I spent a long time on this Part for Drawing 1 Part 4, doing life drawing classes with Kieran Stiles (with whom I have done many life drawing classes before starting the degree course, as well as other local artists) as well as working through Brague plates. During the life classes I learnt to use an interesting range of media in life drawing, including chalk, candle wax (as a way of resisting watercolour), acryllic and gouache, oil sticks, charcoal and graphite, as well as pencil. I definitely improved greatly during this time – this topic being perhaps my weakest before starting to draw – but I can see that continual practice is needed to maintain any sort of capacity to represent the human form, which is surely the most difficult genre of painting.
Project. Observing the Human Figure
This time I approach this topic in national lockdown, so I am not going to be able to do life drawing classes, and as we are literally not allowed to have anybody in the house, it looks as if I will be restricted to painting from photographs or videos, myself, or my partner Pedro, who featured heavily in my work for Drawing 1. During that course I was also able to use my teenage son as a model, but he is away at university now. I can continue to paint Pedro of course, and it is true that I did not consider any of the results last time very satisfactory, but he has a very distinctive form (slightly stereotypical for a Spanish man of his age) and I will clearly need to seek more variation than that. So I will need to be imaginative in locating subjects from digital media.
Exercise. Linear figure study.
For this Exercise, I started with a figure from the New Masters Academy channel on YouTube. This organisation provides streaming services for people wishing to learn to draw and paint, which are quite expensive and not what I want to do on top of my course fees, but they do (as I discovered during Drawing 1) provide some timed poses with models for free. This time I worked out how to get them onto a large screen in my office, which was very helpful for drawing although less so for painting. The various poses are timed to mimic a real life drawing class, but I paused the one I wanted to use as below, for the purposes of this Exercise.
This is the drawing. It was strange to be drawing again, and reminded me of all the challenges of life drawing. The video image on the last screen worked alright, in that it was bigger than life size so that you still had to measure – and that is where I went wrong, indeed it reminded me that wherever you think you can dispense with measuring, you cannot. The legs are too long, the torso too short, and the whole figure is not wide enough. As a reminder of how difficult it is to draw the human figure, it was useful, however.
Next I worked on the same image, but this time I painted it in heavily diluted acrylic paint, burnt umber. Here it really felt like starting from scratch, because although I had done many life drawing classes using paint media, it was usually with a pencil or charcoal drawing to start with, so I don’t know that I have ever attempted a line drawing with paint before. I have done painting classes with the artist Josephine Lyons with models – but here the idea was to build up a complete painted image, so again different.
The form is better than the last one, in that the relation between torso and legs is more balanced, but it is still too narrow (his feet are too small). I need a rule of thumb for working this out. I don’t like the way there is a hard line around the figure, which once there was impossible to eradicate – I realised only afterwards that I should – of course – have painted the paper first, even if in white, so that I could have eradicated the line or lightened it to indicate where the skin is indeed paler to the edge. This is not something that is necessary with pencil and paper.
Next I tried a female figure lying down, also from the New Masters YouTube channel. the women figures on this channel are quite often impossibly thin and striking incongruous poses, so I wanted someone who was more well rounded and in a more habitual sort of position. This is the result.
I am quite pleased with this image – not because it is a good drawing, because it wasn’t – also, I have tried to make her fatter than she actually is, which hasn’t always worked, although the foreshortening of the legs is not too bad. Looking back at this for the blog I realise that the floor to the left is sloping off to the left, which makes it look as if she is on a sort of hill. I also dislike the too sharp brown edge, from an initial outline in brown, which I have tried to remove but I realise still shows through. What I really like here though is the blueish wash (this is acrylic paint, heavily diluted – the colours were naples yellow, cobalt blue, burnt umber and raw sienna – on an A3 moleskine sketchbook for oil painting) that I used. The model has a slightly blueish tinge to her skin anyway, which I have exaggerated. I do really like the effect this has created, which has also made the belly shine out and appear more three dimensional, although this is spoilt by the shadow across the groin being too dark. The problem that I realised with the diluted acrylic wash is that it has all the disadvantages of water colour, particularly in that you can’t go back to something lighter (if as, once again, you have not painted the background which of course I now wish I had, although I like the way that the paper of my sketchbook shows through). Reading the course introduction, I realise that I should get some flow improver and also experiment with gesso.
Exercise. Tonal Figure
For this Exercise, I chose another figure from the New Masters Academy videos, trying out a couple of the poses in charcoal before settling on a different woman who was this time seated on the ground, half hugging her knees but with the other arm extended along her leg all the way to her feet. One of the things that I liked about this image – other than that the pose is vaguely believable, in that it doesn’t look as if it would be agony to maintain – is that the woman looks like a real, modern day woman – her face and upper arms are somewhat brown and weathered, whereas her legs and lower body are ghostly white. It also had light and dark areas and a sense of shadow and light in the image and background, which The videos are timed so that you can do lightening sketches or longer poses as you please – but of course you can pause it. So this woman was on one of my tabs for four days, available at any point at which I could snatch some time to work on it, not something you would have the luxury of in a life drawing class, I suppose.
I tried to do this exercise as instructed, drawing the figure in soft pencil in my sketchbook first, and also trying to indicate the main shapes in another drawing, as below. I was reasonably pleased with the drawing at the time, but looking back on it her torso looks rather overly rounded, and her right leg in particularly looks tiny. And there isn’t the same sense of her leaning into her knees that I feel like you get from the original image. It has also got rather confused by the charcoal reflection of the drawing on the opposite page. However, it felt like a reasonable start for moving towards the painting.
I then moved onto a painting on A4 board. I prepared the board by painting it a murky purple (combination of burnt umber, cobalt blue and titanium white). I know that the instructions say a mid-tone earthy colour, and I see that this is often a good thing to do. However, in this case looking at the figure I decided that this was quite a cold image. The woman looks rather despondent, hiding her face (so you cannot see what her mouth is doing), hunched up against herself on one side, and appearing limp on the other (rather than some kind of positive relishing of her elegant limbs). Her skin is a kind of pearly white or cold pink, with dark. bluish shadows (under the thighs, for example), and there are no trappings here which suggest warmth or positivity.
I drew the figure in a pale diluted naples yellow, to avoid the problem I had in the two previous images of a harsh outline. I then started to build up the colour, using cobalt blue, burnt umber, naples yellow, pale terracotta, a cadmium yellow (which didn’t get used much I think), raw sienna and titanium white. As I worked came the growing realisation that the right leg (and most of all arm) was impossibly long, so I brutally reduced it. I painted a darker shade of purple in areas where there were shadow, and tried to capture both the darker shade of skin on some parts of the body, and the areas where it was in shadow.
Unfortunately I forgot to take a photo graph in the earliest stages, so this is after major foot/leg surgery, on the right leg. I tried to measure this time, but somehow it always went wrong – I think perhaps both the image and the painting were too small for measuring proportions really to work well. The face is too dark here, and also the lower part of the face (which you cannot see in the video) is all wrong, too shallow. The painting also looks very yellow, which it didn’t look like in real life – too much naples yellow showing through I suppose, and there is some coagulated paint on the thigh which is out of line with the smoothness of the skin. Something has gone extremely wrong with the neck, and both feet, and the lines around the image are rather fuzzy, due to low quality brushes and too-thick paint.
