Exercise: Abstraction from Study of Natural Forms

15 & 16/02/16

Exercise: Abstraction from Study of Natural Forms

In this exercise you can abstract by looking very closely at a familiar natural form and expanding what you see in an arrangement of lines, shapes and colours. 

Again, it’s raining cats and dogs outside so fell back on my box of objects that may be useful for still life work. I have collected leaves, stones, fir cones the usual stuff and more unusually, dried bodies of hornets, flies and my prize possession, a small rat’s skull found whilst gardening. You never know when they will be useful.


After careful consideration I went with the rat skull. The process I followed is below:


I painted the entire image as per the study i.e. on its side from the original drawing. However, on completion, although I liked the landscape bias, turning back to the representational orientation made more sense to me. As Frank Auerbach said in the film at his recent exhibition, finding an expression in objects is a useful tool. I am a novice in abstract art, both viewing, understanding and most definitely in making it, I’ve found I need to find one thing to make sense and then everything else follows.

I am pleased with the outcome of this exercise, particularly as it’s a completely new experience for me. I like the colours and tones and the overall effect works for me. Even my husband, who when I tried to explain the process asked if I’d overdone my cold medication, liked the finished image and said I should do a really large version. Maybe I will, when the pressure is off.

RAT! Final painting in acrylic on paper 30x30cm

Final painting in acrylic on paper


Exercise: View from a Window or Doorway

29 & 30/10 & 2/11/15

Exercise: View from a Window or Doorway

For this exercise, choose a view onto the world. Decide how much of the interior you wish to include and where the main focus of the picture will be… It may help you to look at some of the ways in which other artists have tackled this type of composition… Make some preliminary drawings in your sketchbook, trying out a variety of arrangements and viewpoints…

Before starting I had a look at some work of the artists suggested. I had always been drawn to the paintings of Edward Hopper, particularly those with windows and the transition between interiors and exteriors, even those with no figures just the shapes of shadows on walls. Gwen John is another artist noted, her paintings are so subtle yet dripping with atmosphere. She used muted colours and relied more on tone to tell her story and her paintings are very engaging. The third artist we are asked to look at is Raoul Dufy. I confess that I had not come across this artist before but particularly enjoyed the loosely drawn and painted watercolours. I have created a board in Pinterest to record my findings, a few examples are below:

 : Office in a Small City by Edward Hopper

Office in a Small City by Edward Hopper


This example gives more focus to the outside view.








Interior by Gwen John:

Interior by Gwen John

This beautiful painting gives the interior more importance but the window plays its part with its cast light.

Bassin de Deauville, 1935 by Raoul Dufy:

Bassin de Deauville, 1935 by Raoul Dufy


Here Dufy has given, if not quite equal, but a level of focus to both interior and exterior, using both colour for the interior and an extensive view to the exterior.

All of these artists’ work helped me focus on what I wanted to paint. After gazing out of several window views at home, I decided on a couple of views that had colour, perspective and simple compositional elements.





Preliminary Work

View from a Window or Doorway - Prelim sketch 1 Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway – Prelim sketch 1
Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway - Prelim sketch 2 Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway – Prelim sketch 2
Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook







The above sketches use the interior to frame the exterior and the tones emphasise the shadows for a 3D effect. The window is also at an angle that exaggerated the perspective. Making notes about the weather conditions and pros and cons helped me decide that the portrait orientation was the more successful. However, I chose to make a couple more sketches before deciding finally which to take forward to the painting stage.

View from a Window or Doorway - Prelim sketch 3 Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway – Prelim sketch 3
Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway - Prelim sketch 4 Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook

View from a Window or Doorway – Prelim sketch 4
Pen and Watercolour in A4 Sketchbook









These sketches, although still framed by the doorway, concentrate more on the outside. There is less perspective as the doors are front on, although externally the decking planks do indicate linear perspective. Deciding which view (narrowed down to both portrait sketches), was difficult for me to choose. The first view seemed the most interesting and I liked the shadows on the interior, however, I was, as noted in my sketchbook, seduced by the colours of the door view. Colours aside, I finally convinced myself that the first view would make for a more successful painting.

Final Painting

The day dawned when I intended to make the final painting. Typically, it was covered with a thick layer of fog. By 9.20am it still hadn’t cleared much at all so I ploughed on as visibility wasn’t too bad for my purposes luckily.

View from a Window or Doorway - Work in progress Oil on canvas

View from a Window or Doorway – Work in progress
Oil on canvas

My initial thoughts were to make a watercolour painting as I liked the colour sketches in my sketchbook. However, as I prepared the paper in its enlarged size, I began drawing it out in pencil and just couldn’t get it right. It then struck me that I was beginning to make the kind of painting I didn’t like ie a line drawing coloured in. Overnight, I changed my mind and prepared to make an oil painting. I struggled to find the right sized board to use, until I found an old oil portrait painting that wasn’t up to scratch and just painted a neutral, mid toned ground over it in oil. I had always worried about doing this in case the previous painting showed through, this doesn’t appear to have happened. Now I have lots of supports I can re-use!

A tonal under-painting was laid down in a raw umber/ultramarine mix, putting in muted colours to map out the composition. This is the stage pictured at lunchtime.


View from a Window or Doorway - Work in progress Oil on canvas

View from a Window or Doorway – Work in progress
Oil on canvas

I decided to continue in the afternoon, as to be honest, the light hadn’t changed overly as still no sun had appeared. I also used my sketch to help with tonal selections. I continued until I felt the painting was finished and took a photograph for my learning log. This photograph highlighted that the right hand wall had gone a little askew and that the shadow at the top of the window was not strong enough. I then tweaked the painting to hopefully rectify these points.






View from a Window or Doorway Oil on canvas Approx A3

View from a Window or Doorway
Oil on canvas
Approx A3

My thoughts on the outcome:

  • Am pleased with the exterior tones and the lack of detail as a result of a looser application of paint.
  • The composition is successful and I think was the right choice.
  • There is no jarring in the colours as a fairly limited palette was used.
  • The mood has been lifted just a little to avoid the blanket fog yet is not too sunny.
  • I struggled with the wet in wet sometimes as paint was lifted off as well as laid down.
  • Pleased with the scraping off of paint to give some texture and the blotting of excess paint with newspaper to knock back the strength of colour and tone in the distant trees. (Reliable informed as a technique called tonking invented by Henry Tonks!)
  • I will review again after a few days so that the paint can settle and dry out a little to see if any adjustments are needed.
  • Noticed that the prior research had a significant effect on how I worked through this exercise ie have used the interior shadows to give perspective and mood (Edward Hopper), tones and colours are fairly muted (Gwen John) and the preliminary pen sketches loosely toned and coloured with watercolour (Raoul Dufy).


Practice of Painting – Assignment 3

26 & 28/09 – 01/102015

Assignment 3

Now that you’ve worked on several figure and portrait studies, consolidate what you’ve learned by working in a more planned and considered way on a portrait or self-portrait in either acrylic or oil paint. In this assignment you’ll be showing how your skills in handling paint and interpreting your subject are developing.

Looking at other artists’ portraiture

Explore some of the endless possibilities for arrangements in portraiture by looking at the work of other artists… Make notes in your learning log, concentrating on works that you find especially arresting or admirable.

