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Interview with Duncan Bullen by Ben Gooding
©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock All rights reserved.
Duncan Bullen has spent many years working almost entirely with pencil and paper.
Restricting his mark-
Duncan leads the Fine Art Programme at the University of Brighton; this is where I met him and was able to examine his work in closer detail.
BG Could we begin by talking about the method of production you use in order to
generate the structures in your grid works? Although clearly hand-
DB The drawings you are referring to are an ongoing set of works, which are made
up of countless repeated dots or points. By ‘point’ I mean a tiny drawn mark, which
is about the size of a size of a pinprick. I have generated structures by plotting
grids with ruler and pencil, and have made use of graph paper. Some drawings have
involved rudimentary counting. Most use computational methods to generate patterned
formations that are all derived from a basic grid. I liken these formations to a
kind of map, in which the terrain of the drawing is partially pre-
I see these structures, these maps, as both a place from which to set off: a place
of departure and return. By this I mean that the map allows me to begin to plot key
points in what can be quite complex structures. This then allows me to let go of
the map during the making, but also allows me to re-
I select a range of pencils and determine the order in which they are to be drawn,
and the direction. So on one level, I know, to a certain degree, the kind of outcome
that any chosen sequence, procedure and ‘map’ might produce. However, one never really
knows what the overall visual effect will be. So the process has a ‘pre-
Drawing # 25.11 70 x 70 cm
BG What becomes apparent on viewing the work is the uniqueness of each mark. The ‘dot’ is in effect the most reductive, simplest type of mark one can make; it is surprising, therefore, to note the vast array of dissimilarity of each mark contained in the work.
Is this method of mark-
DB Several years ago now, I removed myself very deliberately from art practices that I had been engaged with, and made a very conscious decision to work with drawing. At the outset I was primarily interested in the relationship between drawing and colour. Although this relationship holds, it is less of a concern now. Increasingly, I have become interested in the mark made through drawing.
And yes, the dot is perhaps “the most reductive... mark one can make”. Initially
I was interested in making a near-
BG This connection between the mark and the act of breathing is certainly worth discussing further. I'm very interested in the nature of this ‘correlation’. For example, I can imagine that this highly controlled breathing technique physically aids the steadying of the hand during the intricate drawing process, but is there also a sense of this meditative aspect in your approach, imbuing the work with some heightened metaphysical or spiritual quality? Is this purely a physical expedient, or are you concerned with this state of mindfulness as an intrinsic subject of the work itself?
DB I feel uncomfortable talking about the work in terms of the ‘metaphysical’,
and the ‘spiritual’ is such a loaded word -
Rather, I am interested in staying close to the surface of an event, being with it in the perceptual perpetual present. I am interested in an art practice that shares fundamental lived experiential qualities with the practice and ethics of mindfulness. By this I mean that mindfulness is both something that I try to practise during the doing of a drawing, as a meditative practice in and of itself, and also something that I try to carry into the world, and hopefully the drawings reflect this state of being ‘in the world’. I think the word ‘practice’ is crucial here. Parallels between the practice of art, the practice of meditation and the mental space they inhabit are of increasing relevance for me.
In my reading around this area I find it useful to draw on contemporary discourses
on Eastern philosophy. I find Buddhism useful here, particularly as it has been interpreted
in the West as a negation of the separation of mind/body and the Cartesian ideal,
offering a differing perspective to dualistic thinking, through an interconnection
of mind, body and culture. Alongside mindfulness I am becoming increasingly interested
in the ‘effortless action’, or Wu Wei, that Edward Slingerland (2) writes about,
and how he applies this ancient Chinese concept of no–trying or no-
For me, drawing is fundamentally non-
This may sound as though I am describing an introspective ‘spiritual’ discipline,
and in part this is correct, but I would say that essentially, one’s experience is
always located and provisional, which goes beyond a merely introspective event or
mental state that happens to us. Rather, it is to do with how one’s experience is
transformed, in tandem with a transformation of our relationship to the world, and
a transformation of that world -
Therefore, the materials we choose to work with, and how we apply these, are important.
I recently gave a paper called ‘Touching the World Lightly’, and am working on a
research project with the same name. As the title implies, the focus is on the marks
we make, so the decision to work with the accumulation of repeated small gestures
is in part a consideration of how our imprint touches the world. Allied to this is
a question of a perceptual engagement – how to make a drawing that actually enacts
through looking -
Drawing #37.10 [Chromatic Fields] Colour Pencil on Paper, 40 x 40 cm 2010
BG Fascinating! One might say, then, that mindfulness is not really a subject of
the work, in the sense that one might describe the work as being ‘about’ something,
but rather the work is necessarily and inextricably bound to a state of being-
I like this idea of “touching the world lightly”. These particular drawings certainly
have an incredibly delicate -
There is a simplicity I appreciate in the monochrome drawings that, for me, seem
to find a more direct connection with the ideas you've been discussing, and although
I find the application of colour gradations very beautiful, they seem to stray into
a slightly different territory. That's not to criticise them, but do you think this
“lightness of touch” becomes compromised in any way due to the vibrancy of such multi-
DB As I have already mentioned, colour holds a particular interest, and I have worked to attempt to incorporate colour ranges into my drawing. I know you want to ask me about the 120 Colour Pencil drawings in a moment, so I will leave them aside for now and try to address the questions and observations you have just made.
