Don’t tell me you can't draw

Paula Rego is on a mission to bring out the inner artist in all of us. Enthusiastic amateur Arifa Akbar puts pen to paper for a personal tutorial at the painter’s studio
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The Independent Culture

Paula Rego has just put the kettle on and motioned for me to sit down in her north London studio so that she can tell me an ancient Portuguese folk tale. She is considered by many to be the “writer’s artist”, and all around us there is the creative detritus of someone who is absorbed in the seductive art of storytelling: in one room there are masks and papier-mâché dolls, stuffed toy animals and a bright pink model of a human foetus. In another, there are costumes of admirals, brides and scarecrows and a wall lined with pencil drawings containing the sort of fantastical characters that a modern-day Alice might encounter at the other end of a rabbit hole.

I enter into Rego’s imaginative world as she lowers her voice to begin her tale. “There once lived a woodcutter who went out one day. While hewas away, his wife realised they had run out of food and she had nothing to feed her husband or children. She didn’t want him to go hungry so she cut off her right breast and cooked it for him to eat.

“When he came home, he sat down to the meal and ate everything. The next day, they were still out of food so, in desperation, she cut off her left breast to feed to him. “When he came home, he saw she no longer had any breasts. He asked her why, and she told him that she had cooked them because there was nothing else for him to eat. He sighed, and said nowthat both breasts had been eaten, she would have to start on the children.” Rego pauses after delivering the final line, then presents me with a blank page, and with a gentle pat on the back, asks me illustrate the story in what will become the first drawing of my adult life.

Rego is on a mission to inspire the country to draw, and today she is starting with me. The Portuguese-born artist, whose work is currently the subject of a major retrospective at Madrid’s Reina Sofia museum, is an ardent supporter of anational campaign, The Big Draw, which runs every October and encourages adults as well as children to put pencil to paper.

The exercise in her studio is aimed at reinvigorating my deeply dormant artistic impulses and the macabre story was her idea. She tells me that whenever she falls short of inspiration, she often turns to the written word, having spent several years in the 1970s reading folk tales in the British Library. “When I get stuck, I re-read the stories sometimes,” she says, handing me a soft pencil before leaving me to the creative wilderness of the blank page in front of me. Moments earlier, Rego and I had been discussing whether the dominance of conceptual art in recent decades had dented the nation’s desire for drawing and turned our creative appetite towards a more cerebral, linguistic form of art.

While Rego disagreed, I wasn’t so sure. Sitting at her table, my overriding impulse was to write stage directions, create speech bubbles and drawstick figures in a halting effort to communicate ideas through sketching. But I resisted, and to my surprise, I gradually become absorbed in the liberating, language-free universe of forms, lines, shades and tones.

Half an hour later, Rego is staring kindly at my finished work while I find myself bemused by some elements in it. “It is often surprising what you find in your own work,” says Rego reassuringly. She firmly believes that the hand is led to draw by a creative impulse, and it can produce the most startling results. She has lost herself in the creation of an artwork many times only to discover her innermost feelings illustrated in the final piece.

“It takes you outside yourself. You don’t have to rummage around for what you are feeling. But in the end, what you find on the paper is all about how you feel.” The biggest lesson that drawing teaches you, she says, is to “see”. “When you learn to draw, you learn to see. When you learn to see, you begin to see things you did not realise were there. You discover all kinds of things when you really look.”

I begin to look. I peer intently at Rego, at her charismatic eyes and her expressive face, which does not begin to reveal her 72 years. I look at the rough, high-ceilinged edges of her two studio rooms and the riot of costumes and props that fill her creative factory. There are stuffed Victorian dolls she picked up at the antique market off Upper Street in north London years ago, a nylon leopard-print skirt she bought at Oxfam and a plastic sheep’s head abandoned under the table.

