Monthly Archives: October 2015

Research point – portraits conveying mood or atmosphere





In the early years of Picasso‘s career the artist went through several stages in the development of his work, including the blue and rose periods.  The plates from the book of a 1997 exhibition I visited, Picasso-The Early Years 1892-1906, are rich in examples of portraits which convey mood and atmosphere – some of them are shown in the gallery below.  I spent a very rewarding hour or two looking at his work and thinking about how and why he represented people in the way he did during this period.  He was deeply engaged in the political upheavals and social problems of his day, and these, as well as personal tragedy, informed his art.

Many of his paintings from the early years convey a deeply disturbing sense of misery and pain.  This is very relevant to my concerns in Part 3, while I investigate my theme of refugees, particularly children and groups of people.  They concern the poverty and suffering of marginalised people, but not in a politically charged way.  His subjects – prostitutes, beggars, indigent families –  are silent and self-contained, passive,  withdrawn, indifferent to their surroundings in the despair of loneliness and exhaustion.

p97, Crouching Woman, 1902 – the pose itself – crouched, arms folded, face hidden from view – reflects a person turned in on herself and shutting herself out.  The sea is indifferent.

P150, Mother and Child (oil on cardboard) – this is the odd one out, with its bright colours.  THe stance of the woman’s head and leaning body – looking for the end of the road?  The child’s feet seem placed too high relative to hers.

p171 Mother and Child by a Fountain – like the baby in the previous image, this one is denoted simply by a rectangle of white and a circle for a head.  Again the stance of the woman’s head creates the emotional pull.

P172, Seated Woman and Child – the circle enfolding the baby, of face, back and arms is so protective.

P173, Saint -Lazare Woman by Moonlight – beautiful background, like the first (Crouching Woman) comprised of  simple tonal rectangles, in perspective.  She is also withdrawn, arms folded in, leg placed to is courage any approach.

P181 Woman and Child by the Sea – an implacable, empty sea, and an empty boat.  What can the red flower signify?

P185, La Soupe – the contrast between the child’s lively gesture and the mother’s defeated, worn stance

P184 Crouching Woman – her face in deep shadow lends her an air of utter misery

P186 Mistletoe Seller (gouache and watercolour on paper)  – this is different from the preceding paintings – the subject a man and boy, but also the harsh quality of the light on the man’s face – I have the feeling it’s lit by a light  held by someone just out of the picture frame, someone he’s talking to.

P190 Tragedy – again the sea – has a child been lost to it?  The boy, pleading for information and reassurance, his parents each turned inward to their own grief.

P191 Blind Man’s Meal

These were mainly oil paintings on canvas.  They are predominantly painted in blue, with sometimes a sort of cold khaki colour; and muted pale flesh tints highlighting faces, feet and hands. In general his portrayal of his subjects is simplified and stylised – this is how I would portray my refugees – they are anonymous, types, expressing a state of being rather than individuality.

Boy With a Dog, 1905, (p248, Picasso – The Early Years 1892-1906)  shows the same characteristics, but now the palette, though still blue, is lighter.


Van Gogh‘s Head of a Peasant Woman and the other portraits in this gallery resemble the family group members in the famous Potato Eaters, for which they were probably done as a series in preparation.  He depicted the peasants in dark colours and dark, meagre surroundings, indicating their hard, impoverished lives.  The first face for example portrays the struggle to survive on the land.  Her features are coarse and lumpen, complexion weather-beaten, the brow and eyes express anxiety; her hair and cap awry, she has no time for grooming or resources for finery.  Even the rounded line of her shoulders suggests a malnourished, hard-working life.

These paintings strongly informed my response to the exercise ‘Portrait Conveying Mood or Atmosphere’.  I wanted to convey a similar gaunt, worn mood and dark atmosphere.


Rembrandt painted hundreds of portraits and self portraits.  Many are placed in a mysterious twilight world, with the occasional splash of sultry colour.  His pictures of old age – his and others – are especially wonderful.  He concentrates on the face and the hands,  shrouds them in darkness,  the light shining golden-brown to highlight a cheek here, a collar there, capturing pity and pathos in light and tone.  He makes his characters not only life-like but seem to feel.