Arrangements/composition/brushwork/colour in portraiture:
I have seen some fabulous examples of portraiture over the years that are purely focussed on the sitter. Many that do this use chiaroscuro to draw attention in onto the subject with dramatic effect – Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Da Vinci are obvious examples. A more recent example, both in era and my actually seeing it, would be Henry James by John Singer Sargent (1913). This left a lasting impression for its sheer dominance of a space.  I enjoyed the way the left shoulder was lost into the background with the slightly more unusual light source coming from the right. As most of the background and figure itself was dark, the flesh of the face and hand on the right had significance and you understood the character of the man from this. Using the same artist, a converse treatment is one of the portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife 1885. The figures are contained within an interior, however, neither are centre stage, certainly not “His Wife”, who seems almost insignificant going off the right edge of the canvas. Sargent doesn’t dismiss her completely though, as her clothing is elaborate, however simply rendered. Although we are left in no doubt as to whom is main subject of the painting.

A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to go to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries – there was a wonderful array of styles, subjects and interpretations by current portrait artists. To choose one or two favourites was almost impossible, however for this purpose I settled on these examples. “Norman” by Jason Sullivan is a narrative work showing the man within his environment. The painting is set in the Salt Marshes on an overcast day, all tones are related back to this, even the red windcheater Norman is wearing fits right into the grey tones yet gives the image a lift. Based in Lymington in Hampshire, not so far from me, Norman lives on his small boat (which is in the background of the painting), is in his seventies and has previously cut reeds for New Forest thatchers. He seems at one with his world, we have the sense that he needs no more.

The other painting I absolutely loved is “Fire” in oil by Simon Davis RP RBSA. It measures only 6.5 x 5.5″, yet for me, packs a punch. A simple head and shoulders view of a young woman, a limited palette with bold decisive marks. It has a variety of soft and sharp edges and the face is moulded by its brush strokes – if ever (in my humble opinion) the handling of paint and clarity of colour was an example of less is more, this is it. Simply beautiful.

(NB I was unable to find “Norman” or “Fire” on-line to create a link to the actual paintings unfortunately).

Assignment 3 – Self Portrait

After lengthy consideration throughout this section, I have decided to attempt another self-portrait. This is for two reasons: me being the only model I can guarantee has availability as required; because I find this genre particularly challenging and need to face it (no pun intended) head on (sorry!).

My personal challenges with a self-portrait are:

  1. keeping still as a model yet moving back to assess progress as a painter
  2. portraying my character rather than the grumpy painter that’s struggling
  3. ignoring my perception of what I look like and really looking at what I can see
  4. working the entire painting rather than fiddling with detail – I have less trouble with this when painting someone else
  5. chasing the light – can become so involved in the task, I don’t notice light changing until it’s too late!


Alluding to number 3 above and possibly 2 and 4, I decided to angle the mirror back so that I was looking down into it, thus avoiding the traditional face on, three-quarters or profile views. This is also not an angle I usually see myself from, so hopefully would avoid pre-conceived ideas of myself.

I was hoping to reflect some aspects of my work area in the painting for visual interest, however, the mirror angle just gave a view of the ceiling!

As I wanted to use a mid-sized canvas board and the only one I had was pre-used, I decided to recycle. The board was 38x46cm and had previously been not one, but two quite impasto acrylic paintings, therefore there was a lot of texture on the surface. I had already washed over a warm neutral ground colour, however, it was a little too bumpy for a portrait. I sanded the surface so that some texture was retained but not huge crevices. This, I hoped would compensate a little for having a simple background.

Preliminary Tonal Drawing Pencil in A4 sketchbook

Preliminary Tonal Drawing
Pencil in A4 sketchbook


In my sketchbook, I drew a frame 50% smaller in scale than my board to create a sketch to work on tone and composition.  As I was already clear in my mind how I wanted to work, I found this was enough. (In assignment 2, I also thought I knew what composition I wanted but still tried others just in case – this time I am already certain).

We were also advised in the course notes, to premix our flesh colours, this I admit, I don’t normally do. I was conscious of keeping a fairly limited palette so chose warm and cool versions of red, blue and yellow, plus some earth colours and white. ls ten a limited palette?

Colours used:
Cadmium Red (warm)
Alzarin Crimson (cool)
Ultramarine Blue (warm)
Manganese Blue (cool)
Cadmium Yellow (warm)
Cadmium Lemon (cool)
Naples Yellow
Burnt Sienna
Raw Umber
Titanium White

Using varying combinations of some of the above I tried to create dark, mid and light tones in warm, cool and neutral mixes. Retrospectively, the neutral wasn’t far removed from the warm. Making swatches of these colours with mixing notes I taped the sheet to my easel for easy reference. During the portrait classes I attend, we are encouraged not to overuse white as it can cool colours and make them chalky, hence the Naples yellow.

Flesh colour mixes and notes

Flesh colour mixes and notes

Set up for self portrait: mirror, board and easel, preliminary sketch, colour mixing notes, palette and brushes ready to go.

Set up for self-portrait:
mirror, board and easel, preliminary sketch, colour mixing notes, palette and brushes ready to go.












I had decided to use oil paint as, although I enjoyed switching to acrylics occasionally for previous exercises, returning to oil felt “right”. I like to work with dilute oil paint in raw umber and Naples yellow initially to map out my composition and rough tones before getting involved with colour, sometimes rubbing out shapes and lighter areas with a cloth, not something easily done with acrylics and thinned paint dries very quickly. It’s also a more tactile way of working and helps me feel like I’m moulding the structure of the face (in theory).

Below is a gallery of work in progress photos which maps out the highs and lows of the exercise. After day one of painting, I left the work feeling satisfied with progress, thinking, I just need to work on the eyes, clothes and background tomorrow and then I’m done. What a difference a night makes! Next day, work on the eyes I did, and work and work and work – in reality fiddled! Big mistake – I had strayed from the style used elsewhere in the painting and now the eyes were awful! I know I should work all of the painting at the same rate and level but ignored it. I scrubbed out the eyes and went to lunch. Coming back, I reassessed – the nose was too high the mouth too high and the left side of the face too wide. I scraped off all features and returned to sculpting shapes, I finally finished that day at the same stage as the previous one. Lesson 1: Work all of the painting not just one area to the same level, Lesson 2: Avoid detail until the structure is correct, Lesson 3: Light, light light! At this point I closed and locked the door – made dinner, had 3 glasses of wine and tried to forget the whole thing!

I was constantly stepping back to reassess my progress, nearing the end I reconsidered the background. I had chosen to wear a black fleece top, which contrasted well with the red, paint smeared apron and although my hair is fair, there was a good amount of darker tone through it. Therefore, I decided to keep the background lighter so that the figure came forward. As I wanted, as previously stated, to make the background more interesting, I needed to keep the texture visible. Using a mixture of brush and palette knife, colour was added, trying to keep the light tones to the left. I then scraped back so that the relief of the underlying texture showed through.  This seems to have worked quite nicely.

Evaluating the results, I was pleased with the painting close up – however, moving it to another position and standing back, the mouth lacked definition as the top lip should have been significantly darker than the lower. The painting did not reflect that so I adjusted the tones here. I also noticed that the right side of the face was a little flat, so worked a little more moulding with warm and dark tones – this is something I find I often do.  I think I will leave it at that, as I may detract rather than add at this stage.

Assignment 3 - Final Painting Self-portrait Oil on Canvas Board 38x46cm

Assignment 3 – Final Painting
Oil on Canvas Board 38x46cm

This was to be the final painting, however, there were aspects I wasn’t happy with.

  • The mouth is too harsh and angular
  • The right eye (as viewed) is slightly askew giving a boss-eyed look
  • The general effect is too severe – this is something my husband always points out when I attempt a self-portrait. When asked if I had made the same effect this time, he replied “yes but you always do”.

