Interview with Sarah Kernohan

Line Gallery:  Your work at times has hovered between drawing and painting, but seems to have settled into mainly drawing at this point. Why do you think drawing is a practice that interests you?

Sarah Kernohan: Drawing has been central to my practice from the very beginning, and when I hover into the territory of painting I am using colour to enhance the drawing. When I paint I use highly diluted watercolours and thinned oil paints. My investment in drawing is based on my interest in line, which in my opinion is central to drawing. I am interested in working on paper, using drawing media as well – pens, pencils – and using paints as flat media.


LG: Your process of developing a drawing is quite involved. Can you speak about your approach and process when making a drawing?

SK: When I set out to make a drawing – for some reason, I can’t start off by saying that I am going to make a drawing of that object. I stall by doing studies – generally in the dozens – generally fast sketches that take about anywhere between 5 minutes and an hour to complete. I do these to get a sense of what I am working with, but also to determine what I am gravitating toward. All of the objects that I work with have unique surfaces and texture, which can be overwhelming at first. This helps to narrow my focus.

I take these drawings, and sometimes photocopy them and rip them up, looking to see what forms line up – and how I can abstract the object that I am working with. Because I am rarely looking at my subject matter from a single perspective point, I am able to look at how different parts of an object have an influence on an adjacent area. I then take these collages that are usually between 5 and 7 layers deep, and dismantle them, transferring this information to my drawing surface. This process usually takes the most time – and I find it quite relaxing. This is where I start to see where the accumulation of detail has taken place, and how element overlap.

In the case of the drawings that were presented in Field, I was drawn to the extremely weathered surfaces of the shells that I was working with. – They also reminded me of images that I had seen of glaciers from above. I was also attracted to the underside of the shells, which were smooth and polished. I wanted to develop a one-to-one – looking at how the forms on the underbelly influenced the surface detail – so I approached the drawing twice – once from underneath, and once again from the top. To obscure the bottom layer, I coated it with a thin layer of gesso, then drew directly over top of it.

I use different thicknesses of line to finish the drawings – establishing different spatial relationships. Occasionally I use watercolour to highlight low-lying areas, to push those features back in space.


LG:  How do you go about selecting which objects or specimens you will work from? How tied are you to the original object when making the work?

SK: I have a habit of picking things up when I go out hiking or walking – this sometimes depends on where I am and whether I can actually pick anything up and carry it with me. The specimens that were used in preparing Field were smaller shells that I found when I was walking through Stanley Park in Vancouver a few summers ago, hardly a rugged walk in the woods. The shells were everywhere, but I was looking specifically at forms that resembled glaciers, which I was going to be visiting the following week. I chose these shells because of their surface features.

In a lot of cases, it depends on how much I’m letting myself take in my surroundings – but I generally pick up small things along the way if I don’t have a time limit when I’m walking… whether I take something home is a little different. Through this habit, I have a small collection that has been growing. I have gone through phases where I focus on certain types of objects: mushrooms, shells, coral… – I’m working with shells again. I’m attracted to their calcified surfaces that are coated with barnacles.

I’ve been really interested in glaciers for some time, but more recently I started to learn more about specifics about snow and ice – and how they are also structural as well as completely fluid and unstable. I use these analogies to help drive my approach to how the drawing will be built.


LG: Your drawings are developed through the use of line almost exclusively. The line work is delicate and highly descriptive, but also somewhat abstract. How do you think about line? What do you hope it will communicate or evoke in the work?

SK: I think that line is the best tool for learning about what you are drawing. My interest in drawing goes back to the elementary discovery of learning how to work with line. When I was a kid, I loved to trace illustrations out of books. I have always loved making blind contour drawings because the quality of line is so interesting. I use line because I like its descriptive qualities and its ability to be delicate, sensitive, wavering, heavy, or harsh. I use different pens to create differences in weight to describe how visible some details are to me. I use the skinniest line that I can manage to describe the base levels of information- the currents lying at the bottom of the objects that I am working with, the features that I feel influence the form and patterns visible in the foreground of the drawing. I also use hashed lines to mark out lines that I lose track of as I ink up my drawings. Some of my lines match the standards used in topographic map-making where thick lines to mark out thresholds in height limits. I am making this sound scientific when my use of line is pretty intuitive.

