Monthly Archives: August 2015

In pursuit of Bruegel: Berlin

That's How The Light Gets In

It’s only a small painting – barely seven inches by nine – yet (though I know such comparisons are invidious) if I were asked to list my ten favourite artworks this would be one of them. Pieter Bruegel’s Two Monkeys is haunting, mysterious and profound.

Two Monkeys is one of two Bruegel paintings that we found in Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie – another way-station in our pursuit of Bruegel through the museums of Europe. The other couldn’t be more different: Netherlandish Proverbs is large (4 feet by 5), populated by a vast crowd of people engaged in all kinds of activities and social interactions. One is deeply meditative, even pessimistic, while the other’s vast canvas celebrates the complexity and richness of  urban life.

Pieter Bruegel, Two Monkeys,1562 Pieter Bruegel, Two Monkeys,1562

Two hunched and dejected monkeys are chained in the window of a fortress that overlooks the river Scheldt. In the distance, the skyline of…

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A2.1 Developing a concept

The main parameters of the assignment were:-

  • Objective – The brief is to demonstrate colour, tone, composition, development of technique
  • Subject – still life (in a context).
  • Setup – a new still life OR develop an earlier sketch
  • Medium – I’ve concentrated on acrylic so far, so will use this for the assignment  (+ drawing media)
  • Canvas, A2
  • Format ?
  • Decide viewpoint, lighting, mood



Early morning, I made a sketch of the uncleared breakfast table.  I’d been excited about doing some work on the subject – it’s an interesting scene, and seeing Sosos of Pergamon’s 2c. BC mosaic of the Unswept Floor started me noticing more ‘found’ still lifes of untidied detritus and discarded objects.  Not waste or trash exactly, but the remains of our normal everyday activities.  It seems to say something about us, where and how we live, what we’ve feasted on, even whether we’re feeling happy or sad (Tracy Emin’s bed is another example).




In this sketch I explored line , tone and colour using tinted charcoal and pastel pencils.  It’s a realistic representation, showing the surrounding context of chairs and garden; I could bring other objects into it – eggshells, watermelon rind, a table mat – even a tablet (we check the news online and chat about it).

I went on to investigate some individual objects in my sketchbook using different media, gathering information for my painting, and kept adding to these as the project proceeded.  I found where I’d studied individual objects I had fixed their shapes, colours, details and other characteristics in my mind.  If I hadn’t studied individually an object I later tried to sketch, my sketch was too generalised and not all that convincing.




A2.2 Notes and experiments with texture and colour

I decided to explore some possible approaches for creating textured, nuanced surfaces in my painting; with strong, simple design and colours by looking at and trying to replicate some work of other artists.

1. Aiming for a textured background, with a number of objects superimposed in a bird’s eye view pattern.  I squeezed 3/4 analogous colours plus blue paint directly onto paper in small dabs and using flat ended palette knife with short strokes manipulated them around the sheet, creating a lot of texture (using a lot of paint !). Left it to dry and harden.  Sanded, but still left lots of lumps and bumps (too impatient to wait for it to fully harden);  adding a layer of white gesso with a palette knife instead of a brush, I was able to leave the ‘valleys’ uncovered.  Then painted a bowl and cut out a jug shape from a magazine and pasted it on. Drew the outline of a cup and saucer overlapped by the jug, using a long rigger brush.

Learned – will need a lot more paint if I scale this approach up to A2 or larger.  But it’s tempting – on that scale, the physicality of creating the background would be good fun.  Liked how white gesso on top calms and homogenises the colours underneath, but still lets them gleam through.  The marks of the palette knife, combined with how I’ve painted and superimposed the objects has resulted a distinctly ‘mosaic’ feel.  An OCA student said this reminded her of Elizabeth Blackadder, so I had a look at her work, and could see the resemblance between this and her Japanese influenced still lifes, with their emphasis on empty space.


2. Aiming for Diebenkorn Lemons and Jar texture, colour and design –  I talked about this painting in my exercise for Still Life With Complementary Colours.  Here I’ve used Burnt umber and Indigo for ‘black’background.  Sap Green and Emerald scraped onto dampened paper thinly with side of palette knife for first layer of tabletop.  Cadmium red tabletop layer added with palette knife.  Burnt umber vertical planes.yellow table edge.  Note my S3 Cad Red Hue with a touch of Tit White looked dull.  Partly due to being layered on top of green.  I added two more layers, but finished with a layer of pure Napthol Red W&N Finity Artists Acrylic – brighter, richer result!

Learned – a palette knife is good for creating sharp straight lines  – better than a brush.  Lower layers modify later ones and can add a great deal of interest.  Bold use of contrasting colour and clear cut design creates great impact.  An object can be described with just a few touches of paint – absolutely no need to fuss over detail.  I was scrutinising a glass at the breakfast table this morning – it had reflections of sky, leaves and our clothes – blue, green and red.


