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Harriet Bruce

Figure in waiting: Harriet Bruce

Whilst almost everyone has drawn with a biro to some degree, there are particular illustrators that push the boundaries of what is achievable using this humble writing instrument
Harriet Bruce

A confidence in her ideas...

Until surprisingly recently, the ballpoint pen has had a less than glowing reputation in the realm of art media


Whilst pioneers such as Il Lee have achieved international prominence from biro-based art and there is irrefutable proficiency in the photorealistic portraiture of James Mylne, the ballpoint is still yet to be held in the same universal regard as the paintbrush and palette. This perception is perhaps partly due to the assumption that ballpoint art is merely glorified doodles, as if the ubiquity of the Bic pen somehow negates its inclusion in art circles as a “proper” medium.

Harriet Bruce


Some of us know better, though, and it is this ubiquity which allows devotees of the ballpoint to express ideas instantaneously. If all that is required to articulate an idea is paper and a pen which is found in every home, office and college, none of the creative urge is lost in the process of arranging and preparing a medium. Whilst almost everyone has drawn with a biro to some degree, there are particular illustrators that push the boundaries of what is achievable using this humble writing instrument. Harriet Bruce, an Oxonian now living in Dublin, is certainly one of these. Placing her focus on figures over scenes and concept over context, her extensive works walk the line between the uncanny and the everyday, conveying universal experience through surreal imagery and floating characters. Harriet has studied, lived and worked in Oxford, Falmouth and Paris as well as in Ireland, and as I spoke to her on a “miserable” day in Dublin, she explained how this unsettled lifestyle has shaped her remarkable style, originating from ballpoint illustration.

“I think the main thing about it, when it comes to drawing, isn’t the culture of each place but the travelling periods” she begins. “A lot of what I record is people at bus stops, or sleeping, and I tend to explore this idea of travelling as a liminal stage between places. That’s been the basis of my journaling, and that has unwittingly become the basis for all my work. Every single figure drawing has come from a figure that I’ve captured en route to somewhere else”.

Harriet’s speech is lucid and unflinching, rarely pausing to correct herself or rethink a sentence. She portrays a confidence in her ideas which, in my experience, is rare amongst artists. I ask why she finds the “person in transit” so interesting.

“You see them relaxed, but it’s not relaxed in the sense of being happy or being entirely at ease, it’s when someone’s completely in their element. When you’re waiting for something, that’s when you’re at your most interesting. You’re holding everything in your face or your pose, and that’s something I really love. It's the ‘figure in waiting’, and you see that on journeys most. People waiting for buses, waiting for planes.”

It’s an intriguing concept, but I’m curious to learn how Harriet learned the technique of drawing these transitory figures using lines.

“When I was in Paris, I learned from a guy called Loic Sécheresse. He's quite a well-known illustrator; he's worked alongside Charlie Hebdo and prolific comic book artists that specialise in the freedom of line and loose style. He talked to me about the 'weight' of figures, and that it's not really about what they look like, or getting a naturalistic image, it's about capturing that suspended or temporary weight, the slant of somebody leaning against a wall. You can capture that in one line… so for about 3 months he refused any detailed drawings and said "you're only allowed to capture a figure with one line". I have books and books full of just lines, until you start realising the line captures, say, somebody in a slump or the way that they're back is arched, or when you see their spinal column coming through their back. You know Egon Schiele? He could get that all in one line but it's about the strength of that one line. When I was travelling to Paris, or back home, I had so much time to focus on that shape, and that's what has really influenced my detailed work now. There's a lot more focus on the expression of the body, rather than actually capturing realistic detail.”

If emphasis is to be placed on the overall impression of a figure, rather than authentic replication of edges and contours, it may sound counter-productive to use an instrument that inherently produces distinct lines. This may be the case, but for Harriet, the permanence of the biro’s mark forces a certain degree of technical discipline, which in turn leads to greater artistic freedom. Once you know the rules, you can break them.

“If I'm going to do a super-detailed drawing I'll never use pencil to sketch it out. You work detail to detail, and the biro pen forces you to look at your subject, because if you make a mistake you can't rub it out, you have to keep going. That's what's so great when you're doing a large-scale drawing: you work feature to feature and detail to detail, and often you don't truly realise what you're drawing until it's finished. You were just drawing a line next to a line next to a line, and 12 hours later you stand back and you have this image in front of you. I didn't realise that way of working until I was at Falmouth and had the time to give 24 hours to one drawing. The ballpoint pen facilitates that.”

Harriet’s images are often accompanied by handwritten phrases, and her biography tells me that she’s “influenced by text, possibly more so than imagery”. I ask her to elaborate on what this means.

“It's very easy to be a 'quote collector'. When you're reading and something jumps out to you, obviously you want to write it down, and I've got books and books full of those 'deep and meaningful' quotes that I like to think about, but what it does lend itself to is drawing ideas about the metaphysical. I like to grapple with the larger ideas, because I find my daily life too close and suffocating to express. It’s quite nice to escape into a bigger idea. When I'm reading, for instance, I can take the idea in front of me and illustrate it in my own way; I can apply it to my own personal life. I think that's where the text really comes in, because there's no visual stimulus. It's not like it's been done before, it's a completely blank canvas which you can then illustrate in any way you want. It provides an opportunity for true originality.”

It’s certainly paying off, as Harriet’s expertise is being utilised by everyone from the Barbican to Shakespeare & Company in Paris. As we wind up our conversation, I ask what other plans she has on the horizon.

“I've just got into a printing studio here in Temple Bar, Dublin called Black Church and they have a show coming up at the beginning of November. Hopefully that'll be the next released project. I’m also collaborating with We Are Islanders, which is an art-driven fashion project. Rosie o’Reilly, the designer, is looking at tidal patterns and ways of creating fabrics and garments that reflect an Irish coastal scene. I spent a couple of days with her and we ended up collaborating on some ideas around the search for the island of ‘Hy-Brasil’ that drifts in an out of existence somewhere off the coast of Ireland. She invited me to London Fashion Week for the ‘Unfold’ show room, and I did some live illustration there too. I also took one of her images from a photoshoot and developed that into a fashion illustration that's now being made into a small animation. It’s so exciting to see my work printed and published in that way.”

With images as striking as the ones on display here, it’s hardly surprising. To see Harriet’s portfolio of work in ballpoint and other media, visit her website.


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