Emerging artist Jake Grewal on the importance of drawing

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Drawing attention: emerging British artists – the British Museum’s first exhibition to focus on emerging artists – features some of the most compelling talents in the field of contemporary drawing alongside highlights from the Museum’s collection, dating back to the early 1500s. To explore the importance of drawing today, Monument Trust Curator of Modern and Contemporary Drawing, Isabel Seligman, spoke to Jake Grewal, one of the artists in the exhibition, about his practice and what drawing means to him.

What role does drawing play in your practice?

When I was starting out drawing helped me a lot. I would go into the landscape, or inside to a gallery, focus on what was in front of me, and find out what I wanted to say about it through the act of drawing. Since then, I’ve taken that principle back into the studio where, if I’m creating an image, I tend to draw it first and then experiment, maybe with a different coloured grounds or at a different size. If something doesn’t emerge, I just keep on working and reworking it. So I guess it’s the crux of my practice really, the foundation.

A black and white charcoal drawing of two nude figures walking and holding hands.
Jake Grewal (b. 1994), Believing You Healed Me. Charcoal and conté on paper, 2021. Acquired with Art Fund support. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
Do you think you gained anything in particular from an education in drawing?

I was very lucky as at secondary school I was made to draw from still life and sometimes had life models to draw from too. When I was 16, I first went to the Royal Drawing School to learn how to draw the figure, so it’s always been a fundamental part of my practice. I felt quite stuck during my degree, like I’d come to a bit of a dead end, and I needed to get back to basics. It wasn’t necessarily about acquiring skill in drawing, but about how you could use it to connect in certain ways, like a kind of meditation. If you take yourself out of the thing you’re trying to do, things sometimes become a lot clearer. In that way drawing can be used as a kind of mirror for yourself, especially when you’re doing observational drawing. You’re focusing so much on something else it allows other things to come into focus without having to force it.

Do you think more drawing should be taught in schools?

Definitely! It’s an experience so many people have as a child, thinking ‘I can’t draw, so I’m no good at art’. But if everyone were given the chance to draw in a supportive space perhaps fewer people would hate it. You’re told that you have to draw in a specific way, and if you can’t then you don’t know how to draw, which is such a small part of what drawing can do. For instance, at school I was told: ‘you can’t use a rubber’, but now I only use a rubber! Except I use it with charcoal, as a drawing instrument. I redraw something a thousand times before I get it right. But usually no one knows this because they only see the final image. Part of the fun is learning that these things are all tools you can use in your own way, to create whatever effect you want.

A colourful pencil drawing of a nude figure standing behind a line of trees.
Jake Grewal (b. 1994), Water Blooms Cherished in Youth. Coloured pencil, 2019. Acquired with Art Fund support. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
We have both colourful and monochrome drawings in the exhibition. What role does colour play in your work?

As an artist you don’t necessarily use the colours you see in front of you, you’re creating relationships within the image to make it compositionally sound, or to draw your attention to specific elements. It’s making the most cohesive image that you can, rather than replicating what you see. Now drawing en plein air (in the open air) I use colour quite intuitively, and my palette has become much more earthy. I remember at art school I’d see everyone’s studies in the landscape, and mine would be a lot brighter than everyone else’s! But that’s just how I respond to what I’m seeing, I guess it’s just more interesting to me.

Drawings are so tender and intimate; they’re such a direct way of seeing someone’s personality or vision.

Jake Grewal

What do you think is special about drawing?

Often, I feel like it’s difficult to carve out time, even for things you really value. Drawing is special because you’re not able to do anything else. You’re so focused that it gives you this space you can lose yourself in, and when you come out again you’re slightly different. Drawings are so tender and intimate; they’re such a direct way of seeing someone’s personality or vision. With the conté drawings (a drawing medium composed of clay and compressed charcoal or graphite powder) when you make a line, you can’t really rub it out; it’s like a kind of stain embedded in the paper. That’s another special thing about drawing, you can see those things a lot more clearly: the tactility and the making of it. I feel like people try to cover their tracks a bit more with painting, but drawing is very intimate, and I really love that about it.

A black and white charcoal drawing of a  shadowy figure.
Jake Grewal (b. 1994), To Move Forward. Charcoal and conté on paper, 2021., Acquired with Art Fund support. Reproduced by permission of the artist.
What is your relationship to drawing and place?

