Category Archives: ASSIGNMENT 3

Assignment 3, a concept and contextual research

For my assignment submission I wanted to continue to investigate the theme I started in Telling a Story, of the hardships experienced by displaced people on dangerous journeys searching for a safe place. 

I could have found my subjects fairly close to home; but I’m not yet brave, experienced or confident enough to draw from life people who are suffering, and there is a whole debate I would have to have with myself about the ethics of doing so.  Picasso’s portraits from his blue period eloquently depicted the misery and hardships of people in the streets of Barcelona,  He must have made studies from life and later interpreted them in paint.  In our times artists are able to draw on the abundance of images made by professional photographers on the spot and published.

 So I decided to make portraits of people on the move, using what I’ve learned about drawing and painting the human figure and face, and appropriating images found on the Internet as my starting point for telling a story. I read ahead in the course manual the project on working from photographs p120).  I wanted to make my own interpretations of the images, changing format and composition, simplifying backgrounds and introducing imaginary elements.  Rather than paint detail, I wanted to make paintings with strong designs, concentrating on conveying a feeling, and an atmosphere.  I wanted them to be simplified, but the proportions of the figures were important if they were to be convincing.  Most importantly I wanted my paintings to be expressive and imaginative – for example by using light and colour expressively, exaggerating facial expression and gesture or proportions, simplifying – and not just copying the photos. 

Before starting I looked at paintings that I admire and which seem relevant to my theme.  Thinking about their use of colour, their brushwork, the way they have each handled paint, the arrangements they’ve chosen for their portraits, has all ultimately fed into my assignment.


Colours, handling paint, and brushwork in portraits

My approach to colour was strongly influenced by what I’ve learnt in my research on portraits conveying mood and atmosphere

Munch‘s The Scream is a kind of portrait; it expresses through exaggerated facial expression, gesture and above all colour, an atmosphere of horror and deep anxiety, and I’m going to use those techniques in my assignment pieces to achieve a similar atmosphere.  I first saw a version of the painting and wrote about it here, for my Drawing 1 course.  That exhibition juxtaposed Munch’s original work with Warhol’s colour interpretations in print – which if possible, heightened the sense of foreboding and dread.  

Emile Nolde in his watercolour portraits seems to use colour in a similar way, using deep, intense colours chosen and juxtaposed to create very expressive atmospheres.  I collected many of these paintings in a Pinterest board here while working on Assignment 3.  Nolde uses the medium very fluidly.  Colours blend and merge where they will, edges dissolve and disappear, intense hues morph into broken tertiaries.  That’s the effect I’m going to try to achieve with acrylics for my first assignment painting, which will represent two brothers, a boy and a baby, emerging from the sea together.

I found Lucien Freud’Evacuee Boy very arresting, partly because it chimed with my interest in portraying the travails of refugee families.  The handling of paint and brushwork is an important part of this painting, helping express the grimy, rough hard life the boy appears to be leading.  The colours, monochromatic tones of dun, express his poverty.  Thinking how I can adapt Freud’s approach to my assignment pieces, I decided to use my medium, acrylic paint, in dilute, watery washes and glazes, dribbles and runs, using mainly cold colours.

Picasso‘s blue period portraits also have as their topic a moment in history, but his portray poverty and the atmosphere he gives them is pathos; his subjects are passive and isolated.  He uses blue and a cold yellow/green colour to relate this feeling of deprivation.  The subjects in my assignment paintings are in a different situation.  My colours will be intense and clashing, to indicate tension, anxiety, fear.  Cold hues will represent danger and loss of hope; warm colours the bond of mutual support and hope.


Arrangements in portraiture


Turning the pages of the BP500 book,  I concentrated on the arrangements artists choose for their portrait paintings, the backgrounds and interiors, clothes, accessories and other attributes of the sitters.

Some of my favourites are portraits with more than one person. They include a couple; a family group (p77, p250), a group of schoolmates (p83, p99, p139), work colleagues (p47), old peoples home inmates (p90) or prison inmates. What’s so appealing about these is they can show interaction between the subjects (they could be talking or gesturing to each other); and/or they can show what the relationship is between the subjects.  This is very relevant to my assignment paintings, which all portray more than one person, and their relationship and interaction.

A few of the portraits in the book are arranged in a symbolic, imaginative or fantastic way, leaving the viewer to think, wonder and interpret. This is exactly what I want to achieve in my assignment work.  One of my favourites in the book is Two Figures Lying in a Shallow Steam by Philip Harris (p39). The background is immensely detailed, the figures posed in an extraordinary way, and there is a huge amount for the views to look at and interpret.

 Clearly then there’s a lot more scope for me to interpret my subjects by how I arrange them in my portrait painting – so far in my portraits I haven’t made it a priority, feeling I needed to concentrate on the sitter’s proportions, lining up the features, drawing the head correctly in perspective, and capturing a reasonable likeness.