All these paintings have strong tonal contrasts, but the chiaroscuro is more subtle than Caravaggio’s.  Backgrounds are dark sepia or umber, but not black and empty.context is suggested in smoky tones.  Clothes, hair and hats are nearly always dark, affording the greatest contrast to the skin, which is brown but appears golden and shining.  By far the greater part of the picture is dark – light is restricted to the focal points – an approach I’ve adopted, for example in my assignment painting ‘Boy with Baby’ where the baby’s face is strongly highlighted.

German Exressionists    tried to express meaning and emotion rather than reality. They manipulated appearance – facial features, hands, background, proportion – in an attempt to capture their subjects’ psychological state. They used distortion (extreme angles and flattened forms), garish colour, unusual settings. I looked at the work of Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoska, George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz (brooding introspection, melancholy), Emil Nolde, Max Beckmann, Otto Dix.  Many of these artists were traumatised by their experiences of the First World War, and later denounced as ‘degenerate’ by the Nazis.

Kathe Kollwitz‘s drawing of a mother with her dead child powerfully expresses (by exaggerated gesture and dark atmosphere) feelings of intense love and grief.  This is relevant to my paintings of refugees, in which I tried to use similar approach to express these feelings. 

Oskar Kokoska painting below also portrays a somber atmosphere; I subconsciously adopted a similar palette and approach to light in my Telling a Story painting, which I think turned out to have the strongest atmosphere of all my part 3 paintings.

His appears to be a very oil-painterly approach to painting – brush-Mark upon brush-Mark, wet on wet, the fluid colours built up until there are many subtle under-layers of colour and mark.  I like the way the face shines out of the dark smoky background, a bit reminiscent of the Rembradndts above.

Emile Nolde


I love the garish colouring-book colours of these.  The black outlines of the young couple give an even more ‘coloured-in’ look.  None of the subjects are looking directly at one another, yet they seem to be intimate, expressing feeling and intent by their stance, gesture, closeness.  I’ve tried to adopt these approaches in my assignment pieces.

Otto Dix

Otto Dix’s portraits above (with the exception of the last ’Woman Smoking’ lack the subtlety of characterisation of the other artists I’ve looked at, and of his own paintings concerned with war and ‘social realism’.  They’re more akin to caricature, with their rather superficial stereotyping of the subjects’ supposed attributes, suggested by the title of the pieces – the painter, poet, journalist, lawyer, dancer etc.  I get the feeling he didn’t get under his sitters’ skin.


Picasso – The Early Years 1892-1906, Ed Marilyn McCully, National Gallery of Art Washington, Yale University Press, 1997


Rembrandt by Michael Bockemühl, pub Taschen 2007

Rembrandt Sixteen Examples in Colour of the Artist’s Work, Mortimer Menpes, Pub A&C Black, 1911


World Art by Dr Mike O’Mahoney, pub Flame Tree Publishing, 2006


Research point – self portraits

 We are asked to look at five or six self portraits that appeal, with a broad time span and a range of techniques, and to compare these with portraits of the same sitter by other artists.

Sir Anthony Van Dyck 1599-1641 Final Self Portrait. I went to see this self portrait at the National Portrait Gallery.   I chose him because he was the first in Britain to bring a sense of movement and naturalness into portraiture generally, which up until then had been absent – figures were shown rigid and full-frontal, as I saw in the rooms relating to earlier times.  His paintings had a sense of perspective and space, graceful fluid poses  In this self portrait there is broad, confident, sweeping brushwork – standing close you’re conscious of the brushwork.   The expressiveness in the face makes him instantly recognisable as a person who could be of our own days – before Van Dyck the face had been painted as an expressionless mask, the trappings of wealth and power more important than the character.  The face and hair are very finely painted – you can’t see the brush-strokes here. The right arm is held at an angle that indicates the artist at work.  The costume is painted quickly and broadly with a dry brush, vigorous and informal way, and is striking with the pattern of white slashes on black.  He’s looking out of be picture at the viewer very strongly  it gives a sense of an individual who really existed and is communicating with us today  



Matisse’s (1869-1954) self portrait in a striped shirt (1906) is one of only a few that he did.  He stares directly at us in a challenging way.  Maybe he’s daring us to question the rapid, rough brushstrokes and his choice of high intensity green and turquoise for the face.  We can deduce the light is from the right, highlighting the neck, ear and the side of the head with a pink tint.  The shadow areas of the eye sockets modulate through raw umber to a deeper brown.  I wonder why the left side of the face is not painted darker – is there a second, weaker source of light from the left?  What then does the green face signify?  Perhaps the reflected light from his surroundings, describing the overall ambience, but also by using green to contrast the face with its complementary hue, the red of the hair and beard,  that part of the face becomes a strong focal point, and is brought forward in the picture plane.

