Monthly Archives: November 2015

Research point – figures in interiors

The subject of the interior, with figures in it, seems to be a far smaller genre than still life, or the figure, for which there are many more examples to look at.  However, once my search was under way I discovered many that appealed to me – I didn’t want to lose any of them, so I didn’t restrict myself to just two or three.

First of all I discovered Jan Mankes, Boy in an interior, 1911. This poetic painting, made up of cream, ochre and dove-grey tones, with accents of burnt sienna, has an effect of restfulness.  The position of the boy with his back to us, absorbed in his book, which is surrounded by light, is enigmatic.  The edges are soft, making the atmosphere shimmer and melt with a hazy softness and a fading background.  To achieve this effect he would carefully rub thinly applied paint into the canvas, then scour off with a pumice before applying the next layer, which would be partially removed again.



I looked at Degas – Woman At a Window at the Courtauld.  The atmosphere seems warm and sultry with the use of hot reds and black, and accents of light picked out in pale yellow.  Detail is minimal  there is just an indication of a chair, and a view from the half-open window.  The composition with its relative positions and sizes of tones and colours seems perfectly balanced, but without the small detail of the chair would feel rather empty – the chair somehow grounds the woman in three-dimensional space.

Figures in a Bar  is one of several more or less monochromatic paintings by Keith Vaughan on this theme. 

They appeal to me because he has taken simplification (both of the interior and the figures) quite far, and at the same time achieved an observant depiction of the sort of vibe you sometimes feel in a bar – dejected chaps killing time, each in their own private world, but gathered together for the solace of company.  It also reminds me a bit of my last painting for assignment 2 in the way the bar, figures and glasses have been drawn as simple, flat, outlined shapes, some coloured in, others treated differently.


Max Beckmann, Company in Paris, 1931 shows a gathering of high society on the eve of the Third Reich – they all look pretty depressed despite being at a party!  I like the crowded composition – the cast of characters are all crushed together at the front of the picture plane –  and how the eye is somehow drawn to focus on the central character in the foreground – I think this must be because there is the most light on him, and his features stand out.

David Bomberg, Interior and Seated Figure, 1919 – in pencil, pen, brush and black ink, watercolour and body colour – has an unusual viewpoint, with lots of empty brown floor and wall  and the figure half hidden with its back to us and its head cropped!  I like the use of media and colour, and the passages of white which give the eye a breather in the face of all those dark tones.


Willem de Kooning’s Interior 1946 (Bridgeman) is an abstract painting, in which I can see a reclining female form reclining on a red carpet or bed, a window, lamps.  I do like this blend of abstraction and figuration. I find the colours of this work, bright primaries, plus black and white, on a coffee coloured ground, quite appealing.  Like other paintings of his which I’ve looked at this one shows vigorous, agressive brushwork; it’s dynamic and has a sense of not being completely finished.


Finally I chose Leon Kossoff’s Two Seated Figures No 2, 1980, a painting of his parents, done in 2-3 hours, in contrast to most of his paintings which were long drawn out affairs with many obliterated versions under the final one.  The drawing is simple, childlike, but has captured his perception of the situation and the character of the subjects with its dull colours, the dejected anxious expression of the father, and the far-away bored expression of the mother.  The white marks on the surface are drips and spatters of white paint – don’t know what they signify.





3.3.1 a figure in an interior


Note – paintings by artists mentioned below are collected in my Pinterest boards Figure in Interior and Interiors.


The interior is often depicted as an abstract design of tone and colour, shapes, lines and angles, with the figures, if there are any, providing a strong focal point.  I like the idea of bringing together still life, the interior and the figure all in one painting (an example from Bridgeman, Felice Casorati, Girls in Nervi, 1926) 

In the interiors of Matisse, Bonnard, Vuillard and others, interiors are full of pattern, colour, flooding light, dark secret areas, attractive furniture and ornament.  Perhaps their paintings contained a large element of imagination.  My own real home is simpler and doesn’t have so many attractive corners. Its lines and shapes don’t provide convenient pleasing combinations.

To make my interior more interesting with a pleasing abstract composition I realised I would have to partly imagine the interior I want. I will have to simplify the background, and introduce new elements to achieve a satisfying arrangement.

