Interview with Daphne Gerou

Line Gallery: Why do you think you came to focus on drawing as opposed to another medium?

Daphne Gerou:
To be honest I started out painting. First with oils, then later on I gravitated towards water media, using a combination of inks and acrylics on paper. At this stage my work was very much like drawing except that I was using wet media rather than dry. Once I had finished art school, I kept working this way for a couple of years, and even though I was producing some good work, work that I was relatively happy with at least, it was always a bit of a struggle. I was never fully comfortable with the medium, and one day in the studio I just got fed up and started a pencil drawing to distract myself. I ended up working on this drawing for several hours and it was like a weight lifting off my back. When the drawing was complete, I drew several more in the same vein, and started to develop the graphite technique that I am still using today. I haven’t entirely abandoned the idea of painting, but since that day, probably around nine years ago now, drawing has been my primary focus. It’s always challenging, but it is also where I am most at ease.


LG: Why do you think drawing is important in contemporary art or as a practice?

DG: If we think back to early societies, the small-scale tribal and village societies that is, mark-making is probably the first form of human creative expression. The motivation may have been a spiritual one; for instance, the replication of animals, of hunting, of bounty, was likely a means to ensure good fortune for the group. Regardless of motivation though, people have been drawing from very early on, whether using sticks to draw in wet clay or applying soot to the walls of a cave. Written language, one of the most important developments of any early society, is also drawing. In fact, outside of the Roman and Cyrillic alphabets, many cultures use pictures to communicate words or thoughts. Hieroglyphs are the best example, but there are many others, including the alphabet of modern China. Once painting began to develop in the Western world, drawing appears to have taken a back seat for awhile. Although artists were still drawing, these works were rarely presented as ‘finished’ pieces. They were practice pieces, sketches and thumbnails prepared for the subsequent completion of a painting.

Skipping over the mid twentieth century, the Modernist artists inadvertently turned painting into the pinnacle of artistic expression. Since that time, painting has continued to dominate the overall art market, while new media, installations and site specific sculpture have found their way into museums as representatives of contemporary art. Drawing, on the other hand, remains a somewhat peripheral practice, which is odd since most artists draw at one time or another. In the past decade I’ve noticed that every so often drawing becomes very popular, with galleries focusing specifically on showing drawings and other works on paper. Unfortunately, these tend to be the passing trends of a fickle art market. This is why it is important for artists to continue promoting that drawing is a medium of no less importance than any other. We’ve never really stopped drawing as a whole, it just got downgraded to a ‘lesser’ medium over time. This downgrade can actually be traced back to the Renaissance but that’s a thesis in itself so I’ll leave it at that.


LG: Instead of relying on line or mark making in your drawings, your graphite work develops a seamless range of values. Can you speak to your process? How do you develop your drawings and what interests you about working with value?

DG: As I mentioned earlier, I spent some time working with water media; specifically, I used layered washes on paper that I would systematically sponge off until I achieved the saturation that I was looking for. This is very similar to how I ended up working with powdered graphite. I learned this method in school and later remembered it when I started drawing again. With the graphite, I’m able to apply light or dark layers of pigment that I can then control the intensity of with a kneadable eraser. If I’m going to be working on a large surface that will have very dark areas, I can apply the pigment with cloth and rub it into the paper (carefully) to obtain the right tonal value. This is both a messy and very delicate process. The surface of the paper is very important as well. Over time I’ve narrowed it down to a few types of paper that can handle the repeated layering and removing of graphite. Also, I cannot touch the surface of the paper so I have to be very careful where I position my hands, and I often wear cotton gloves when I’m working to avoid accidentally getting lanolin on the paper from my palms. I’ve ruined work by not paying attention to where my palms are resting actually.

As for values, it’s difficult to explain. I tend to notice subtleties in light and shadow. I’m particularly drawn to sharp contrasts that ease in to shadowy gradations. It’s just something I’ve always paid attention to, so when it comes to drawing, I try to address a full range of values that still leave room in parts for sharp contrasts of light and dark. I realize that the result is actually not at all true to life, and this is somewhat the point of this style. I’m essentially manipulating the values to illustrate how I tend to see things around me. It’s also why I shy away from colour – it’s too distracting. White to black doesn’t allow for the distraction of colour, so I can focus entirely on form and value.


LG: At first glance your work appears playful, but there is a dark side to the narratives you construct. Also it seems like there is something in the way you approach value, both the application and the tonal range, that evokes this dark side. What relationship do you see between your use of value and the subject matter? (And a related question) How do you approach finding the balance between the darker aspects and the playfulness in your work?

DG: The dark side has always been a part of my work, and it stems from my own particular mood. Not to say that I’m a gloomy person though, I just have that easy access into the ‘sub-worlds’, very likely a result of a lifelong interest in comic books and science- fiction, where the so-called dark side tends to be found in abundance. Also, world mythologies and religion tend to be quite terrifying as well, and I draw inspiration from these often. Graphite, as rich and dark as it can be, is a perfect medium for a darker subject matter. The way that I approach value, the sharp contrasts between brightest and darkest, and the more subtle tonal variations, can create an other-worldly look that transforms an otherwise innocuous subject into something eerie. The playfulness is a counter measure to the overall dark quality of the subject. It’s like comic relief, and it is also an indication of how I tend to see things. A little humour is essential in life.


LG: Where do you draw inspiration for your work? What experiences in your life have contributed to or have influenced your work?

DG: I’m extremely sensitive to my immediate environment, so when it comes to inspiration, it can come from just about anywhere or anything. However, there are some consistencies. I’ve always been drawn to the art and architecture of European history. Having also grown up spending summers in France and Greece, where my parents are from.  The pastoral and somewhat lyrical landscapes of these countries are as familiar to me as the stark wilderness of the Canadian provinces. All of these have found their way into my work. The Canadian landscape took hold on my overall drawing aesthetic after I travelled to Banff by train from Toronto. Two and a half days of Canadian Shield and prairies had a significant impact on the look of the work that I developed over the following few years. Lately I’ve been living in a perpetual construction zone, and the landscape of cranes and scaffolding has found its way into my work as well. The skies though, have become a consistent presence in just about any drawing – I find myself studying how light finds its’ way through clouds and how structures are framed by the sky. Graphite is exceptionally well suited to drawing clouds, so it’s hard to resist adding some manner of skyscape to any drawing.

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