My interest in colour is with with a slow unfolding colour, which is to do with the fleeting, evanescent nature of colour as a generator of light, so in these drawings the small dots of colour were used to speak to this transient condition. I was interested in the way colour appears to have the ability to elude finite systems and take up its own position, regardless of our actions and intention. I came to accept this as being part of our subjective chromatic experience.
Therefore, to me, it seems that the distinctiveness of colour as a phenomenon is
its ability to speak to us in ways that are fluid, flexible and fleeting. However,
I agree that they lead the viewer in a different direction, hence I have not made
drawings using dots of colour pencil for several years now. Accordingly, I think
your observation -
These drawings certainly allow a more meditative approach to the making, and accordingly provide a more focused viewing experience. The invitation is to focus on the drawn mark, its independence and interdependence, rather than chromatic experience. And the graphite pencil drawings are quieter and more contained. The correlation between the drawn mark and the drawn breath is much closer in the monochrome works.
BG At a certain distance there is a sort of snapping into focus of these compositions. The average course of each dotted line appears to stay true to the predetermined structure that underpins the work.
On closer inspection, there is a clear discrepancy, and the seemingly pristine nature
of the drawing is to a degree lost. This is one of the seductive qualities about
the work for me. One is drawn in, and only then do the drawings reveal the hand-
DB Thank you for saying this -
Therefore, looking at these drawings, one is invited to move back and forth, viewing
the work at differing distances. Stepping back from the drawing, each separate mark
dissolves in our field of vision, and at certain distances the drawing dissolves
completely. This ‘some-
But yes, there is a ‘snapping into focus’ with each drawing, which will be different for different people, depending on the individual’s eyesight, but this is considered and heightened by the range of pencil grades used in the drawing. Drawings which use predominately the high end of ‘H’ range produce less tonal contrast, and equally take longer to register on the eye than those drawings which use the softer and darker end of the graphite spectrum. This choice of hard of soft pencil also affects the kind of mark made, as well as the eye’s ability to register.
An aspect of these drawings is to examine and test indeterminacy and visual liminality.
Circus Street drawing 2
BG You said something very interesting about the paper being an ‘object in space’
rather than a two-
DB I studied Printmaking at Masters level at the Royal College of Art, and have
taught primarily on the Fine Art Printmaking course at the University of Brighton
since 1999, so paper is something that has always been an important component of
my own practice as an artist, and is something students are constantly asked to consider.
I agree: as a substrate paper is far from being ‘passive’. As we know, paper comes
in an incredibly diverse range of sizes, weights, textures and practical uses. Therefore
each paper has its own particular characteristics which will invariably affect the
outcome of the marks made upon it. One has only to think of Seurat’s choice of textured
paper, which allowed him, with a black crayon, to activate the whiteness/lightness
of the surface. It is precisely the articulation of the white space of the paper
from a perceived negative space (no-
Thus, the white of the paper becomes an experiential site of potential relationships, an affirmative space, in which the drawings may evoke optical phenomena in which areas of white space appear to have a greater luminescence, or appear to contain colour, or shapes which may appear to drift across the eye.
In this sense I am interested in how the drawings may highlight the fact that seeing is active rather than passive, and is a dynamic process of lived interpretative experience. Consequently the choice of paper is vitally important. For most of my drawings I use Fabriano 5, an exceptionally smooth white paper that casts very little shadow, thereby increasing luminosity.
A recent set of drawings, made as part of a project, centred on the Circus Street
site of the University of Brighton -
BG Let’s move on to discuss your more recent output and your broader practice. You have produced a stunning series of very simple horizontal colour line drawings in which you go through an entire range of colour pencils in a particular order, which throws up intriguing chromatic juxtapositions.
One thing that is immediately apparent in moving from a dot to a straight line is the way the intensity of colour, and the fineness of line quality, gradually fades and opens as you draw the line out. The erosion of the pencil lead suddenly becomes observable, and this lends the work a subtle gradation that the grid works don't have.
Could you talk a bit about the process involved in making these works and this significant transition from dot to line?
