Category Archives: Research points

Research exercises given by the course

Research point – Abstract Expressionists

Abstract Expressionism is a form of painting developed by American painters such as Pollock, Rothko and Willem de Kooning in the 1940s and 50s, ‘often characterised by gestural brush-strokes or mark-making and the impression of spontaneity’ ( 

The aim was to make abstract art that was expressive or emotional, that came automatically from the unconscious mind.

One group of AEs filled their canvases with abstract forms and fields of colour – for example Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still.  Their compositions were simple but nuanced, designed to encourage a contemplative or meditative response.  This is now known as ‘colour field’ painting, where large areas of a single colour are used.

Another group of AEs known as action painters (tachists),  such as Pollock and de Kooning, would use large brushes, sticks, or pouring so to make large, gestural marks.  I suspect they combined spontaneity and improvisation with a huge amount of skill, planning and deliberation.  Having studied closely and tried to emulate some of Pollock’s paintings, I can confirm there is no haphazard hurling of paint at the canvas!  He poured, dripped, flicked and spattered liquid paint, but he had learned over years to control its flow to get the effects he wanted.  He would also have had to plan the order in which he created layers, what combination of media to use, wait between layers to allow drying.  In Pollock’s Summertime, the canvas is used as an arena he moved around, building up intricate layers of marks and lines.  Colours intermingle and swirl in different directions, echoing his physical movements in the impression of a colourful dance.  The canvas becomes more than a picture – an event.

Hans Hartung painted in oils and pastel.  His works are often monochromatic, made of a series of calligraphic, rhythmical lines and gestures, later scratched into the wet paint, and later still with dark, shadowy but more colourful areas.  His paintings also explore a variety of marks and gestures, experimenting with various unusual tools, including his wheelchair wheels.  Even so they could be thoughtfully planned and premeditated, sometimes carefully copied and enlarged from earlier, spontaneous drawings, showing control and technical skill.  I’ve collected some of his works in my Pinterest board here, and there’s a good collection in date order in Wikiart here.


Franz Kline‘s career as an artist started with figurative work, developing to the breaking down of forms into rudimentary brushstrokes, generalising his subjects into lines and shapes.  Inspired by de Kooning, he experimented with projecting small, abstract ink sketches on to a wall, enlarging them to canvas, then using house-painting brushes to turn them into big black and white gestural paintings with broad black criss-crossing on a white ground.   His brushstrokes combine to create completely non representative abstract motifs, with stark tonal contrasts of positive and negative space.  In the latter years of his life he was again exploring colour and starting to introduce it into his paintings again.

His work focuses on self expression, and the use of paint and canvas.  The paintings appear spontaneous and dramatic, but are actually the result of many studies and were thoroughly explored before approaching the canvas with a brush.  

There are collections of Kline’s work on MOMA  


References (Franz Kline)


Research expressive landscape

Surrealist landscape

Some of the works of the Surrealists Salvador Dali, Max Ernst and de Chirico are collected on my Pinterest board here.  They are the stuff of dreams, nightmares and hallucinations.  I remember once long ago rashly combining sea-sickness pills with alcohol and experiencing hallucinations which involved floating elephants – worthy of Dali.  Whether he made use of such techniques to free the imagination we don’t know, but I do think such ‘visions’ can be deliberately induced to mine the unconscious and that if one were to immediately write notes after coming round, some very imaginative work could be done.

My own dreams are often forgotten, apart from a handful which have stayed with me my whole life.  I would love to express in painting one or two of these which particularly express deep emotion.  The challenge would be how to convey a dreamlike quality, rather than simply paint a scene from the dream as though it were in the real world.  The Surrealists used various techniques and games to produce a creative process partly free of conscious control, some forty of which are listed here, including:-

Frottage – place the paper over a textured object and rub graphite over it to create unexpected textures

Grattage – the painterly equivalent of Frottage – prepare a support with a layer of paint, place it over a textured object and scrape the paint off

Decalcomania – cover the support with thick paint and while still wet cover it with some other material such as cellophane, shrink wrap; then remove it before the paint dries.  I had a go at the technique using acrylic paint on paper.  My results were not great – my technique needs improving.  Even then, I would always have to have a larger element of control over the process to get anything useful from it.

The patterns resulting from such techniques are then used as the starting point from which to create an imaginative painting.