I use line to mark my path as I draw. I use line to trace my understanding of the objects that I am drawing from. I hope that it will create some space where the viewer can also get lost in surface detail the way that I do. I use line as a guide – to point toward the features and details that I find interesting.  I also use line to keep track of where I draw.

The use of abstraction comes through the way that I generalize forms – I cannot see to the level of detail that I would ideally like to see, so I have to make things up. I always make dashed lines (see above) to describe how I lose track in the process of inking up my work.


LG: How do you know when a piece is finished? Do you mainly consider the aesthetics/composition of the page or is it about completing the exploration of the object?

SK: I feel that a drawing is finished when I no longer feel that I need to communicate what I find so compelling about the objects that I am working with. Often parts of drawings will feel unresolved and they will bother me until I am able to take them where they need to go. I usually run on instinct when deciding if a work is finished. Since the resulting drawing is not predicated on a specific image, it is always a surprise.

I tend to focus on composition, and try to focus on what elements I am really trying to push with the work and determining what needs to be emphasized. It is difficult to have control over a composition when I am working with collage, mostly because I can’t really see what I am working on until I’ve finished transposing the collage.


LG:  In speaking with you have such an interest in naturally occurring processes, what experiences in your life have shaped/influenced your practice?

SK: I know that I started to hone in on paying attention to geological features after spending two years in New Zealand. I think that aesthetically, the experience of flying and the experience of observing the earth at that scale has also been really important. My eyes are constantly glued to the window in any vehicle that I am traveling in.

I think that it began as an interest in surface features. An old studio-mate once described watching me draw as being an experience in witnessing a glacial timescale. This started a personal mission to learn more about glacial processes. I was already looking at the surface features that were caused by them (scraping, gouging, flooding, etc.), and I became fascinated by the narrative surrounding these processes. The scale of these bodies, combined with their age, and the process of their construction. I was able to find all kinds of parallels that could be applied to the process of building drawings. Layering, compressing, shifting, all sorts.

Since then I’ve started learning more about how to read geological features and also elements in the landscape – things that are seemingly simple like snow and how to anticipate avalanches. It’s rich material.


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

SK: This question reminds me of a conversations that I had with another artist a few years ago about how people increasingly value the ability to skillfully draw since photographic technologies have become so powerful and so ubiquitous. I don’t think that drawing skill is the most exciting part about contemporary drawing practices. I think that seeing drawing in so many new contexts and forms is.

I feel that drawing is really adaptable. There are a number of artists who are pushing the boundaries of drawing into new and interesting territory, and it feels really fluid, like the definitions are being blurred. It’s also really great to go into major and public galleries and see more large-scale drawing, drawing-based installations, projections, and drawing in public spaces.


LG: Are there any drawers you have been looking at recently? Are there any Canadian drawers we should check out?

SK: I was looking at Julie Mehretu’s Mind Breath Drawings the other day and was so happy to see her playing with line and gesture, as I have grown so familiar with the technical aspects of her work.

There are so many Canadian artists who work in drawing – and strictly drawing – whose work I admire. I look at artists like Robert Wiens for how they handle watercolour- as I really admire his handling of colour as well as his technique. Niall McLelland’s process-based drawings where he carried giant photocopy drawings in his pocket over the course of a few months to create geometric abstract composition are so simple, and beautiful. I have been really fortunate to be able to see some really great drawing in Kitchener over the course of the past few months – Jane Buyers’ large floral drawings at KW|AG, Dagmara Genda’s panorama that was part of the Ecotopia exhibition (also at KW|AG). I also walk by Kate Wilson’s Celestial Mechanics every time I walk to the studio, which makes me smile because I get to see contemporary drawing on the streets that I live in.

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