David Tress: The Act of Drawing


David Tress draws the landscape. This is his primary occupation, although he also paints, works extensively in mixed media on paper, and varies his subject matter to include figures, still life and the urban scene. In the landscape of Pembrokeshire, to which he moved in 1976, he has discovered a rich source of imagery which he shows no sign of exhausting. Many commentators have remarked on the extraordinary quality of light to be found in the part of West Wales around Haverfordwest where he lives. And this is as much Tress' subject as the forms of bracken-clad hillsides or the craggy outcrops of rock which constitute the armature of his drawings.

The paper support plays a crucial role. Sometimes it is almost destroyed in the process of drawing, its surface rucked and raised, reamed and gouged and ridged like the earth itself, the graphite or charcoal applied in a windrush of marks - squalls of them - evoking the wind which whips and goads the landscape. A drawing is likewise lashed and scored to a raw beauty, evincing a powerful physical presence which approaches low relief. This is a fierce vision of landscape, disclosing absolute recognition of the violence in nature; perhaps also it is a telling metaphor for the tumult of man's condition.

Tress uses a thick Saunders Waterford paper (300lb, 640 gram), which offers a number of discrete layers of resistance before the abrading pencil or blade will penetrate to the other side. Often Tress lifts a layer with a Stanley knife and then tears. If the excavation has to go deeper, Tress will have no hesitation in adding further sheets of paper, below or occasionally on top of the original surface, layering them down with glue. To facilitate his attack on the paper, he might use a screwdriver, a knife or scissors, or simply his fingers. Tress' attitude is very practical: he has to take risks for the picture to be any good. So he may as well be wholehearted about it.

The surface betrays the activity in more ways than through the obvious wear-and-tear. Fragments of charcoal and rubber parings often adhere to it. (Tress uses as many rubbers as sticks of charcoal or graphite. The marks left by them are more evident in the charcoal drawings than in the graphites.) And even when the graphite has been mostly removed by erasure it nevertheless leaves a stain on the paper, increasing the range of tonal development. Poignant subtleties, as well as the polarities of black and white, are possible.

In fact Tress' drawings, with their startling depth of image and invigorated zigzag marks, are principally about the fall of light on landscape. (He acknowledges for example a long-standing interest in low light and long cast shadows. 'I find the landscape exciting under cloud', he says.) There is an urgency to these images, a controlled wildness, which is utterly compelling. They are not in the least tentative, the finished drawings having a pictorial logic (a mixture of spontaneity and inevitability) which generally looks as if it caused Tress little trouble. Yet these drawings have been endlessly worked over and revised, and more often than not, suffered for. Their 'all-over' quality is especially important to the artist. As he says: 'I suppose the feeling in the end that I want you to get is that you can't tell what the last mark is; that the whole surface has been thoroughly investigated.'

Tress is, quite literally, an action painter - and this manner of proceeding applies equally to his drawing style as well. As a student he was excited by the work of the American Abstract Expressionists, and made a number of turbulent and semi-abstract expressionist landscapes in response to their example. But Pollock, for instance, whose mature rhythmic calligraphy is not directly tied to description, was not quite what Tress needed as a role model. Instead, he digressed through various experimental stages (of music-based conceptual and performance art) before coming to share the conclusion of an artist soon to be one of his lasting inspirations, Graham Sutherland: 'A painter cannot create out of nothing, as it were, so he must gather material from his experience of things seen.'

Sutherland, having begun as an etcher, taught himself about paint by experimenting with watercolour, as indeed Tress was to do. Oils came later. Sutherland first visited Pembrokeshire in 1934, and later claimed that it was in this West Wales landscape that he really began to learn painting. He wrote: 'It seemed impossible here for me to sit down and make finished paintings "from nature"…. The spaces and concentrations of this clearly constructed land were stuff for storing in the mind. Their essence was intellectual and emotional, if I may say so. I found that I could express what I felt only by paraphrasing what I saw…'

He continued: 'I wish I could give you an idea of the exultant strangeness of this place - for strange it certainly is, many people whom I know hate it, and I cannot but admit that it possesses an element of disquiet… the whole setting is one of exuberance - of darkness and light - of decay and life. Rarely have I been so conscious of these elements in so small a compass.' Sutherland admitted to being lost without nature: 'I can't invent unless I've got something to invent from. But I can carry it further.' As John Craxton, who worked beside Sutherland and knew him well, has commented: 'Sutherland didn't want to take on ready-made subjects. Like all modern painters he wanted to create a landscape out of himself.' This is precisely what Tress was to do.