De Chirico influenced the Surrealists with his Metaphysical paintings.  He painted forlorn cityscapes with a haunted, brooding atmosphere, furnished with empty arcades, towers, long shadows and trains. 


Imaginative landscape

I’ve looked at the paintings of artists who interpreted the landscape imaginatively, expressing their own feelings and response to it.  Some of them are collected in my Pinterest board here.

Graham Sutherland was a painter of imaginary landscapes, influenced by Samuel Palmer, Blake, Turner;  but they were also rooted in his observation of the Pembrokeshire countryside. So for example while his painting Welsh Landscape with Roads was derived from the hills and valley near Porthclais, he wrote that he was trying to express ‘the intellectual and emotional essence of the place’ (  He makes the colours unnatural, includes an animal skull and possible standing stones, and inserts a tiny running figure, creating an anxious, threatening atmosphere.  In Road at Porthclais with Setting Sun the paths and lanes wending through the landscape are given a spiritual significance due to the dramatic light from a golden sun against a black sky.

The link with Pembrokeshire also led me to John Piper.  He made plein air collages of beach scenes, and had chapels, castles and ruins as his subjects.  He frequently painted Garn Fawr, the place where he lived, and what is interesting to note is the many different ways he interpreted the same scene.  He said that the features in his landscapes, whether church towers, vineyards etc, were not what the paintings were about; they were about the emotions generated by the countryside and the elements at one moment in one special place.  The paintings are full of interesting textures and marks, no area of the canvas left unconsidered as Piper worked to express these feelings.


Landscapes of the German Expressionists

My Pinterest board on this group of painters is here.  I looked at paintings by Kirchner, Nolde, Max Pechstein, Mueller, Otto Dix, Max Beckmann, Kokoschka.  As a group, their paintings are characterised by use of simple form, harsh black lines and garish, unnaturalistic colour, aiming to express a modern response to the world around them, including its landscapes.  I love their free use of colour and apparent simplicity.  I gathered my landscapes together and noted a rather predictable and monotonous preponderance  of blue and green, and evidence in all of them of a struggle with details.  How attractive it seems to celebrate colour in all its variety, and to paint in a simplistic, childlike way.

Later I looked at the expressionist landscapes of Wassily Kandinsky and Gabriele Münter  and my remarks in the last paragraph were even more confirmed.

Kirchner was the leader of a group of painters, Die Brücke (The Bridge) inspired by Gaugin, Van Gogh, Munch and primitive art. One painting that caught my attention was his View of Basel and the Rhine.  The way the water is depicted, a fast flowing river rushing downhill towards a bridge – a dog is trotting merrily in the same direction with the flow, but the inhabitants of the city on the opposite bank are steadfastly ignoring the river and plodding doggedly in the opposite direction.  This struck me as a metaphor for the distance and awkwardness of humans’ relationship with nature, compared to that of animals who romantically are seen to be at one with the world.

Max Pechstein was also a leading member of the Bridge group, and painted in the same manner.  But in the 1920s, the anxiety and horrors of the First World War and its ensuing political and social turmoil over, he found a natural progression in his Baltic landscapes and seascapes, softening his Expressionist palette, reflecting more of a sense of peace and harmony found in the harbour towns, bywaters and dunes.  ‘Abend‘ is an example.

This painting by Oskar Kokoschka is part landscape part portrait, and seems to express a nostalgia for traditional village life, in a similar way to Chagall.  Colours are joyful and teeming with variety.  Movement of clouds, animal and humans suggests a whirlwind of time passing, music as a symbol of transience reinforces the message.  The woman (mother?) holding a crucifix, symbol of religion, death and eternity.  Apart from all that though, it’s just a lovely painting, colour and composition treating the eye.

I studied the portraits and figure paintings of Emile Nolde quite intensively for Assignment 3, and I find his landscapes painted with the same approach; deep, intensely coloured indeterminate washes (with subtle translucent veils of colour layered over them, and pigment granulating interestingly as paint dries); these washes would be meaningless on their own, but Nolde gives them meaning and structure with the addition of a few simple lines and marks, finding his subject hidden in the random flow of paint – a horizon, a few clouds; a hill; some vertical shapes become groups of people.  They are gorgeous to look at; many acquire deeply thunderous atmospheric effects through choice of colour; but there seem to be hundreds of them, and I can’t discern a development or progression in his work – he seems to have had one great idea and stuck to it.


