Looking back over my painting course, remembering what I enjoyed and thought at the time I’d like to develop further, re-reading my tutors feedback and realising I’ve had a range of successes, makes the choice of a theme for assignment 5 more difficult in a way, because there are so many subjects which appeal to me. I’ve always thought, though, that what means the most to me is depicting people, and in particular I knew I’d like to depict the people I live amongst and to whom I feel a strong emotional attachment.
I’m an outsider, accepted and welcomed into the community. Conversely I see my neighbours lives as somewhat magical; a web of strong threads connecting each person to their family, relatives and neighbours, all interdependant; they could not operate without each other or on their own.
So I’ve taken two families and a group of friends and neighbours, and thought to depict the close knit ties of these individuals in a series of group portraits. In the paintings I want to express how close, how familiar, the individuals are to their other group members; their gestures and facial expressions should capture in some way how they relate to each other. The individuals may be posed and self aware or they may be depicted in natural, unselfconscious gestural poses.
I’m drawn towards using a frieze format for the paintings, with several figures ranged horizontally, their poses and gestures describing their interaction and bringing dynamism to the whole. Many influences gleaned during my painting course have contributed to this idea, from Bridget Riley’s Red With Red and the Mantegna frieze which inspired it, The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome; to the long landscapes of Ivon Hitchens, which show how a composition can be read from left to right, introducing a time dimension; to my seven dancers abstract inspired by Pollock’s Summertime and the Manaeds dance.
I already have a trove of photographs of the individuals I’m most interested in, and together with sketches and studies these will provide the elements of my compositions. One challenge will be to create coherent scenes, drawing individuals in believable proportions and perspective in relation to each other and their surroundings. Another will be to avoid illustrating my ideas, rather to feel them through the execution. My aim will be to achieve a convincing mix between:-
•Effective interpretation – eg through ambiguity, distortion, exaggeration, imaginative colour, simplification.
•Observation – the paintings will be believable because they’ll be based on observation based sketches and studies as well as photos
•Fluid execution – contributing to the feel of the painting and adding to its contenT
Ideas for three paintings
The Ayten family
The two boys are the centre of the family universe, around which the mother and father and granny revolve. I collected my photos, and made some studies from life (some recent, the last two from Drawing 1). I concentrated on the children…the proportions of their heads and features are so different from those of adults, and I was keen to gather ‘the knowledge’ through drawing so that I’d be able to approach the painting with more assurance.
I then created the composition below (pencil, ink,coloured pencil sketch) of the family in their cozy, cluttered sitting room. ‘Sitting’ is the word for friendly family and neighbours get-togethers in each other’s houses to pass time pleasurably, chatting and sipping tea. The tv might be on on the background as ornament, but is largely ignored in favour of conversation. The atmosphere is warm, intimate, relaxed and hospitable.
Looking critically at my composition sketch, everyone is crowded up at the front page of the picture plane, giving a bit of a cramped feeling. Although I was aiming for a frieze, I still wanted depth in the composition . I decided to address this in the painting itself, by positioning the sofa people further back.
The Bedriye family
The one child living in this family group is a sweet but dominant character, fully in charge of her grandad and other family members, and of her animals from largest cow to smallest chicken.
I made some studies. The child is holding a young kid in her arms. Her facial expression and child’s head needed to be studied carefully. Her mother’s pose, reaching down to rummage in the vegetable patch took some adjustments to get the proportions and perspective approaching correct. Again I gathered information through observational drawings (pastel on Ingres paper so much better than my homemade textured gesso support) and photos.
The composition I created (coloured pencil, below) brings the family members together. The group are together outdoors, by the cowshed and chicken coop, looking directly at me across a small stream – arrested in a moment of time, their attention momentarily taken away from their chores and each other. This reminds me of Las Meninas – the family group similarly turning to look at the viewer, who is thus included in the scene.
Five neighbours at a wedding
These older women observe the proceedings, fidgeting in their chairs, commenting in lively fashion on everything that comes under their scrutiny, including each other.
I’ve added a fifth person as I felt the composition called for an odd number. Bringing the five together in a coloured pencil study I explored negative shapes, and tonal contrasts as well as ‘learning’ my subjects’ gestures.
From ancient times, groups of people have been depicted in frieze format, their body language, context, pose, gesture, expressing the group’s story and inter-relationships. Sogdian frescoes, seen recently in ‘The Heart of the Silk Road’ depict this type of genre exquisitley and so delicately. I also looked at Leonardo da Vinci who made the most famous frieze in post Renaissance times in ‘The Last Supper’.
I revisited Degas’ pastel ballet dancers, and Sickert’s figures, I talk about these later while doing the paintings.
More contemporarily in Vitamin P2 (p. 194/5), the family portraits of Liu Xiaodong are especially relevant. He too paints as an observer, and at the same time is enmeshed in “a web of actions and interactions”, alluding to his own presence through the gazes of his subjects. He incorporates a lot of precise detail though, and I feel these two paintings are fairly stiff, frozen in time, stilted.
In 500 Portraits (p77), Ross Hall’s Me and my Family is more expressive. The background to the family is flat and empty, the interest is in their lively expressions and gestures. They strike poses for us, the viewer though, and there’s not much clue about their relationships with each other.
Megan Davies’ Gran Turismo in the same book (p 198) speaks more about the life of the family concerned, but otherwise has less interest for me as it’s hyper detailed, precise and realistic. But it does show how relationships can be beautifully expressed through use of context and gesture.
The Glasgow work of Joan Eardley has more relevance for me, although her slum children now look too picturesque with today’s eyes. Drawing underpinned her painting, and she used pastels, pen and ink, chalk, brush to produce the drawings. “She drew as a means of gaining knowledge to enable her to paint directly and with assurance” (www.studiointernational.com). Her paintings such as ‘Back Street Children Playing’, 1960 are a guide for me, with their strong palette, limited depth of field, and series of vertical forms broken by diagonals, focussing on an inner drama or story, http://www.howtopastel.com/2014/10/joan-eardley-pastels-of-slum-kids/
Vitamin P2, pub Phaidon, 2013
500 Portraits, pub National Portrait Gallery Publications, 2011
http://www.studiointernational.com/index.php/joan-eardley. Accessed 9 Jun 2016