I resolved to reassess and try to correct these points. This is not a matter of vanity as I try to paint what I see, but more of portraying the person behind the features. I do have my moments, yet generally I am good-natured and approachable – not a terrifying school mistress!


Having left a good day and a half to let the painting sit and dry out a little, it was easier to rework and paint on top of what was there. The adjustments didn’t take too long and a fresh eye always helps, if I hadn’t done this I would have regretted it.

Assignment 3 Self-portrait After final reassessment and rework Oil on canvas board 38x46cm

Assignment 3
After final reassessment and rework
Oil on canvas board

Self Assessment:

Had I overcome my five initial challenges?

  1. keeping still as a model yet moving back to assess progress as a painter
  2. portraying my character rather than the grumpy painter that’s struggling
  3. ignoring my perception of what I look like and really looking at what I can see
  4. working the entire painting rather than fiddling with detail – I have less trouble with this when painting someone else
  5. chasing the light – can become so involved in the task, I don’t notice light changing until it’s too late!


  1. This still challenged me, although I did try to minimise the problem by placing the easel in most accessible position – I did sometimes, however, return to it and look in the mirror and I wasn’t there! Ongoing!
  2. This one nearly got the better of me, but the final re-evaluation and rework saved my bacon. I reduced the severity of expression and made some tonal value changes more subtle and am happy.
  3. This was one of the easiest ones to overcome because of the angle I chose – it may still be a factor in more traditional poses.
  4. Ah – this was tricky, individual eyelashes? Whatever was I thinking? This journey is well documented above and I won’t dwell on it – lesson learnt!
  5. Again, I did exactly this – trying to get on and finish regardless is not advisable – another lesson learnt.


  • The perspective of the pose was a saviour and noted above – using the initial sketch was very helpful although I accept that I have increased the scale in the painting compared with the drawing.
  • The textured ground has made more interesting marks and enlivened the painting.
  • I am pleased with the colours compositionally, they relate well to each other and make a fairly dramatic image.
  • The painting of the clothes including my trusty paint encrusted apron has a realistic appearance.
  • My confidence had grown in what I wanted to achieve especially with my nemesis of self portraiture.
  • Probably the most important one – I think it actually does look like me.


Research Points: Optical Mixing and Effects



Georges Seurat ( 1859-1891)

Seated Boy with Straw Hat Georges Seurat

Seated Boy with Straw Hat
Georges Seurat


Seurat spent two years dedicated to developing his skill of black and white drawing around 1880-1882. He concentrated on tone and light in these drawings and often omitted lines to delineate areas, instead using marks built up to show dark against light.  This is particularly prevalent in “The Black Bow” or “The Black Knot” (1882), in conte crayon on paper, see link below:

Maybe these were his embryonic thoughts to using such mark marking with colour and tone in his subsequent paintings? In Seurat’s first large-scale painting, “Bathers at Asnieres” (1884) – National Gallery, he did not use Pointillism but similar mark making techniques to the drawings are apparent.  Even here, Seurat has not used broad sweeps of colour but smaller marks.  This painting depicts a bright summer’s day, the colours used are light and fresh, the shadows although cooler, are not cold but convey a subtle shade.  the darkest colours, eg the boots, trousers and hat are a rich deep brown, they still show the bright light of the sun.


Women by the Water 1885-6 Georges Seurat

Women by the Water 1885-6
Georges Seurat

In “Women by the Water” (1885-6) Oil on Wood 15.7x25cm shows Seurat using Pointillism with broken dots and dashes of colour but still following tonality and light. The colours are more intricate because of this,  compared to the “Bathers at Asnieres”, where colour appears simplified.  There are nuances of colour both in the light and dark tones, if not generally. This painting is best viewed at a short distance away,  the eye then “joins the dots” and gives, what looks disjointed close up, a recognisable image.


“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette” 1884 – there are many reproductions of this painting and many I have seen seem to be made of many coloured dots (ie Pointillism), in their entirety, however, looking at the Metropolitan Museum of Art website, I notice the multitude of short dash like marks over the majority of the painting. The grassy shadows have dashes of blue/green/orange//yellow which give the ground movement. There is similar treatment in the trees which really evokes the dappled sunlight and gently summer breeze.  It transpires that Seurat added the dots towards the completion of the painting, along with a dotted border. This border follows the tones of the painting where it touches, being darker over the trees, down along the grass shadows and lightens towards the water where the sun hits.  By laying complimentary colours alongside each other, he gives crisp colours a lively movement, for example the blues in the grassy shadow against the orange of the daisies.  He as also used colours close on the spectrum to give a variation in tone and mix colours, there is a lot of red and blue which interpreted as a violet/plum colour in many of the clothes.


Paul Signac (1863-1935)

A contemporary of Georges Seurat, Signac was intrigued by Seurat’s working methods and went on to help in the development of Pointillism.  I have to admit that I am not overly familiar with Signac’s work – possibly because he was eclipsed by Seurat? Seurat’s life was cut very short and maybe the more celebrated because of that – I don’t know.

I have found some paintings of Signac’s that particularly appeal to me:

Capo Di Noli (1896)


A coastal view from a cliff path which sings with colour. Allegedly not the actual colours but the colours the scene evoked in the artist’s mind’s eye.  It’s again as with Seurat, tonally working yet has a clean-cut vibrancy that comes from not mixing colour on the palette but with the eye.  In the detail of the attached link, the complimentary colours are lifting each other above the bland and really give a sense of the hot Mediterranean sun.

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre (1886)

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre 1886 Paul Signac

Complat le Chateau, Le Pre 1886
Paul Signac


This meadow scene reduces my initial thoughts to dust! I was beginning to think that this method was best used to describe strong Mediterranean sunlight – however, although the sun is still strong here, it has a hazier, Northern European feel. the dominance of blues in varying shades and tones gives a unifying effect and although the  shadows are distinct, it still feels close to midday sun.  I almost need to shield my eyes from the glare.



Grand Canal, Venice (1905)

Grand Canal, Venice 1905 Paul Signac

Grand Canal, Venice 1905
Paul Signac


This is a beautiful painting that brings to mind the onset of dusk in Venice – something I have witnessed and is magical, the history, lapping of the water and soft glow as the city begins its night-time illumination of dark canals. This took me right back there. If this isn’t colour evoking mood, I don’t know what it. the last of the sun glancing off the Basilica makes it appear alight.



Both Seurat and Signac had a method, technique, process – call it what you will. They worked from sketches and colour studies and painstakingly experimented with the juxtaposition of colours to give the right look, feel and atmosphere to their paintings. However, this is a labour of love – it had to be, whether it’s the love of the process itself or the finished article, I’m not sure. It took at least one or two years for each final painting and all done in the studio – it is therefore, even more astounding that the finished works are so fresh, vibrant and compelling.


Ops Artists

Victor Vasarely 1906-1997

Op Art is a phrase coined by Time Magazine in 1964 in specific relation to Julian Stanczak’s exhibition

Zebra 1938 Victor Visarely

Zebra 1938
Victor Visarely

of abstract paintings that used optical illusions as their focus called Optical Paintings. Artists had previously been exploring this concept much before the phrase came about. One of these being Victor Vasarely. Vasarely’s famous Zebra 1938 is a motif he revisited in several guises over the years. Prior to the 1960s-70s, he seemed to work mostly in black and white and then created amazingly elaborate and precise abstract paintings using colour as well as shape for his creations.  Attached is a link to his website that has since been created, showing the timeline of Vasarely’s work and journey – he manages to convey a wildness together with a restraint and control.