Assignment 3 – a series of portraits

First painting – Boy with Baby – I wanted to express an intense tenderness and sadness between the boy and the baby.  I’ve edited out from the photo all extraneous background detail, adding just a hint of context, focussing in on my two subjects.  


Second painting – Man with Boy – This is an ambiguous image – is the boy drowned or rescued?  I think there is hope in the raised position of the boy’s right arm. He is certainly drenched, cold and perhaps unconscious, and the man distraught, horrified.  I’ve eliminated any background context even more in this painting wanting the subjects to tell their own story.


Third painting – Group with Baby – A group of fellow journeyers are landing on the shore, passing a baby from hand to hand high above the cold, deadly water.  There is fear and exhaustion in the air.  I’ve placed them in an empty, rather abstracted, cold seascape.


Comparing the three outcomes is hard.

 They share similar colour intensity and an atmosphere of trauma, with dark, ominous skies; but they’re fairly different in techniques used and compositions.  I’ve share them on Facebook and received quite good  feedback especially for number two (man and boy).  The subject touches people’s hearts, especially the suffering of children.  My husband also thought number two by far the most successful, he liked the expression of concern in the mans face, the exaggerated hair and the depth of colour and contrast – but criticised the boys face which is bland (I painted it like that deliberately, to depict cold lifelessness).

My emotional response grew as I worked, and this means number three, the group portrait, contains more of my raw emotion and more imaginative interpretation.

To explain – it started as a straightforward group portrait telling a story.  I decided to introduce two invented figures on the right, as I felt the composition needed them.  When it came to painting them they became vague, generalised, ethereal shapes blending into the sea. Their arms are reaching out for the baby but they’re also stretched up as if drowning (also echoes of Goya’s Third of May).  They became the spirits of the ones who didn’t survive the sea crossing. Then it seemed to me the two central characters echoed this drowning gesture.  The red man’s face looks skull-like and (accidentally) he has a sort of tear-like run from his right eye.  Later, looking at the painting again, it seemed possible to read an even more pessimistic interpretation into the scene – that the only survivors are the two limping ashore in the background.  That the others were all lost in a terrible struggle.

On the other hand, a less maudlin interpretation is that the baby, symbol of hope for a better future, is being borne aloft on strong hands reaching up – whether real or of the spirit world. A Rembrandt portrait I looked at has a pose which chimed with me


So making my painting affected me quite deeply and it seemed to take on a life of its own as it developed.  It seems to me the one most open to interpretation, that gives the viewer’s eye the most to look at and their mind the most to think about.  In his respect, I think it’s the most successful of the three, but as a painting with immediate impact number two is more successful.


Work in progress notes and reflections 

First of all I made several sketchbook studies from a collection photos I had found in news media.  Charcoal is an expressive medium and I found I started to become involved with the feelings expressed in the images as I drew.

I chose three portraits to develop from my sketchbook studies, all images of males carrying, protecting children.  The feeling communicated to me by all of them isn’t violence or anger as in my portrait for the exercise ‘Telling a Story’, but rather more passive feelings, like Picasso’s subjects – pathos, exhaustion, horror, grief.

I enlarged my sketches on to tracing paper using a grid, then transferred main lines from tracing paper to my painting supports.  The first two were easy as I’d already worked out the lines of my composition in my sketchbook  The group proved harder than I expected to arrange into a strong composition, and I ended up making some fairly big changes, resulting in a more compact group arranged within an overall triangular shape.

Process for first portrait – boy with baby.

Launching myself into the unknown I painted a loose  background of phthalocyanine blue and green, violet and yellow, in the foreground burnt Sienna – a watery abstract of beach, sea and sky.  Used large palette knife, rags, water spray.  Rather brave garish colours setting down main lights and darks, will be modified in later layers.  Used copious water in places, creating drips, runs and blurred edges.

Work in progress

Quite successful at this stage in the arrangement of values and popping the subject out into the foreground.  Pleased with how the background has the feeling of a dark, cold place, and with the drenched, tired, cold look of the subjects. The light is on the baby, the hands and the heads. I must try not to lose this initial statement and try not to overwork – I want to create just enough accents and hard edges to explain the subject, and not one too many.

The more I look at this the less I think needs doing to it – I’d imagined myself labouring over many subsequent layers and adjustments but I think I only need to define features and hands; darken the boys upper jacket; and add some broad glazes to harmonise the colours.    I made these changes, and the final painting is shown at the top of the post.


SProcess for second portrait – man with boy 

I became tighter in my approach to this than the first painting, tending towards colouring in the shapes between the lines of my under-drawing.  Here are stages of work in progress.