Symbolist Landscape

Symbolism is simply the assertion of subjectivity and the expression of an idea over a realistic description of the natural world.   Personal expression means we recreate emotional experiences through colour, line, composition; we synthesise form and feeling, reality and our own inner subjectivity.  Having looked at some of the artists associated with this movement, and thinking about how they have adopted symbolist approaches, I start to think about what ideas and emotions I could try to inject into my landscapes.

Symbolism has its roots in the 19th century, with artists such as Gustave Moreau, who painted scenes of mythology and religious subjects.  I’m not keen on his brand of romanticism but zooming in closely to the watercolours, until form disappears and I lose myself in his jewel-like layered washes, is quite a visual pleasure. When I was 9, I had a cheap cut glass ring, a ‘gift’ from a girl’s comic.  At Mass every Sunday, in the guise of devout prayer, I would clasp my hands to my forehead, squint through my eyelashes, and manoeuvre myself until the colours of the stained glass windows reflected in the facets of my ring dazzled my senses.  I’ve always loved bright, kaleidoscopic colour.

Gaugin, strongly influenced by Moreau, combined heavily outlined simplified shapes with solid patches of vivid colour (Vision of the Sermon), to express the devout character of Breton peasant women.  Picasso was a great admirer of Gaugin; his blue period works depict his subjects in a greatly simplified way, characteristic of Symbolists.  Edvard Munch was closely associated with Symbolism, The Scream expresses feelings of anxiety, anguish, isolation.  

Gustave Klimt’s style on the other hand was decorative and abstracted; he used a quasi-pointillist technique to portray every leaf and every meadow flower in his landscapes of fruit trees and meadows.  What was he trying to express?  According to The Tate, 

Klimt’s landscapes express his wider concerns with biological growth and the cycle of life. Their dazzling decorative surfaces and abstracted motifs align him with emergent modernist tendencies.” ( 

On the other hand, he may have just had a canny eye to the art market.  It’s said he standardised shape and size of his landscape canvases to make his paintings sell better.




Surrealist techniques

D Chirico –


Kirchner – wikipedia
Pechstein – Christies

Research landscape



First of all I reviewed and revised my past landscape research projects (links listed at the end of this blog article).

One of my past articles explores the English Watercolourists of the 18th and 19th centuries, including Turner.  I revisited his watercolour sketches of Venice in the book ‘Turner’s Venice’, and chose three of them to study in detail and try to adopt some of his practices into my painting for the exercise ‘linear perspective‘ in particular the range of colours he used in his washes, and the way he gradually modified them into the pictorial distance.  His use of loose washes and freely (but expertly) drawn line to depict the architecture is so elegant, and I tried my best to emulate it, without great success.

I also looked at that time, at some of Constable‘s landscape sketches in oil, and I was able to directly compare an oil sketch with an oil painting of the same subject in Tate Britain.  To the modern eye, I thought the sketch had immensely more appeal than the finished painting – it was fresher, more spontaneous and more expressive of his response to the landscape.  Basically he wanted to capture the effects of light and atmosphere, in small scale oil paintings done outdoors, which he sometimes later used as reference material for large, polished oil paintings.  He used a variety of techniques in these plein air paintings – all fresh and rapid – including a thick impasto technique, as well as glazes, dappled dry brushwork, heavy dots of white and of bright colour.


Monet was mentioned by my tutor for his ‘plastic use of paint as a physical substance “. A brief search of Bridgeman pointed me to Bois d’Oliviers au Jardin Moreno, 1884.  By zooming close in I can see the painting is built up of thousands of dabs of endlessly modulated colour; at such close range forms seem to dissolve, losing their edges – the gnarled olive trees take on an abstract quality, they become interplay of light and dark tone, warm and cool colour.  I imagine it was initially painted fast, en plein air, wet paint on top of wet, and I can’t see evidence of blending and smoothing.  The result is a sense of dappled, shimmering contrasts, a chiaroscuro effect of cool shade and hot light. This is a polished finished painting however, not a sketch – possibly it was carefully appraised, revised and perfected by the artist later on in the studio until he was completely satisfied – apparently he was never satisfied working purely from nature.