DB About five years ago I brought a set of Faber Castell 120 Polychromos pencils,
and they looked so good in the tin that I could hardly bear to disrupt them. The
arrangement seemed so perfect. I remember asking myself: “how does one begin to choose
colours from a range of 120 when one is not making a representation or using them
symbolically?”. So instead of making arbitrary decisions about which colour to use
next to another, I saw them as a kind of ‘ready-
The process was simple; on a drawing board with a ruler I would take one colour and draw a straight line and then another and then another. Each time I would place the pencil I had just used on the other side of my work surface. After each drawn line I would move the ruler down an equal distance, and once I had drawn all 120 colours I would begin again. This time beginning from the opposite end of the palette, drawing between each of the previously drawn lines. This produced a kind of mirroring, or reflection, and unexpected colour relationships. Once I had drawn all 120 colours twice, the drawing was finished and I would begin another. This time I would begin from a different place within the range, i.e. begin with pencil no 40, rather than pencil no 1, the next drawing would begin with pencil no 80 etc. It was a simple system and a process that placed considerable emphasis on the elemental activity of placing one mark after another.
As you observe, the different line takes on different qualities; some colour pencils are harder or softer than others, they therefore either wear down as the pencil is drawn from left to right or they retain their shape. For me, this was an exercise in retaining even pressure for each line drawn. Just before making these drawings I had been working on a project with composer Jamie Crofts, whose method of composing his Chromatic Fields had a direct influence (3). Jamie’s compositions consist of 176 single notes. These are the 88 notes of a piano played through and repeated. The main difference between each piece is the order in which they are played.
I have also made a set of drawings that use greyscales – 6H to 6B, each time varying the number of times a particular grade is drawn, but always with equal distribution. These drawings really seem like an exercise now, and I not sure if these will continue beyond the works already made.
120 Colour Pencil drawing B
BG I also want to touch on the series of sun-
Does the ephemeral nature of such work concern you, or do you find it appealing? It’s quite a departure from your previous output. How did you arrive at this method, and where do you think it might ultimately lead?
DB Departure and continuation! Because of this they are the most difficult to
discuss. Who knows where they might lead, perhaps back to the pencil and the ruler,
or perhaps elsewhere. I honestly don’t know. They came about through this questioning
of how we touch the world, and are a continuation of works that deal with nothing
and something, of the impermanent, temporal nature of things. Some of these pieces
were generated by my colleague Alan Boldon while he was co-
The idea is that these pieces are made by sunlight on recycled paper, so if and when
they are re-
Sunlight Drawing no 4 2015
BG I'd like to finish by asking you a more general question about drawing itself. As a teacher and academic, do you think drawing as a practice still holds an integral importance within art education? We are living in times of such plurality in terms of art practice, the old traditions of life class, observational and technical drawing now seem redundant to many people. Is there still a fundamental usefulness to drawing that instils the mind with an ability to see the world, and that it would be detrimental to lose?
DB These are big questions to end on, and I’ll do my best with them. Ultimately, drawing is a nexus that encompasses distinct strands, many different disciplines and none. To speak of drawing is to speak of all of this and much more; from the preparatory, generative and foundational to the conceptual, performative, exploratory and provisional. I welcome plurality and porosity in art education and I have no sense of any one mode being privileged above and beyond another.
However, there is something intimate and fundamental about drawing. I will confess I am no fan of life classes, but I have colleagues who are and I respect that view. I would rather argue that we don’t value the wide and varied scope that drawing has the potential to offer, at all levels of education.
In my role as an academic at the University of Brighton I am actively involved in
the Drawing Research Interest Group (DRIG)(4). This group brings together academics
and doctoral students from across a range of disciplines, with interests in the numerous
applications of drawing, including the use of drawing as an educational tool, drawing
and arts education, drawing as arts practice, the use of drawing within the expanding
field of visual research methods, drawing within non-
Attempting to define drawing is incredibly difficult; for many it is rooted in observation
and has remained determinedly allied to representational models. However, observation,
for me, has a broader interpretation than the mimetic; observation is another way
of speaking about awareness and attention. By this I mean the ability to be present,
observing what is unfolding at any given moment, the internal/external dynamics of
the creative process -
Drawing moves us toward seeing ... the completed drawing is never finished in any relational sense. After the last mark has been made it continues to explore the space of intention, it finds sympathetic vibrations elsewhere in the world, and aligns itself to them (5).
BG Duncan Bullen, thank you...
Ben Gooding, 2015
1. Epstein, Mark, Going on Being, Wisdom Publications 2009, p.13
2. Slingerland, Edward, Trying Not To Try, Canongate Books, 2014.
3. Jamie Crofts, Chromatic Fields can be found at http://www.soundkiosk.com/
4. More can be found at: http://arts.brighton.ac.uk/projects/drawing-
5. Fisher, Joel, Notes Towards a Prepositional Drawing, Drawing Research Network Conference, Cochrane Theatre, London, 8 October 2009. http://www.simcoe.co.uk/drawing/reviews.htm