In this version I have tried to correct these mistakes. I have replaced yellow with very pale terracotta. and darkened the shadows. I have given a little more detail to the feet and tried to correct the neck, with a more mystery in the face as in the video. I diluted some paint to give a smoother outline and inserted a hair band.
I am more pleased with this image. The colour is better, although the left knee and right leg still seem to be too white to me, or somehow jarring. I think a pale grey could have been better for the lighter areas of the skin, with a touch of blue as well as the pale terracotta. ,Overall I think the naples yellow had a pervasive and not necessarily beneficial effect, although it is the case that it looks better in real life than it does here in the photograph. The hair is not good – I need to learn how to paint hair. The horizon line is not straight and the shadows could be dark I think, especially between the legs. I am reasonably happy with the face, and the upper arm on her left side, which has a pleasing three dimensional appearance (the area under the arm is not too bad either). Overall, in spite of its very many faults, there is a pleasing flow with the shapes within the image – the triangle that I drew to start with really helped here I think. The horizon line till looks crooked, but I think this is the photograph rather than the actual painting – and either way I will make one more attempt to correct it.
Project. Looking at Faces.
I looked forward to this part of Part 3, because – like most people – I love looking at people’s faces. It is fascinating to think about what they tell you – and do not tell you – about a person – such as where they come from, how old they are and what kind of life they lead, or have led – and how they change in response to mood or exogenous events, or of course to time. Perhaps faces have an even greater interest for any of us who work online during these days of the pandemic, because it is all that we see of people these days, in the little boxes of Zoom. I am often trying to draw them during meetings – the paradoxical problem being that the larger the meeting (and the greater the chance that you will get time between speaking to be drawing) – the smaller the boxes, whereas in small meetings where people take up a large proportion of the screen in nice clear detail, you have little opportunity to stay silent for long enough to draw them.
What is sad about embarking on this part of the course is that in spite of having various friends who would probably put up with sitting for a portrait – in these lonely days of the pandemic I will be mostly relying on my own image – a very different story in terms of how I feel about portraits – or digital images (which of course, is also reflective of real life in these strange times).
Research Point 1. Artists’ Self Portraits.
I started this research point with Lucian Freud, a painter that I did not used to like so much, but really started to admire rather obsessively after going to an exhibition of his work at the Royal Academy in 2020, in those halcyon days when you could still go to exhibitions (in fact the exhibition was extended, and I went a couple of weeks before lock down).
Lucian Freud, 1963, Man’s Head (Self Portrait I) Oil on canvas, 53.3×50.8 cm, The Whitworth, The University of Manchester.
I love this image – I like the way that the face is depicted as a series of planes, in almost a sculpted, cubist style. I like the colour frame – the uniformity of colour for background and face (an earlier version of the portrait I did above was like this with the background almost the same shade of orange-y brown as the face, and in retrospect I should have left it like that). I like the haughty image (actually I think Freud was quite haughty), which you realised upon visiting the exhibition was because he was looking down on a mirror – he used to keep lots of mirrors in his studio to place at odd angles to his face and paint. I copied this image in Part 4 of Drawing 1, which was relatively easy, and then tried to draw my own face in this way – which I found impossible. I do not suppose that it is any easier to paint my own image like this, but I am going to try, I think.
Another self-portrait that also illustrates the planes in the face really well is this rather different image by Van Gogh, which I saw in the exhibition Van Gogh and Britain at Tate Britain, 27th March – 11th August, 2019.
Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait Autumn 1889 National Gallery of Art, Washington. Collection of Mr and Mrs John Hay Whitney, 1998.74.5
This is a lovely painting, . Again the planes in the face show clearly – also the angles – and you see what an angular face he must have had. The skin has an almost translucent appearance – there is a raw, vulnerable quality that you feel – at least if you combine this image with the knowledge we have of his state of mind – is reflected in his own character and mental vulnerability indeed, checking the dates reveals that this was painted shortly before his death. Apparently he painted over 30 self-portraits in his life – this seems to me one of the most interesting. I like the way the background – reminiscent of Starry Night and other paintings – is a finer version of his coat, while also picking up the colour of his eyes. These seem almost to be staring inwards, rather than at his own external image. It is not a calm image at all, in fact disturbing – but at the same time there are many details that draw you towards it – the attractive blue colour and the complementary orange of the hair and beard, the strange angle of the palette and his thumb, so that you have to work out what it is. I also like the green tinge of the skin – some people’s skin does have a green tinge indeed, which always looks as if it reflects ill health but I am not sure that it does, exactly. When you look closely at the jacket and the background you realise that there is green interwoven here too, so the colour adds to the general attractiveness of the image.
The third self portrait is by one of my favourite painters, Odilon Redon (1840-1916). When I looked at this I had already started on the second of my attempts at a self-portrait below, and I thought of Redon because of the blue and orange of the shirt, and the mystical painting of a boat with a burst of blue and orange (I think it is called flower clouds). Also the looming head over on the right made me think of his strange disembodied heads in some of his paintings, something to think about for the rest of this Part.
This self-portrait, however, is quite straight and simple. It is brilliant though – I love the dark light contrast on the two sides of the head, and the clearly shown planes at the front and to the side of his face. You can barely see the face on the left side or the mouth yet you feel like you know what it looks like. For the shoulders and chest – you hardly know if there is anything painted at all – but again you feel you know what is there. Of course it may be that looking at the real version you can see more – the lighting in reproductions often creates quite different images. But still, it is a very dark image and the more I look at it, the more I like it. It reminds me of those drawings of Picasso’s where he would draw (for example) just the minimal line for the head and then a plait of hair hanging down the girl’s back, and you would suddenly realise you had seen the back even thought it was not drawn ( I remember having this experience in Bristol art gallery as a student, but I don’t know if it was an exhibition or the permanent collection, I have never been able to find it since). The way that the face is presented makes the viewer focus in on the accuracy of the nose, the depth of the eye, the few simple lines that give some indication of the age (the wrinkle on the eyelid for example) and appearance of the subject.
Finally, this self-portrait is by an artist whose name I don’t know, although I am trying to find out. I saw his exhibition in Rio de Janeiro when I was there for work for a few days, several years ago, and this was the image used for the poster of the exhibition. Although I took many photographs there which I have found on my phone, but stupidly I did not photograph the description labels, as I always do these days since I started this degree course. I liked much of his work but this one in particular – the way that the image appears almost sculpted out of the thick paint, the penetrating stare of the eyes and the strange angle of the face. It is in fact a monochrome painting, in that it is just red and green/black, yet the effective use of colour contrast means that it leaps out of the frame.
I did this self-portrait from Zoom, in a meeting by myself, which seemed an easier way to do it than a mirror, especially as I don’t seem to have the right sort of mirror that can be easily propped up to look into. I captured an image looking slightly to the side, to avoid a full frontal image and after several experiments with different expressions, tried for a sort of wry smile which is what I think I quite often have on my face.