Sisley‘s The Bridge at Sevres is a great example of someone really getting involved with the physical aspects of painting.  the brush strokes are visible, loose, broad and quick, imparting an open, blustery atmosphere.  The sky draws the viewers attention with diagonal slashes of ochres cream, blue and violet depicting the turbulent air.  There is a lot to look at in the middle ground too, with the bridge and people fishing; these draw the eye not through use of careful detail, (they are in fact painted very sketchily), but by a higher contrast of tone.  The foreground vegetation and path are also painted very speedily, with warm, dark greens and umbers, and bright ochres applied in rapid vertical jabs.  You get the sense that Sisley enjoyed dashing this painting off, and was happy with the first response to his subject.

Pisarro Uses paint thickly and crustily, building up layer upon dried layer, each one becoming more textured than the last.  The Potato Harvest is built up of a series of consistently sized marks forming a series of coloured patches, but with an overall reddish tone. The Kitchen Garden at Pontoise is painted in reserve; layers of paint are built up within the firms of the composition, with the edges held in reserve; the artist is careful not to overlap paint from adjacent forms.  In this way distinctly three dimensional edges are created between the forms.  In Orchard, Cote Saint-Denis at Pontoise, Pisarro has built up extensive layers over well dried earlier layers of paint, resulting in a crusty surface.  The brush skips over the textures of the earlier layers,creating ever more well defined ridges and valleys of paint.  

Moving into the 20th century:
Milton Avery (1885-1965) – strips his designs to essentials.  Landscapes defined by lines and zones.  Colour field painting, but where the coloured fields represent simplified representational shapes.  Focus on colour relations, not the illusion of depth.  Compare to Derain, Gaugin,  Matisse, Kirchner.

Ivon Hitchens (1893-1979) -I looked at a BBC slideshow of his landscape paintings.  They have visual appeal for their colourful and decorative, spontaneously painted quality.  They straddle abstraction and figuration; they evoke the landscape in a subjective response to it, but don’t literally represent it.  I found my eye experiencing his compositions horizontally from left to right.  He liked long canvases, allowing the eye to move along them lengthwise; Hitchens thought of this as a movement in time, as music is structured by time.
Neil Welliver (1929-2005) – landscape paintings (8 by 10 feet) depict the forested Maine landscape.  He would hike out to paint plein air studies with a 70lb backpack in winter (which I won’t be attempting) and later expand the outdoor studies into large studio paintings.  Looking closely at his trees, he doesn’t copy the exact colour of objects, presumably the better to convey the atmosphere and lighting he wants.  They’re highly detailed and meticulously painted, graphic in their drawn quality and full of careful marks. Apparently he would start at top right and work his way down to bottom left – not the expressive, gestural approach we look for these days.  Despite that they have a feeling of simplicity, of detail left out, a lack of textural effect and subtle modelling of form, an abstract quality.
Alex Katz (1927- ) – flat, bold, unmodulated colours; simple forms – like cartoons, precursor to pop art.  He would make detailed small charcoal and oil studies and then scale them up to larger cartoons, and then up several metres to the large painting, simplifying in the process.  Young Trees is a small-scale oil sketch with a brooding atmosphere – economic, fast execution, visible brush strokes.  ‘Full Moon‘, five metres across, is nearly all black.  It depicts moonlight filtering through trees and reflecting off water.  Very simple, and I suspect incredibly effective maybe emotional, seen in the flesh.  ‘Ocean View‘ – a small (25×35) oil sketch, done with simple economy and visible brush marks, made of broad bands of colour, expressionist marks.  What I learned for my own practise from looking at Alex Katz and Turner’s oil sketches, is to sometimes think of painting as sketching –  quick, simple studies in paint can be so fresh, honest and elegant in a very direct way.
Michael Andrews (1928-1995) – some gargantuan acrylic paintings during his 1985 visit to Australia.
Valley of the winds , 2.1×2.9m

The Cathedral, The North East Face, Uluru (Ayers Rock) , 2.4×4.3m
Difficult to appreciate in photos, they probably need to be seen in real life to be appreciated.  They didn’t appeal to me particularly – apart from the monumental size they seemed like fairly ordinary response to an incredibly emotive and spiritual landscape, and to be painted in an ordinary way.
Peter Doig (1959 – ) – influenced by Katz.  He almost always starts his paintings with a photo of a scene, as a starting point for a work.
The gorgeous colours and shape composition of ‘Cricket Painting‘ took my eye.  I noticed how the three players were aligned; the skilful drawing of the figures, foreshortened limbs and gesture perfectly captured. Looks simple!  But all is ambiguous, mysterious, a trait I noticed in many of Doig’s landscape paintings.  They keep you guessing, they intrigue the viewer.