The brief asks us to consider the effect we want, but encourages simplifying.  Effect could be semi-abstract with minimal detail versus realistic and detailed.  Colourful or monochromatic.  Expressive of mood and atmosphere.

The figure could be in the foreground, middle or background. I made quite a few usable sketches of my living room for the exercise “quick sketches around the house”, so it occurred to me that I could do several small painted sketches from these, with figures added (every painting I do doesn’t have to be large, ‘good’ or ‘finished’.  I made tiny (A5-6) painted sketches of still life’s on tables in part 2, and my tutor noted that these too are paintings and to be valued).

So here are my sketches of interiors from part 2, with ideas for figures inserted digitally.

I transferred five of the sketches onto sheets of canvas paper, scaling to A4 – some I drew by eye/hand, some I transferred from  a printed, flipped copy of the sketch, using acrylic gel medium, one I scaled up and copied using a pantograph.

The paintings, done in acrylic, are shown below in the order in which I painted them.  I only got three done, so the other two will wait for a future project.



1. Two Figures sitting at the dining table – I set out to achieve the effect of strong sunlight in the view outside the window coming through and bouncing off the varnished table, lighting everything up with a golden glow.   I felt I made a good start with this one, getting value, temperature and colour contrasts.  I avoided precision and detail (by my standards!) and the effect I got is in the right direction – I set out to create a strong abstract design of lights and darks.  I wish I could have achieved a greater sense of sunlight flooding in and silhouetting the figures, as in the paintings of Dan McCaw.  He seems to achieve this by bleaching out light areas, restricting colour to the dark passages; and by using minimal detail and modelling of form, just suggesting enough with his accents to enable the viewer to fill in the detail in their minds eye.

2. Coming down the stairs – I wanted to capture the effect of strong sunlight again, striking the figure directly as well as reflecting up from the shiny floor and and bleaching detail out of the figure in places. My husband posed for this when the low morning sun was striking the bottom of the stairs.  His lower body and legs and the bottom stair were almost completely bleached out by direct sunlight.  Again, I’ve  got strong contrasts, but how do I achieve that glare and sizzle of light that I’m after?  The reflections in the marble floor weren’t working until I remembered to simplify them.

3. Figure in a doorway – this composition, with the figure only half seen in an open doorway in the distance, was partly inspired by Nude in an Interior by Pierre Bonnard, but also by Chardin’s figures seen through open doorways.  It was a frustrating struggle, never getting past the ‘horrible’ stage.   

4. Figure sitting at a round table – not painted yet.

5. In the kitchen – not painted yet.  I looked at some paintings by Robert Spooner and Anne Blair Brown of figures in kitchen interiors while thinking about this one.  A kitchen setting is busy and complex, and I will have to think through how I could simplify, and how to place and paint my figure, as it would be in the foreground and form the most important element of the composition.  To create atmosphere and avoid making a technical illustration, I will need to minimise detail, lose edges and allow shapes to merge.


3.3.2 telling a story

My completed painting is below.  It started as a response to the ‘conveying mood and atmosphere’ exercise, but I realised when I’d finished it that it tells a story too. The idea was sourced from an image I found in the news, which I’ve interpreted and adapted to describe better the feelings of the two main figures and my own response to their plight.

When I’d finished the painting I felt drained, depressed and unsettled, almost as though I’d been there observing the scenario unfold.  I was in a low mood for a few days afterward.  This was unexpected, and made me ask myself if I want to continue to explore the theme and engage in what’s happening around us in future paintings, as I’d thought to do  – it’s uncomfortable.

Addendum some weeks later- critique from my husband, looking at this together with my three assignment pieces – this is the most successful in his view.  There is tension.  Both man and child’s face convey terror.  Are the arms reaching out to help or pushing him down?  The hand holding the truncheon looks strong.  The colours contrast and balance well.



The subject is a desperate man and his child.  I worked on the facial expressions in my sketchbook, essential to depict them effectively, and also on some composition ideas.



This is a life and death scene, one of love and terror.  My response to it was anger and frustration, which grew as I worked on the project, studying the image closely.    When I thought about it, we have a wealth of means by which to convey mood and atmosphere.  I felt naturally drawn to portraying the scene in dark colours, with chiaroscuro lighting.  I didn’t want to alter the stance and expression of the man, which conveys extreme emotion.  He is coiled like a spring, but also coiled in a gesture of love and protectiveness.