The background, which appears to be roughly painted on to a muted midtone background, is composed of the colours in the face, separated into their constituent hues.  The stripes of the shirt pick up all the same colours, with the addition of a bright red stripe bringing the right shoulder forward into the foreground.  He’s used another device to emphasise this, which is to make the strongest tonal contrast along the line of the light coloured right shoulder, by darkening the background immediately adjacent to it.

So this self portrait is a tour de force displaying Matisse’s skill with colour, showing how it can be used unconventionally to create pictoral harmony, as well as a sense of form and depth. 

Now I looked at a 1905 portrait of Matisse by Derain.

It’s clearly the same person, but painted in a warmer light, showing Matisse as more relaxed and confident.  A strong under painting in line is evident, especially around the neckline of the shirt, and the pipe.  The flat grey support can also be seen here, and between the short dabs of paint making up the beard, and in the ‘white’ of the right eye.  The background by contrast to the head is painted using long, vertical, blended brushstrokes, while the technique used for the shirt is somewhere in between the two approaches.  In this way I think Derain has created more detail, texture and therefore focus on the head.

Colours are used tonally ; yellow, pink and red to contrast light against blue, brow and black depicting shade.  By selecting colours carefully according to how they relate to each other, the volume of the head appears realistic.

I’ve assimilated my research into these two portraits into my own painting for the self portrait exercise.  I found it enjoyable and expressive to paint as broadly as this, but it’s not as easy to produce a convincing portrait as Matisse and Derain make it look!


Alberto Giacometti, 1901-66.  Self portrait around 1923 – oil on canvas on wood.  I visited the current exhibition of his work at the National Portrait Gallery, and saw three self portraits, drawings and a painting.  This is an early work by Giacometti, made before he turned to his later abstract-figurative style.  It’s quite traditionally representative, but already you can see the search for line and mark, revealing the process by which he made the work.  The jacket for example is black, or grey, but on closer inspection is made up of a rainbow of coloured marks; while the face is composed of ochre, turquoise and pink brush marks,  unblended, revealing the planes of the face and the way light falls on the head.  The head comprises a small part of the whole painting;  I like how the artist has left no corner of the canvas untouched in making his composition – there is a huge amount of interest to engage the eye – but theirs does distract from the sitter, who disappears somewhat into his surroundings.  I like the appearance of the arm, the brushes and the easel framing the composition at the bottom.  He portrays himself as a serious young man, intent on improving his art.

His later portraits are often drawings and the painting below has the feeling of drawing, with prolific mark-making, and an emphasis on line.  In this portrait of Giacometti by contemporary artist Pierluigi Romami, the colours are incidental, the painting being readable purely in tone.  The style is very appealing to me – I love to draw by scribbling, exploring outlines, placing marks until the form I recognise as being ‘right’ emerges by itself.  This is how I feel Giacometti produces his drawings, with extraneous marks and lines giving his images movement, life and presence.  I love the use of black and white, with a little bit of tonal colour added – like adding faint watercolour washes to a sketch.  I haven’t been able to find out what media was used here; it could be an under painting in acrylics (blue and yellowish green in the background; the face in flesh tints using the blue, yellow-green and also red) with charcoal and white pastel marks added.  The hair has an amazing tough, wiry texture.  He has achieved a very appealing expression – kind, benign.


Kathe Kollwitz 1867-1945 – this self portrait is painted with a white medium (chalk, pastel?) of varying opacity, leaving the mid tone ground to describe the majority of the form.  There is most detail and contrast in the face and hands, drawing our eye to these parts.  Charcoal is used to give simple definition to the folds of her clothes.  She has achieved an incredible amount of expression with very simple, economical means.