I used a wooden board, and painted it Naples yellow to start with. I had the intention at first to go for the Lucian Freud look in the self-portrait above, but in the progression of images below you can see that this slowly degenerated in a more careful attempt to capture the image – too careful indeed, and I am not at all happy with the final result.
Looking at this image I realised that several things had gone wrong. The eyes were too high up, too close together and the right one too high, however hard I tried to argue to myself that it was the angle of the head. The chin was too deep and the face too asymmetrical and distorted on the right of the image. The eye brows were too heavy. I painted over the eyes completely, and started again with those and kind of chiselled away at the shape of the face. I painted in the shirt a bit, and deepened the terracotta colour of the background.
So here is the final image, for now at least.
It is better than it was before, but I was deeply dissatisfied with this image, after spending what felt like quite a long time on it. The eyes are a bit better now, but there is something wrong with the nose which I need to correct. I believe that the forehead is too deep and not wide enough, although I had tried to correct this during the painting. The eyebrows are still too dark, although that is rather easily fixed. I kept thinking I had the mouth right at last, but looking at it now it looks sadder than the image. And the whole thing has a rather dead feel, it is not a lively or even somehow living picture at all. That is it is just too flat, not three dimensional at all.
The only thing I was satisfied with were the colours. I like the combination of terracotta (the only thing I managed to bring through from the Freud image) background and blue shirt, and I like the way that both colours are picked up in the skin of the cheeks and the neck. It has got a little heavy on the face (actually part of the image I was using does have very dark shadows, but it is hard to portray these as distinct from the hair without going too light).
I showed the image to my partner as suggested in the Exercise, and he said that I didn’t look very happy and that sometimes was it better to start again? This was not a very sympathetic analysis of my efforts, but I decided it was more or less right, and that I should try again.
Research Point 2. Mood and Atmosphere
I looked here at Michael Borremans, an artist that I didn’t know before starting the course, but had been recommended by my tutor in Drawing 1. I was particularly drawn to this ghostly image:
It is apparently a girl lying down, wearing a mask – except, you are not quite sure if it is a mask, seems too realistic for that, and yet you can see the edge. It may possibly be an idea developed further in his 2013 painting The Angel. I love the angle of this, and the way the head comes out of the pillow and the general eerie unreality of it. It reminds me a bit of the paintings I looked at by Bo Ritson. Like many of his images, it is somewhat unsettling, but you are drawn into its technical brilliance and enigmatic narrative; as Herbert (2015) put it ‘The archetypal Borremans painting is a seductive enigma, a bouillabaisse of specificity, obscurity, anxiety, humour and great technique’ and as such, even though in real life a small image, this is archetypal.
In a completely different way, Redon also painted enigmatic paintings, from dark spiders with tearful human faces to beautiful explosions of flowers. As Redon himself put it: ‘My drawings inspire and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.’ Various of his paintings depict strange faces floating in the air, apparently something to do with dreams, representing either the dreamer or the dreamt. I love this haunting image Closed Eyes, with the simple beauty of contrasting colours – it should be peaceful, but somehow it is very sad.
Odilon Redon (1840-1916) Closed Eyes1890Oil on canvasH. 44; W. 36 cmParis, Musée d’Orsay.
Or this even darker image where a winged head floats over the sea.
Redon, 1878, Tears. See https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/odilon-redon/
This latter painting was apparently painted on his return from the Franco-Prussian war ‘with a headful of bad dreams’ . This is an extremely unsettling image, and makes one think immediately of death and misery, particularly with the grim face of the winged head (see https://arthistoryproject.com/artists/odilon-redon/, .The faces we see in our dreams’.)
Exercise. Creating Mood and Atmosphere
For this exercise, I took the image by Michael Borremans above as a starting point. I wanted to paint myself lying down with this kind of mask like appearance. I took some photographs lying down from the front and the side, with a strong light from above/to the side. I wanted to get something of the dark light contrast as in the self portrait by Redon above. I also wanted to have some kind of other image as a kind of alter ego or judgemental conscience in the painting too. So on the right in the image below, I painting a sideways version of my image, from the side. The idea was that sometimes when one can’t sleep and lies awake in the dark worrying about things that didn’t feel so bad during the day, it is like there is another version of oneself looking on and reminding one of disturbing things. Such disturbed thinking might be exacerbated, as some psychologists have pointed out, our current online existence, particularly on Zoom where the default is to stare at oneself at the same size as everyone else during a meeting which in real life would be like carrying a life size mirror around all day at work. The version of oneself that one carries around inside, however, has I believe a more powerful effect.
This is the first attempt – or at least it isn’t, but I am afraid that I took no photographs during the early stages. I painted a wooden board (MDF I think) with two coats of white gesso, and started to paint the images, using acrylic paint and highly diluted acrylic for the background and the darker parts. I struggled a lot to get the dark side of the face look actually present, and to avoid the shadow not being just a dark line across the face which somehow it isn’t in the photograph. What I have really not achieved here is the three dimensionality of the Borremans masked figure – and when I look at the photograph I realise that I wasn’t actually lying properly – seems as if my head is propped against the cushion. For the alter ego, I used another photograph of myself, closer too, from the side, although this started wrong, I can see now – the nose is too long, even for mine – although I guess alter egos do not need to be exactly representative.
I continued in this vein, although looking back I feel this might have been one of the higher spots of the painting. The next one I have at least corrected the mad eyes, and toned down the disproportionality of the alter ego. I quite like the dark veiled effect of the diluted acrylic on the gesso surface which feels a little like darkness, although that is about all I do like. Also, I am wondering if I have used the gesso correctly, as it seems quite hard to paint on and gets very wet, almost spongy.
Finally, the next two images represent the final stage of the process, or at least at the stage at which I gave up. I include them both only because the alter ego is better in the second (I have corrected the nose) whereas the person is better here – more waxy and artificial looking and a good contrast with the other figure, whereas at the end I went too dark. Quite why I did not notice the mad eyes (the right lower than the left) before is a mystery to me.
I do think that I learnt something in this process, mostly about what not to do. For once. I had thought about it in advance and had some ideas about what I wanted to achieve. But I think it was far too ambitious for this exercise – and if I was going to attempt it, I should have thought a lot more about how I wanted to achieve them before putting brush to board.
Exercise. Conveying Character.
I have tried to paint a portrait to portray a character once before, long before I started the OCA course, indeed it was the first human face that I painted outside of an actual class. This is the result (please forgive the reflections on the glass, it is framed, not because it is good but because it was the first – which actually create a really interesting effect, something to think about for the future!):
It is interesting to look back at this. This is Joselito, my partner’s brother’s ex-wife’s father (which in a village in rural Murcia is quite a close relation). He grew up in Franco’s Spain in a rudimentary house built out of a cave, with 12 siblings, mostly brothers and had no education (he still cannot really read or write). His first job was making baskets from reeds at the side of the river, and he gradually worked up a kind of business empire, via a bar and fruit orchards and various other dealings. When his wife Rosario died in the late 1990s, he established a new liaison with a woman (Mercedes) from Blanca, the local small town. It seemed at the time that she was good for him, although he had to smarten up and wear formal clothes and buy a flat in Blanca overlooking the square. But in the end she got sick with cancer and died, and it turned out that she and her sisters had managed to arrange things so that quite a bit of his fortune went to her sisters on her death (although he was the savviest person you could imagine for business dealings, it was quite easy to fool him on legal matters due to his illiteracy). Endless legal wranglings followed, and this is him at this time. I was trying to capture his look – the normally strong, even powerful (he was by some way the richest man in the village) ‘king of his domain’, overlaid with confusion and worry, possibly hurt – although I am not so sure about that – his capability for this kind of emotion was probably constrained by his brutal upbringing. Clearly the painting is poor, I had no idea what I was doing really but I feel like something of that look is there, he looks a little lost.