I wanted a painting that conveyed the chaos, panic, terror, anger.  I made a substrate of gessoed paper, creating a slashing diagonal texture, and painted a dark blue-grey, green-grey acrylic background, with warmer tones in the foreground.  After endless experiments and indecision I chose to use hard wax crayons as my medium, so I could vent my emotions with stabbing, scrubbing marks – a brush and liquid paint would have felt too soft.  The scene unfolded as I painted.  Friendly hands reached out from the darkness behind the man, to pull him back.  A stronger, clenched hand belonging to a shadowy figure in the foreground holds a cosh, diagonally barring and threatening the man and child.  Razor wire hems him in, presents a further danger.


When I started this project, I wanted to represent the emotion (terror, anger, suffering) and the idea of that strong parental instinct of protection of a child at all costs (even the death of the child).  I think my painting does achieve this, but not how I wanted it to.  Rather than make a realistic / impressionistic representation, I wanted to make the forms concise and exagerrated in order to synthesise the feeling, reality and my own response.  I considered not specifically depicting the exact context, to give a more universal cast to the scene.  However, old habits die hard, and I was drawn into more realistic detail.  

However, it’s a good start on a theme I want to explore and develop, and I will keep aiming for the elusive simplification.


Inspiration, Kathe Kollwitz (depiction of children being protected by a determined enveloping, whole-body embrace), Edward Munch (The Scream, The Sick Child, Melancholy, Separation), Picasso (blue period)

Similar pose – Giotto do Bondone, Mass of Innocents; Ghirlandaio Domenico, Slaugter of Innocents

Colour – see Rubens, Poussin, Slaying of Innocents  – brick red, blue/green greys.

 Or Dark colours, blocks of colour, somber tones.  Eg black and white on brown underpainting, some blue or red colour wash on charcoal

Media – experiment with white gesso, charcoal, lava medium, black ink, watercolour wash.  Strong contrasting lines and marks.

Form – concise and exagerrated

Light – chiaroscuro 



3.2.1 self portrait

This is the completed painting, made in acrylic paint and acrylic inc on a 50×70 canvas, pre-washed in yellow ochre (after tutor feedback I modified it to soften that sharp line on the neck)


I tried to assimilate what I’d discovered from looking at the Matisse and Derain portraits I chose for my research article on self portraits, here.   They achieved the sense of a real head and shoulders located in space, by using colour tonally, with no concern for matching actual flesh tints; and by offsetting warm and cool colours to strengthen the sense of depth.  Even though they used broad brush strokes they managed to describe character and expression.

I wanted the painting process itself to be relaxed, free and open, so before starting on my painting I spent some time studying the structure and planes of the head and face, and practised drawing them from many angles.

It’s an action painting – of myself in the act of painting, head eyes twisted to look at myself in the mirror, arm raised to the canvas, a look of concentration.  The sense of movement is increased by my pose, the treatment of the background and of my hair.

I’m pleased with the outcome as a painting.  I like the drawing, and the movement; the freedom of expression in the use of the brush.  I like the colour harmony; the ochre background repeated in the forehead and hair; the green and red complementaries in the scarf, and the red repeated in the flesh tints; the blue and turquoise repeated in the shaded sure of face and neck, and complementing the orange and ochres.

I’m not so sure about the contrasts between light and dark in face and neck – perhaps they are a bit too extreme and therefore harsh – maybe this is what makes my charcoal drawing below a bit more like me – softer.

As a likeness I’ll give it half marks!  A friend said it looks like me, but also she could recognise my sister in it.  My husband was positive about the painting and can recognise me, but didn’t want me so serious and stern-looking.  


Here’s my process :  first the head sketches, to learn and understand how the head is structured, and how it looks from various angles.


When I’d had enough of poring over these head sketches, and felt I’d improved my understanding and skill a bit, I drew my own head and shoulders on the canvas in charcoal.  I chose a pose with my head tilted up, tilted to my left, and turned to my left, all at the same time! My practise had given me the confidence to be ambitious, rather than choose a simple front-on view, and I managed to get the features lined up reasonably well.  I wore a scarf to pull my hair tight so I could see the structure of my head better.  This drawing resembles me more than the finished painting.

