Barns-Graham’s simply designated ‘Line Drawings’, or latterly titled, ‘Small Energy series’, describes a large group of elegant pen and ink drawings of fine, black, undulating lines created by Barns-Graham over a period of two decades.

An exercise in line


Begun around 1975, the series followed nearly 15 years of studio-based painting of bold abstract compositions and although her painting continued to be centred on hard edge, geometric forms for some time, the line drawings indicate a desire to depart from the theme, later seen in her Expanding Forms series.

I am beginning to think more about feeling & movement. The squares them [sic] worked on for years felt too rigid. Study of wave movements were a release.

Rough notes of some thoughts on my work by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham, L.Y.C. Museum Catalogue, August 1981


WBG drawing at Balmungo, 1982. Photo: Antonia Reeve

The intensity of Barns-Graham’s approach, however, remains, attending to the drawings with the same focus she had applied to her exploration of colour and form in painting. Lynne Green writes:

The Things of a Kind Series of paintings had allowed Barns-Graham to fully explore the capacity of simple form and colour combination to convey meaning. This new series of drawings was the equivalent exercise in line.

Lynne Green, 2001, Wilhelmina Barns-Graham: a studio life, Lund Humphries, p. 213


Nature’s Flows


Throughout her career there is an ongoing dialogue in her work between outward observation and inward perception: direct drawing from life and distillation of colour and forms into abstract paintings. In her line drawings – a marrying of the two –  Barns-Graham develops lines (as opposed to squares or circles) into space whilst also capturing movement of nature’s flows: wind, water, sand, sound and even glacier formations.

I also notice in this work a link in following a rhythm, of the same width etc, & sometimes an increasing wave formation appearing, some indeed are based on wave forms.

A letter to Jane Farrington, Assistant Keeper, Manchester City Art Gallery, 7 November 1981, on Long Brown. (WBG/3/76/1)

For a session of drawing, I may exclusively use linear ideas; an abstraction of what has been observed, first drawing a grid, building up a rhythm to allow the unexpected as curves or wave lines encouraging imagination and becoming creative. These rhythms suggest flowing forms, water, grass and wind movements, or lines for the pleasure of themselves. Paul Klee suggests, ‘We take a walk with a line’.

Some collected thoughts on drawings by Wilhelmina Barns-Graham from the exhibition catalogue for W. Barns-Graham: Drawings at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, 5 June – 5 July 1992


Seas and Sounds

Drawing a Line


The flow and natural form of these works can deceive us into thinking they are entirely organically created. However, like for many of Barns-Graham’s energetic painted compositions, there can be meticulous preparation of the drawing surface, dividing the plane and laying down base colours, as seen in this unfinished example.

[Untitled], 1970s, mixed media on paper, BGT6590

Variations on a Theme


As you might expect from a series created over twenty years, there are many variations in the works from this series. At times, lines become more representational of the sea, such as Force 8, 1976, or are reduced to a bare minimum, for example, West Sands (St Andrews), 1981. At points, objects and coastlines appear, like shells and kites, or the skyline of St Andrews.

Wonderous Waves

Explore the Collection

The Small Energy drawings from the Trust’s permanent collection are available to view on our online collections pages.

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