Stephen Chambers
I went to an exhibition of Chambers’ work, which included ‘The Big Country‘, a series of prints depicting the vast landscape of the American North-West in the pioneering days of emigrants, who were embarking from ports in the four corners of the world to settle there. The series, hung as one great continuous landscape occupying several rooms, is a fusion of drawing, print and digital art.  There’s no continuous narrative, rather it’s a series of vignettes which can be read in any direction, where the viewer can dip in and out, alternately focussing in to one drawing and then panning out to the broader landscape.  Because of this I became curious and involved; as I wandered around the display ideas and thoughts suggested themselves, questions arose, my imagination was engaged.

Chambers shows that despite the seemingly limitless space into which these emigrants poured, their impact on the land was often catastrophic, and their relations with each other and indigenous peoples conflict-ridden.  Although based on a past event, this reflects contemporary concerns to do with emigration and the environment.

Marc Quinn
Another artist whose work I’ve seen at first hand , Marc Quinn’s exhibition presented his installations, sculptures and paintings.  Of the latter there were large scale photo-realistic cloud studies.  In his oil painting series The Eye of History, he juxtaposes paintings of our planet on to photorealistic circular paintings of the magnified human eye’s iris and pupil.  Every iris is individual, like fingerprints, and each individual perceives the world and history in their own way.  In The Inner Eye (Beginning of the Ice Age) the land mass is painted as white as an iceberg, perhaps commenting on man-made heating of our planet.   In another work, Map of Where You Can’t See the Stars, the depiction of the world added over the eye is black, with lights shining into space from developed countries.
These works comment on the paranoid world we live in, and the notion of 24 hour news where the whole world is connected through ever-present media and syncopate this with notions of our eroding and changing geographical world. They present images of the world map from various perspectives – such as the Arctic – displaying how the boundaries of experience and geographical territory as we know them are rapidly changing.’ (






Turner’s Venice by Lindsay Stainton Pub Book Club Associates, 1985

Constable’s oil sketches

Bois d’Oliviers

 The Bridge at Sevres

Alex Katz
Peter Doig

Links to my past research work concerning Landscape painting and drawing
Survey of landscape painting, Durer to Van Gogh – evolution of landscape painting. I looked at the paintings of Durer, Breughel, the Dutch school, Lorraine, the English watercolourists, Turner, Constable, Pisarro, Sisley, Renoir, Cezanne, Van Gogh.
Claud Lorraine and Turner –  Structure of landscape – how they created pictorial depth – foreground, middle ground, background.
Constable’s trees – three examples of his oil sketches; a superb nightscape, ” The Edge of a Heath by Moonlight”; and an unusual ‘blot’ painting, like Wm Cozens’.
Camille Pissarro – landscape and townscape series
Landscapes of Sickert and Gore   – townscapes, views from windows

Richard Diebenkorn, landscape series  representative versus abstract painting, aerial landscapes 

Cloud studies  Cloudscapes by Van Goyen, Constable, Jason Brockert

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.




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 transformation of the Dutch interior from modest to extravagant is recorded in the 17c. interiors of Pieter de Hooch (1629-84).   In his paintings from the 1650s we still see traces of abstemious living in the whitewashed walls, floor tiles, few objects, modest clothes, glimpses of the local inhabitants of Delft going about their simple daily lives in their interiors.

By the 1670s he had found a wealthier clientele in Amsterdam who wanted more contrived paintings depicting the luxury they owned.  In The Card Players, below, there are marble pillars and inlay, gold Spanish leather, Oriental rugs, fashionable French costume, pearl earrings, elaborate hairdos.  The occupants draw the eye, first the young pair of card players in the foreground, who by the expression on the woman’s face and their posture, seem to be hatching some plot together.  My eye then is taken to the background couple, where he seems to be impressing upon her some devious winning strategy.  The atmosphere, to my mind achieved by the rather deep contrasting colours,  is one of secrecy and connivance – and who is the mysterious man in the corner, who seems to be observing everything?