For this exercise though, I am presenting a portrait I painted of a friend of mine as a present for her birthday, during the course but not explicitly for this exercise. It is however the most sustained attempt I have ever had at painting a portrait. It is from a photograph – it was supposed to be a surprise – and inevitably, given that it was a present – it is a little flattering. That is, it was taken from a photograph from a few years before that was in itself a particularly nice photograph. Although clearly I thought a lot about it at the time, because I wasn’t doing it for an exercise or an assignment, I have never actually reflected on the experience from an artistic, painterly point of view so I thought it would be useful to do so here.
In spite of the obvious weaknesses of the image (particularly the hair ) – and most importantly, the lack of any attempt to tackle light (and to some extent, tone) I do think this conveys character. Joni is a very, very strong character; an American academic, a professor of gender and politics. She is a mixture of so many contradictions. For example, she holds strong political views and is a fierce defender of women’s rights yet is very much the sybarite, a connoisseur of good food, good wine, beautiful houses, expensive clothes, and gardening. She is hugely gregarious, a great initiator and cultivator of friendships with people of all ages – nothing gives here greater pleasure to collect a group of them around her dinner table, at least this was so when she was younger. She has an incredible sense of fun and mischief. Yet she can be somewhat challenging, bitter, bullying and irritable – her behaviour with staff in restaurants is particularly forceful (it isn’t helped by her increasing deafness). She is interested in everything – yet can be very dismissive of others’ views and interests.
All that made painting her a challenge, although I had my decision made for me to some extent; clearly I wanted to stress the positive side, given that it was intended to make her happy as a present rather than not.
I don’t have photographs of the earliest stages (I think I do but I just cannot find them) – this is the first. But looking at this makes me realise what I learnt from doing this; whatever else is wrong with it – the ears, the hair, the forehead is too high – the mouth is somehow right. It may not be exactly her mouth but the generosity and shape of it and the corners on the verge of an upturn is giving the effect I wanted. I thought it would be the eyes – and I worked hard on these – that gave the defining expression, but it isn’t. Indeed although I repainted and indeed redrew (with paint) the nose, the area underneath – really everything – several times in the early stages, I painted the line of the mouth early on and took great care to leave it – it felt right when nothing else did – and I feel it is vital to the painting.
As so often for me, I feel this early version should maybe have stayed as it was, perhaps it was the high spot (although clearly the hair and ears are really awful and there are key corrections to make and the yellow background is showing through). I like the dislocated face and hand – this is all that is needed to get across what I wanted. Since looking at Lucian Freud’s ‘unfinished’ self-portraits – where he paints in great detail just part of the face – or indeed the local artist Kieran Stiles with whom I sometimes take classes, and has been using this technique lately, I increasingly like this kind of effect. However, as usual I carried on regardless and here are the later stages.
I don’t know what came over me with this background, to some extent I think it has ruined the image. It is trying too hard (which, incidentally, is how I quite often feel when I am with this friend on our own – I think she bullies me a bit). Less is more, for backgrounds at this stage. However, despite all the weaknesses, and the flattering nature of the enterprise, I think it has something of her brave spirit, it shows one side of her personality. This is the cheerful, interested, gregarious, fiercely intelligent, determined side, with a wicked sense of humour. It has left aside her somewhat cantankerous, forceful, aggrieved side. I have realised for the first time that this is what portraits can do. They can convey whatever the artist wishes, maybe one dimension of a person at a time, which is of course how we see people in real life? When you are with a friend demonstrating a certain facet of their personality that you love or like, you forget about those sides which you find difficult or hate. And likewise, when they are being really rude to a waiter in a restaurant you literally just sat down in, you find it hard to remember why you are there. Perhaps, indeed portraits can only do this – it is not possible to encapsulate everything, particularly if you know someone well, which is also come to think about it why self-portraits are so, so difficult. As Graham Sutherland said to Winston Churchill at the first sitting for his portrait (well, reputedly, I am using the Netflix series the Crown as my reference here) ‘I am sure there are many Mr Churchills. I can only paint one of them’, and, when Churchill offered to put himself in some kind of pose to represent himself – ‘I find that in general people have very little idea of who they are’ (another reason why self-portraits are so hard). The portrait he painted of course emphasized the age, frailty and weakness of Churchill around the time of his 80th birthday and at his point of – reluctantly – standing down, and he hated it so much his wife had it burnt a few months later, tragic to think of when you look at images of it, it is a masterpiece.
Research Point 3. Figures in an Interior.
For this exercise, I had decided to paint my partner, Pedro (the only person around during these unsociable times) in the sitting room. This room, with its red carpets, red sofa, curtains and so on reminds me of one of the 1930s Bloomsbury (I think) paintings, indeed perhaps it was arranged (by me) with some distant memory of such a painting in my mind. A friend once pointed out to me that whenever I moved house it still looks the same, and I fear that may indeed be the case, and it is because of a predilection for the kind of colours that grace those Bloomsbury interiors, or at least how I remember them.
So it was interesting to actually look for the paintings and read a bit about them. In fact it is a little difficult to find, because there seems to be rather a lot of advice around on how to turn your own interior into a ‘Bloomsbury Group interior’, presumably the kind of place that the Bloomsbury Group lived in (I seem to have been ahead of my time). And indeed their lifestyle seems to have been deeply intertwined with their artistic endeavours – the artists Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant used to paint directly on to the walls of their house in Charleston, apparently, to liven up the dark interior – art and life clearly in a deep two-way relationship. However, part of the ‘look closer’ series of the Tate Gallery on the Art of Bloomsbury gives an interesting insight into the work of three of the group – Vanessa Bell, her husband Roger Fry and some-time lover Duncan Grant.
Of the three, to me it is Vanessa Bell that is the most interesting, given her pioneeering status in abstract art in Britain. I was very interested in this image (taken from the Tate article above) of a mantelpiece in her home (in Bloomsbury) which both of them painted..
Source: ‘The Art of Bloomsbury’, ‘ Look Closer series, Tate Gallery, accessed April 2021 https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/b/bloomsbury/art-bloomsbury.
Both have implemented some level of abstraction and are interesting. Indeed Grant turns out to have had a strong interest in both Matisse and Picasso. But Bell has taken it to really exciting levels for the time of painting, and there is a Matisse-like freshness about this. I realise it doesn’t have a figure in it, so it is not entirely appropriate for this part, but I wanted to store it for future reference in this blog. Later on it seems, she experimented with total abstraction, in ‘Abstract Painting’ (1914) with which she became one of the first British artists to paint in the abstract style.