I brushed the surplus charcoal off, and painted the main lines in burnt umber; I’d seen traces of these lines in the Derain portrait of Matisse, and knew they’d disappear in the final painting.


With a large brush painted I painted the background using indigo, sap green, turquoise, cobalt, white.  It loosely represented the backdrop I could see in my mirror, and I was careful to make the side of my front shoulder, which was nearest my source of light (a sunny window) darker than the other side.  I’d seen how Matisse popped his front shoulder forward in the picture plane by creating maximum tonal contrast between shoulder and background there  


 In the painting at the halfway stage I looked rather odd.

Looking again at the Matisse and Derain portraits, I noticed they’d both used warm colours for the face on the side nearest the light.  I felt my green wasn’t helping me achieve the sense of form I needed.  I warned it up with pink tints similar to those on the neck, and this did the trick of bringing the left side of the face forward.

For the lower half I dribbled acrylic inks onto the damp canvas, spraying more water on and tipping it all ways.  I used a rag to model the creases in the sleeves.  By now the light wasn’t helping, so I stopped here for the day.  Notes for next session – check the hairline, check values of the right eye, soften the planes of the nose, cheekbones, shadow under lips extend down and graduate.


3.2.2 head & shoulder portrait

Here’s the final portrait, in conte crayon on A4 coloured Ingres paper.  I more or less completed this exercise in a single two-hour session with the model, so I’m pleased to have been able to create a reasonable likeness and a fairly good outcome while working fast (for me!).  There are many many faults in accuracy and modelling of the firm of the head, but at least I think it looks solid.  If I did anything more to it now, I would probably try to articulate the background a bit more.



Staying with friends during the week I’d scheduled for this exercise, I had planned ahead and taken some Ingres coloured paper and coloured conte crayons with me, as well as some drawing media.  A friend came to play in their band, and his black shirt and coloured hat caught my eye.  He agreed to wear the same outfit and sit for me a couple of days later.

We only had a couple of hours, so he sat by the window in a comfy chair, and I first made a charcoal study, feeling rather shy of my friends having the odd crafty peek as I worked.  I included more than just head and shoulders – I wanted to include the hands, as the pain and disability they manifest are an important part – but not all – of his life. 

Keeping up the pace, I started my ‘painting’, using the conte on another sheet of textured Ingres.  He was an exemplary sitter, taking his responsibilities seriously, and I made sure we had rest breaks every 10 minutes.

When time ran out I took some photos, so I’d have the chance to carry on with this when I returned home – or start a new painting in another media. 


I’m happy with my initial painting.  My sitter said he understood the point of the exercise wasn’t to make a perfect likeness, but to learn from the experience.  He thought I’d turned his mouth down a bit too much.  To me, it shows my sitter’s seriousness, and his courage and stoicism – as well as portraying his lighter, fun loving artistic side in the choice of clothes.  There are errors and omissions, but at least it’s fresh and not overworked. One day, given a chance, I’d like to make his portrait again, in paint, but I don’t want to do it now from photos – I’m afraid I’d lose his spirit!  I content myself with making some changes to better model the head, and adding the shoulders.

3.2.3 creating mood and atmosphere

I considered a few possible subjects for this exercise, and made a few sketches of my husband posing head and shoulders for me, thinking I could invent a mood or atmosphere.  I got slightly discouraged with this, as he wasn’t comfortable posing and I felt that I needed to cut the time short.

Then I embarked on a painting of a scene from the news, which as it unfolded became the telling of a story, so it was reassigned to that exercise.

Finally I met by chance an old friend who was happy to pose for me, and made this painting.

She has a gaunt, hollow-eyed appearance and I was inspired to paint a pastel portrait of her.  It all happened rather on the spur of the moment, so I didn’t give a lot of time thinking about what I was trying to achieve at the outset.  But, I had brought with me a large piece of dark blue pastel paper, and having looked for a long time at Picasso‘s blue period paintings, I set out to create an atmosphere of sadness, by means of her facial expression and my use of a limited palette of blue and ochre.  Van Gogh‘s portraits of peasants was uppermost in my mind too; they have a dark atmosphere; features are coarse, gaunt and worn looking; the dark ground and limited palette worked well to achieve this effect.

This was done in the first two hour session, on dark blue textured paper, going straight in with no preliminary sketches, underpainting or drawing.