But I prefer the simpler, more honest folk I see in de Hooch’s earlier paintings, with their atmosphere of calm restraint and virtuous domesticity. The scene is often an inner room or sheltered  courtyard   In most of them the geometry of tiles and ceiling beams lend perspective to compositions which often comprises floor, ceiling and two walls meeting in a corner.  There is usually an open door or window letting us see out into a brighter exterior.  The radiant sunlight floods in from outside through the doorway,  transforming the scenes.  De Hooch carefully studies and delicately depicts the play of light and shade as it falls on various surfaces in the room, defining their forms.

In terms of aerial perspective, the usual devices are brought into play – details are sharper in the foreground, colours are more saturated and generally warmer.  In the middle ground – the space between the inner and outer doors – colours begin to be toned down and the fewer details to blur slightly.  The far distance is hazily indicated in tones of coloured greys.

In The Bedroom the light infuses the atmosphere with harmony,  intimacy and warmth.  It comes from two sources, the open  window and double door, both lighting up the child. The mother, placed out of the direct light from the door, is busy with household chores in the right hand, darker half of the composition.  I’m drawn into the experience of these occupants by the setting  – the compositional lines are stable verticals and horizontals;  by the colours, which are warm and harmonious; and also by the figures’ stance and gesture, showing their familiar communication with each other.



Vermeer 1632-75 was a contemporary of de Hooch, and just as in the latter’s Card Players, in Vermeer’s The Concert the room contains much ostentatious luxury – fine chairs, painted harpsichord, impressive paintings on the walls, oriental rugs, marble floors and expensive costumes.  There’s an atmosphere of diligent concentration among the participants – I feel  they are a professional troupe practicing for tonight’s concert  – the right hand singer reading her sheet music and indicating the time-count with her right hand to her fellow musicians.  The large painting on the right is an explicit bordello scene by Dirck van Baburen, suggesting the setting itself is perhaps a high class bordello.


My eye is drawn into the scene first of all via the sumptuous red rug, then follows the trail of red via the bass viol (?) on the floor to the back of the man’s chair.  These patches of bright red are enclosed by large areas of low-key silvery-greys, and dark browns, making them more noticeable.  The group are also bathed in diffuse daylight  from the left, presumably from a high up window, throwing the white skirt, red chair and the face of the singer into sharp detail.  The bold design of the floor draws the eye, and this also may be a device to lead the eye to the group via its strong diagonals and from the gloom of the foreground to the startlingly bright contrast in the tiles on which they are placed.

Where Vermeer and de Hooch place an emphasis on a dream of domestic order, Jan Steen (1626-79)  shows ‘the nightmare of a household totally gone to plot’ (loc 1726, Looking at the Overlooked).  In The Dissolute Household everything is out of place and in uproar; our eye travels around the various occupants of the room and a narrative begins to unfold.  The mother, normally upholder of purity and household order, slumps in a drunken stupor at five o’clock in the afternoon, before a plate of oysters whose shells litter the floor, along with discarded playing cards; the father smokes and leers at the bosomy female with a guitar; the biggest child is stealing from his mother’s pocket and the two younger ones gleefully holding up the coins;the dog is sniffing the dinner which has been left on the floor; and above it all, the monkey plays with time, yanking the pendulum of the clock above the bedchamber.



We’re being shown the perils of a household indulging in vice and pleasure and losing its moral grip.  A serious message indeed, but told with humour – ‘Jan Steen enjoys his unruly households and makes us enjoy them’ (loc 2067 Looking at the Overlooked).


One device used by artists to create interior depth is that of doors – opening up on to other rooms and scenes.

Chardin (1699-1779) also painted scenes of everyday life in the the enclosed domestic interior, where human activity is the central focus.  In The Washerwoman and Woman Drawing Water, doors open up further scenes of women working, expanding the interior in three dimensional space.


In  Return From the Market there are a series of doors – a couple converse on the right in the background while the servant eavesdrops.

These Chardin paintings seem to portray an enclosed, oppressive interior spaces where all is quiet and secret.