For me, these are interesting shapes and colours and I found his planning and painting “maps” intriguing but devoid of any feeling, seemingly clinical. I enjoyed the spherical pattern and line bending of the Vega Period more than most as these were as organic as they got. I will park this and re-examine at some point when maybe my understanding of abstract/optical art improves – not in the diary yet thought.

Bridget Riley 1931-

London born Bridget Riley divides her time between Cornwall, London and Vaucluse in France. A name I know of yet not am not particularly familiar with her work.  Again, I hit against my abstract art brick wall. Having perused some of Riley’s works on-line, these are a few that I was taken with:

Cataract 3 1967

An interesting name! The colours and design seemed more unremarkable until I enlarged the image – it completely came alive and made me compare it to a flag waving in the wind – albeit in a uniform way. The colour-ways help with this –  moving from black/blue & white to red/blue/white and back again.

Shadow Play 1990


Looking at this, I was a little lost, then I began to see it changing before me in planes and angles. I again enlarged it on my lap top and being a plasma-type screen, the imprints of circles from my fingers seemed to add even more to it.

Movement in Squares 1961


I have seen this before and is more obviously an optical illusion. I notice that it is made with Tempera on board, which seems an unusual choice – it would be good to understand these choices with such a concept.

Blaze Study 1962


As soon as I stray into realms of zigzags I feel uncomfortable, in fact this Optical Art is a bit of a struggle for me to really look at – particularly on a computer screen.  I think I should try to find examples to see in the flesh and see if they have the same effect.  The reason being, I am an occasional migraine sufferer and just by chance, have had a few attacks this week prior to this research.  This leads me to think that there is more than a visual effect from these works and more of a neurological impact – is this general or just me and fellow migraine-ees?? I’m all for emotional responses to works of art, I think this may just be a step too far for me.  I will seek out some exhibits just in case it is the combination of Op Art and computer screen.


Research Point: Still Life Painters and Paintings

07/05 – 01/06/15

17th Century Dutch Still Life and Flower Painters

Look at the work of some of the 17th Century  Dutch still life and flower painters. Make notes on paintings that you particularly admire and find out more about the techniques that were employed at the time.

Gerrit Dou – Sleeping Dog
Floris van Dijck – Still Life
Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder – Flower Still Life
Willem Kalf – Still Life with Silver Jug/Ewer
Pieter Claesz – Still Life with a Skull
Willem Claeszoon Heda – Still Life Vanitas

Flower Still Life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder

Flower Still Life by Ambrosius Bosschaert the Elder

We were asked to look at flower paintings as well as still life as a whole. I have to be honest I found the flower arrangements left me cold. Whereas I can appreciate that they were beautifully and skilfully painted, they appeared too perfect and posed.  I love plants and flowers, however, these made me feel they were artificial somehow. Flowers that would not have bloomed in the same season were put together, maybe due to the fact that horticulture had become highly fashionable and this may have increased the popularity of this genre.

Of course, the Netherlands became extremely prosperous in this age due to the successful trading by Dutch merchants.  Home interiors became more opulent and ostentatious in decoration. Art and commissions thereof, were more within the reach of the new middle merchant class.  Food was particularly used as a subject for still life paintings, tables piled high with seafood, cheeses, meats and exotic fruits newly discovered, sometimes to extent of gluttony.

Still Life by Floris van Dijck.

Still Life by Floris van Dijck.

Regarding the subject of food, I’ve picked out this still life by Floris van Dijck depicting the more simple fare of bread, cheeses, fruit and nuts, and a plain glass of water. This does not induce the nausea and feeling of indigestion that others with whole lobsters, rich meats and overflowing wine etc do! This is also beautifully painted and has colour yet is not overwhelming.  It does however, still have a level of symbolism, the apple peel starting to brown and the plate of bread teetering on the edge of the table give sense of an upset waiting to happen, the favourite caveat of our not being immortal and that all good things come to an end.

Sleeping Dog by Gerrit Dou

Sleeping Dog by Gerrit Dou

I loved this painting of a sleeping dog by Gerrit Dou.  It looks so peaceful and somehow reassuring compared to the pretentious wealth often rendered in still life.  The dog sleeping next to the clay pot with an imperfect broken lid, a bundle of sticks ready for the evening fire and the master’s clogs awaiting his return.  However, I’m a little disquieted when I realise that animal still life is probably just that – is the dog really sleeping? Hope so!

Still Life with Silver Ewer by Willem Kalf

Still Life with Silver Ewer by Willem Kalf


As this is supposed to be about painting I especially admire, I had to include this one by Willem Kalf.  The brush work and colours are beautiful, sensitive and realistic. The silver jug has the different textures associated with burnished and hammered silver in its decoration, with the reflected light of the lemon adding to its luminosity. The lemons themselves could almost be plucked out of the porcelain bowl, particularly the semi peeled fruit. The oriental bowl has just enough highlight from a secondary or reflected light source to ensure its position in the shadow. It is a painting that I could look at for a long, long time.


As far as techniques are concerned, I couldn’t find any specifics in my research but from observation, many used chiaroscuro to help sculpt and mould the 3D image as in the example above (Willem Kalf).  This gave the illusion of placement and form of objects against a dark background, throwing focus on specific items.  Others gave a fairly equal light source so that everything may be seen clearly, this technique was particularly common with the vanitas paintings where a message was being conveyed to the viewer.  Sometimes these paintings were so full of symbolism and objects upon objects that it is almost a game to pick them out.

Research at least one painting that has iconographic significance. Which of the objects depicted carry particular meaning and what was that meaning?

In Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz

In Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz

Vanitas paintings were very popular and a recurring subject for still life. A common component was the depiction of a human skull and bones, not unsurprisingly, this signified the mortality of man, in fact most symbolic objects made reference to the passing of time and the inevitability of death. In the Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz (left), the oil lamp has just been extinguished with trickle of smoke wafting away, the upturned glass emptied of its contents, speak of the end of life. Watches (as in this example), clocks and time generally tick away and will eventually stop.  Books, literature, music etc are earthly pursuits with no value after death – often in these paintings, a musical instrument with a broken string will give the same message. There are symbols of life and rebirth such as shells, ivy or laurel (anyone trying to eradicate these from their garden would get this one!!!). Flowers are also full of meaning, some have more than one depending on era and cultures. The Lily for example denotes purity and innocence, the rose has multiple meanings depending on its colour. In the above painting there is a key on a ribbon, researching the symbolism of keys, I discovered that spiritual leaders or monarchy are often shown holding keys as a symbol of power – the power of opening and closing – the power of opening the door between one world and the next, the mortal and the afterlife maybe.

Then explore the development of still life through the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For example look at how traditional still life subjects were dealt with in some early Cubist paintings by Braque and Picasso. Investigate how some contemporary artists are interpreting this genre.

18th Century

Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin (1669-1777)

When trying to recall some of Chardin’s work, nothing came to mind initially, however, after looking him up I realised I had actually seen some of his work. The Ray, I had seen in the Louvre a while ago and I’m fairly certain I had also seen his self-portrait. On researching some of his still life paintings, I found a couple that caught my eye in particular, Still Life with Plums and The Copper Cistern.

Still Life with Plums by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

Still Life with Plums by Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin

The Still Life with Plums resonated because the bottle used within the composition was similar to that I had used in my Assignment One still life. In fact, digging out my tutor’s report I found he had picked up (however fleeting) a similarity between Chardin’s style and this effort of mine. However, looking at both the Chardin reproduced on-screen and my original work, I can see so many aspects I must work on. Whereas although Chardin’s painting is dark in tone, there is still a lightness of touch, his darks are not “muddy” as mine are. The glass of the bottle has a transparency that mine should have had but I achieved only a dull opacity. This has illustrated clearly that a darkness of tone does not have to mean dull.  As Chardin’s life crossed over the 17th and 18th Centuries, there is an inevitable foundation in the Golden Age styles, although it is said his work was a big influence on the cubist painter Georges Braque, which is why I initially chose to research him.

