Those of you that know me or who have been following me here or on social media, know that my day job (or more often my night job) is in construction on the roads. This involves a lot of time sitting in my van waiting for things to happen, and during that time, I doodle. I also doodle when I’m watching TV or listening to music. My Small Towns , for example start from a horizon line and I build out from that. In other ink drawings I’ll start with a ‘object’, say a mushroom or a shell, and expand the picture from there, never really knowing how the picture will turn out until it is finished.
Chatham-based artist Luna Zsigo describes doodling as a kind of ‘automatic drawing’. This is an approach to art that she, and many other artists before her have used as a starting point or creative stimulus for their art.
The key principle of automatic art is that the artist starts work with no preconceived idea of what the finished product will look like. Rather, the final artwork is inspired by dreams or emerges from the subconscious. The surrealists famously borrowed Sigmund Freud’s automatic drawing and writing techniques, which he used as psychoanalytic tools, to stimulate their art. They believed that creativity from deep within the subconscious was more powerful and authentic than that arising from conscious thought. They were also interested in dreams as expressions of unconscious feelings and desires.
MoMa (New York) cites the work of French artist of Andre Masson (1896-1987) as examples of this approach to art.
[Masson] began automatic drawings with no preconceived subject or composition in mind. Like a medium channelling a spirit, he let his pen travel rapidly across the paper without conscious control. He soon found hints of images—fragmented bodies and objects—emerging from the abstract, lacelike web of pen marks. At times Masson elaborated on these with conscious changes or additions, but he left the traces of the rapidly drawn ink mostly intact.
After many years travelling and raising her family, Luna trained, as a mature student, in Art and Design at University for the Creative Arts in Rochester (whose alumni include Zandra Rhodes, Tracy Emin and Karen Millen). After graduating, Luna worked for eight years supporting students with disabilities to complete their creative studies. She now works as a freelance artist and has been re-employed by the university’s outreach department as a creative workshop tutor.
After leaving Art School, Luna’s early work focused on traditional portraiture, layering oil paint and glazes. ‘I’d always seen myself as a portrait painter and after college I went back to my comfort zone,’ she remembers. ‘I felt that I needed to prove to myself that I could still paint.’
While studying at University, Luna was inspired the glass work of Daniela Schoenbaechler. https://danielaschoenbaechler.com/work She began painting quick acrylic portraits on acetate, fixing them to windows and photographing them against the dark skies. ‘Through this experimentation I found, interesting things beginning to happen in the negative space, where there was no paint,’ she explains. ‘Things would emerge, images I wasn’t expecting. It was as if I was looking beyond the physical self and into the emotional being, between the two worlds – it fascinated me then, and still does today.’
For a while after her studies, Luna continued painting portraits using traditional methods, but she felt constrained. She found she was painting the kind of art that people might want to display on their walls, rather than using her art to express herself. However, through discussions with a fellow artist, that changed. Luna realised that she could work differently, putting all of herself into her art. ‘These conversations gave me permission to express myself fully through making a mark – just putting my pencil on the paper and letting it move and having no idea where it was going to go or what it was doing,’ she explains. ‘My partner, showed me a video about automatic drawing, featuring a comic book artist called Moebius. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Giraud Moebius used it as a discipline in his work. I hadn’t heard of automatic drawing until then, but I realised that that was what I was doing.’
Years previously, Luna had been fascinated by an artist and mystic called Hilma af Klint https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hilma_af_Klint whose bold, colourful abstract paintings (1906-1915, but not exhibited until 1985, 50 years after her death) were generated through a process of automatic painting as part of her spiritual practice, and represented direct communication with the ‘divine’.
