Monthly Archives: September 2015

3.1.1 drawing the human figure

I had planned to ask a neighbour to pose for me clothed – she did a great job for me during Drawing 1.  The timing didn’t work out though, and I started to think about drawing myself;  there seemed to be distinct advantages – I was always available; would pose as long as I needed; didn’t have to pay myself; didn’t have to worrying about the need to flatter; and I was the only person I knew who would pose nude for me.


I could find very few precedents of self portraits of the nude figure by female artists, and none before 20c.  Those I did find were quite inspiring:- (Addendum – many weeks later I found nude self portraits by Louise Courtnell and Anna Dougherty in my 500 Portraits book of the BP Portrait Award.  I’ve also looked at the powerful self portraits of Jenny Saville since writing this log)

As far as I could establish Paula Modersohn Becker was the first.  For this 1906 painting she must have posed and then drawn and painted from memory (she isn’t shown in the act of painting), something I found extraordinarily difficult when I tried it, and maybe should make a point of practising.  In this work, the figure has been painted onto a fairly flat mid tone background – the delicate outlines of the figure do seem to almost float, giving a soft and romantic look.   The focal point is the facial expression because it’s well defined in terms of colour, line and contrast.  



In her 80s Alice Dean painted a very frank depiction of her own figure sitting in a striped chair. 

Gesture, posture, assured draftsmanship, and an eye for color are at the heart of her interpretive skills.”  “Her full-length form seated before the easel recalls the centuries-old tradition of artists painting themselves. At the same time, her self-portrait ignores convention by virtue of the fact that Neel is nude. Her nakedness serves as a metaphor for her candor. The angle of the small sofa on which she sits and her upraised foot suggest some tension in the moment, despite the artist’s calm facial demeanor. Neel’s unflinching realism captures a body that does not conform to notions of feminine beauty—her breasts sag, her thighs are ample, and her distended stomach has lost its tone. Her self does not escape the same clinical analysis that she gave to others. Without apology, she presents herself as a woman who takes pride in her role as an artist, and she declares that talent and character, not transient beauty, make one interesting.”

In this painting, bold lines describing shape and volume have been retained.  The figure and other large areas have been painted in fairly simple blocked areas of intense colour.  Simple outlines and shapes allow the linear aspect to dominate.  The background context has hardly been realised.  The focal point is the face again, my eye is continually drawn back to that startling red complexion and pursed lips.


The theme was taken up by the contemporary artist Chantal Joffe, who nods to Alice Neel in her title “Self portrait sitting on a striped chaise long).  The painting is  “a direct reference to Neel’s influence in its nudity, composition and evocative expression”.

The cast shadows within and under the face and on the right arm are quite boldly coloured.  In Joffe’s portray we are really concentrating on the contours of her figure, and it’s weight revealed by the contours of the striped cushion.


The main disadvantage I found was the distinct lack of available poses I could hold comfortably and still see while drawing, especially juggling with two mirrors.  The first pose was the most comfortable and I took my time measuring and checking proportions, lines and shapes over and over again.

With a little more articulation of the background a greater sense of the figure in space could be achieved. Somehow I look to be a bit of a giant – daddy bear sitting in goldilocks’ studio!

The next pose was most uncomfortable to maintain whilst drawing, and my view of the figure via two mirrors a little lacking in detail. I gave up quite quickly – can’t imagine doing a complete painting in this position!  But I quite like the look of the pose, and will see if I can take a selfie using a timer, to paint from.


My third drawing went back to the first pose, viewed in the mirror from a different angle.

Ive indicated more context, an archway framing the figure, a flue seen through the archway on the far wall; a picture hanging on the nearer wall and a rug on the floor in front of the figure.  The figure is very much influenced by Alice Neel.  I like how the position of my legs is repeated in the legs of the tripod and the angles made by the drawing tools I’m holding.  There’s tension in the way my foot is angled and the tipping back of the chair.  This is my winner – to be taken forward to the next exercise.