3. Aiming for a William Morris flat but nuanced (with white scrubbed, scumbled or rubbed?) background, with simple flat objects.  Paynes Grey, Prussian Blue, Magenta, White, Burnt umber.  Love the harmony of the colours, simplicity of the strong design.   Many layers.  Brushed the colour onto dampened paper to start with.  Upper layers of opaque colour mixed with white were rubbed on with a rag.

Learned – mixing shades of colours from the same ‘family’ with a limited palette for a harmonious painting.  Stumbling and scrubbing white or tinted white over stronger colour to give texture and light.

What I love about the Richard Diebenkorn and William Scott is their simple but strong designs, and their striking (in different ways) use of colour.  As I’ve written earlier I’m also strongly pulled to the idea of The Unswept Floor, or in my case The Uncleared Breakfast Table – a birds eye  (or almost) view of objects spread out on a surface – and  Elizabeth Blackadder does a lot of this. Perhaps I can combine both approaches.  Create a strong and simple compositional design (like D & S), with a high (almost birds eye) viewpoint of a table spread with my breakfast paraphernalia.  My painting must  have a sensation of space, light and texture – not be too illustrative or graphic.

I made some tentative sketchbook still lifes attempting to combine some of these ideas with my compositions.

A2.3 Developing compositions

I want to think about my composition in terms of a small number of large background shapes providing a ‘framework’ for the still life objects. Those major shapes are formed by the edges of the table and the tablecloth and mats, and around the table edges, subsidiary shapes.   I haven’t decided yet whether to have an array of many varied objects, or just to have two or three major ones. I may try both.

I made some quick charcoal designs for compositions, not from life – I wanted to get away from being dictated to by the real life scenario, and invent my own compositions, but based on what I’d learned during my investigations so far.


These thumbnails are all just off square format.  

A2.4 Doing the paintings

Decided to do a series of paintings based on my theme of the uncleared breakfast table. However, the husband has said this seems a depressing subject, I don’t agree, but there may therefore turn out to be more ‘proper’ objects and less detritus.

My canvases are 50×50, two 50×60’s and a 50x70cm.

The idea is to use the studies and experiments I’ve done so far, so I surrounded myself with my sketches and earlier colour exercises.  I wanted to adopt some of the practises of Richard Diebenkorn, Elizabeth Blackadder and William Hunt, creating my own synthesis of these influences, so I  and set up a library of their paintings, I could constantly refer to while I was working.

There are two strands to why I find these artists, who are so different in many ways, so appealing.  Firstly their use of colour is interesting and inventive, at first sight simple, but on closer inspection subtly nuanced in tone, hue and intensity.  Secondly their compositions could be described as ‘minimal’ – they emphasise the importance of blank space, simple shapes and, in the case if Blackadder and Hunt, manipulation of perspective to suit their pictorial requirements.  Thirdly they all combine paint with other media, as I’d enjoyed doing in my sketchbook studies.


Having done quite a lot of preparation, I now realised I still hadn’t actually made practical decisions, and here were four blank canvases – I needed to decide what I was going to put on each one.  I had to organise my thoughts, so I started a worksheet on which I worked out in small thumbnails my four favourite compositions, and their basic ‘colour envelopes’.  I continued to use the worksheet while painting, making notes, jotting down reminders and ideas etc.


I drew the bare bones of my ‘designs’ in charcoal onto the canvases, and started to block out in acrylic paint and gesso a few large, simple areas of colour, aiming at this stage simply to state the table, the tablecloth and the background..  Each subsequent layer modified slightly the earlier ones;  paint was applied thinly in glazes, scrubbed on roughly with rags; squeezed onto the canvas straight from the tube and spread with palette knives; brushed on with big decorator’s brushes, dry and wet, until I was happy with them.  (Click on the images to enlarge.  The first two are different stages of the same canvas).

Canvas by canvas I started roughing in my still life arrangements with willow charcoal.  The outline objects can be seen in the fourth image above.  To draw them I roughly set out the objects on the table by my side, apart from the yellow canvas, which is an imaginary arrangement based on some actual objects.

Starting with the yellow canvas (‘Breakfast with a Fig and Olives’), first of all I added a dark complementary magenta border to the table – the contrast was to frame the still life.   I began adding my breakfast objects.  I collaged a torn paper napkin and a piece of paper torn from a magazine, and painted a plate, a bowl , some figs and olive stones.  I mixed up the perspectives of the objects – the plate is seen from above, the bowl is at eye level.  I placed the objects where I fancied, to achieve a pleasing composition.  It looked too neat and lacked interest. The solution eluded me.  I played around with the image digitally and decided to ‘spoil’ the pretty picture a bit with a scrawl of complementary Magenta over the napkin and a smear of white above it.  Onto the magenta I collaged a small square of painted  watercolour paper I found in my scrap box.  Then with an ink brush pen I drew a glass water jug I’ve studied many times before, and an olive branch from the garden – coloured with soft pastel (the torn magazine extract also has a drawing of an olive branch).  This was all done over several sessions interspersed with working on the other canvases, and time for reflection.