Of more relevance for this ‘Human Form’ part is this image of two of her friends painting, which as the article points out, is a good example of ‘form over content’ ….’the main theory of modernism’. She has painted the people with blank faces, the background with broad swathes of colour – yet at the same time, the shapes of the faces feel right. This is more difficult than it looks, I believe, as when I have tried to leave faces vague (or some element thereof, such as teeth in an open mouth) it has introduced a jarring element. She has it seems the basic form of the face completely right – you can see, for example that the man has a beard and some hair flopping over his forehead – but it does not distract you from the painting.
Another great painting of hers that I liked was this one, a portrait of her husband’s mistress. I love the colours in here, the simple lines and the use of colour and tone to give the merest indication of form and shape – the shadows in the sleeve of the coat for example, or in the hair, and the almost Picasso-eque shape of the right (left hand side of the painting) eyebrow and nose, with the lines on the face picked out in the blocks of colour to the left. The touch of blue at her throat is brilliant.
Later she returned to a more traditional style which is also lovely – her ‘An interior with a table’ of 1921 is almost perfect I think. But with regard to the human form, it is her ability to distill the essence of a human image as in the two paintings above that I really find helpful here.
The other group of painters that I looked at were the contemporaneous (or perhaps a little earlier) Camden Group of painters, about whom the Tate Gallery have carried out fascinating research project (Bonett et al, 2012), which includes a number of excellent essays on specific artists (see Fletcher, 2017 for a review). The group, named after the location where the leading members, Walter Sickert and Spencer Gore, lived and painted, was short lived – starting around 1907 and holding just three exhibitions in 2011 and 2012 and dissolving in 1913 – but during its life time was ‘a determined effort by painters to explore new ways of representing the everyday realities of urban life in Edwardian Britain’ (Bonnet et al, 2012). These artists also were familiar with European artists such as Matisse, but for them the paintings seem to have been more about content than form. They delved into the people, activities and entertainments of urban life, seemingly roaming far further from their socio-economic status than the Bloomsbury group. I love Harold Gilman’s ‘The Eating House’, (1913-4) and Charles Ginner’s Cafe Royal (1911), because you can so much imagine yourself there, especially the former, with the heavily layered embossed paper and paint on the walls – reminiscent of the eel and pie shops in East London that still exist, or perhaps not now but used to when I first lived in London in the 1990s. This was an all male group, rendering their focus on gender and sexuality rather dubious for me, but one of the many brilliant things about the Tate project is that it focuses in also on the excluded female artists painting in the same style.
For the purposes of this exercise – and indeed this whole part – the most interesting paintings are the interiors, including the detailed representation of people, which was a key part of the Camden group’s ouevre.
One of the most famous is this painting Ennui by Walter Sickert, himself the painter of the group to achieve the most fame in his lifetime. It shows a man, in my view with an expression of contentment and relaxation (although this is contested apparently, see Moorby, 2004) with a woman: “The physical proximity of the two figures supposes an intimate connection between them such as marriage, but their complete disassociation and lack of engagement with one another creates an atmosphere of isolation, indifference and loneliness.”
I very much admire this image, although it is not comfortable to look at. It received a lot of attention, perhaps precisely because of the mystery of meaning here, or perhaps because it was very large painting (1524 x 1124) for this particular artist, who previously had always advocated and painted much smaller images, “according to the scale of vision”. To me, it seems like a bored wife driven to distraction by the pontifications of her husband, and I imagine the man droning on, setting the world to rights over his cigar and glass of beer. The picture on the wall suggests the past or possibility of some more exciting existence, but the woman looks way beyond any sexual dreams, in fact she looks in the slough of despond, to be looking at a solid wall for signs of escape.
This is clearly a painting of social realism, which goes beyond an exploration of the individuals or their relationship, but questions of class and socio-economic status. I like the composition, which seems simplified to perfection: as Moorby points out “The furniture completely encircles and encloses the figures, hemming them into their domestic space so that there is a sense of imprisonment and claustrophobia, echoed by the stuffed birds in the glass dome.” Likewise, the colours – a cold mauve, the dirty white, yellow, grungy green, muted brown and so on – reflect the feeling of sadness and dreariness that the painting embodies. The furniture is clearly cheap, shabby and unfashionable. Moorby 2004) describes it as a pictorial illustration of two people facing what Baudelaire describes as ‘tout entière au gouffre de l’Ennui’ (Ennui’s most profound abyss), a life bereft of meaning and hope: “Sickert introduces this psychological state as a symptom of modern urban life prevalent amongst the under-privileged working and lower middle classes”
Walter Richard Sickert, Ennui, c1914, Tate N03846.
Finally, this self portrait by Harold Gilman was particularly useful for thinking about my own figure in an interior, indeed it gave me the idea for the pose, although my painting is very different. I love the colours of this – the red curtains, and carpet, the green of the plant in the foreground, and the way that these colours are picked up in the fanciful garden seen through the window. Although it feels like an elaborate painting in some ways, the palette is pretty constrained to the red-green axis (with a a few pale flowers in the garden) and the tones are brilliant – with the contrasting and therefore more distinct flowers in the foreground, and then the rather hazy flowers in the garden, emphasizing distance. The light is so delicately picked out on the man’s left (as you face the painting) side, and his face and the side of his nose.
Harold Gilman, Self-Portrait c.1908–9, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased 1946. Source: Bonnett, 2009
In contrast to the last image by Sickert, this painting seems to me another example of form over content – the aim is to create a beautiful painting, rather than for us to see into the artist’s soul. In its delicacy of tone, and gentle gradations, this painting seems reminiscent of this comment on his slightly earlier works of which Louis Ferguson observed (quoted in Bonnett, 2009)
“very intimate – very smoothly painted – without impasto – without excrescences. Degas, who disliked anything growing out of a canvas – any thrust of pigment into the third dimension – would have passed his hand over the surface with entire satisfaction. The attitudes of the people represented at their domestic avocations were gravely rendered in an illumination both subtle and subdued; the tones harmonized with impeccable taste”
It also – to me at least – in its strong colour and style and a hint of a ‘puntilistic’ style – to show the beginnings of his interest in the post-impressionists, becoming fascinated by Van Gogh in particular, as well as Seurat and Manet. He went even further in this style, with vibrant colours, in Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table in 2017 (Tate N05317), a lovely portrait of his housekeeper, a serious elderly working class woman with a headscarf, sitting behind her teapot.
At the same time, however, the man portrayed looks very much as I imagine Gilman for descriptions of him, for example Bonnett (2009), as well as Wyndham Lewis’s (1919) assessment after his death as having “every virtue of middle-class England, and, in fact, [he]was one of the most amusing, genuine, equable, sensitive individuals I have met.”
Perhaps I am retrofitting my view of the image in line with what I have read, but it does seem to me that the painting, even with its emphasis on form, sums up these characteristics – which makes it even better, because as I have been discovering, self-portraits are so hard.
Exercise. Figure in an Interior.