 19th Century

Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)

Courbet is another artist mentioned by my tutor in the Assignment One feedback report, particularly referring to the apple I had attempted. From this I thought it prudent to look at Courbet’s fruit still life of which he painted many.

Still Life with Apples by Gustave Courbet

Still Life with Apples by Gustave Courbet


Still Life by Gustave Courbet

Still Life by Gustave Courbet





These two examples of Courbet’s still life with fruit still have their origins in the Dutch Golden Age of the genre for their composition in my humble opinion. However, the main difference I see is that Courbet paints what he sees, not to show opulence and wealth but reality.  He painted the fruit with all its imperfections, seeing the interest and individuality, he painted not just an apple but that actual apple.  His brush work is looser, whereas the Dutch still life have an almost photographic feel (from my modern-day perspective).  Courbet has a more “painterly” expressive style that seems to be a stepping stone to the Impressionists (and after reading some more – the Cubists – this I will have to research for myself!).

20th Century

Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947)

Table in Front of the Window by Pierre Bonnard

Table in Front of the Window by Pierre Bonnard

Table in Front of the Window by Pierre Bonnard (Detail)

Table in Front of the Window by Pierre Bonnard (Detail)










The still life paintings by Pierre Bonnard are more colourful and vibrant than previous examples shown.  They also provide a sense of place for the subject, which I particularly like.  Bonnard had a way of playing with perspective and giving a flatter, more pattern-like image.  His mark making and placement of composition were more creative and imaginative although the subject is still representative.  There is more “life” in his still life!

Still Life with Table Cloth by Pierre Bonnard

Still Life with Table Cloth by Pierre Bonnard








Georges Braque (1882-1963)

I had always heard the name of Georges Braque linked with Picasso and had seen a documentary about his life some time ago, however, I hadn’t really looked at his work in any detail before. Concentrating on his still life paintings, I am surprised at how his style evolved.  I found some very stylised cubist paintings that are earlier than his more representational work, examples below.  Did he feel that cubism had run its course and return to a more “traditional” (for want of a better work) style? I note that one of his many influences was Cezanne, which seems to become more apparent in his later work.


Musical Instruments 1908 by Georges Braque

Musical Instruments 1908 by Georges Braque

Bottle and Fishes 1910 by Georges Braque

Bottle and Fishes 1910 by Georges Braque






Musical Instruments and Bottle and Fishes are separated by 2 years and the transition of style is subtle and readable.  The palette is similar and the instruments are becoming more geometric in shape than realistic.  The Bottle and Fishes take the angular and flat planes further, yet the subject is still discernible with study and has depth and three-dimensional illusion.


Still Life with Blue Plums and a Glass of Water 1925 by Georges Braque

Still Life with Blue Plums and a Glass of Water 1925 by Georges Braque

Still Life: TheTable 1928 by Georges Braque

Still Life: The Table 1928 by Georges Braque





Moving on around 20 years give or take, and the style has further evolved.  Curves have reappeared and composition is more considered.  Colour is more evident than tone, particularly in The Table, shapes are still pattern and favourite motifs are revisited.  Darks are treated as another object almost, shadow is solid and part of the pattern, something also exploited by Patrick Caufield as researched in Drawing One.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Still Life - The Dessert 1901 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life – The Dessert 1901 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life 1919 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life 1919 by Pablo Picasso






Picasso also had an interesting evolution regarding still life, the above span 18 years between them and show little inclination towards to the cubist style.

Still Life with Bull's Skull 1939 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life with Bull’s Skull 1939 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life with Cheese 1944 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life with Cheese 1944 by Pablo Picasso






Still Life 1947 by Pablo Picasso

Still Life 1947 by Pablo Picasso

These three examples show clearly the path followed of simplification and importance of line in the shapes of the image. Still Life with Bull’s Skull has the beginnings of using geometric pattern and line although the angles and flat planes seem confined to the surface and background rather than the objects themselves.  Still Life with Cheese follows through the line of the surface into the objects making pattern with geometric shapes and the final Still Life has completely simplified the image. I chose these three examples as I’m fairly sure the same jug or coffee pot was used in each arrangement and further illustrates the way Picasso has chosen to represent it.

Examples of Contemporary Artists Interpretation of the Genre

Coming to this section, I was keen to explore a photographer I had seen recreating 17th Century Dutch still life paintings with photography.  I had seen a BBC documentary exploring the genre of Still Life painting and had intended to refer to it for this research, however, it is no longer available on iPlayer and I can not remember the name of the photographer highlighted in the program.  Searching the web I came across this photographer making this very subject matter.  Here is a link to his website:


It is intriguing as to how complex it is to set up the arrangement and particularly, the lighting to recreate these paintings. It does, in fact, make me admire the skill in the masters of the genre even more.

With the digital age, Still Life can take on many different media, not only the traditional painting, printing and collage but photography (as touched on above).  Ori Gersht is an Israeli artist who has explored this with his Blow Up series of photographs.  He sets up his subjects and using cameras that are so fast ie 1/6,000 of a second, he can capture the exact instant the object (e.g. a vase of flowers) shatters – producing a still life of an explosive split second as if it hangs in suspension for his image and is truly still.

Another contemporary artist that I have seen a documentary about is Marc Quinn.  He has made a series of cast head sculptures of himself, arguably, it could be said that this is not a still life as such, however, the twist is that the moulds are filled with his own blood that his collects over time. These casts are kept frozen in a temperature controlled cabinet. Quinn creates a sculpture every 5 years to record the passage of time on his own features, and, if I remember correctly, contains the same amount of blood in volume as circulates through the body. Therefore, these works are truly still life. One of these sculptures is on display in the National Portrait Gallery and I can’t resist visiting it each time I’m there.

OCA Study Visit: Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern


Marlene Dumas – The Image as Burden, Tate Modern

A day of firsts: my first study visit, first experience of Marlene Dumas, first exhibition in Tate Modern, first group critique/discussion.

I had previously missed out on a couple of study visits due to being away, so I was looking forward to finally experiencing one, albeit with some trepidation.  There was, however, no need to worry, our tutor Angela Rogers, was extremely approachable, very familiar with the artist’s work and eager to listen to our opinions, conclusions and summations. The group was of mixed painting students, from first or second coursers like me, to 2 or 3 studying for their Masters in Fine Art, we also came from all over the country and one from just outside Naples – that stopped me whining about my 6am start!!!

We had all been given some brief notes about Marlene Dumas and links to a couple of video clips so that we didn’t go in to the exhibition completely cold.  We split into smaller groups of 3-4 of similar levels, which helped our confidence and enabled us to relate to each other’s experiences and observations. This was a large exhibition 11 or 12 rooms in all, therefore we had intended to whip round quickly and note what caught our attention and then revisit those pieces in more depth.  In reality, I think many of us were quite overwhelmed immediately with some of the work, so were spending more time discussing, making notes and sketches as well as finding out about each other’s entire OCA learning experiences.