The idea of paraphrasing nature is central to Tress. Not for him the straight recording of appearances. His practice is to work on a drawing for a day or two in the studio, then put it away and only return to it after a few months. Sketchbook drawings are very different. They are used as basic information for the paintings and drawings. Tress makes informal scribbly studies of particular landscapes or buildings in all types of weather, including colour notes in watercolour, and written descriptive notes, using waterproof sketchbooks. This research is brought back to the studio where it is pondered and sifted. Perhaps Tress will have gone into the landscape with a specific idea to make studies of a particular place or feature, perhaps to make more general notes. All is of potential use, for the main creative transaction begins to occur at some point between the original activity of the eye and hand in the sketchbook, and the finished drawing. It is as if Tress sinks into himself to discover his emotional response to a particular aspect of landscape. This response is partly to do with conscious thought, but draws its real strength from something far more instinctual and intuitive.

Drawing has traditionally been associated with spontaneity and speed (the lightning sketch), but although the pace of Tress' mark-making may indeed be swift, he challenges the notion of speed as applied to the drawing per se by prolonging its genesis through lengthy periods of reflection and revision. His drawings extend over time. In much the same way the usual perceptions of surface and depth are disrupted by the literal strata of the picture plane when looking at a Tress drawing.

As might be expected, the artists to whom Tress looks for inspiration are of an earlier generation. In addition to the Abstract Expressionists, and the structural dynamics of the great English watercolour tradition of Cotman, Cox and de Wint, Tress enjoys the feeling for atmosphere in Bomberg and Auerbach, Hitchens, Sutherland and Piper. He admires Peter Coker's graphite drawings, and the superb black and white tracery of John Minton at his linear best. Sutherland's rock studies, done mostly in red and black, from the 1930s and 1940s, exert a particular appeal. And the distorted landscape photographs of Bill Brandt, their masses and vectors, capture something of Tress' feelings about the English landscape. Piper and Betjeman's Shell Guides are another fruitful point of reference.

The scored lines which distinguish so many of Tress' works on paper are often an emphatic way of drawing to rediscover the structure of the composition. Tress is re-stating something (a concatenation or confluence of energies, perhaps) which may have existed at the beginning of the drawing but which has subsequently been lost. For it is the determined structures which contribute largely to the pictorial excitement of these images. How representational is such a picture? One thinks of Bomberg's dictum about striving to capture the 'spirit in the mass', and then of Dennis Creffield's cathedral drawings. Tress is by no means as descriptive as Creffield, but he shares some of the same intent - to conjure forth that very spirit, and somehow make it visible or apprehensible.

In St Davids II (1999), for instance, the tower of the cathedral is indeed just visible. Tress had initially stood with a sketchbook in front of the cathedral and drawn what he saw. This was not just to gather visual information which might be useful back in the studio, but also to re-familiarize himself with the look of a building he has actually known for years, to experience it deep within himself, on a different level from that experienced by the casual visitor. This preparation - this soaking in appearances - is essential for any more experimental work Tress might wish to undertake with the same subject back in the studio.

Sometimes the activity in the drawings is not so much to do with collecting information as with moving it on, translating it. For instance, in the fine drawing of Tintern Abbey, Tintern, West Light (2002), red lines come and go, are stated, removed, then re-stated. And in the drawing of the Saxon Church at Bradford-on-Avon, the red appears again in what is, for Tress, really quite a descriptive image. Has the red some sort of metaphorical standing within the picture, suggestive perhaps of Ariadne's red thread (by which she helped Theseus navigate the maze), entrails, a heat map or simply lines of stress? Tress sees both colour and linearity in purely formal terms: 'It's actually important that I don't have a reason for the red lines.'