After studying the Bloomsbury and Camden groups a little, I started on my figure in an interior, aiming to go for the same level of simplification and the same sort of palette range as in some of the paintings that I had been looking at, particularly the Gilman self-portrait. I painted on wooden board, with acrylic paint, having primed the board first (with acrylic paint this time, rather than gesso, which I didn’t think had been a success last time.
Pedro stood in front of but to the right of a glass door – I wanted the light on one side, as it was in the Gilman self-portrait above, but planned to make it much stronger – a more marked effect, as indeed it is in this room in the afternoon, as the light floods in from the west-facing garden. I also ruthlessly simplified, including only the figure, the corner sofa behind him (a sort of red with a hint of orange) and one picture behind him, a picture of a Spanish bull in a red-orange/terracotta wooden frame, highly appopriate. He was wearing a navy blue aaron sweater (which he nearly always is in the winter), a light blue shirt and faded jeans. I sketched out all these items very roughly in a darker version of the orange background.
I then started to block in the colour. I was quite pleased with the jumper, although here there is still some of the red showing through. The walls are actually a kind of dirty green, but I did them a kind of chalky white which felt more Spanish. The light has come out quite well, but his face is too fat and too yellow, although he is generally tanned.
This is a bit better, I have slimmed down the face and emphasized the light a bit more. I have painted in the cushion on the corner, although I wondered afterwards if this was the right thing to do. The sofa looks a bit mean and thin, and I should have painted it with more depth to the cushions, this would be something to correct if this piece were to be submitted for assignment. The fabric doesn’t look right either – it is actually very soft, but here looks almost like one of those mock suede cloths that can become shiny. The face is still yellow though, and the background to the bull is also too yellow – it is a kind of gold chalk over the black in the actual painting.
This is the final version. Several of the things that were wrong before are still wrong, particularly the yellow face (which doesn’t look so bad off camera), the size of the cushion and now I have noticed that his eyes are at slightly different levels and different sizes (a common fault of mine, which is very disruptive to an image) and seem to have a black outline. I would like to correct these things. But there are some things I like – the jumper, the jeans, and most importantly the stance and expression of the sitter. He looks serious but not actually sad (although I suppose to a stranger he does look sad, it is just this is his expression in repose – and as the course guidelines discuss, this is often the case for most people) and the slightly puffed up look that some (usually shortish) men get when they fold the arms or put them as in the photograph. I like the angles, and the composition more generally. I have followed the advice in my tutor’s report for the last Part and have ruthlessly simplified, which has worked well. I have thought about the colour scheme of the image and I like the chosen colours with the above caveats.
Exercise. Telling a Story.
For this exercise, I used a photograph, which is of myself aged about three, on a pony in Scotland, and my mother (there is an uncle of mine in the photograph as well). I wanted the story to be the way that we are looking at each other in the photograph, straight into each other’s eyes, My mother is staring at me with a look of fierce love, and for this reason I treasure the photograph because this expression was rarely if ever seen when I was older. The trouble is, the photograph is nearly 60 years old (obviously) and faded, with no light visible (if indeed it was actually captured by the probably inferior camera).
I drew on greyboard again, just focusing on the main characters – my mother, me, and the pony. The drawing of my mother is awful, and I believe I redid it after this, but there is a certain balance of the child and pony, and I like the fact we are just about looking at each other. Needless to say the pony is coming out better than the people, probably because even after all these years of trying to draw people and not having much to do with horses, I seem to know more about how horses look than people, which is rather depressing.
I then started to block in the colour and develop the drawing with paint. Once agin the pony went best, although I thought it would be difficult to paint a more or less a white coat- I used some very pale pink for the slightly albino nose, grey for the nose, nostrils and lips. I tried to vary the colour and tone on the neck and chest to give it some dimensionality.
I tried to keep the child more ethereal and vague, and the position of the body of the horse isn’t too bad, but the face is badly drawn too, I realise looking back at it and the hair is terrible. I redid my mother’s face and although it is still not good, I do feel that for her I sort of got something of the look. she is giving to the child.
The final result looks a bit like a (not very good) illustration in a children’s pony book. It was inevitable, perhaps, given my lack of experience of doing this kind of painting (which thinking about I have literally never done before) and the photograph that I used to work from. But I am still pleased that I did it, I learnt a lot and it was interesting trying to represent my mother’s face. Of all the elements,I feel that the simplification was quite successful, again following my tutor’s advice; that the essential elements are there and the extraneous ones have gone.
Exercise. People in Context
For this exercise, I used a painting by the Belgian painter George Michele (probably) from the 1830s (probably) that the National Gallery was using in a feature ‘painting of the month’, in which visitors to their site were supposed to choose their favourite. I was drawn to this because I have inherited a picture myself that is ‘probably’ by Michel, although no doubt less ‘probably’ than this one (judging by the attitude of the young valuer at Sotheby’s where I took it there to be valued for insurance). They presented the painting very nicely, with an audio of a fierce wind (I cannot find it now but the painting is here https://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/paintings/probably-by-georges-michel-stormy-landscape-with-ruins-on-a-plain) to illustrate how evocative the painting is. I was drawn to the tiny figure of a man, which the discussion of the picture points out creates a real sense of mystery – where could he be going, who is he, why is he alone in such a desolate place in such inclement weather – and thought I would try to replicate this sort of image, although with a more modern figure.
I took a grey board, and used oil paint for this. With some very diluted raw umber, I sketched in the dark places as below.
I then built up layers of paint, limiting my palette to black, paynes grey and white for the sky, and a combination of yellow ochre, red sienna, green and raw umber for the land and the ruins, which I kept more vague than in the Michel image. I painted quickly, with broad rough strokes across the board – trying to get the effect of the wind, as the discussion suggested that Michel did. I rather enjoyed a landscape after not doing that for a long while – and I am afraid that I forgot to take photographs.
I was quite pleased with my landscape, and then tried to add a figure. I wanted her to be in green, at first with an idea of some kind of common countryside jacket – but then was thinking a parka – a rather urban sort of coat – would be more interesting, yet still blend in with the landscape. So I tried to do that, adding the distinctive fishtail of the parka blown backwards by the wind. However, this has not worked so well – the coat looks a little odd, and I wasn’t able to depict the hood successfully, as I wanted to make it clear it was a woman, by adding longer hair (as someone looked at it and just assumed it was a man). I felt inclined to redo the figure, which is also too large I think. But apart from that I am pleased with the idea and the overall effect. She does blend in to the landscape, while at the same time the viewer would, I hope, ask themselves why she is there.
Response to Tutor’s Report on Part 2.
You have worked well in your colour experiments and working out the relationships between colour schemes through research. Sometimes your compositions are too complex or busy so you cannot concentrate on the technical aspects of all the areas. Whereas when you have simple set ups or magnify, that is when there is more impact in the work. There is some richness in the
colours you use but this can be improved with more attention to technical skills of
shape, form and tonal qualities.
I appreciate these comments, and the need for simplification is something that I have started to really try hard to do – the Assignment was the most important lesson, particularly when I realised that the quick version that I did afterwards was actually better than the original, in spite of the huge disparity in work that had gone into the two pieces.