After the previous week’s visit to the John Singer Sargent exhibition, this was about as different as you could get.  These images were hard-hitting, emotional and deeply thought-provoking.  I found that I didn’t have to like the work for it to have an effect on me.  Dumas would take images from magazine, newspapers and news footage that made her feel “something” and work on her interpretation of that image. Every brush stroke seemed to be dripping with messages, emotion and meaning.  She often worked in series – examples:

  • Rejects 1994 – ongoing, these were displayed on one large wall in a rectangular, landscape, grid layout, spaced well enough apart to be viewed individually or as a whole. These were quite disturbing in their appearance. Features, especially the eyes were scratched out, redrawn and sometimes the paper was torn out and another set of eyes or mouth was underneath. Stood in front of the display – I had the impression of faces with latex masks in various states of decay or removal.  Was the real person trying to make themselves heard or did they not want the world to see the “real” them. This was only the beginning of the exhibition – no wonder it took us a while to get round the entire show!
  • Black Drawings 1991-2, the description alongside this exhibit explained that these drawings were Dumas’ reaction to the then, European perception of black Africans. As the artist was born in South Africa and considered South African Dutch, and moved to Holland in the 70s, it was an interesting concept. Maybe it also says something about the perception of her as a person too? These studies were grouped into a square, grid-like display, each was fairly close to the other which made it more of a singular work, Was this also a comment on European perception?
  • Great Men 2014 – present, in the video link we were given prior to the study visit, Dumas explained that one motivation for this series was the recent attitude in Russia to homosexuality – in that it has now been made illegal there – such a backward step. Dumas began portrait studies of homosexual men throughout history that have contributed greatly to civilisation, be it in the arts, science or politics. Alan Turing was one of her subjects, a man who saved a great many lives and directly helped the second world war come to an end – plus left the legacy of advances in computer science. Oscar Wilde is another, a brilliant author of our now classic novels and plays and an acerbic wit. Pjotr Tsjaikofski – probably more commonly known in the West as Peter Tchaikofsky the great Russian composer – the quote that Dumas cites beneath her study is that there is “Nothing more futile than wanting to be anything other than what I am by nature”.

There are many images that make one question the world and its inadequacies, the human conditions of hate and love, peace and war.  There was an exhibit dedicated to the loss of her own mother which explored the grief she felt and this was palpable throughout the display. During our chat together as a group after the viewing, Angela asked us to consider not only the work itself but how it was displayed, I have touched on some of these observations above regarding the series of paintings, and throughout the exhibition, there was a flow of work that related to, or, opposed each other in their subject matter in subtle ways, eg prior to the room dedicated to her mother’s passing, there was a room concentrating on her young daughter, exploring the innocence and carefree nature of a child with her mother.  Some smaller works were given more space around them, which seemed to elevate their importance belying their physical size.

All in all, this was a fascinating exhibition, which although maybe a little too large to absorb all there was to see, took me into the realms of more contemporary artworks and made me keen to see more.


The above link is still current although may be discontinued as the exhibition finishes.



John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends – National Portrait Gallery


John Singer Sargent – Portraits of Artists and Friends

A trip was organised by my local art society to view a completely different exhibition, however, it coincided with John Singer Sargent at the National Portrait Gallery. There were several exhibitions on in London that I wanted to see at the same time, however, I only managed two because of both time and viewing energy limitations.

This was a beautiful exhibition – not particularly thought-provoking, political or shocking but most definitely beautiful – and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that! As my friend and I are also students at a local portrait class, this was absolutely relevant and instructional.  All exhibits were wonderfully painted, with skilful use of colour and light – most were solid representations of the sitter yet had a delicacy of flesh and fabric that seemed almost contradictory in one painting. I was absolutely awestruck by the personality oozing out of every portrait. A lesson I had learnt from the Drawing 1 course when attempting a self-portrait, whereby my friends and family could recognise my drawing as me, but not the persona portrayed – a successful portrait is not just getting the eyes, nose and mouth in the right place, (although obviously a good start) but seeing into the life and soul of the sitter as the artist feels they are. This, I think, is Sargent’s “talent”/skill.  It is said that he became frustrated and resentful of formal, commissioned portraiture and changed to landscapes and more narrative work that included figures yes, but not specific portraits.  These paintings and drawings exhibited here were of like-minded artists and close friends, and it is obvious that he held these people in high regard. I, myself, find I can achieve more of a likeness if I feel connected or actually like the sitter before me – although I have a long and bumpy road ahead of me before I can achieve a fragment of the skill I saw here.

My favourites? Well I think they change by the minute, however the paintings that caught my attention most in real life, rather than the reproductions in the book, were of:

  • Vernon Lee 1881 (Violet Paget), this was not a flamboyant or overly colourful portrait of his childhood friend but it was kindly, soft and gentle – he showed the private personality of an intellectual, strong-minded woman.  The rendering of the glasses with minimal brush strokes was a lesson in itself.
  • Madame Allouard-Jouan 1882, a stunningly beautiful (that word again) portrait that concentrated on the face. A simple tonal background, black high-necked dress and bonnet with black curls around the face draw the eyes to delicate, yet strong features. The eyes are simply painted, almost hinted at, yet still enigmatic.
  • Fete familiale c1885, this has a very different feel to many of the other paintings in the exhibition. It shows a mother and father at their son’s birthday tea-table. I found it interesting that the father’s face (The French artist Albert Besnard (1849-1934), was barely represented, he was placed at the back of the scene, almost in the shadows, and quite anonymous, whereas his wife and child were sat at the table and had the lamp light reflecting in their faces with the glow of the occasion around them. This made me feel the influence of the etiquette of the day, where I imagine the father to be absent from most family frivolities and was mainly a figure of discipline and bread-winning.
  • Robert Louis Stevenson 1885, there were two paintings of RLS, one with his wife and one solo. They were both painted at his Bournemouth home which, being fairly local to where I have previously lived, also attracted me.  I was particularly drawn to the solitary portrait of Stevenson where he lounged in a chair with his feet deep in a long piled carpet or rug. The pose, Stevenson’s droopy moustache, his neutral and nondescript clothes, the shag pile rug and the loose painterly style, made it look very modern – more 1970s than 1880s. It did remind me of David Hockney’s portrait of Ossy Clark cropped of Percy and wife!
  • Henry James 1913, this does look fairly formal in style of pose. However, they were close friends and James supported the artist’s work consistently. In the “flesh”, this portrait was very attention grabbing – the author is shown as formidable and imposing, again the focus is on the face and the viewer feels appraised rather than the other way around. The brushwork on the waistcoat and watch chain gives these substance and form, I was, however, particularly taken with the treatment of the hand – very convincing and solid.
  • Alberto Falchetti 1905, Italian painter. In reproduction, this painting comes over as a little disappointing, purely because having seen the actual work, the difference is quite astounding.  I couldn’t pull my eyes away from that smouldering gaze – the personality, maybe arrogance and intensity were hypnotic – had this man been a modern-day actor, he would definitely been cast as Captain Poldark!

I would have loved to have bought the accompanying catalogue, however, funds would not allow – I did treat myself to a smaller book John Singer Sargent – Painting Friends, ISBN 978-185514-550-4, published by the National Portrait Gallery Publications Ltd.  This, although not including all the images exhibited, does have a good many, is easy to read and will be reviewed under Books in my blog.

César Manrique Foundation


César Manrique (1919-1992) 


While away in Lanzarote, Canary Islands, before Easter, we visited the César Manrique Foundation in Tahiche, something I had wanted to do for some time.

César Manrique was born in the capital of the island, Arrecife in 1919, graduated from the San Fernando Fine Arts Academy in Madrid, moved to New York in 1964 and returning to his native Lanzarote in 1966 where he stayed.  He became involved in abstract and non figurative work after living in Paris for a while in the early fifties, using paint and collage.  Manrique, however, was know for his “total art” approach and was fundamental in the evolution of Lanzarote and the Canary Islands as a whole. It would be almost impossible not to have heard his name or seen his influence everywhere on the island.

