ve ever spent on one thing…