The indigo / mauve canvas (‘Breakfast with a Pickled Walnut’) is arranged and painted in a more realistic way.  I planned to use a limited number of harmonious colours, but first I added a layer of muted khaki -yellow over the mauve table – I liked the contrast with the tablecloth – then added the objects on the cloth.  The composition looked ok, but again there was something missing – I took time out to work on another canvas and returned to this one after a day or two.  It was just too sparse – again, there wasn’t enough interest – I seem to be too tentative as I feel my way into this painting lark – time will make me more decisive.  Then I had inspiration, lay the canvas down and placed a napkin and my half-eaten simit on it (in this canvas at 50×60 cm, the foreground objects are more or less life-size).  It looked good – I painted them just as I saw them, and found they add to the dynamics and lead the eye in, pointing to the other objects and the way through to the jug in the background.

Final painting?

Final painting?

The first two paintings described above were feeling to me too carefully controlled.  I decided to try to be angry as I approached the next one, the blue / pink canvas (‘Breakfast with Tomatoes and Watermelon’). By this I mean in the way I physically applied the paint.  It went well – I started off painting the coffee pot and water bottle in the background, and I liked how they look quite expressionistic and rough.  But I couldn’t sustain it, and soon found myself slowing down and painting carefully again.

I had trouble with this composition – never realized how tricky it is to paint circular objects convincingly – you can get away with inaccuracies in objects seen in ellipse, but not in a circle.  I had several goes at the plate, and at a second plate in the bottom left corner of the composition.  This last one was painted out eventually, as it felt like a Stop sign right in the foreground.  Anyway the composition didn’t need it – the group of food is the focal point.  I added the streak of dark blue to the cloth to indicate a fold in the material, and to lead the eye to the bottle and coffee pot which felt a bit isolated – the foreground objects are painted in so much sharper focus.

The orange canvas  (‘Breakfast with Three Simits’, or ‘Three by Three’)  is landscape format, unlike the others.  Like Breakfast with a Fig and Olives, its also a bit imaginative.  It was the quickest of the four to complete.  The objects (all done in soft pastel and charcoal – no paint) are simplified.  Some are left as simple outlines, some are roughly coloured, with a minimum of shading.  I avoided the pitfall of the less-than-perfect circle by drawing the plate and saucer with distinct planes to their circumferences – makes them visually more interesting anyway.  Everything is in groups of three – this was unintentional, but works.  I gave the eye a road to travel through and  around the objects.  I’m pleased with how the composition turned out – although on reflection I would have liked the objects overall to be a bit larger.

As in Breakfast with a Pickled Walnut I used a few harmonizing colours, plus touches of their complementary. There are three blue objects in the background on the left – I don’t know what they are – their colour is repeated in the foreground cup and again under the table.



A2.5 Assignment 2 – the final paintings

My response to this assignment brief was to produce a series of four paintings based on the theme of the uncleared breakfast table.  The paintings at their present stage are below.  The blog posts following this one describe how I developed the concept, researched the work of artists whose still lifes I admire, planned the paintings, made studies of my subjects and compositions, experimented with creating textures and colour, and finally the process I followed to actually paint the four canvases.

My tutor’s advice is that it’s important to make more than one version of assignment pieces.  I think he was referring to studies but I’ve produced four ‘finished’ pieces.  Basically I have too much time on my hands and as a result tend to get bogged down in detail – doing four, with a very finite deadline meant I had to keep motoring, ignore detail, let accidents happen.

I found the experience of working on several paintings at once really good.  I could take time out from one when I couldn’t see a way forward, and make good progress with another.  Each painting probably influenced all the others, and I got really deeply into investigating my subject.

I made lots of prep work and found this invaluable when it came to the paintings.  I think my greatest success was my tomato  – painted from life, but with the benefit of having done studies earlier and particularly looking closely at Diebenkorn’s tomatoes.

I enjoyed the experience and the process, and I feel I’ve  realized my original concept – a celebration of life’s ordinary everyday routines, and a reflection on one of our simple pleasures – taking leisurely breakfasts together.

My reservations on the outcomes:-

Even though I used fingers, brushes, cards etc to apply paint, the paintings still show my usual tendency towards careful control, they’re not as open as I’d have liked them to be.

