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Patricia Cain and Alan Dunlop on architectural draughtsmanship, painting and the city

Alan Dunlop quizzes artist Patricia Cain on her creative motivation, technique and prize-winning work portraying Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside Museum

In September 2010, artist Patricia Cain won the £25,000 Threadneedle Prize for figurative art for her large-scale canvases showing the construction of Zaha Hadid’s Glasgow Riverside Museum of Transport. Here, with champion of architectural draughtsmanship, Alan Dunlop, she discusses painting, the city, and the sheer sweat of drawing.

Alan Dunlop How and when did your interest in painting begin?

Patricia Cain I never thought of myself as painter although I went to art school, but left after two years.
I didn’t consider myself an artist because I was writing just as much; I had broad interests. So I studied law and was a lawyer for the next 15 years before I returned to art.

AD Were you happy being a lawyer?

PC I was at the time. The move to London from the Lake District was quite a difficult thing, and was one of the things that stopped me continuing at art school. Yet I find Glasgow – I moved here in 2001 and retrained as a Scots lawyer – very easy to live in. An urban experience without the sting.

AD What was it that drew you towards Zaha Hadid’s Riverside Museum?

PC My work is influenced by habitat. I live not far away from the River Clyde and so on a daily basis I’m
going to and from my daughter’s school and work and the studio and I’d see the changing Clyde landscape. There were lots of new structures being built and that not only captivated my eye but started an interest in what had been there before because obviously there’s a heritage of construction activities on the
Clyde generally related to shipbuilding. The formation of the river also interested me.

PC I start my work with a lot of observation of the environment or the place, so it was a matter of the observation taking me into all sorts of different areas. The Riverside Museum was one of those areas: I knew it was going to get built and I knew that Zaha Hadid had won the competition and at that point, when the ground was levelled, I went onto the site. I’ve been going onto site for the last three years. And so the work that I’ve made from observation has built up a kind of narrative of the site. In some ways I feel I quite own the site, which I’m sure anybody associated with it must feel. So all the work has developed from that and it’s a mixture of observation work and then reactive work to the site.

AD What made you think that this would be a complex building?

PC I had no idea about that, but of course there were certain phases of the building. Obviously the sub-structure was made first and as that was being made, the steel structure went up, I started to see and to understand how the building was put together, and I started to understand a lot about the materials and the design processes as a consequence.

AD Can you talk a bit about how you draw?
PC Everything is done freehand. My pictures tend to be quite big, the drawings are quite big anyway, and there’s something quite nice about the scale of large drawings. You find out your physical limits through drawing, which is quite interesting.

AD Can I ask you then about the process for your paintings of the Riverside Museum?

PC I have to go on site for a great number of visits to start feeling things about it, to saturate myself in it. What I’m interested in is shapes. So quite often my sketchbook will just be basic shapes or a perspective. I’m always looking for a balance between something that can be understood and something that you can’t quite identify. And I think that’s what attracted me in the first place to both construction and deconstruction, because there are structural elements along with organic elements and you’re always struggling to find your own understanding between the two.

AD From an architectural point of view, CGI seems to be dominating our profession. The thing that’s amazing for me teaching, when you ask students to draw they’re really inhibited by it, you know they’re terribly scared by it.

PC Well I think a lot of people are. I mean there’s a lack of skill taught in schools generally, certainly that’s my experience.

AD Just asking them to take a pencil and draw something on a piece of paper gives them real difficulty.

PC The problem is that drawing is hard work. It always is. I mean, I draw every day and I still can hardly be arsed to do it sometimes. But the more you do it, the more skilled you become. It’s not just in architecture, fine artists aren’t taught drawing either.

AD When you rely on a computer, it’s as if it does the work for you.

PC Well I think the focus on the computer is not internal, it’s external and it’s a very explicit kind of thinking, one where you have to be conscious and alert all the time.

AD With a hand drawing it’s like you’re standing there naked. There’s no intermediate thing that comes between you and your work, whereas the computer seems to do just that. What is the computer responsible for and what are you actually responsible for? And the other thing I find disappointing in architecture using computers is that the process from the beginning of a design, a concept of something which is believable as a piece of architecture, is extended when you’re trying to draw it; but you can move quickly from a basic idea to what looks like a convincing end result with programmes like SketchUp. There’s no process of learning.

PC Everybody focuses on computers these days. It’s the same in the teaching of fine art: more craft-based skills are being dropped primarily for financial reasons. It’s a really bad choice in my opinion because really what distinguishes us not just as artists but I think as architects is our ability to make things and you have to be very grounded in that and know what you’re doing. Just to theoretically produce something without the skills to back it up I think that’s a worrying idea.

AD Who are the people who have been really influential in your career?

PC People who draw a lot, like Massimo Scolari and Lebbeus Woods, were really quite influential. I have looked at Hadid and CJ Lim and they do some exciting work, but I think work done in the 1970s and people like Stirling have got a great influence just because of the level of skill they possessed. I think there’s no excuse, there’s nowhere to hide with that kind or work and that holds something for me personally.

AD Tell us more about your process.

AD Particularly with my line drawings, what I do is I start in one place, and that can be at any place in the drawing, and I make a line and I respond to that line and the line next responds to the line before. So it’s kind of an almost autistic process in that it’s extremely intense and very unplanned.

AD Does it matter to you that what you’re drawing is actually a representation of the view?

PC No. The drawing can change because what I am interested in and what I have faith in is responding to the line in a way I think appropriate. So it’s very much my own construction, or what I make of it. And so even if you’ve got an image or a composition that looks representational, in actual fact it won’t be representational of the thing you started with. It will have been a vehicle for a conversation about that thing and both the colour and the form will have undoubtedly changed.

Patricia Cain’s paintings of the Riverside Museum will be exhibited at the Kelvingrove Gallery, Glasgow, next year

Readers' comments (6)

  • Interesting article and great to hear from Patricia, I was lucky enough to meet her last year and she truly is an inspiration.

    Particularly enjoyed the remark about it being bloody hard work...am heartened to find out that it's ok if sometimes you just "can't be arsed"!

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  • Incredible pictures of a very puzzling building but also interesting Q+A

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  • Although the reproduction quality in both the magazine and the website is very high, neither really shows the true quality of these paintings.

    They are really remarkable and, particularly for architecture students anchored to the computer and sketch up hopefully inspirational.

    They are also huge. The image above froms part of a triptych being prepared for Trish's Kelvingrove solo exhibition. It'll be worth making a trip to Glasgow to see.

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  • Brilliant!

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  • I thought that these would be based on photographs. But I love the idea that instead they're based upon an interrelationship of drawn lines, so the building and the observation and the drawing are three things with separate rules. So much richer that way.

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  • Patricia's work is stunning; I'm a pastel artist too and as someone who produces very architecturally inspired work, and had a similar art school experience to her, I find I want to know much more about her. Her work is beyond impressive; I almost get a headache thinking about the number of layers she's incorporated into the composition. I'm also amazed at how freehand - yet accurate & coherent - they are. I work freehand but I can't imagine being able to follow the sort of natural, unconscious thought process she talks about.

    And I couldn't agree more with her thoughts on the lack of emphasis on drawing skills in art tuition. It should be the very core of what many artists are doing; your ability to articulately represent what you have in mind. Bypassing that implies a sort of arrogance that I'm very uncomfortable with.

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