Eileen Cooper RA on her secrets of drawing

Published 21 May 2015

Eileen Cooper RA’s figures exude a fluid spontaneity. Laura Gascoigne meets the artist, ahead of her show of drawings at the Academy.

  • From the Summer 2015 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    In an artist’s long career, work tends to pile up. Three years ago Eileen Cooper RA cleared out her old plan chest, uncovering a group of drawings she had made 14 years earlier. At the time she put them in the chest, she had felt unsure about the contrast between the strength of their imagery and the delicacy of the Japanese paper she had used. But looking at them again she was taken by their primal energy. This group of ten exuberant images, since gifted to the RA Collection, forms the core of a 40-year retrospective of Cooper’s drawings at the RA’s Fine Rooms. It coincides with the publication of the first monograph to focus on Cooper, who is the first woman Keeper of the Royal Academy, the Academician responsible for the RA Schools.

    Cooper’s art is essentially graphic. She draws in series, turning ideas around on paper until their poetic possibilities are thoroughly explored. Sometimes the process yields paintings, sometimes not – the exercise is an end in itself. Part of the pleasure, for Cooper, is experimenting with unfamiliar media that can act as a stimulus for ideas.

    “New materials throw you off balance in a nice way,” she says. Every medium has its strengths and limitations. “Pencil is unforgiving, whereas charcoal, more like paint, is very fluid.” But unlike paint, where past layers are often only visible under X-ray, charcoal leaves traces on the paper that act on the imagination like visual echoes. Its mobility suits an artist who says she is “always striving to get that freshness of movement.” Ink and brush are even more fluid, yet less forgiving than charcoal: “Ink is permanent, there is not so much flexibility. You have to limber up, gain confidence and just go for it.”

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    Eileen Cooper RA in her studio

    In this short clip, Eileen Cooper RA talks about the importance of drawing in her work, ahead of her exhibition at the Royal Academy in summer 2015. Filmed by Charlie Paul, Producer Lucy Paul.

  • Recently, filmmaker Charlie Paul set up a camera above Cooper’s work table to spy on her drawing process using time-lapse photography. An excerpt from the film, on show in the exhibition, gives the illusion of images unfolding like flowers opening, while laying bare the hesitations, rethinks, shifts of direction and creative toing and froing. “Those shifts are why artists love drawing,” says Cooper, “and why the film is intriguing, because you can observe the artist thinking through making.”

    Cooper’s iconography revolves around the female figure, seen at different stages in her life as sexual being, mother, nurturer and artist. Archer (2015) is one of a series of drawings in charcoal and pastel that began with the idea of a woman dressing in the privacy of her room, then – as can happen with her work – took off on another tangent.

    Serendipity is often involved. The trigger this time was the discovery in a bookshop of a book of photographs of an American dance group, which took her back to the theme of dance that she had celebrated with raw vitality in earlier work. The palette used in Archer and other recent drawings is cooler than her characteristically warm colours, reflecting a more meditative approach. “I wanted to explore a colour range that wasn’t too instinctive, to bring in a softness, a layering with just a twinkle of colour coming through.”

    The effect is light and breathable, but the figures command the space. That, for Cooper, is the fascination of drawing: “A painted line on a canvas needs things around it, but a line on a piece of paper seems to operate on its own.”

    Laura Gascoigne is a freelance art critic who writes for the Tablet and the Spectator.

    Hide and Seek: Drawings by Eileen Cooper RA is in the John Madejski Fine Rooms at the RA from 29 May — 23 August 2015.

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