Tress himself is conscious of how crucial it is to be ruthless in his procedures, not to flinch at destroying and re-drawing. Sometimes he starts with a shaped support, of two sheets of paper joined together; at others, extra sheets are added as part of the process. Or sections of paper may be patched in, as they are in Sky, Rain, Mountain, River (2001). Tress frequently continues to work over an undersheet after it is attached. Quite serious changes can occur at this late stage, as the image continues to evolve. In such ways is the objecthood of the drawing emphasized. At the same time, Tress is aware of a strong sense of physical involvement, of the act of drawing being 'almost a gymnastic activity'.

The great variety of surface texture - or inter-surface texture, set up between the different strata of the support's layers - is a prominent feature of the work, and echoes the arrangement of geological strata which go to make up the earth's crust. Often we are shown a flash of the defenceless white underbelly of the paper. (In St Davids II, notice the long vaguely diagonal white tear at right, like a lightning bolt, evidence of the recurrent need to present the viewer with visual surprises.) At others, Tress penetrates through the skin to the fat, then to the muscle, and finally to the bone beneath. But it's not all vector lines or skeletons of landscape, there's also leaf pattern and the detail of foxgloves, as in Summer To A Dark Heaven (2000). Tress seeks a public harmony for his private and intense confrontations.

The determination to align himself with subject matter which he finds provocative or moving is admirable, as is Tress' recognition of the deep need to take in new information and not repeat himself. One risk he will not take is the risk of becoming mechanical. 'It could become safe, making gestural drawings,' he observes wryly. 'You could say it's a certain frenzy. But frenzy alone can become a kind of habit.' What he seeks is to disrupt his habits so that he may make a new and vital image each time he addresses the paper with graphite or charcoal. He continues to travel extensively, both in Britain and abroad, collecting visual information and trying to place (or process) the data in a relevant way. His urban subjects perhaps serve to return the viewer refreshed, and further intrigued, to the big landscape drawings which are at the heart of Tress' investigation into the nature of things.

When he draws something as apparently straightforward as an apple tree, the work contains temporal layers (in addition to however many literal layers of paper Tress uses), for it is composed of memories of different trees seen over time. It is an image of the essence of apple tree, but fleshed out and made real by convincing details. In a sense, what Tress gives us is assembled landscape, composed of memories and observations, experience of other places, as well as an element of exact description. It is as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it: 'Landscape plotted and pieced - fold, fallow, and plough'. The use of more than one sheet of paper echoes this pattern of thought, the overlapping sheets like overlapping memories, extending the boundaries of the work, but also signalling the parallel need to find and identify its limits.

One large Scottish landscape, made from a sketchbook drawing of the mountains, is essentially about the particular experience of a place under rain, a place with a distinct identity and independence of its own. But it is also about rain and landscape, about (in a sense) eluding the particular - the blurring of specifics we frequently experience in poor light and adverse weather conditions. Estuary (Mawddach) II (2000) is an image about a river debouching through an estuary on the west coast of Wales. It is done in charcoal, on two sheets of paper, one slightly superimposed on the other and riding off its top right corner. In this case Tress started with a shape he was keen to experiment with. The charcoal makes for stronger tonal contrasts - both black and white are more intense - yet at the same time, there is a softer, bluer quality to the blacks. Precision and blur.


Place-Notes from a Field Trip to Pembrokeshire
(writer accompanies artist)

The magnificent Neolithic burial chamber at Pentre Ifan, with

its massive 17' capstone supported by just three uprights.

Loitering clouds, heather on the hills.

Marginal land ground down; a toughness, an unease to the

countryside, 'a slow violence', essential to Tress' vision.

Blood-red bracken.

