Sleeper by Paula Rego

Four comics things

Four main things to talk about this week; so let’s see if I can fit them all into my self-imposed half hour of blogging, and still do them justice.

First: inspiration. This came in the form of a visit to Tate Britain to see the Paula Rego retrospective.

‘Paula Rego’ has long been my answer to ‘who is your favourite fine artist?’, and all the more so after I saw Secrets and Stories, the documentary her son made about her life (it looks like the BBC is just about to reshow it on Monday; I really do recommend it if you can access it).

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to travel to Lisbon with work, to run a conference. I booked an extra night specifically so that I could take the train out to Cascais (a small town just 20 miles away) and visit the Paula Rego museum; but disastrously, or so it felt at the time, I had misunderstood a message on their website and it was closed. All I was able to do was sit in their (very nice) garden cafe and eat a cake and then return to the city.

So when I saw that this show was coming to the Tate, I jumped at the chance. We would be in London anyway, delivering my daughter to her cosplay convention in Hammersmith, from which it’s a lengthy but doable tube journey eastwards to Pimlico.

Under such circumstances: tired, doubting whether I had brought the right shoes for two days’ walking around the city; bickering with my husband over whether he had been listening when I told him our itinerary, I had some doubt over whether the exhibition would have the required inspirational effect. After all, it had been such a build-up, what with the Cascais disaster and all.

It was ok. I swam in the pictures, submerged myself in the colours, came out refreshed and determined. Recognised that half of what makes an artist my favourite is a wistful longing to inhabit their lifestyle: a life dedicated to making art on big canvases in a huge studio, stacking up more and more work until the world recognises the significance of your industrious creation.

On reflection, I wonder whether the aspects of Rego’s art that I like are the ‘easy’ facets: the vibrant colours, the fact that they are figurative. I think it’s fine to feel ambivalent about the early work (as I do) because artists build up their practice, acquire skills and refine their self-knowledge about what they really want to say.

As with favourite musicians who might put out an album you find difficult, perhaps it’s also fine not to connect with other pieces of their oeuvre, too – I can’t say Rego’s puppets do anything for me particularly. But it is quite possible that I’m guilty, just as I like an easily-accessible song with a pretty melody and clever lyrics, of liking her most straightforward artworks the most.

I like her facility with life drawing, I like that the women she portrays are every shape and size, with no judgement, and I like the fashion details: sandals with buckles, dresses with bodices and pleats, clearly drawn from real garments. I love the light violet against bright green and the highlights on gold dresses and the gold psychiatrist’s couch, effected with pale chalk pastels juxtaposed with more saturated coloured ones.

I can’t believe that the Guardian ran its review with a headline about how crass the painted walls behind the works are (while recognising this was probably the copy editor’s choice, pulling out one aspect of a longer review). The walls were a perfectly acceptable set of blues, and I would never have even noticed them if I hadn’t read this review beforehand.

Also unforgivable is the reviewer’s assertion that Rego is not political. You cannot brush off a room full of pictures of women after they have had an abortion as ‘not political’, especially when they were drawn in response to Portugal’s abortion law not being overturned in a referendum. Maybe you can if you’re a bloke? I don’t know this reviewer but he really hasn’t done himself any favours with ‘[It is hard] to avoid the unhelpful wall texts that keep trying to batter her subtle strangeness into crude political messages. You are told repeatedly to see the art as protest. It is not. It is art.

It is both.

The personal is political, and while it may not make for the visually beautiful pictures I find it so easy to like, the boldness she has displayed through her life is definitely one of the factors that makes me admire Rego more.

On the way into the exhibition we saw Peter Blake’s ‘Self Portrait with Badges’ and I was reminded that my love of figurative artwork is probably also to do with how much I love comics. An exhibition of the Japanese woodcut artist Utagawa Hiroshige’s work at the Royal Academy similarly reminded me of comics: flat, coloured, surrounded by black lines (and led to me basing my MA dissertation on his ‘Tokkaido Road’ series).

Image by Alex Thomas

The Graphic Medicine conference is open for registration. As far as I know, anyone with an interest can attend (it’s online).

The Graphic Medicine movement brings together the medical and comics communities, examining how each may inform the other. For example: when patients put their experiences into comics, can those comics also be used to help medical staff better understand the emotional or physical repercussions of their interventions? When medical procedures are explained in graphic form, are they friendlier and easier for patients to follow?

It’s really quite a large community now, it seems. This year’s ‘call for papers’ was actually a call for one-minute videos and it seems at least 60 people, me included, submitted them. It’s going to be a diverse, fascinating and lengthy process to watch them all — fortunately, it seems they’ll be releasing them beforehand and they’ll also be available for some time after, with the actual conference timings allowing for synchronous discussion.

My video is part of the Saturday afternoon bloc (1pm Eastern Time and 6pm UK time).

On Tuesday after work, I joined yet another Zoom call, this time to be interviewed for the Creating Women project. They’d sent through the questions beforehand so I had a chance to think about what to say in return: I think this was for the better, as it meant I had time to think and write a few notes, but of course the risk is that by the

time you’re talking, none of it seems like a very fresh idea as you’ve turned it over so many times in your own mind. Well, I hope that something useful or thought-provoking came out of it.

I was so busy talking about community and fellowship (in comics) that when a question came up about how I work, I think I rather brushed it off: ‘Oh I used to work in watercolour and inks but I’ve changed to digital now’. Obviously there’s far more to say about that — everyone who works digitally seems to do so in their own way, apart from anything else — and perhaps I’ll dedicate a future blog post to it.

Talking of ways of working, my current commission has been interesting on that front. They have a very set process: first you provide a script, then roughs, then pencils, then inks and finally colours. There’s a deadline for each of these, and then feedback might be given for the changes required at each stage. They also have templates and a distinct set of house rules over fonts, placement and so on.

Argh! My half hour is up. I’ll just finish this one thought, though.

On the one hand, I can really see the benefits of this method: for example, you, the artist won’t go too far down the wrong route because it’d be spotted at the script or roughs stage before you dedicate too much time to your beautiful piece of artwork. It obviously allows for a cohesive final set of work within the publication, even while it’s from a diverse set of artists. I don’t mind an editorial hand, partly because I don’t consider myself to be a seasoned professional and partly because I’m used to working collaboratively in my day job.

On the other hand, this method is definitely based on how traditional comic artists have always worked within the comics industry, predating digital. Since I switched to working on a tablet, my ‘pencils’ stage has pretty much been subsumed into my ‘inks’ stage and I often do the colouring at the same time. So I’m having to very deliberately organise my work differently; and I’m also being careful to keep everything on distinct layers which is often something that gets a bit chaotic when I’m doing work for myself.

Ultimately though I think this will be for the better. The editor’s comments might end up making my strip less like ‘my’ strip, but it will be slicker. And I figure this one’s the learning curve: hopefully it will get quicker and easier each time.

Time’s very much up! Progress on Satin and Tat is still zero. I’m kind of missing it.

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