For centuries the mirror, or its equivalent piece of polished metal, has been used by artists to help them see the shapes and values of the image they are painting on a flat plane in reverse.
Indeed Leonardo da Vinci in his treatise on painting entitles ones section
“Come lo specchio é maestro de’pittori” The mirror is master of painters
There are so many advantages to using the mirror. If you hold it perpendicular to your strong eye and look in reverse at both your artwork and subject you are painting, it gives you a completely fresh view- retrieving the innocent eye. it also eliminates everything in your periphery. The flat plane of the mirror imitates the flat plane of your canvas, panel or paper.
In the book “Painting a Portrait by De Laszlo”, which Philip de Laszlo produced with his friend and art critic Alfred Lys Baldry he says that the mirror’s “chief value is that it gives me a new vision of both picture and sitter and therefor enables me to discover any faults there may be in drawing, or in the relations of tones. It acts like the fresh eye, which can often perceive defects that the painter, having got accustomed to them, has failed to detect. … the mirror is an honest critic.
The Black mirror has the added advantage of reducing the value range. I use my iPhone as a handy equivalent, though it can give you quite a shock when it rings mid concentration. We have recently got black mirrors in stock at the school shop Lavender Hill Colours.
Monochrome – Painting in Black and White – Van Eyck to Gerhard Richter
This Friday I set off with India and Maggie to see the exhibition at the National Gallery.
It is a must!
The title might not excite most, but any painter will know how alluring this subject can be. Ironic that the Colour exhibition held in the same rooms only 3 years did not include black and white as colours.
For us as painters we often limit ourselves to tonal paintings, often just using umbre or black and white as an exercise. The exhibition analyses the many reasons for which artists might reduce their colour palate, and the effects and consequences.
At London Fine Art Studios we encourage students to draw in charcoal first, so that they can understand the importance of values (light and dark) in creating form. From charcoal we move onto oils, but remain within this reduced colour palette. In this way we can learn how to create form and a likeness through values (light and dark / black and white), without the added complication of colour. This stage of painting is known as grisaille which comes from the French gris meaning grey. A grisailles can be painted in an earth tone, or in black & white. Having been to the amazing Zorn exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris I have been using a limited palette, reducing my colours to red, ochre, black and white. Having seem this exhibition I might go further still and take out the red and ochre.
Still-life two cups. I reduced the subject to 3 colours, took out the handles and the pattern. I wanted the light and paint quality to be the focus.
Can the light and dark and the paint quality be as arresting as colour?
The exhibition tells the story of black and white painting from Van Eyck to Richter, from scared spaces to Jasper Johns and an immersive Danish piece.
The wall panels are very clear as is the exhibition lay out, which has the rooms themed and follow a rough chronology which naturally goes with the development of the themes.
There are many reasons for which artists and those commissioning them used monochrome painting in religious paintings, as a form of simplification to allow for prayer and meditation, in monastic spaces to clear out the clutter and opulence of everyday life, and to quieten and focus the mind.
Monochrome painting was also balanced alongside colour paintings, as framing device and for story-telling emphasising different aspects of a story.
The Nativity scene is here painted by Petrus Christus in exquisite colour, in contrast to the Old testament surround which frames the nativity. The stories from the Old Testament are painted as if they are carved sculptures surrounding the living Nativity.
This distinction between the Holy Family and the Saints is again shown in Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych. The outside panels of Saint Christopher and St Anthony Abbot, are painted on oak in monochrome, as if they were sculpted figurines. We open the triptych up to the rich oil colours and Holy Family, no longer portrayed in a sculpted niche but within an intricate interior with views to a detailed and peaceful landscape.
Agony in the Garden is a wonderful painting over 4meters tall on indigo cloth/ canvas painted with white. We are more used to painting tone on white cloth or canvas. This effect is very powerful, like a daguerreotype. The indigo cloth here is what the Geonese often used. The French called the Geonese Les Genes, hence the word Jeans!
In reducing colour we manage to make the image more ethereal.
Studies in Light and shade.
If I had been asked before going to the exhibition why artists worked in monochrome, my answer would have been all about technique and methodology. Artists often used grisailles or monochrome as a stepping stone in the process to work out the composition in terms of values and the fall of light. This could be done on the final surface, canvas, or as a separate preparatory work on linen, wood panel or paper.
Beccafumi’s study of Saint Matthew painted with tempera and emulsion on card is more alive and painterly than the final piece which was painted in full colour for Pisa Cathedral. As these works prove, colour can be a wonderful addition, but in no way is it a necessity.
When we think of Boucher we think of his form and his delicious sense of colour. In this painting Vulcan’s Forge it is all design and value patterns. The design of rhythms, composition and patterns. He would often give this subject to his students as it offers so many design possibilities. The commission was ultimately for a tapestry. Boucher painted the grisailles, the he painted it in full colour for the tapestry weavers.