Jenny Savile‘s paintings are monumental – or at least, she portrays her subjects as vast, using unusual viewpoints and perspective to exaggerate their size.  This self portrait (Reverse, 2003) shows a zoomed in image of her own face, lying down on a reflective surface.  It’s a strange pose; she’s not resting; the lips are slack and they sag with the flesh of her cheek with more than the gentle force of gravity.  At first I thought she was lying on her front, then studying the line of the neck and shoulder I realised she’s lying on her back. With her skin sweaty and suffused with blood, eyes blank, head twisted, lips apart and wet, this can only be an image of a woman having sex.  I’m left to ponder the circumstances and her feelings, but it’s a disturbing, powerful, raw image.



Jenny Savile has been described as the inheritor of Lucian Freud‘s banner.  Here is his portrait of Frank Auerbach.  I can certainly see similarities between these two.  In both, the subject is absent from and unaware of the viewer – compared to the Van Dyck self portrait, which is speaks to us, these two are firmly preoccupied with their own concerns. Both are highly painterly, by which I mean that there is a broad, unblended use of the paint, resulting in an unrealistic but highly descriptive portrayal of the flesh.  Both portraits have a compelling sense of the volume and weight of the head, the roundness of form.  Savile’s self portrait speaks to me more of a real live flesh and blood, sweat and saliva person!  The texture of the Freud portrait is hard, dry, as though made of some inorganic material.  I’ve lately been sketching the head from different angles, trying to grasp its structure and proportions, and this, more than any of the foregoing, except perhaps the Van Dyke, seems to me the most solid, realistic, three-dimensional, convincingly drawn and proportioned head.



Finally, Auerbach’s self-portrait.

Auerbach is said to paint portraits not to convey a likeness but an experience, an emotional response to his subject.  I had no concept of what this meant, or experience of drawing in this way,  until I attended Jim Unsworth’s Big Draw event at his studio a couple of weeks ago.  There we were encouraged to draw (big, fast and messy, with buckets of water and paint, and clumps of charcoal on the end of a four foot stick)) our experience, feelings, thoughts, emotions, about the subject – whether it was a beautiful greyhound, a rose briar, a clump of hanging creepers, or the experience of the whole day from memory.  The process was freeing and fun; the results were a revelation to all of us, some of them quite appealing as expressive drawings.  On the other hand I recently read a stream of public responses on Facebook to both an Auerbach portrait and to my drawings made at the Big Draw; they were similarly bewildered and, in the case of the Auerbach, overwhelmingly unappreciative; in my case the comments were unusually sparse – by which I understand my usual ‘like’ club were simply mystified at best or were too polite to say what they thought!

To me all art is about communication – who writes poetry, makes music, makes art purely for themselves and a narrow group of like-minded colleagues?  I aspire to convey my thoughts and feelings to a wider group, and so at this early stage in my art education I still cling to forms of painting and drawing that are more accessible and appealing – which means representational, and with evidence of skill discernible by the lay-person.  No doubt I’ll ‘get over it’ later in my OCA career!



References   Accessed 16 Oct 2015. Accessed 16 Oct 2015. 


The Henry Moore Foundation

This outdoor display of some of Henry Moore’s monumental sculptures is complemented with intimate displays of his work in progress on maquettes, printing, drawing and carving in a number of studios.

The sculptures are free to approach, walk around and view from every angle undisturbed, and even touch.  They are indeed very tactile, with their mainly curved, natural forms cast out of bronze, smooth, rough and striated.  The subject is mainly the human form, simplified to essential elements and proportions, distorted but very recognisable.  In one of the studios, a guide demonstrated that Moore’s inspiration for some of his forms was taken from the interesting shapes of lumps of flint which he had found suggested some idea or resembled some human gesture. I was very surprised at this – I’d thought it must be the other way round, that he would start with a realistic representation of he figure, and gradually simplify and distort until he felt he’d reached what he wanted to express.

The result of using these natural forms, found in the landscape, is that his works appear very much at home outdoors in the landscape, part of it.  And this makes his subjects – mother and child, reclining figures – seem very grounded in the spirit of nature and earth.


The idea of taking a natural form – and abstracting from it to create a representation of a completely different form – is quite exciting…in two dimensions it’s like seeing things in the shapes of clouds, in ink blots and water stains..and making something out of those on paper or canvas.