Iron Age field patterns survive, while the remains of more

recent moorland fields return to bracken and scrub,

slowly crushed by nature.

Rock pipits on the beach at Newport Bay.

Speckled Wood butterflies on the pilgrim path above Nevern.

The Bleeding Yew and the Celtic Great Cross outside the

Church of St Brynach at Nevern.

And as we are leaving, a lemony afternoon light in the hills after rain.

Dark blue hills and rainclouds like ink.


Gwyn Jones, in his essay to accompany the watercolours of Kenneth Rowntree (in A Prospect of Wales, Penguin, 1948), writes of 'the long rocky headland of Pembrokeshire, running to the claw-tip at St David's Head, with the magic mountains of Prescelly hanging inland like a haze. Turn again, for behind one the Plynlymon massif is displayed in a score of rosy lumps, divagated by green valleys, black woodlands, the silver ribbons of rivers, its fields brown, grey, pink, emerald, until the blunted tops of the five mountains are lost in purple distance half-way to the English border.'

He continues, 'the view, necessarily and properly, is inconstant. Heat haze, cloud or rain turns the peninsula to a smudge or to nothing at all. In sea mist one is content to see not the next county but the next hummock. Under a bruised sky the seaward horizon encroaches on the beaches…' Here are some of the atmospheric effects for which Tress strives - the smudge and haze, and the inconstant, interrupted view. Here is a reality of landscape conjured forth from a flurry of marks and ripped paper, but a shifting reality which can only be fixed by oblique means.

Tress portrays the face of nature, its timelessness and apparent immutability. He has a profound awareness of the past, and this is evident in the treatment of his subject. The work is moody - visceral but also thoughtful. Tress is drawn to a sense of threshold: those places where the fields meet the crags or the moors, or where the land meets the sea. Situations of most drama. He captures the energy of the seasons and the suddenness of their arrival and change. Sometimes he allows visible a horizon line, at others he goes deep into detail; sometimes both. A dark tangle of foliage, mysterious with lights and shadows, is endlessly suggestive in its references.

Gwyn Jones reached the conclusion that the emotional connotations of the natural scene 'are probably richer in Wales than in any other part of these Islands.' I think that this can be seen in the Pembrokeshire-inspired work of Graham Sutherland; it can certainly be discerned in the Welsh landscapes of David Tress. (Incidentally, the older artist, who once called himself 'G. Pembrokeshire Sutherland', absented himself from Wales between 1946 and 1967, probably to the lasting detriment of his art. Luckily, from 1968 until his death in 1980, most of his inspiration once again derived from Pembrokeshire. Tress take note.)

Another exceptional character to have had a deep feeling for the wild beauty of the region was the country parson and poet R.S. Thomas, whose poetry Tress first discovered in Haverfordwest Library. In the poem 'Out of the Hills', Thomas speaks of 'The weight of the sky, and the lash of the wind's sharpness…'. His poems return again and again to the lonely hill farmers, the marginal, untamed land, and 'always the wind'. (The shocking white of ripped paper in a Tress image somehow suggests in this connection clean bandages on nature's wounds.)

While I have been writing this essay I have been studying the surface of a drawing by Tress. The thick paper has been ripped away in layers, scarified with forceful marks, broken through, collaged over. The graphite has been applied with broad, powerful strokes. Held in an oblique light, it shines like beaten pewter. It has a burnished look, as if it has been worked over long and hard. (Indeed it has.) At least one hole has been gouged through the surface, and a backing board of card has been glued on to hold the whole thing together. Although the surface is distressed, it does not look traumatized. The image somehow looks as if it has broken through to a new identity.

It is this ability to create (or recognize) a new identity in familiar things which marks out the artist. For Tress, the strong winds and changing light of Pembrokeshire are all the stimulus he needs. The extreme distillation of landscape he achieves is surprisingly radical for an artist working with a traditional subject in traditional media. And it is this radical quality which makes the drawings of David Tress so relevant to us today. We badly need work of this strength and distinction.


Andrew Lambirth        London: September 2002 - March 2003.

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