Assignment 2 Assessment potential
I understand your aim is to go for the Painting Degree and that you plan to submit your
work for assessment at the end of this course. From the work you have shown in this
assignment, providing you commit yourself to the course, I believe you have the
potential to pass at assessment.
I am pleased to hear this, and wish to continue towards the Painting Degree as it keeps me motivated.
Feedback based on Learning Outcomes
• Explore and employ key processes for drawing and painting.
• Explore a range of media to create visual work.
• Begin to understand how historical and contemporary painters and artistic
movements can and have informed your own practice.
• Reflect on your own learning experience.
Drawing in paint– you have a real richness with the curtain in the background and the folds are almost looking 3D. You have identified what is not working and I agree. There could be more distinction between the foreground and background to show depth. The actual flowers could have more tonal variations. Also, the plinth could be richer to flow the whole colour palette.
I agree with these comments – all things I have observed. in the course of doing the piece, which I increasingly realised while doing it that it needed to be completely redone.
Still-life with flowers- again more tonal variation is needed on the flowers to show the form so have a range of different shades of the same colour. As a composition it’s fine but the background and surface are too different and separate from the rest of the palette. I agree the shadows are not relating to the subject. However, there is some rawness coming through in the application of paint.
Looking back at this piece, I feel that this was indeed the problem – it may have been exacerbated by the fact that flowers are not normally on the floor – in fact, I should have put them on a table or perhaps even where they were in the last painting.
Drawing natural objects- this is a successful piece. The application of paint is raw which means that we can see the reflections and light coming through. It also has good form to show the curvature. The colour is vibrant, and you have observed the tonal ranges well.
Still-life with natural objects- the final attempt is a vast improvement, and you are seeing the small details which can enhance the work. There is luminosity and light on the lemons now and the shadows are softer. The darker subdued background contrasts well with the brighter vivid subject matter.
These were my preferred pieces in the whole course so I was glad that the Tutor concurred. I really liked this style of painting, and the technique of Uglow and his followers. The lemons illustrate the payoff from sustained work on one small piece, sticking to the same idea throughout.
Still-life colour studies– the clementine look a little unbalanced with the shape and form of the bowl and the fruit so work with ellipses more. Also, the main subject matter is very small so magnify them as this is what the focus is. And the shadows are too heavy. However, there is a vibrant mood with the orange and blue so contrasting colours are working.
Yes, I can see looking back that I have a lot to do on shapes that have elipses in, all these bowls have some problem. I practiced this quite a bit during Drawing 1, but I need some more. And this was a lesson – as in the first exercise – to make the thing that you have chosen as the subject to be in the larger thing! Shadows, yes, I was rather excited that the colour was right but it was still too dark.
Interiors– it’s good to simplify which you have done with the subdued colours, but you
could even more minimal to evoke mood. So, you can eradicate the lights for example
and leave the viewer looking at an empty space to evoke an emptiness? Concentrate
more on perspective so the geometry is accurate.
These are fair comments. I think I should have redone the drawing here, for the perspective. It is a good point about the emptiness – I think I was at the back of my mind remembering the first time I saw this house in the estate agent’s details, where the hall was beaming with yellowy light (the walls were yellow in those days), with these huge vaulted ceilings. So that empty image would have been a better painting (because I failed to tell the story that was in my mind of such a welcoming place), but a different one.
Assignment– you have made the right choice in working with a dominant colour and this evokes a mood. The composition is quite stifling as it’s very ordered and sometimes, less is more. However, there are some dynamic marks come through and the textural aspects work well. The colours are quite dramatic against the dark background so there is a sense of rawness and vitality with the yellow. You have worked well with the narrative and indicating some sort of story behind the work.
The piece in the addendum is more attractive and appealing because of the composition as it has more narrative. Also, technically there are improvements with light and shape of the subject matter.
Again I agree with all this and am really grateful for the explanation of what went wrong with the main assignment piece – I guess I had worked some of these things (the busyness, too many bottles without thinking why there needed to be so many (ok, our Brexit stockpile, but the viewer is not going to know about that) and so on. But not everything, so this is helpful. I don’t think I will make quite the same mistakes again.
You have done vast amounts of research and have your opinions in there. It would be really beneficial to see how other contemporary artists fit in with your theme too. You have understood colour theory and have much analysis and explorations of this in your charts.
You log shows that you are analysing your own work well and identifying areas to improve on. This shows an ability to rectify the technical aspects. It is in-depth and self-reflective.
Sketchbook- it’s fine to work on loose paper because it is still supporting work. I can see you have done many prep pieces and sketches so there is development there.
This was welcome feedback – research is my job, so I should be able to do it, but I struggled at first to apply it to this new field, and it is good if it is getting to the right level for what is required here. I do need to look at more contemporary artists though, this is a good point, I am far too obsessed with artists that I know well. I enjoyed very much the artists I looked at for the studies of the red pear and lemons, none of which I knew about.
Action points and further research
Kathryn Petke- looking at close-ups and magnification
Boo Ritson- for the richness and consistency of paint
Wayne Thiebaud- for working with multiples and subdued colours.
• Simplify some of your compositions by magnifying and honing in so there is
• Try and have unity with the colour palette in the work. There is sometimes very
light areas and then very dark areas. Have a happy balance.
• Technical aspects- working with more tonal ranges to show form of the subject.
• A richness and rawness comes through in your painting application so this can
I am grateful for the recommendations of the contemporary artists, as I was for the last part, which I looked at too. I was very struck by BooRitson, with the seemingly almost physical layers of paint, which are illusionary I think – it is probably quite flat – a really clever effect. And also Wayne Theibaud. I don’t think I will ever achieve this kind of pop art style, but it would be a really good idea to try to a still life in this style. It would have been so good if I had tried some multiples before embarking on all those oil bottles. And trying to match these colours would also be a good exercise.
These are very good points. Simplification is the message that has sung out during this part – all the benefits that came from applying it to the red pear and lemons paintings in terms of focusing on one object in one style – and all the problems caused by an overly complicated composition, as in the assignment. I had not thought about the unity with the colour palette – this is again I realise a jarring elements in lots of things I have done in the past and I need to get this balance. It is all about looking at the painting all the time, and calibrating as you go, squinting to see the darkest and lightest areas and so on. The tonal ranges to show form of the subject was crucial for the lemons and I will try to apply this to the more complicated forms of the human body and face in the next Part.
After the debacle of my previous attempts at self-portraits as above, I decided that I was a bit stuck, and booked a lesson with the artist Kieran Stiles, with whom I used to do group life drawing classes and a few extra ones in those halcyon days when one could do such things in his studio at Folly Bridge in Oxford. This class was on Zoom of course, and was just for myself and a friend who also paints, to make it a little cheaper. Having completed two self portraits where the resulting image was extremely flat, before doing the assignment, I wanted to remember how to use tone and light to illustrate shape. I also wanted to have a go at painting images in semi darkness. I have always been fascinated by paintings of the dark – I did the fifth part of Drawing 1 on this topic, and plan to do the same for POP1. Just before the second lock-down I was fortunate enough to see the ‘Young Rembrandt‘ exhibition at the Ashmolean museum (Brown et al, 2019), and the self-portrait used for advertising the exhibition, of a very young Rembrandt was a high spot of this wonderful exhibition. In this image, the figure is almost in darkness with only a cheek, the side of the neck and part of the nose are lit at all, and then only dimly.
