Feature | Bryony Benge-Abbott

Wild Drawing

How would you define wild drawing? And how did you come to discover it yourself?

Wild drawing is not about accurately depicting landscapes or botanical illustrations. Instead, it is an invitation to embrace play over precision and to courageously let go of any desire for perfection. It emerged as an experimental practice during the pandemic and I decided to develop it into guided walks and workshops as a way to share ideas that might support / deepen anyone’s nature connection – regardless of experience, resource, location or time.

I make no claim to be a proficient drawer; I’ve not been to a formal drawing school nor have I taken many classes beyond those of my art foundation course some twenty years ago. In all honestly, I am a painter who didn’t give drawing much serious thought for many years because I was too enchanted by the sumptuous, richness of oils, the vibrancy of acrylics and the messy, exhilarating process of pouring layers of colour onto canvas. Painting has and always will be my first love; occasionally I attend life drawing classes but really, sketching for me was only ever a way to jot down painting plans rather than something to focus on in and of itself.

Yet last year it became my lifeline. Reeling from the sudden loss of both of my parents at the start of the global pandemic, the simple act of picking up a pencil and making a few marks on a piece of paper transformed into an unexpectedly powerful act of self-care and healing. Throughout the lockdowns, as my daily walks took me through the landscapes of my childhood, drawing en plein-air steadily became a ritual that I relied upon, helping me to maintain a sense of perspective when all else seemed madness. In the midst of enforced isolation and grief, when I often could not conjure up the enthusiasm to paint, I found that drawing grounded me, generating that which I needed more than anything else at that time: resilience. 

Out of this period emerged this practice that I now call wild drawing, the essence of which is drawing in, of and with nature. I’ve become interested in how combining uninhibited creativity with the simple act of slowing down to notice nature, generates a more instinctual relationship with the environment, one in which it becomes possible to imagine nature are not as being ‘out there’ but intrinsically us.

Your wild drawing walks offer a new way of experiencing the natural world. What is it about the process of mark marking which opens up new ways of understanding our landscapes? 

Whether we find ourselves in the middle of a city or on the edge of rolling fields, wild drawing is about taking a moment to tap into and express our instinctive responses to the natural world. Crucially, the mark-making needs to be as uninhibited as possible; forgetting about outcomes can be hugely liberating, helping us to take the ego out of the driving seat and heighten our awareness of other dimensions to the landscape, other beings we’re sharing it with.

I find that whether through a few simple lines or a fully worked-up drawing, recording the natural world helps to focus our attention on our immediate experience of place and acknowledge our presence in the landscape. Pre-pandemic, so many of us spent much of our waking lives rushing around and I think that one of the positive outcomes from this period is that it has shown us how to slow down. Mark-making can play a role in supporting a more mindful pace of life as we move forward – it requires a pause and for us to check in with ourselves, even if this is only fleeting.

I’d love to hear more about the role found materials play on your wild drawing walks and how are these materials are incorporated into the work?

Whilst the majority of the time we draw with pencils, it is always fun to get the ink pots out and dip in found objects such as feathers, pebbles, leaves and twigs, playing with the kind of marks they produce. Some drawers like to work with the organic materials as if they were brushes, others use them to create patterns. This summer I’m hoping to bring sun and soil into these material experiments, for example incorporating cyanotypes and earth paints.

There is a playfulness to the work that emerges from these walks. There’s nothing self-conscious or restrained about the drawings. Do you think there is an element of renewing, or recalling, the perceptions of childhood?

Absolutely, play is such an important aspect of our relating to nature as children and a key element of wild drawing is encouraging adults to reconnect with that childlike glee of discovering the natural world. The practice is far more about how we look rather than how we draw, so on the walks we’ll be looking out for curious looking bugs, beautiful flowers, hidey-holes and trees to climb, we might pretend we’re insects exploring a leaf as our pencil follows its contours, or we might draw from the perspective of being nestled in amongst tree roots or shrubs, looking up to the canopy, and often we get the magnifying glasses out to really get up close to the textures and details of the world around us. It’s really just about embracing expressive, messy, imperfect mark-making, which children are brilliant at, and tapping into a sense of wonder. There’s a great quote by Akiko Busch that has really stayed with me since reading her book ‘How to Disappear’, which is inspiring a lot of my work in this area. She asks “Does wonder make you feel small? Or do you have to be able to feel small in order to experience wonder?” And I’m really enjoying pursuing this question in wild drawing by playing with our sense of scale and trying to remove some of the inhibitions / performative qualities we take on as adults around how we ‘ought to’ behave and move through landscapes.

I’m interested in the influence wild drawing has on our mental health and the methods you incorporate to activate the parasympathetic nerve. Could you talk a bit more about this?

I’m really interested in the field of arts in health and there is such a great deal of work already done and underway in researching how creativity supports our physical and mental wellbeing. An area I’m exploring at the moment is how I can intentionally design some of my drawing activities so that they activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the body’s rest and digestion response when the body is relaxed and basically undoes the work of sympathetic nervous system (which activates the flight/fight mode) after a stressful situation. 

I’m experimenting with a few different techniques that really focus in on drawing with the breath and have been opening workshops during this period of lockdowns and Zoom with gentle activities that link mark-making with cycles of inhalation and exhalation. Of course, there is nothing like drawing outside in a natural environment to really support a meditative state, but I’m finding these simple activities are supporting participants to transition from whatever online meeting or real-world situation they’ve just left and arrive into my workshop in feeling more present and grounded. 

How do you see wild drawing developing in the future?

This summer I will be at Orleans House Gallery on a research residency as part of their 3 year Cultural Reforesting programme, during which my primary question will centre around drawing in / of / with nature and how it might support a greater attunement with nature. 

As part of my residency I will be investigating different cultural, scientific, social and historical ways one might perceive the beautiful grounds at Orleans House through conversations with visitors and a variety of subject specialists from across science, art and religion. I’ll be listening to, learning about, and as much as possible, occupying diverse ways of looking at the gardens and the different threads of connections that can be traced within it. My intention is to allow these different disciplines to inspire the development of new wild drawing activities and walks, which I’ll be offering to the general public throughout my time on site. As I have conversations with various specialists, walking, talking and drawing in the grounds, Covid-permitting, I’ll be paying close attention to the metaphors and language that help them to conceptualise different ways of understanding our belonging to a more-than-human world. From the sacred to the scientific, this interdisciplinary research will feed into live experiments with mark-making as I explore different techniques to embody new ways of looking. In particular, I am interested in practices that challenge our egocentric view of the natural world and heighten an ecocentric awareness of the dynamism and myriad layers of connections that exist around us. What senses do we need to activate so as to find greater resonance with our surroundings?

Find out more about the project here.

Bryony Benge-Abbott is a British-Trinidadian visual artist, curator and producer working at the intersection of art and science.

Inspired by the geographical concept of place, Bryony traces human-made meanings of the natural world through space and time. Journeys into landscapes, macro and micro, are intertwined with encounters with ancestral memory, references to cultural, natural and political histories, and reflections on ecological interconnectedness. Like palimpsests, her paintings, murals and installations are created through layers, often reclaiming and overworking old paintings, studies and materials.

Alongside her studio practice, Bryony also supports clients ranging from academics, health care providers, government, cultural venues, community organisations and charities to design and deliver public realm science engagement projects. She is passionate about helping organisations meaningfully and imaginatively involve and inspire communities and public audiences in their work, and most recently led The Francis Crick Institutes’ free public exhibitions programme in central London.

Website: www.bryonybengeabbott.com
Twitter: @bryonyandbloom
Instagram: @bryonybengeabbott 


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