Seeing the four paintings ranged together above, it struck me how there is too little tonal variation in the tabletops themselves, the light is too uniform – although I built up layers of colour and texture I must have been tentative, with the result that the tables, particularly the orange and yellow ones, look flat.  Tone and colour should vary from background to foreground, and they would benefit from more prominent cast shadows, to make the set ups look more ‘real’.

My other criticism of my four paintings generally is that the colours are a bit too bright and ‘pretty’ and I could have done with using more broken or tertiary colour passages, especially again in the orange and yellow canvases.

It’s time to pack up my assignment submission for posting, so I’ll work on these ideas and others my tutor might recommend after I get his feedback.  A Turkish breakfast can be a wonderful thing to behold (and eat) and I’d like to continue to develop the theme at some point.  I’ve been collecting found images and taking my own photos of the breakfast table as reference material for some future time.


Part 2 – reflections

Part 2 got off to a late start, but then went well and was thoroughly enjoyable.  Here are the paintings I’m submitting to my tutor, along with selections from my sketchbooks.

Ass 2 contents list

Demonstration of technical and visual skills (materials, techniques, observation skills, visual awareness, design, compositional skills)

Although still a long way to go I feel as though I’ve improved my technical skills (handling of media, perspective, colour, composition) in leaps and bounds.  A great challenge is keeping the acrylics from drying instantly as I’ve been working in hot conditions with fans trained on me.  I’ve learned some good tricks (such as spraying myself, the paints and the canvas with a 2 litre garden spray very few minutes) and adapted how I apply the paint, and even managed to do some blending of colours on occasion.  It is worth it though as I really want to become proficient in using the medium.

My knowledge of colour has moved to a new level, and I’m now applying colour theory to my selection of pigments for a painting.  This has worked to increase my confidence that the colours I choose will work together in the way I intend, and not look dull, muddy or wrong.  Looking at how my work has developed I can see this improvement, although I want to learn to use more broken / tertiary colours to reduce the colour intensity of my work generally.

Visual awareness of the world around me is slowly improving, I notice more, think about what I see and how I might use it in my work.  The value of investigating my subject thoroughly in prep- studies has been brought home to me even more in Part 2 – they represent an opportunity to look hard, respond to the subject, and the result is, I feel, that the ‘finished’ piece is both easier to paint well and more convincing.

My past still life compositions have tended to unconsciously follow a pre-determined aesthetic – and the result has been a certain predictability or ‘sameness’.  Research has led me to try new ideas – my compositions for the assignment submission have a lot more empty space for instance.  And I’ve started to distil and simplify forms.  More recently I’ve been looking at Degas’ paintings, in preparation for Part 3, and this opens up further possibilities for me about format and compositions, which I will explore.

Quality of outcome (content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualization of thoughts, communication of ideas)

The quality of my outcomes has moved forward, but there nearly always seems to be quite a lot lost between concept, process and outcome – my finished pieces are rarely so bold, open and loose and expressive as I envisage when I start out on a project.  The interior study is a case in point – I really wished for an outcome as engaging and interesting as the drawings of Schiele , but so much was lost in the process I ended up with something stiff and stilted, drab and uninteresting to my mind.  My still life with flowers exceptionally remained loose and I’m quite pleased with that outcome, although it’s not very polished.

I’m consciously trying to apply to my work the things I’m learning from the course and from my own research.  It’s a good point that the rules are there to be broken – not something I’m used to doing – but I take encouragement from studying the work of respected artists; often it was the breaking of the rules of their time that made them so special.   This is why I didn’t feel too afraid in my assignment paintings to depart from realistic colours, forms, perspective, scale – I feel in any case I demonstrated my understanding of those disciplines in the exercises.

I read a recent OCA Coffee Shop forum discussion on the subject of how conscientiously one should stick to the course exercise briefs, and felt quite excited to learn that creative interpretation of assignments is expected (but from the understanding that the exercises build towards) – and that even exercises are there to be interpreted – one tutor wrote that ‘assignments aren’t to do lists – they’re catalysts for personal creative responses’.

I’ve tried throughout to communicate my concepts, thoughts and ideas, but


Demonstration of creativity (imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice)

and continued to experiment with colour fields, textures, layers, staining techniques, and having fun mixing acrylics with other media, particularly collage and soft pastel

Context (reflection, research, critical thinking – learning log)

My blog has been rearranged to make how my work is presented easier to follow – projects can now be scrolled through from start to finish chronologically.

I’m trying to place more emphasis on explaining why rather than how I do things – for my assignment paintings I’ve explained the conceptual ideas behind my choice of subject, and explained why I chose to compose and paint them the way I did.

I also want to work more on my learning log reflecting an organic development of my progress rather than it being a piecemeal commentary on discreet exercises.