This was a very useful class, going through some of the most basic elements of acquiring a three dimensional image. We discussed the expressionistic self-portraits of Freud, and I realised for the first time what made these so distinctive – and so difficult to mimic. To paint like this goes against the edict to paint what you see, because each mini-plain, each brush stroke is exaggerated; Freud doesn’t really look like this – but this is the element of his physique – old, wrinkled – that the artist has chosen to emphasize. The dark parts are painted lighter, the light bits lighter, and so on. I think that before I can hope to learn to paint in this way, I need to learn how to paint things more or less as they are. I have written down they key lessons that I learnt – originally written in my sketch book – to remember them.
- The tone of the picture must be relative to the concave/convex aspect of form – best observed by looking at some of Rossetti’s huge lips in some of the pre-Raphaelite drawings or paintings.
- To get the curve of a surface plane of an object, you must blend from light to dark.
- For older people, the curve will be much tighter, and the blended part between light and dark will be much less. Also for the forehead there will be a much larger area of blend- for the nose much less – the top of an arm versus the wrist is another such contrast.
- For those parts that are darkest in the image (best observed by squinting at it through half closed eyes) – such as nostrils or under the hairline – one must go dark enough, it is easy to be bit lily -livered bout this.
- Squint at the picture and look for the darkest parts – and then remember that nothing else is as dark as this. Remember, pencil is restricted – there are only about 5-6 tones, so if you don’t work out with the darkest bits (which you need to (de)saturate, then you don’t have enough leeway.
- With teeth, understate them – remember there is no light in the mouth in a normal setting, so don’t try to show details, or gaps between them – and err on the side of darkness. This was useful as I have always been very scared of showing teeth.
I knew most of these things at the back of my mind, but it was really good to get the reminder. In the class we tried out the technique on an image from the Rembrandt exhibition discussed above, because I was keen to try something that had a lot of darkness in it, having failed so miserably when I tried this on a self-portrait above. First of all I learnt that you cannot – as I did there – paint a face and then overlay it with paint for the darker bits however diluted (neither can you do this to represent bright light). That is not what Rembrandt did at all. He is painting every part of it, just with very dark colours – indeed he is painting what you see – so if you see very faint lines of the image he is painting that. We focused only on the nose,
So far I have tried just the nose, and here it is.
Although this is a tiny fraction of the painting, it took a long time and although I was pleased with the result (in contrast my household were amazed that I should have spent so long with so little to show for it) I have finally started to realise how hard it is to do this. It is in fact a bit like painting in the dark. It was fascinating though, especially when you honed in digitally to other parts of the image – you could see for example that the right eye was not really elaborated at all, because the colours are so dark (a kind of murky green) and Rembrandt was not prepared for digital explorations of the dark corners of his paintings (you have to Zoom in a lot to see this). I learnt a lot from this, and I will try to finish this and experiment some more with this technique in Part 5, when I will be painting to the theme of darkness.
Meanwhile, I needed to proceed with the assignment. Rather than fixing on a dark image for this, I wanted to put into practise what I have learnt about making form with tone, light and colour (also mentioned in my Tutor’s last report). The image I chose for this was one of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963), in a garden of some kind in bright sunlight. I wanted to give myself the best chance of getting some kind of dimensionality through tone, something that was not really easy in most of the subjects I had chosen before, particularly those from old photos such as that the ‘character’ portrait of my friend, or the ‘story’ one of my mother and a younger me. She was clearly an interesting character who I felt it would be interesting to paint and about whom I knew a little. I did not plan to paint the whole image – I don’t like the whole image because she seems to be what I believe is called gurning, towards the camera, but took just a section of the right hand side of the face and hair. I wanted to use what I learnt before (during the last assignment) about focusing on one area in detail.
I first drew the image in pencil and then started to fill in a small portion
Only the right eye (as you look at the image) is really done here, and indeed I realised once I looked at it that the drawing is wrong – everything needs moving up, the nose is too large, the sunlit patch to the right of the face too long and so on. Also, the left eye is far too low – it needs moving up. For the next attempt I tried to make points on the image – for example the corners of the mouth, the corners of the eyes, the edge of the nose – to try to line them up in my own drawing, to get all the features in tune. And of course I needed to redraw the bottom of the nose anyway, which here is at an angle suggesting that I am looking up it from below.
This is the next attempt, where I have tried to correct some of the errors, and redrawn the left eye and the nose, and started to paint in the mouth and extend the face downwards. The bottom of the nose is a bit better, but still wrong and the shape of the face is wrong below the mouth, too straight down and too long.
This next attempt above is better, but there are still several things wrong here. The skin colour around the lower part of the portrait, especially around the darker shadowed areas around the mouth is too blueish/purplish, and I wanted some warmer oranges and yellows to pick up the sunlit feeling. The area around the nostrils was still wrong, and I needed to redraw it. Also, there seemed to be some errors with the white area on the nose, particularly at the bottom. The blend of the colours between the lights and darks was still a bit sharp, making her appear older than she can possibly be here.
I worked on all these things and filled in the back ground in a murky green (which I believe is what is in the photograph). This is the final result. I note that the more purple and darker colours around the eyes and on the left forehead have come out very dark and purple – it doesn’t look so emphasized off camera but I will try to correct it a bit.
My first impression of this is I cannot believe that it has taken me so long! I have spent so long on every area of the painting, but it is quite small – not even the whole face – and still looks woefully unfinished to me. I am particularly unhappy about the mouth – it makes me think of the portrait that I did above of my friend, where although this is a more sophisticated image, as I described I seem there to have ‘got lucky’ with the mouth, drawing it right straight away. Here the mouth is a little open, which I have never done before, but that is not enough excuse for how it has turned out. It is not right even now, even though I have repainted it several times. But it does seem better than the other portraits that I have done, more three dimensional for sure. I like this style of painting and I want to try some more, and to finally manage an acceptable self-portrait.
For now, I feel like I have learnt a lot doing the assignment, and indeed this whole Part – there is some idea of progression here, with some blips on the way. I like the fact to have chosen such a sunny image of a woman who was so famously and so tragically depressed, made her first documented suicide attempt at a very young age (in 1953, so only 19). The Bell Jar is mandatory reading for psychiatrists apparently, being an almost perfect depiction of the condition. Yet here she looks interested, engaged, highly intelligent as indeed she was (apparently her IQ was high, 160), on the verge of being happy, or at least cheerful – and the sunlight emphasizes that. She also looks a little glamorous, is clearly taking care of her appearance (indeed her lipstick is what is making the mouth so difficult) – again not the stereotypical style for someone who is depressive. One of my aims was to highlight that depression is not part of the personality – at least not for her, but a terrible illness when it is as serious as in her case – someone who is chronically depressed does not necessarily have a depressive character.
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