Bonnard’s (1867-1947) interiors by contrast to Chardin’s are full of pattern, light and warm colours, some  celebrating the open door or window leading to the garden and the outdoors. It’s difficult to decipher their perspective; space is truncated; there are illogical intruding and receding angles, tilted tabletops, objects which seem to hover.  He used the layering of colour on the canvas to express his sensations when faced with his subject, setting carefully selected colours against each other, probing ‘colour as it translates light and light as it transforms colour’ (  The rooms and objects in them seem familiarly describe daily chores – laying the table, pouring the tea.  Apparently he started a painting with very small scale drawings and developed watercolours over time (from memory, in the studio, rather than sitting at the dining room table),  becoming more and more familiar with the subject.

Corner of the Dining Room at Le Cannet shows a very small part of a room, unlike any of the other paintings I’ve chosen so far.

The figures in Bonnard interiors are elusive, blending into the background, disappearing off the margins of the canvas, as in the yellow shawl  being worn by a person with her back to us.  There’s a door, but it’s shut.  The space is quite flat – there’s little depth.  Bonnard uses architectural features such as the fireplace, and objects to guide the viewer around the composition. Colour is all, but as in Vermeer, in this painting it occurs in patches surrounded by grey-brown neutrals.

In The French Window The eye is drawn first of all to the white door and the idyllic outside landscape.  But the door, although glazed, is closed – themes very much a sense of ‘out there’ and ‘in here’.  The sunlight however flows into the room touching and transforming surfaces it lands on – the wall becomes a golden yellow; the hair and shoulder of the figure gleam and reflect the light.  With Bonnard, colour is the subject, it describes the space and light and provides our entree into the painting.  The figure is undefined and introspective.  Behind her in the mirror is another figure – perhaps the artist.


Edward Hopper  (1882-1967) interiors, like Chardin’s, portray women in lonely, enclosed spaces, but Hopper’s figures are often completely isolated in their inner world – either because they are actually on their own, or where there are several figures each is immersed in its own introspective meditations.

He uses the angles of harsh light raking the interior, entering through doors and windows, to describe the space, the canvas divided and the composition delineated with the angles of the room’s construction.  Colours are dull and dreary; rooms are furnished with large, utilitarian beds and armchairs – there’s no room for ornaments, loved or personal objects.  The interiors seem as impersonal as a bad motel room.  There is always a figure – usually one, sometimes more.  The world outside the window is an empty forest of trees or high-rises.

I find it difficult to like Hopper’s interiors; they feel cold and inhuman.  I feel that like Sickert and Uglow he treats the female figure in a way I slightly recoil from.


It’s interesting to compare Egon Schiele’s (1890-1918) Room in Neulengbach with Van Gogh’s (1853-1890) Bedroom in Aries, where the furniture and objects are the central focus for both.  The content is similar; there is no human occupant;  an uncomfortably narrow single bed in each;  chair, a table with some small objects, pictures on the wall. A major difference to note is the viewpoint – Schiele’s interior is as if viewed by a fly on the ceiling looking down!  His furniture is finer, less rustic – but his room seems cell-like, a contemplative space, as it has no windows or doors – there’s no way out; or cocoon like, due to the absence of corners in the white, enveloping walls.  The colours are harmonious, rather elegant and quiet.


The Bedroom in Arles on the other hand is a homely place;  you feel at any minute its occupant will come cheerily through the door and clatter around looking for something or other – or that maybe we, the viewer are the occupant, standing in the room surveying it, wondering whether to have a cool siesta.  The window, while shuttered, hints at sunny light outside.  The atmosphere, provided by the pairing of the two main colours, yellow and lavender is calm, inviting, restful.  There are other paired complementaries too, in the orange washstand and blue jug, the red blanket and greenish bed.


Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93) interiors, like Edward Hopper’s, sometimes make use of a single figure posed in an urban interior – often a balcony or verandah, opening on to a spacious landscape.  His lone seated figures are more relaxed and at home in their surroundings than Hopper’s , gazing out at the view, drinking tea, reading a book.  Objects are few, limited to a chair, a book or a cup and saucer.  One thing Ithat appeals to me and that strikes me about his paintings, is his use of rich colour hues in very dark shadows and very light tones illuminating the interior to describe the effect of the Californian sunlight.


References accessed 04/08/2015