Work in progress

The portrait aims to be true to life in the shapes and features, with the colours and the facial expression conveying mood and atmosphere.  I find I’m struggling with the challenge of creating imaginative interpretations of subjects in front of me.  I’d be more imaginative if I were painting an abstract or semi-abstract image, without looking at a model.  But with a model in front of me I can’t yet seem to get away from striving to create a realistic depiction of what I see.

The lighting was from a window close to the model’s right hand side, but there was also electric light on her right, making the depiction of solidity quite tricky – not ideal, but I wasn’t in my own studio where I could have set up ideal conditions.

I’ve achieved my objective insofar as I’ve expressed a sad, pensive, far-away look, and the colours lend a sombre atmosphere, but I don’t think there’s anything particularly unusual about my interpretation.  I’ve used the pastel in a bold, gestural way, and achieved an unfocused, ambiguous image, which is good as it may express her inner turmoil.  On the positive side, an artistically savvy friend, whose opinion is always honest, said ‘the main thing I see is a confidence in your style emerging’, which I take to mean my emerging artistic voice!  

3.2.4 conveying character

Here is the completed painting for this exercise.


I made sketches of a neighbour, a dreamy eighteen year old.  Below is the penultimate version, which I looked at for a couple of weeks before making some changes to skin tones (pink to nose and cheek, highlights to forehead and cheekbone) and hair tones (darks lighter and lights darker).  It’s difficult to compare them here because one was taken in full sunlight, and is true to the original; the other (below) was taken in shade, and consequently is much bluer.



She is on the cusp of the transition from ungainly childhood to being a young woman.  She is experimenting with being grown up – arriving with carefully applied make-up, but her hair still rough and tumble!  In my head and shoulders portrait I’ve succeeded in capturing her youth, innocence and passivity, but lost her awkwardness that the sketches brought out. In doing so I’ve lost a childlike quality and made her seem older than she is.  I must confess I’ve played to how she would like to see herself, thinking I’d like to be able to show her the painting and for her to be pleased.

The painting was done from my sketches and photos on 35x50cm mixed media lightly textured paper.  I made a lot of thinned washes of acrylic paint, using them almost like glazes to build up tone and form.  Some of the sketches and photos were made outdoors with a blue sky and far away blue-green hills behind her; this is the context for my painting.  I used these blues and greens in the skin tones, showing how the face and hair reflects the light from her surroundings.


The first (biro) sketch captures her character well, and made my husband laugh out loud in recognition!  I did get the characteristic ungainly, awkward look.  The awkwardness remind me of myself at that age.  The third (charcoal and coloured pencil) is also a characteristic pose – round-shouldered, one arm self-consciously across the front.  For the close-up (charcoal and colours pencil) she sat quite close to me, and I did capture something of the dreamy, passive gaze – although I’ve mis-aligned the eyes.  In all three, I’ve got the way the head tends to be inclined down while she gazes upwards.

The second (charcoal) study is nothing like her, but she favoured it – it makes her look pretty and graceful but lacking in her own character.





Reviewing all my portraits.

Her is a gallery of my portrait paintings so far.

Which ones are the most successful?

I asked my husband to review the paintings seen all together, and give me his reactions.  In his view the first two are least successful – they aren’t well defined and have less impact than the other four, which are all are very different in style.  The subjects in all are recognisable.  The self portrait (third painting in gallery)  is the most successful –   it jumps out at you, because paint and colour have been used more liberally.  Irem (sixth in gallery) is lightweight and a bit photographic, the paint and colours are watery. Nasife (fifth in gallery) is dark and atmospheric and has good contrasts.  

What technical demands  did I encounter?

Painting a nude self portrait was a challenge – I didn’t altogether succeed in overcoming cold, insecurity (would someone burst in) and self-consciousness, and it just felt strange sitting there painting with nothing on!

Özge (tonal portrait, second in gallery) presented the challenge of foreshortening, and drawing proportions and placing lines correctly in general, and took quite a bit f head-scratching before I was satisfied.

Drawing the head seen at different angles and aligning features correctly requires a lot of practise and perseverance.

How hard did I find the interpretive element of portrait painting?

Very hard.  I found it difficult to get to grips with the notion of a portrait in itself conveying an atmosphere or mood, without it telling a story.  I also found it perplexing how to convey character in the person I chose, whose character isn’t yet formed.