Wales is very important to me because I’m half Welsh. It’s where my grandmother lived and where my family are from. I’ve visited different parts of Wales throughout my life, so it might not be a specific Welsh landscape I’m referring to, more the general idea of being lucky enough to grow up somewhere you’re exposed to that kind of beautiful, wild ash landscape. London is less interesting to me, although you can still find elements of wildness wherever you choose to look. During the first lockdown, I was walking from where I lived in Kennington to St James’s Park every day, and just that repetitive walk filled me with so much inspiration. I remember stopping to draw in a tiny park on an estate that had these incredible leaning trees. I’d never been there before and now, whenever I go through it, I remember who I was then. St James’s Park still resonates in that way with me now, although I go there quite a lot, so the meaning has changed. When you spend that time directly in contact with a place it encodes all the memories surrounding it into the drawing.

An oil painting showing two groups of nude figures, standing in a grass field preparing to exercise.
Hilaire-Germain-Edgar Degas (1834–1917), Young Spartans Exercising. Oil on canvas, about 1860, © The National Gallery, London.
Drawing from historical artists is an important part of your practice. Who do you draw from and what interests you about their work?

I draw a lot from the work of Edgar Degas, particularly his paintings in the National Gallery such as Young Spartans Exercising (about 1860) and Peasant Girls bathing in the Sea at Dusk (about 1875–6). They’re so different as paintings but I was so drawn to them, I got quite fixated! Young Spartans is all about perspective and also about moments in time. There’s a relationship between three different sets of people: a group of girls, a group of boys and a kind of audience behind them. I guess that’s why I was drawn to it – the relationship between the different groups of figures in that quite grand space. It’s set like a stage, which is interesting to me; every single body doing something different, having their own unique experience within this shared experience. The two sexes are observing each other, being observed by the spectators, grouped into a single mass, and are in some ways us looking at the painting. The figures are very androgynous and adolescent, on the cusp of sexual development, which is an interesting moment of transition – of growing up, not knowing, being unsure and finding yourself.

A dark green and brown oil painting showing a woodland clearing, with a lake and boat, and three hooded figures.
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796–1875), The Four Times of Day: Evening. Oil on wood, about 1858, National Gallery, London © National Gallery.

Corot was also a huge influence on me, I’ve visited his Four Times of Day in the National Gallery almost religiously. I would sit in front of the pictures for hours, studying the surface for clues as to how he could create such convincing yet abstract scenes. I was looking specifically at his use of light, or lack of it, and how that would affect one’s eyes as the day drew to a close. Corot is a master in the push and pull of soft and hard edges, which applies to his drawing and painting. Nothing is competing; a hard, elegant branch can coexist with a soft leaf that almost disappears into the thin veil of pigment emulating a sky. This vocabulary of mark-making offers a textural beauty to the work. The way he applies paint, or chalk, on coloured grounds creates a kind of atmospheric movement and sound – a haze – as if the scenes are some kind of premonition or memory flowing in and out of reality. I don’t mean the marks are confused, they’re purposeful, and trees are conjured out of just a few marks, with the untouched ground showing through as a deliberate allusion of space. The landscape is of equal importance with the figure, if not greater. The line between figure and ground is blurred as the figures often mimic the landscape tonally and so are shrouded in mystery. There is an emotional depth and psychological inquiry in the hidden figures, in what would otherwise be a pastoral scene. This kind of unsettling emergence of the figure is something I’ve looked at within my own work and a theme I’ve carried with me psychologically. Certain kinds of light are particularly interesting to me, especially the kind of ambiguity it can create in the dappling of light and shade. Light can create an intimacy but it can also create a kind of distance. These are ideas I return to again and again.

Thinking about ideas of opacity, hiding and showing, can you tell me a bit about the biographical references in your work?

I think they’re inescapable. One day I decided to try and make a work that was as bold and immediate as I could. I was so fed up with not being honest, and then the more honest I was, the more I came through in the work and not someone else. It’s probably less obvious now, but to begin with I was quite direct with what I was saying in each work and how it related to my personal history. Now my life is in the painting but it’s not depicting my life, or me as a person. It’s all in there, and I might say something in a tree, in the way it leans or twists, that might evoke how I’m feeling or an experience I’ve had, but it’s not so explicit that you could decode it. Sometimes the faces look more like me, sometimes they don’t.

Jake Grewal’s drawings, alongside a landscape drawing by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, are featured in the free exhibition Drawing attention: emerging British artists, in Room 90 until 28 August. You can find out more about the show here.

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