3.1.2 linear figure study – self portrait

Enlarging and reproducing the main lines of the graphite study done in the previous exercise was quick and easy using a pentagram, and I then painted the lines of the composition with very dilute process blue.


I did some trials in my sketchbook with pre-mixed colours for flesh tones based on Naples Yellow Red Light made a range from warm to cold, light to dark, then painted the figure quickly and simply with my mixes left over from those experiments.

The figure is going to be very light in tone surrounded by the dark area through the archway, mid tone floor and lighter wall on the right  Wanted to create a warm feel.  Have looked at Rufino Tamayo‘s use of colour and texture.  Experimented with mixing orange, yellow and brown.  Burnt umber for the dark tones, cad yellow and orange for a goldish light tone for the wall; cad yellow and yellow ochre for midtone floor.  I want texture to give a feeling of softness and depth, so will build up a few layered washes, blotting darker colour off to show lighter layers underneath. I tried dropping alcohol in to wet paint for texture but it seems the main use of that is to create rather large rings or circles.  I could spatter or dry-brush paint on instead of removing it.

Work in progress gallery:


The background was washed in very loosely with liquid mixtures of burnt umber, cadmium yellow and red, and allowed to drip, run and merge.  Then I drew the figure with the brush using cad red and indigo, and added broad areas of tone, resisting the urge to add detail and precision.

I liked how the washes merged and ran, like watercolour; and how I was able to layer colours to add tone.

The painting stayed at this stage for a week while I pondered my next step.  The figure I felt was done, but I wanted to improve the surroundings somehow, feeling the colours were too bright and simplistic, not quite knowing how to add texture and a bit of subtlety. I played with InspirePro and iPad, using the dry-brush tool to transform my bright background colours into tertiary colours, darkening the far wall and floor until they seemed to merge, lightening the foreground to show the light from the right shining on the figure.  It looked good, and so I translated what I’d done on to my canvas, dry-brushing burnt umber, sap green, Naples yellow and white over my background.  I feel the painting now has more depth and that the figure sits in a real space.   My dry-brushing skills need practising though – there’s a fine line between muting and dirtying colours which I didn’t quite manage to tread!

 I’ve learned a lot from this exercise, and enjoyed the approach to drawing a figure with the brush and making loose, runny washes in acrylic.  However I am asking myself if it’s really a good process for me to copy my drawings into my paintings, to draw in outline and then try to organise my composition to fill in.  The composition doesn’t work particularly well, and I  feel a lot of ‘creative me’ is lost in that process, and ‘careful me’ takes over.


Here’s the final painting.  Looking back some weeks later I feel it’s only half resolved.  I think I became dispirited; like any painting it was a struggle, and on top of that I was feeling self- conscious and slightly cold!  I’d like to go back into it one day and work it into a more resolved piece.  However, the studio is now very cold, so it’ll have to wait!


3.1.2 linear figure study – painting with scissors

Before starting on the painted version of the linear study from the previous exercise I took a diversion for fun, and embarked on what I thought would be a quick sketchbook experiment –  a painted collage of a seated figure which I drew from a magazine photo.  I was venturing into the unknown not having much experience of collage, and had to scrap the first attempt on A2 brown paper, which buckled hopelessly as I tried to glue a background into it.  Using a block of watercolour paper as my base was much more successful – with acrylic medium I was able to collage torn rectangles of acrylic painted cheap paper on to form my background.

My line drawing of the figure in graphite on cartridge paper was cut into ten main shapes, which I then painted and applied to the background.  Finally I added some ink lines to define the shoulders and to demarcate the background here and there.  It sounds quick but in fact took ages as I used trial and error to solve how to make the image I wanted.