The pictures were painted directly through me, without any preliminary drawings, and with great force. I had no idea what the paintings were supposed to depict; nevertheless I worked swiftly and surely, without changing a single brush stroke – Hilma af Klint
‘Klint’s work stayed with me and I was really inspired by it,’ Luna recalls. ‘Throughout my life, I think I’ve learned to bury my difficult emotions – anger, hatred, jealousy, anxiety – but today if I am experiencing a difficult emotion and I don’t know what to do with it, I will just let the pencil move and as it moves I will just, very intuitively, go to the paints or the medium that I want to use and then all of a sudden, in front of me, I see things in the piece, the work starts to communicate with me, to tell a story.’
‘I believe that we all come from creation, therefore we must be creative and it is only the intellectual mind that gets in the way of that,’ she continues. ‘So if I allow the drawing just to form, with no expectation of what I’m going to draw, it’s a real freedom and I’m able to understand my own journey and express myself.’
Recently, Luna has tried to let go of everything she was taught about artistic technique to move completely into this new way of painting. ‘I wasn’t sure how it would be received by the public,’ she says. ‘But I was delighted to sell 20 paintings at a recent exhibition, so it seems that people connect to the work and it has some value.’
Luna’s automatic drawings have different starting points. She still paints portraits but rather than focusing on a subject in front of her, or a photograph, she works from a remembered image, memories of the person, and the emotions associated with those memories. She draws a continuous line, with her eyes shut, to ‘bring the person through’. She also sometimes paints to music, allowing her hand to respond to the sounds she hears to form the final piece.
Luna recently collaborated with musician Terry Lane on his soundscape The closer we are to dying. ‘Some of Terry’s soundscapes were to do with war and through my automatic drawings I found myself going to a very dark places, not only visually but inside myself,’ Luna remembers. ‘I wondered what would happen if I repeated the same process with other types of music.’
Where automatic art tells a story of an emotional journey, Luna has coined the name ‘selfscape’. ‘It is a selfscape because it is a painting of my emotional landscape,’ she explains. ‘There was an initial thought behind the image on the left. When you are really frightened of doing something, there is a door. But then you push through that door and five other doors open. I feel that has been my journey, pushing through anxiety and self-doubt. As I do that, I move from dark to light, from anxiety to bliss and freedom. I push one door open and new doors appear, new opportunities arise, and so it goes on.’
Looking at the final painting, I said to Luna, ‘The journey from dark to light is powerful – but where are the doors?’
‘It was supposed to be doors but it ended up looking like a bridge!’ Luna laughs. ‘It doesn’t matter though, because it is a journey of self-discovery and you can name the artwork afterwards.’
Explore and Draw has well over one hundred participants and Luna is taking the group with her on a journey of self-discovery to explore their creativity through experimentation with materials and processes, such as automatic drawing. ‘I will continue to use still life at some events as it is a fantastic tool to show people technique, such as mapping and measuring, colour theory and composition,’ she explains. ‘It is also a mindful activity. It helps people to relax, to learn to draw what is in front of them, to have fun and make friends. But I’m also interested in giving people the freedom to explore and to begin to put the whole of themselves into their art.’
I am always really conscious of the power of these emotions though, because working in this way has been such a painful process for me,’ she reflects. ‘So I’m always careful to make these days fun and to create a safe space. And people are enjoying the process and find it fascinating.’
They group started their foray into the unconscious by painting with materials where they had less control than they would normally have with traditional brushwork. ‘We used Brusho crystal watercolour paints which explode on the paper like fireworks and you can find images in those marks,’ Luna explains. They then went on to paint with music, as Luna had done – she hired a string quartet to play while the group drew. Next year she is planning an automatic drawing workshop around vibration and sound, featuring a gong.’
‘Life isn’t easy,’ Luna concludes. ‘Everyone has light and darkness in them and we all go through trauma at some point in our lives, so these paintings talk to people on lots of different levels. I can look at a painting and appreciate the artist’s technical ability but if I see a picture that stirs my emotion, that’s the picture I will remember. That’s the picture I want to buy.’
If you would like to hear from Luna herself, she is giving a public talk entitled Selfscapes for the Rochester and West Kent Art Society at Sun Pier House in Medway on 15th January 2020 from 7-9.30pm.