Manrique’s “total art” encompassed painting, collage, murals (both mosaic and paint), sculptures (his wind sculptures in particular) in plastic, metal and wood, architecture and even garden design.  He created the motifs and logos synonymous with the island and was instrumental in establishing the general appearance of the island by campaigning for and creating “Manrique’s law” which stated that all buildings should retain their traditional appearance, white walls and green or blue woodwork, no billboards should litter the highways and buildings should not be high rise. In fact there is only one hotel in the capital that is – almost as an exception to prove the rule.

Of Manrique’s work I have seen, his wind sculptures are magnificent in their design and engineering.

Wind Sculpture at César Manrique Foundation, Tahiche, Lanzarote.

Wind Sculpture at César Manrique Foundation, Tahiche, Lanzarote.


This example pictured was quite mesmerising. Each element turned in the wind independently and as a whole, acutely engineered to move freely.  This is an example of Manrique working with the elements and environment of the island, as anyone who has visited will be aware of the wind that blows many months of the year.




Passageway tunnelled out connecting rooms in Manrique's house.

Passageway tunnelled out connecting rooms in Manrique’s house.



Harnessing the surroundings is a key factor in the artist’s work. His house, which is now the Foundation’s headquarters and museum has been honed out of the volcanic rock and solidified lava flows from which the island was created.  Manrique adapted natural air pockets formed in the lava as rooms and made tunnels to interconnect these rooms – floors and walls are painted the characteristic white and ironically give the impression of being ice walls similar to that of a toboggan sleigh run.




One of the sitting rooms fashioned from an air pocket within the lava.

One of the sitting rooms fashioned from an air pocket within the lava.


Pictured is one of the underground rooms with a tree growing in the centre up and out of the ceiling/roof.  Also in shot is an example of Manrique’s metal sculptures in a similar vein to that of the Timanfaya National Park Devil, (see photo below) that was also designed by the artist and is reproduced as a memento.  With this legacy Manrique is still providing wealth of both income and culture to the island.  There are various examples and exhibits of his work and those of other notable artists of his time on display – Picasso and Juan Miro the Catalan painter, sculptor and ceramicist for example.




Within the exhibits of Manrique’s work are drawings and plans of his ideas for wind sculptures, his sketch books and paintings. The sketch books I found fascinating for the explorations of mural work. These took in the every day life of Lanzarote, farmers tending the vines, fishermen and the camels etc.  He would make line drawings, overlapping objects in his composition in a stretched landscape orientation and then introduce colour in the abstract shapes that resulted. Something I would like to try in my sketchbook of things nearer to home for me.  Moving on to the paintings, these are large in scale and incorporate natural materials and textures using acrylic, oil paint, sand and pumice. By laying his canvases on the floor and pouring on these materials, Manrique made beautifully rich and textured paintings reminiscent of the landscape all around him, the coastline, mountains and redundant volcanic structures – very inspirational.

From this visit opening my eyes to his involvement in the island I can’t help but feel that Manrique is Lanzarote and Lanzarote is César Manrique.

Timanfaya Devil designed by César Manrique

Timanfaya Devil designed by César Manrique



Primary and Secondary Colour Mixing


Primary and Secondary Colour Mixing

For this exercise I decided to use acrylic paints to enable a quicker drying time.  I have a mixture of student and artist quality paint which may or may not affect the results or strength of colour.

Tasks involved:

  • Use the previously determined neutral grey as the ground colour for the mixes
  • Notice the hue (how one colour is distinguished from another), the chroma (intensity of colour) and the tone of these pigments.
  • Identify the primary colours within my range of pigments by selecting the most intense yellow, blue and red.
  • Make a scale of each: yellow to red, yellow to blue and red to blue.
  • Mix differing hues to create a true violet.

Below are two photographs of the same board of colour mixes, one taken inside and the other taken outside, both being natural daylight, however, each describes the colours differently. I thought this was interesting to see how the type of light affects how we view (or the camera views) the exact same sample of colour.

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Photograph taken inside with natural light Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Photograph taken inside with natural light
Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Photograph taken outside with natural light Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Photograph taken outside with natural light
Acrylic on A2 cartridge paper with neutral grey ground








Notes have been made next to the mixes and should be viewable within the photographs.

Whilst sorting through my paints I found a manufacturer’s technical sheet describing their paint colours and the pigments used to create them.  There is an industry standard code for all pigments consisting of, usually, two letters and a number, eg PR108 for Cadmium Red. As the rest of the leaflet was helpfully in French, a little beyond my basic conversational standard, I feel I can assume that P is for pigment and R is for red and the number is the specific shade.  This really helped me understand, specifically, the difference between many student and artist quality paints and how a shade is mixed.  I am sure that this is a little simplistic and ratios etc are key, however, for my immediate purposes I found it very useful.

Regarding the student and artist quality differences, I discovered for example that an artist quality paint of Cerulean (or Coeruleum) Blue is made up of PB28 Cobalt Blue and PG50 Cobalt Green, yet the student quality (of the brand I have) consisted of PB15.3 Pthalo Blue, PW5 Barium Sulphate a white and PY184 Bismuth Vanadate Yellow!  As the cobalts are reassuringly expensive, I would guess that this is a cost-effective way of creating the colour.

I had received my tutor’s critique of my Assignment 1 work and for the final painting, he had suggested that my use of black contributed to the deadening of colour as a result.  Whilst I agreed that the colour was indeed flat and didn’t describe the green glass of the bottle successfully, I was pretty sure I hadn’t used black.  However, whilst doing this exercise I thought I may have inadvertently used black in a brand mixed paint.  Convinced this was the case, I researched the most obvious culprit, Prussian Green. Sadly, I discovered that this is composed of Pthalo Blue PB15 and Isoindolinone Yellow PY110, it appears it was just my dodgy colour mixing after all!

I am sure that all this must leave some people cold, however, I find it extremely interesting, there is, as well as manufacturers’ specific “colour cocktail” sites, a website called The Colour of Art Pigment Database


which is most helpful.


The next task in this exercise was to:

  • Make scales of colours using the same sequence but maintain consistent tonal value by adding a little white. (The blues and greens should have the same tonal value as yellow).
Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing Maintaining a consistent tone Acrylic on neutral grey ground

Primary & Secondary Colour Mixing
Maintaining a consistent tone
Acrylic on neutral grey ground

I enjoyed doing this, however, it was quite draining! It took most of the day to create the previous mixing samples and I’m glad I left this to the next day to produce.  I found I had to be very methodical, mixing with a palette knife and ensuring that my brush was always clean of the previous mix. (It was a little wasteful as adding white increased the volume of paint in the palette and I found I had to push away quantities to avoid making more and more mixture (note to self if/when I repeat this or similar exercises), I did however, try to use the left over paint for coloured grounds for future work.) In order to achieve a consistent tone, I held each mix against the yellow (for yellow to red and yellow to blue) and squinted my eyes, where the two colours appeared to merge tonally, I knew that the tone was similar. Occasionally, I can see I misjudged this, again by squinting at the scale in the photograph ie

  • Yellow to red – 7th swatch from the right is too dark and the last swatch is a little too light.
  • Yellow to blue – this seemed to cause the most trouble, (from the left) swatches 12 & 14 are too dark, 19 & 23 are too light.
  • Red to blue – fairly consistent (ish) until the last few blues which have too much white.