I’m pleased with the outcome (it’s a bit Patrick Caulfield-esque; I loved that exercise in Drawing 1, it appealed to my penchant for measuring, counting and accuracy)!  It has some good negative shapes where the head and feet cut across the borders.  The closely related colours of the background and the figure work – she’s not lost in the background because the few simple lines and shapes are enough to enable the viewer to ‘read’ the pose and gesture.  The complementary dress colours lift the painting, and are picked out in the background too.  I’m not sure it’s a ‘proper’ painting though – I’ve adopted ideas from my source inspiration but i feel I haven’t added enough of my own creativity and voice –  but in any case it’s been a good study for improving technique and exploring new ways of thinking about colour.

Reference / inspiration – Richard Diebenkorn, Yellow Collage, 1966

3.1.3 tonal figure study -1st session

For this exercise I engaged a model to sit for me in my studio.  We started with a few 5-10 minute seated poses, which I drew with willow charcoal on brown paper, setting a timer to keep the pace  up and discourage detail.


The video ‘Paint like Degas’ by Damian Callan ( gives a tutorial on drawing a portrait with charcoal on tracing paper.  You start by laying a sheet of cream coloured paper under the tracing paper, and, holding a long stick of willow charcoal by its end, drawing a continuous line around and within the whole figure, with a light touch. In this way you keep exploring the subject, searching for the lines, until an image starts to form, then using a shorter stick of charcoal, you continue, but pressing a little harder.  Next you start to add tone by hatching, smudging and lifting with a putty eraser.  Then draw with a sharp edge of a silicon eraser.  Spray with fixative, then continue investigating darks and lights, using compressed charcoal and white chalk.


I really enjoyed the method, which allows a gradually deepening exploration of the subject without worrying about getting lines wrong; the feel of the charcoal on the tracing paper is velvety smooth with no scratchiness.  Comment from husband “very good – natural, not laboured or stilted”.  I like how the lines and scribbles from the contour drawing still show, and give a feeling of movement.  I’m pleased with how the lights and darks describe volume, and I will make more subtle grading between the two next time.  

Comparing the photo to the  drawing, which was done over an hour in short sessions, is revealing.  I like the twist in the photo, the lean to her right, and the upwards, sideways tilt to the head.  My main aim would be to capture those gestural aspects more in the next study.

3.1.3 tonal figure study – 2nd session

This video  demonstrates another charcoal technique, one that starts by lightly drawing the main lines then establishing four values – black, white, mid-light (provided by the paper) and mid-dark.  These tones are laid in rapidly, in abstract fashion, then modified using various erasing tools (kneadable eraser, q-tip, chamois) and black and white charcoal pencils.  The mid-dark tone was produced by rubbing black with the chamois.

Applying this to my figure drawing, I analysed my subject and the background in terms of these four tones before starting to draw on the textured cream-coloured paper, which I’d prepared with an overall midtone tinted charcoal.  I spent 30minutes on this study, drawing without measuring, and by putting the photo and the drawing side by side it’s easy to see where ive distorted the proportions.  The tones are working reasonably well, though I haven’t quite captured the full effect of the light shining on the front of the model…the top of the back could be darker to show the curve of the shoulder…left leg is too light…the floor could be half a tone darker to differentiate it from the wall.


The next study was done on similar paper prepared with midtone charcoal.  Although I spent a similar amount of time on it it’s a bit less complete than the previous study, but I feel the proportions are more accurate.


I’ve done several studies now, concentrating on understanding the tonal relationships, and I’m ready to start my painting in the next session.  The seated pose above appeals to me most. I like the pose, the light, and my interpretation with thinned and elongated proportions and a semi-abstract background of blocks of tone.

Researching Odilon Redon and his pastel paintings I’m keen to try some of his methods in my painting.  He would start by making a completely worked out tonal charcoal drawing, and then add soft pastel, layer upon layer, fixing the work at intermittent stages.  I talk about his techniques more  in my Drawing 1 blog here.

