Penciling-in the depth and surge

ELIZABETH Ogilvie is an artist who works very small and very large at the same time. Her subject is the sea, element of vast space but also minute nuance. Her chosen imagemaking medium is not liquid and extravagantly bold like that of many sea-painters. She doesn't paint the sea; she draws it. Graphite pencil on paper -- only recently assisted by a subtle use of ink -- has, since she graduated from the sculpture school at Edinburgh College of Art in 1969, become her technique.

Her drawings are often large-scale -- they can be eight feet high -- as if the scope of her subject, the travel of the eye all the way from standpoint to horizon, demands of the art form that reflects it a greater than human size.

Yet the silvery, lucent gradations of tone she explores and describes with her pencil do meticulous justice to the astonishing sense that the sea's grandeur, caught up in its swell and surge, depth and expanse, elevation and plunge, is in fact the gigantic sum of uncountable and incalculably small particles. Her drawings recognize and convey the obedience of the sea's minutiae, its eddies and ripples, foam and spray -- and, incidentally, of its seaweed -- to the immense intensions of its wholeness.

So her method of working is not one of unreasonable laboriousness. It is her best way of capturing both the realism and the poetry of her vision of the sea's size and detail.

Her art has more than once been termed ``contemplative.'' She talks of the need for the artist to stand away from nature sufficiently. When as a student she drew directly from the human model, she was aware of being too literal. Today she draws her ``sea papers'' in her studio in Leith, Edinburgh, and they are the evocation of a seascape many miles away on the northwest coast of Scotland. A limited period each year living in this remote place, at the Point of Stoer in Sutherland, is spent gathering, observing, responding, and thinking.

She no longer uses photography, as she did at first, for an aide-m'emoire on return to the city studio. This now strikes her as ``uninteresting,'' and restricting to the necessary process of imagination. She does make some use of thumbnail sketches. It is clear that her art (which, like Wordsworth's poetry, has to do with ``emotion recollected in tranquillity''), is something detached from the immediate experience of the sea. Each time she returns to the bothy standing on the ocean's edge, her reen-counter with the sea comes as a ``shock.'' But her art is not at all a reaction to or expressionist embroilment with that shock.

In 1977 she wrote that when she returns to Edinburgh from this remote, ``wild sort of a place'' . . . she tries ``to express in lucid poetic terms all that the sea reveals and means to me -- its scale and mass, its constantly changing moods and magical atmosphere, its gentle calm.'' It is clear that she has a vivid grasp on the large forms and motions of the ocean. Months after a visit to the Point of Stoer she can still remember clearly certain seas she witnessed.

At one time she read a lot of books on oceanography; everything to do with the sea interests her and she has also come to value her family's connection with the sea, with her mother's side coming from the island of St. Kilda and her father's having been shipbuilders in Aberdeen. But she does not feel that the study of oceanography has ultimately contributed much to her imagery. Whatever the accuracy and control of her drawings, such qualities are the celebration not so much of a careful analysis of the structure and behavior of the sea, as of her deep feelings in response to it.

The influence of Eastern art, particularly Chinese and Japanese, is apparent. The way in which she presents her work for exhibition, dividing wide seascapes into vertical folding screens or panels, drawing the floating grace of seaweed down a long scroll of beautiful paper, seems Oriental. But in placing on the floor a large drawing of sea-shallows moving over sands at her feet, she may also be influenced by the practices of some Western Minimalist sculptors of the '60s. When she divides her imagery in a horizontal line of separate frames, there is an inevitable parallel with film stills.

The power of Ogilvie's art lies in its profound restraint. It is this restraint that the viewer is most conscious of, this stating of even the most excited seas (and feelings) in a precise draftsmanship that has the timelessness of a Seurat or a Sheeler.

How she holds the large design while drawing it so minutely remains a mystery. And even more admirable is the way in which these drawings never become stilted or academic, but retain a living freshness like the seaweed she brings to her studio to float in a basin as a model, or analogy, for drawing the undercurrents and the rhythms of the ocean.

Her restraint must derive from an awareness that her subject, whatever its power, is actually an image of control.

It has also to do with her sense of the different roles of art and nature. She was recently struck by a quotation -- she can't remember its source -- that expressed the idea that while an artist may never really be able to imitate nature, it is also true that nature can never produce a Turner sunset.

Nor, it might be added, an Ogilvie seascape.

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