Category Archives: 3.3 People in context

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