3.1.3 tonal figure painting

So I started by sitting my model facing a sunny window and making a tonal drawing in charcoal (various types, and using a range of adding and subtracting methods) on a textured 50×70 support, which I had reduced with masking tape to 40x60cm.  In the gallery of intermediate stages below, the first photo shows how I was so dissatisfied with the head that I completely altered the set of the head on the shoulders.  In the second photo I had also corrected the placement of the back and legs quite significantly.  By the third photo, with background and highlights added and the charcoal fixed, I was ready to begin adding soft pastel colour.  (The fourth photo is a layered amalgam of my charcoal drawing and a reference photo of the pose, which I set at 50% transparency using Sketchbook Pro.  I include it because I felt I had discovered by accident another approach to combining the two media of charcoal and soft pastel in separate, fixed layers, creating a sort of ‘lost and found’ feel, or a retaining of the drawing’s pentimenti.  Something to be explored later in my sketchbooks).


This painting by Helen Lessore (below, left) greatly appeals to me for the atmosphere, the light bathing the face and figure, and the tonal character of the limited pallete.  The influence of Sickert and the Camden Town group can be seen in the subdued painterly style.  The flesh tones and modelling are very convincing.  I particularly like the area of the right thigh, the joint with the hip is brilliantly done.  At the same time she has taken artistic license – proportions are elongated; and I found it an impossible pose to adopt, twisting and displaying the rounded upper back to such an extent while the arm hangs straight down.  But the effect is to emphasise the rather meditative, sad atmosphere.  I also like the face, which is very fine and sweet.


For the third session on this exercise my model defaulted!  I decided to carry on without her using my reference photos.  Having the tones worked out in the charcoal study made adding colour faster and more accurate tonally, especially as I was using a limited palette.

Work in progress

At this late stage I discovered a basic, glaring error in my drawing – the model’s legs were angled away from me and foreshortened, and I’d drawn them as though she was sitting square in the chair – hence they look extremely short in the painting. I needed to alter the angle of the feet and remodel the forms of the legs, after which I fixed the pastel ready to refine the profile of the face and highlights.  Below is the final painting.  The legs now look ok, by dint of altering the shape of the knee, modelling the Achilles’ tendon, and pivoting the feet away. 

Below is the final painting.


 This painting, done over three sessions, has certainly been a struggle as I was determined to keep looking critically at the proportions and get them right, and I think I’ve succeeded in that at last. The other thing that bugged me throughout was the face, which until the very end looked coarse and ugly, and I finally made the nose and lips smaller and achieved a better representation.

I am pleased with the background and floor.  To me it looks more believable and to have more depth than I’ve managed in previous paintings.  I used the layered photo image as a reference, and this helped me simplify and modulate the abstract shapes of the background context so they were representative but not too hard edged.

 The figure appears as a solid firm existing in space.  Although I went wrong in the early stages with locating the legs correctly in space, I’ve gained a better understanding of the main tonal relationships and how light falls across the figure.

Sickert in Dieppe


The exhibition at the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester charts the influence of the port of Dieppe on the art of Walter Sickert (1860-1942). Dieppe attracted many British writers and artists in the 19c. including Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley.   

Sickert painted numerous townscapes of Dieppe, often painting the same views in different conditions of light and from different viewpoints – he has been compared to Canaletto, in the sense that he produced an almost topographical account of the town’s architecture.  His work there included drawings, etchings, prints and sketches, and record an intense interest in the shops, cafes, inhabitants, churches and streets, harbour and fishing quarter.  

Sickert was a permanent resident in Dieppe for seven years and a regular visitor for over four decades, so he had a long standing connection to Europe and contemporary French painting that set him apart from his peers in Britain.  As his years there went on he was affiliated with the impressionists (Monet, Pissarro), and forged a long-standing friendship with Degas.  Later he played host to Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman, whose visits to Dieppe played a formative role in the Camden Town Group .  He came to influence many later British artists including Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Celia Paul.