I wasn’t particularly happy with the way I painted this – overall it doesn’t have the fluid, organic look of the first painting, looks at some stages a simple set of flat, bright colours with a lack of texture or form – a picture-book illustration.  I added detail to the mans hair, and toned down the colours in the body’s face.

 The best part was my treatment of the man’s hair, and the boy’s clothes, which I painted with lots of pure, thick, creamy paint, partly mixed on the brush, partly not mixed at all.  They show the boy’s form beneath the folds of cloth, and the white tee shirt looks drenched, plastered to his torso.

To address the flatness I did not want to get involved in detailed, subtle modelling of light and shade, but, as with the the blues and yellows on the heads in the first painting, I wanted to put in some brave and bold dark and light accents.  Could I also try a bit of spattering in the background, to add texture and sense of depth?  I still wasn’t convinced by these ideas and left it for a few days.

I was looking at a painting by Peter Lanyon at the Courtauld, and it struck me that the reds and greens in his painting ‘Glide Path’ were fairly similar to the hue intensity and tonal value in my man and boy.  Why did Lanyon’s painting work and not mine?  The areas of light neutral colours in his painting serve as a contrast to his reds and greens;  they receed into the background, giving a sense of depth.  Perhaps this was what I was lacking.  The background on the right in my painting has the same intensity of colour hue as my subjects in the foreground, and is also very similar in tone.  Maybe it was the depth that was lacking.  On the left, my background is darker in tone and neutral in colour compared to my subject, and works better.

In the end I simply added dark glazes to the man’s right shoulder, arm and neck, and that seemed to make a big improvement.  Sometimes I find an isolated fault in a painting can make the whole painting seem wrong – and it can be difficult to identify exactly where the problem lies.


Process for third portrait- group with baby

My third painting is a group portrait, of which there are many examples in BP500.

In comparison to my first two paintings this composition contains a greater proportion of background, giving me more opportunity to create indications of context.  First I treated the paper to a couple of layers of gesso, dabbing the second layer with a sponge to create texture.  I brushed thinned lemon yellow acrylic ink all over and let it dry, then dropped thinned magenta ink around the edges, spritzing in places with water, and let dry again.  I applied a dark mix of paynes grey and ultramarine all over, spritzed in places, and after waiting a few minutes wiped the excess paint off with a rag, rubbing slightly harder along an imaginary horizon and also in the central area to reveal my group of figures again. Waited a while and with a wet rag lifted paint to reveal more light from the lower layers – painting by taking away with a rag!  (this had an unexpected effect – the dark layer of paint took on a granulated appearance due to the texture of the gesso and the rubbing away).  My painting was beginning to take shape, a sense of depth is emerging, and I’m getting quite excited, but caution tells me to stick to the same few colours for further layers – I really don’t want to end up with a dark, neutral canvas.

I reinstated the main lines of my figures and worked steadily away on them.  The two figures on the right were the last to be painted, and perhaps because I had no sketches, studies of other resource materials for them I decided they would be left undetailed and painted simply in the same indigo I used for the sea itself. 

At a fairly late stage I happened to glimpse my painting upside down and realised I couldn’t see the baby!  It was lost, it’s broken colours camouflaged in the broken colours of the sky.  I realised this was a major weakness in the work, and decided to darken the sky around it, and to simplify the colours of the baby itself  to mainly a pale yellow, and the solution seemed to work.



Photo reference for painting number one, boy and baby –

Photo reference for painting number three, group with baby. 

Part 3 – reflections

Part 3 is now complete.  Here are the paintings I’m submitting to my tutor, along with selections from my sketchbooks.

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

I’ve really enjoyed handling acrylic paint in Part 3, especial having found a cheapish source of large tubs of Daler Rowney S3 colours, and therefore losing some inhibitions about ‘wasting’ paint.   My use of the medium (and of soft pastels) has developed further.  I’ve avoided over-using white for highlights since it was mentioned in my feedback for part 2.   I would like to experiment with using acrylics in a more liberal (ie thick) and less watery way in part 4, especially now temperatures are lower and drying times longer.  I’m planning to try using acrylic extender and retarder to extend the working time of the paint.

A first for me was making a nude self portrait.  Opportunities to study nude live models are practically zero for me, so this was one solution, which seemed better than using photos and internet models.  It wasn’t all that comfortable and you’re limited to a small number of possible viewpoints, or juggling with complicated arrangements of lamps, mirrors and easel.  I’d think about doing the painting from the working drawings another time. My unease shows in the final outcome, which is unresolved, but I’ve included it in my assignment submission as my only example of a nude figure painting.