I am confident I understood and got the principle here yet this does make my eyes very tired and it’s not an exercise that can be rushed.


Research Point: Colour Theories of Chevreul and How Artists Have Applied Them

13 & 14/04/15

Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786 – 1889)

Find out more about the colour theories of Chevreul and make notes on how particular artists have used Chevreul’s theories to expand the possibilities of painting.

French Chemist of extensive scientific achievements, of which I’ll concentrate on his theories of colour. As Director of the Gobelins Manufactory in Paris – a dye works, he received complaints regarding the colour matching of the dyes produced for tapestries.  Particularly of blacks which appeared different when next to blues for example.  Chevreul discovered that perceived colour, when next to others, changed according to the adjacent colour, he called this the Concept of Simultaneous Contrast.

After much investigating and experimenting and giving extensive lectures in the subject, he wrote the book The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colours (published in English in 1854).

Chevreul’s findings influenced many things not least European art namely, Impressionism, Neo-Impressionism and Orphism or Orphic Cubism.

Whilst researching M. Chevreul’s theories, I came across a paper written by Georges Roque 2010, called Chevreul’s Colour Theory and its Consequences for Artists – Published by the Colour Group (Great Britain) http://www.colour.org.uk 2011.

I have included a link to this paper, as it is, although lengthy, concise and above all interesting and readable.   http://www.colour.org.uk/Chevreuls%20Law%20F1%20web%20good.pdf

Some points I found particularly fascinating:

  • The eye deceives the brain (or is it the other way around) when viewing tones adjacent to each other.
    (See anecdote regarding a court case between a wallpaper manufacturer and wealthy client – one disagreeing with the other as to the reproduction of a grey in the design, one saying it is absolutely the correct grey, the other saying it had a reddish tint. Chevreul brought as expert witness deduced both were correct, in isolation, the grey was accurate, yet against the background colour (green), it did indeed have a reddish tint).
  • I tried the experiment mentioned regarding a red dot on white paper, in that when viewed for a period of time, a pale green (blueish green in my case) glow appeared around the red dot, and when one looks away from the red dot, a greenish dot is seen against the white of the paper. Being a tad pedantic, I also tried this with a green dot and lo and behold a pale pink (we can say pale red if you like) glow appeared around the green! Blue – Gave pale orange! Okay, I believe him that this is the origin of complimentary colours. It appears to be a natural phenomena that occurs due to how our eyes work!
  • Colour mixing can be with coloured light or coloured pigment.
    Colour mixing with light is additive and more pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces white.
    Colour mixing with pigment is subtractive and less pure, and when equal intensities of colour are mixed it produces black.

How Particular Artists have Used Chevreul’s Theories to Expand the Possibilities of Painting

Again. Georges Roque’s paper is very useful and informative, it is the fundamental reason for his writing it.  Without being too lazy, I have used the artists mentioned and researched them in this regard.

Eugene Delacroix (1798 – 1863)

Almost 10 years ago I had the opportunity to spend the entire day, unaccompanied by a bored spouse, in the Louvre, Paris. My most memorable part of this mammoth painting viewing extravaganza, was the wonderful paintings of Delacroix.  They were strong in colour, brushwork, story and passion and often of shocking subjects, yet they were still easy to view. How did he do this? It seems from Georges Roque’s research, that Delacroix was very interested in Chevreul’s theories and lectures. He made a triangular diagram in a sketchbook illustrating the relationships of complimentary colours which he used to bring harmony to his paintings.  He was also adept at bringing mood and meaning to his images by his use of colour.  One of my favourite paintings from that day was The Death of Sardanapalus, this seems to have been painted prior to Chevreul’s lectures on colour harmony, however, shows his natural affinity with colour and maybe why he became so interested in Chevreul in later years.  Learning the reason why something works so well helps recreate desired results.

Camille Pissarro (1830 -1903)

The only artist spanning both Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist movements. Chevreul’s theories are often related to these styles of painting as they shared a desire to recreate the colour and luminosity of light in nature.  Pissarro, as did other Impressionists, used complimentary colours to give life and light to his paintings, using local colour in shadows to bring a cohesive and harmonious appearance. Keen to expand knowledge and push theories, Pissarro became close to Georges Seurat and Paul Signac and explored the practice of pointillism. Examples of the use of complimentary colours to bring vibrancy and harmony being Old Chelsea Bridge London 1871 (Smith College Museum of Arts), *Toit Rouges, Coin d’un Village, Hiver, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise 1877 (Musee d’Orsay, Paris), the Garden of Pontoise 1877 and Children on a Farm 1887.

*Translation: Red Roofs, Corner of a Village, Winter, Cote de Sainte-Denis, Pontoise.

Georges Seurat (1859 – 1891)

Credited with the creation of Chromoluminanism or Divisionism: Maximum luminosity, separation of colours, dots or marks that interact visually;
Pointillism: Dots of paint not necessarily with separation of colours.

Interestingly, Seurat also studied Delacroix’s use of colour. He believed that harmony and emotion can be evoked with colour – refer again to Delacroix. Seurat took the science available to him vie Chevreul, Charles Blanc (a French art critic, who took Chevreul’s theories and applied then specifically to art) and Ogden Rood (again looking at colour theory and its application in art, was an American physicist). Referring back to Georges Roque’s paper, he notes that art historian Robert L Herbert discounts the claim of optical mixing and it has had some negative criticism in more recent times, however, even if the eye doesn’t exactly mix the colours, Divisionism and Pointillism does offer a high degree of luminosity in paintings.

Vincent Van Gogh (1853 – 1890)

As the paper of Chevreul by Georges Roque specifically comments on Van Gogh’s colour techniques (using quotes from his letters to brother Theo re Bedroom in Arles 1888), I will not repeat his conclusions, but refer to how this brilliant man with a delicate mind used his colours to again describe mood and emotion. He seemed to feel everything deeply and his adoption of some of the techniques used by Seurat and Paul Signac with dots of colour, helped him put these emotions into his paintings.  It seems to me this was a natural progression for Van Gogh as he was a master of mark making in his bamboo pen and ink drawings that he should find a way to combine this with complimentary colour juxtaposition. He seemed particularly taken with yellow/orange with blue. See:

The Cafe Terrace 1888
Van Gogh’s Chair 1888
The Starry Night 1889
The Sower 1888
and on and on…

Paul Klee (1879 – 1940)

An artist I am not overly familiar with and worth my revisiting at a later date. As noted in my course notes he was an artist and a teacher within the Bauhaus movement. I haven’t yet found much information relating to his colour theories, however, I noted a similar vein of thought to that of Georges Seurat. Both refer to the emotion, expression, rhythm in colour and structure of drawing and painting in a similar way that a musician uses counterpoint in composing harmony in music.

I have finally found a paper written by Roy Osbourne called Colour School (Thoughts on the Teaching of Colour Theory)


This refers to Paul Klee, Johannes Itten (1888 – 1967) and Joseph Albers (1888 – 1976).

In this link, Paul Klee refers to transparent colour mixing with watercolour – as crossed my mind when reading about colour mixing with light – does this refer to transparent colour? Although when mixed together, blue, red and yellow watercolour does mix to white but can some of the theory be applied – it certainly doesn’t mix to black???  No it refers to light and watercolour is pigment however transparent, I can see how confusion was caused – my head is spinning. Am now looking forward to the colour mixing exercises to answer and more than likely pose more questions.

Research via Wikipedia and Hints, Tips & Techniques, Colour Mixing Published by Winsor & Newton ColArt Fine Art & Graphics Ltd 1997. (Specifically The Terminology of Colour Theory)