At first (1885) he painted atmospheric scenes in the manner of his teacher, James McNeill Whistler, but as he came under the influence of Degas, his paintings started to combine the earlier vague, ethereal style with a more representational, carefully planned, strongly architectural mode.  Here are my notes on a selection of the paintings I looked at.


L’Hotel Royal, 1894 –  The facade of the hotel was a brilliant white, and yet in the painting, which seems to be set in the fading light of a sunset, it has taken on the greenish tint of the grass in front of it.  The sky meanwhile is a sort of a lilac-pink. Respectable middle class promenaders shimmer in white and dun colours, melting into the dusk.  Tricolours droop, but their colours are broken.  The effect is wholly that of the end of something – the fading of light, the fading of the era, the century and the way of life that preceded the First World War.


From 1899 Sickert painted harbour scenes, local fisherwomen, and the streets leading from the harbour.  He made many many paintings of narrow streets with hand carts, small shops and tiny houses, juxtaposed with the facade of the gothic church of Saint Jacques, which he investigated in two distinct series of work from every possible viewpoint.  Although these paintings are wonderful studies in bright light and shade, and impressionistic, they were made from working drawings in the studio, and not plein air in the manner of the Impressionists.  They look as a spontaneous response to the subject might do, but they were apparently carefully calculated and planned.


Facade of St jacques, 1902 is an ethereal treatment of a very solid, architectural subject.  The purplish sky is brushed in roughly over an under layer of luminous yellow, which is allowed to show through.  This golden yellow pervades the whole scene.  The monumental facade shimmers with it, it’s edges broken and dissolving.  The building at the vanishing point of perspective, bathed in light, is dabbed with a bright version of the same yellow.  The buildings darken in shadow nearer street level and melt into the dark tan coloured road – mixed presumably from the same purple and yellow colours.  A figure walks the pavement on the left – totally un-detailed and only discernible by the head and shoulders contrasted with the dark building behind it.



Sickert gave this advice to a colleague: “Don’t try and make too certain a painting.  Go loosely and lightly and quickly”  (exhibition notes).  I think his is advice very well worth my bearing in mind when painting townscapes and interiors especially, as the nature of the subject leads me to concentrate on precise detail to the detriment of my expressive and emotional aims.


Coin de la Rue, Sainte Catherine, Dieppe, 1900-2 The stone tracery of the rose window has a remarkable realistic 3D effect, given that the brushwork when I inspected closely is made of very sketchy brush strokes of ochre and brown, with some splashes of pure white.  The figures are devoid of detail and most blend in totally with their background – which means they don’t distract the eye from the main focus of the work, the church facade.  There, there is high contrast both in colour and tone, between the deep blue sky and the bright ochre stonework.


In 1912 Sickert moved to a countryside village 12 miles from Dieppe, and painted landscapes until 1914 when he returned to England for the war years.  In 1919 he returned there and resumed his landscape work


Dieppe Races, 1920-26  I looked at this landscape for some time, admiring the composition of a village set in a distant plain, viewed from a high ridge.  A combination of Sickert’s tendency to paint his subject as if melting into the middle ground, the gallery lighting and my short-sightedness meant I didn’t see the galloping racehorses until I read the exhibition notes!  The horses are painted in the foreground in a blur of blue-grey and a reddish-brown, and their riders, despite being dressed in colourful silks, are captured as indistinct, fleeting impressions.  Like the Hotel Royale the effect is unsettling; the lowering sky, the long shadows and the horses rushing through like ghosts gave me a feeling of time rushing by, unstoppable.

In his final years in Dieppe, Sickert returned to figure painting and interiors, working from live models in his studio, and painting circus troupes, cabaret, casino and restaurant scenes.  The theme was pretence and play-acting.  As a sometime ex-pat, looking at the selection of these paintings, I can sense that he struggled to feel that he belonged to his adopted home.  In the words of Joni Mitchell “Oh it gets so lonely – when you’re walking and the streets are full of strangers”.  His subjects frequently had their backs turned to him.  They were immersed in a culture he could only look at as an outsider.  His deep-down home was Britain, and he cut his ties with Dieppe and returned to London in 1922. 