Observational skills have developed.  The tonal figure painting (seated girl) had the most time spent doing preliminary studies from life, and I identified and corrected wrong lines and proportions many times until I was satisfied. All the other paintings were done from life, or from freehand studies (not copies) of photos, or a mixture of both.  I find it very helpful to have a gridded tracing of my working drawing to transfer to my support; then if my main lines are lost under layers of paint I can quickly find them again.  But I’m happy to stray from my tracing on the fly when painting if I feel the need – the traced lines are only a guide.

Design and compositional skills are paramount to me – I feel a painting must have a strong arrangement of values first of all, so that it could stand alone as an unrepresentational painting.  So I always try to remember to have strong light and colour contrasts.  My ‘conveying character’ portrait (head and shoulders of young girl) is weakest in this respect – the background, face and clothes are uniformly light tone, there needs to be more going on.

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

Spending time looking at other artists portraits and the BP500 book opened my mind to the broader possibilities of the portrait genre.  My three assignment pieces reflect this, being perhaps slightly unconventional responses to the brief.  In these paintings you can read my thoughts and feelings, but they’re also open to other interpretations, and I’ve explained some of these ideas in my blog.

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

As I worked my way through the exercises in Part 3 I gradually felt able to concentrate less on technique and literal likeness and add more interpretation. In my assignment pieces I injected my own thoughts and feelings, my ideas about the scenes represented, inventing and imagining the emotions being experienced by the subjects.  I did this by using colour in a non-realistic way, exploiting the media to create texture, exaggerating gesture and expression, building tension into my compositions.  

My confidence in my personal voice is beginning to show, but I hope it’s not too early…I want to keep experimenting with new ideas and approaches, even though it might mean changes of tack.

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

Have endeavoured to make my blog more accessible by

  • separating the research points from the exercises
  • reducing the amount of biographical and historical detail in my research – focussing more on the impact on my practice
  • limiting the overall volume of writing in this part.  

Having come to the end of Part 3 I’ve just come across the OCA article ‘Learning Logs – What Assessors are Looking For’ and will keep the advice in mind for Part 4. 




Part 3 – tutor feedback

Here is the full report J_Crathern_512236_ass_3.docx

I felt encouraged and motivated by my tutor’s feedback, happy with my successes and ready to address aspects of my work that need improving or abandoning. 

I’ve always loved drawing the figure more than anything, since an early age; a big pastime as a child was to copy and invent dancers, fashion models and comic book heroines.  Later I attended life classes in the evenings.  Now that’s not an option, but I’m lucky to be able to ‘hire’ sitters from neighbours, albeit modestly clothed!

Talking about some of the points made in the report:-

  • The charcoal drawing on tracing paper brought together that interest in drawing the figure with a way I remember I used to enjoy to draw ‘scruffily’ (finding the line, leaving ‘wrong’ lines), which I was told was not ‘ladylike by the nuns at school; and a YouTube video I found which reminded me and made me want to find that approach again.
  • I need to soften the stark contrasts in the neck in the self portrait (head and shoulders) particularly if submitting that painting for assessment.
  • My painting for Conveying Character was a complete dud – the problem was a perceived need to flatter, leading to a dead portrait (I liked the studies, but even felt the need to laugh them off as not like her at all when she asked to see them) – this is a difficulty that needs to be overcome when portraying friends and neighbours rather than professional models.  Next time I’ll tell the model I’m aiming for this or that effect and they’re not to expect the piece to look as attractive as they obviously are, or even to look like them at all!
  • Tutor’s comments on the three assignment pieces are all very pertinent and ring true.  The point uppermost in my mind relates to understatement.  An upsetting scene graphically depicted may not be the best way to get the feeling and message across.  Maybe I could have been more subtle, more suggestive.  Painting a closer in view would be one way.  Implying the message rather than simply portraying it is a difficult subject that I don’t understand yet.  Many great paintings depict dramatic events; perhaps they have more symbolic content and more subtlety.  There is one major difference between my painting 1, where the composition and use of media require the viewer to interpret the scene; and painting 2 where the situation is unambiguously stated and leaves relatively little room for questioning or imagination – perhaps this is it, and maybe this thought summarises my unease with painting 2 compared to the others – it’s just too simplistic (in the context of current events).
  • Strong points were made and accepted about building much more qualitative discussion into my blog; comparing my paintings in my blog and talking about their relative successes.  This is something I need to concentrate on in part 4. 

Pointers for assignment 4

“Use paint openly and fluidly”; I’m not sure if this means to use paint only with plenty of water, in watercolour mode, rather than in thick, undiluted consistency like oil paint, but I would like to continue experimenting with both modes.  I did a lot of water based work in part 3, and plan to concentrate in part 4 on using the paint thickly (but openly I hope), with just a medium, or paste or gel to thicken it.  I think on reflection the advice is to use the paint freely as opposed to being cramped and mean with it!