As I look, new things begin to emerge. There are models of trees with stuffed stockings designed to look like penises hanging off the branches and a mask whose features resemble those of Amy Winehouse. Another mask looks like David Beckham. Rego tells me that she makes many of the “creatures” that appear in her work, and the studio’s bric-à-brac serves as a visual archive.

Rego believes that we can all draw if we have a story to tell, (“my husband used to say you could learn to draw in six weeks!” she exclaims,) but her own artistic training was rigorous and highly traditional. She went to the Slade School of Art in Londonwhile still in her teens, where she met the artist Victor Willing, who later became her husband. But after years of disciplined practice as a student, she found herself “stuck”.

“After I left the Slade, I said to my husband, I don’t know what the hell to do, and he said ‘draw still life’. But I said: ‘I don’t want to draw fruit, I’m not Cézanne.’ So he said: ‘Why don’t you tell stories from your head?’ That’s what I did; some were political, some were erotic,” she says.

During the 1970s, she was associated with the London Group of artists, which included David Hockney and RB Kitaj, who died this month, and whom she credits as reviving the art world’s interest in drawing some decades ago. Things are different now, she feels. Although drawing is by no means dead in our current artistic climate, Rego has picked up worrying signs, such as a shift away from traditional life drawing classes in art schools, which she deems “criminal”.

“I went to Frieze this year but I didn’t see much drawing there,” she says morosely, but brightens when she remembers the presence ofJake and Dinos Chapman at the fair, who have in the past altered a set of etchings by the Spanish master Goya, to add funny faces.

“I like the Chapmans. I like the way they draw all over Goya’s work. I don’t mind that because it involves drawing and I don’t know many people who draw.”

While Rego is undeniably interested in storytelling – her inspiration ranges from Beatrix Potter’s books to Jane Eyre – her work is also heavily political, such as her Abortion series, which helped to overturn Portugal’s anti-abortion legislation, and her latest unfinished work, entitled Human Cargo, focusing on the women involved in sex trafficking.

“I read these women’s stories in the newspapers. They bring the girls here and they sell themfor sex. They have to sleep with hundreds of men a night. So I have shown them in the park, with willies hanging off the trees so they can practise,” she says.

Referring back to the tale that inspired my drawing, Rego says these often uncomfortable narratives do not offer a flight from reality but a confrontation with its darker aspects.

“Fairy tales are pretty grim, like people’s lives. The story I told you about the woman and her breasts has everything: poverty, the woman’s idea of being obedient to her husband, serving him at the cost of herself.”

Another series of pictures in the studio depict a daugther being murdered by her father, who has also coerced his two younger daughters into taking part in the crime.

“It is based on a 19th-century Portuguese novel and it shows how important the father’s sense of honour was in the family. If they didn’t want their daugthers to marry someone they didn’t approve of, they would rather kill them.

It is about 19th-century Portugal but it goes on and on. Things don’t always change that much,” she says.

Pointing to a recently finished work resting against the wall, which combines her characteristic fantasy elements with sinister, even darkly comical aspects, she asks me to look and describe what I see.

It is the picture of a young artist staring with some horror at a future vision of herself, as an emaciated old woman who is already part skeleton and has a shrivelled penis hanging around her gnarled body. I ask if this is a nightmarish self-portrait, a study of the young, fresh-faced Rego staring at the wizened future version.

“It is a self-portrait of the artist but also the thing that awaits us all – the droopy tit.” There is a sombre pause before she breaks into a fit of giggles and bustles towards another picture to tell me the curious story behind it.

By the end of my hour-long class, the Turner Prize-nominated artist who won the heart of Charles Saatchi in the 1990s and is believed to have influenced the likes of Tracey Emin, has worked her magic on me. I am intoxicated by the idea of drawing for an instant creative high, although the fervour fades as I leave Rego and her wondrous artist’s grotto.

But true to my promise to her, I have sketched since, and while I cannot strive to be a Cézanne, or a Rego, she may yet have bewitched me into expressing my inner storyteller.