Baccarat – The Fur Cape, 1920  has an extraordinary composition, worthy of Degas.  How can a painting of someone’s back be a good idea?  But the carved chair, red hat and tiger-skin cape are bursting with interest in form, line and colour, they are a feast for the eyes – and their abstract ness is balanced by the interest of the scene going on across the table, and the complementary touch of green in the lady on the right’s hat.  It goes to show a bold, abstract approach to composition can be very successful.  


Victor Lecour, 1922-24 Was a restaurant proprietor in Dieppe.  Sickert has posed him standing proudly, his prosperity emphasised by his magnificent girth and luxurious surroundings.  


This painting appeals to me for its use of colour and light and the handling of paint.  The colours, as in all of Sickert’s oeuvre, are muted, but this painting is very colourful – there are reds, yellows, blues and violets, greens.  There is daylight from the window falling on the figure’s left side, and electric light on his right. The two are handled completely differently; the daylight is subtle and graduated; the electric light is hard edged and bright, almost daubed on thickly with a freely used brush. The patterns, textures and colourfulness of the interior reminded me of Matisse with his highly decorated interiors.

The exhibition notes cite Degas’ Diego Martelli as a precedent for this, and also a similarity to the plush surroundings of Matisse’s Odalisque series – both are shown below.  Matisse’s interiors also often had a seafront balcony as a prominent feature, as has this painting.  I like the light striking M. Lecourt, describing the solid round dome of his head, the light, transparent texture of his beard and then, roughly highlighting his entire right side in the same ochre, which seems to suggest another light source, perhaps artificial.



My impression of Sickert’s painting before I saw this exhibition and later reflected on it, was of an overall somber, brown, crumbling darkness.  Where I wondered were the bright colours of Degas and the Impressionists by whom he was supposedly influenced?  But as Celia Paul writes, “it seemed to me false, too, to imitate the pure colours of Cezanne, who, after all, painted in the south of France, whereas here we were in dark and rainy London [substitute Dieppe] where the predominant colours are luminous grey and brown.  If bright colours are seen, then they appear all the more intensely against the darkness, but not as in the fusion of light that pervades all the colours of a late Cezanne painting”. 


The Red Shop (The October Sun), 1888 has a palette of brown, with warm golds and ochres; the bright contrast of the vermillion gives the impression of the setting sun striking the facade

The Square at Night, 1902 appeared nowhere near so bright in the gallery where it was displayed behind glass from which the lighting reflected.

When I saw the painting in digital format (shown above) the colours were a revelation, and I guess closer to the actual painting if seen in good light and without glass.

The colours are flat, quickly painted areas, drawn with the brush on top of a grey-mauve underpainting which shows through in many places and gives the whole composition a unity.  The complementary yellow touches shine out by contrast.  Once more, the figures are comprised of simple blocks of colour, with little detail, even in the foreground, but they are clearly a throng of people, adding liveliness, and making us think about what they are watching, what street show is going on in front of them.  The complementary contrast of the green windows and the red of the gendarmerie trousers draws us in.  


 L’armoire à glace, 1924. The reds, yellows and oranges seen in the mirror appear intensely against the overall darkness in this scene.  I notice Sickert often uses near-black to delineate architectural and interior features, but in such a way that (unlike me!) he avoids any hint of attempting precise technical drawing.  I think he does this by making his lines very variable, sometimes exaggerated, sometimes vague, often thick, coarse, wavering, and usually meaningful, by which I mean he’s not just drawing artificial lines that don’t exist, but lines he observed, denoting an edge, a change of plane, a cast shadow etc.
References (websites accessed 17-18/09/2015)
Sickert in Dieppe, ed Anna Zeuner, Pallant House Gallery
Wiki art