Many of the grisailles sketches were collected by artists; to us painters it is obvious why we find the purification and simplification of a subject more interesting.
The following room takes it to another level, showing how artists use painting in grisailles or monochrome independently of the final painting, as artworks in their own right.
Ingres’s painting of the Odalisque in Grisailles is a sumptuous work. It would make a wonderful spot-the-difference for both children and adults. Not only spot-the-difference but why the difference? The most intriguing aspect of this painting is that he painted it 10 years after the original Grand Odalisque which now hangs in the Louvre. Here he rethinks the composition, stripping away the colour, the background, the objects, reducing the painting to its most essential. And of course its most essential is always the values and shapes, not the colour and detail. This is an essential lesson for any student, and indeed it was in his workshop when he died, for Ingres had many students passing through his studios and he must have used this painting as a learning tool.
Jan Van Eyck’s Saint Barbara has always remained a mystery. Was this just an underpainting? But the frame is contemporary. Is this the first monochrome painted as an image in its own right, and not as a learning tool or preparatory sketch?
Maternity Eugene Carriere. One could not have a monochrome exhibition and not include a work of Eugene Carriere. I always use him as an example in our studios. I love the reduction and simplification of his works to values, and harmonious tonality. Testament to his skill and genius is the fact that Rodin had quite few of his paintings at his home; they were great friends and admirers of each others work, often collaborating together.
There is so much more to say about this room and the other works, I’ll deliberately skim past the Picasso’s insult to Velazquez and Giacometti’s proof that he should have kept to sculpture.
The next room discusses the debate of Paragone, (italian for comparison) which was the Renaissance debate amongst artist as to which was the greatest art form; sculpture or painting. Even Pliny the Elder used the term color lapidum (stone-coloured) or grisailles painting. The use of paint to describe sculpture relief is not new!
I have always loved Titian’s paintings and in this portrait of La Schiavone he clearly settles the Paragone debate, displaying the difference between the painted portrait of the lady and the painted sculptural relief. It is evident to us which side of the debate he was on.
Monochrome painting was even used as a tool for sculptors. Canova commissioned Nocchi to paint a monochrome relief of his Deposition. This was for him to see how the composition would work and the fall of light, before the work on the big marble relief began. The grisailles painting would have a dual purpose; for the sculptor Canova as a visual tool and for the clients to help them see the final painting. Sadly the final piece was never realised.
Monochrome paintings were also produced for etchers and print makers to copy. As with Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, his painting marks are less painterly but more descriptive for a printmaker. Artists knew the advantage of having prints, in order to promote and disseminate their works. Jan van Vliet’s etching is very true to the original. It is interesting that Rembrandt despite being such a master etcher, also uses other artist to reproduce his works.
Chardin painted Back from the market on several occasions, as it was so popular. It was also translated into an engraving by Lepicie and then ingeniously parodied by Etienne Moulinneuf in an oil on canvas. Moulinneuf painted the trompe l’oeil as if it were an engraving with the glass broken, including the indentation of the paper from the press. This highlights his virtuosity with paint while breaking our simple understanding of the visual illusion. I had to go up close to the painting to understand the extent of its illusions. It really is a clever piece of artifice.
The rooms are themed to explain artists reasons for using monochrome, which also happens to be more or less chronological. In the next room the impact of film and photography is felt. There is a beautifully broad and energetic landscape the Tempest by Peder Balke, which he painted for himself. His usual works were larger with a tonal use of colour.
The energy of this painting must surely owe to the results of new photographic techniques, as with Gustave Le Gray’s wonderful Great Wave.
At the studios Chris Gray loves monochrome (in his art not his life). He is also our etching tutor..is there an coincidence to their names?
Celestine Blance’s painting carries on the irony. Can our name dictate our style? Her portrait of the Head of a girl is so soft and silent. Is its peace amplified by the lack of colour? It is also so like my daughter’s likeness. Are artists here responding to photography with black and white paintings? Despite what the label next to the painting suggests, the image does not have a stiffness like an early photograph, but a beautiful stillness.
The penultimate room looks at abstraction in black and white. It does make sense that in the distillation and reduction of colour, we will also get the distillation and reduction of subject matter into abstraction. Malevich claimed he was the first true abstract artist. This painting of the Black Square is powerful and proves the abstract debate with a perfect distillation and balance.
There are many great abstract paintings in this room, and within the context of this exhibition, they somehow have more to say. I love the way Bridget Riley, Cy Twombly’s and Elsworth Kelly’s paintings express such varying moods from each other with the same pigments within the same decade.
I urge you to go and see the show. You will learn so much about why artist worked in monochrome, the beauty and power of monochrome, the infinite possibilities of simplicity.
I won’t go into too much detail about the last room, but for me it perfectly continues the dialogue of monochromatic art in a playful and exploratory way, just what art needs!
Our scholar Benj Randell gave a wonderful and insightful talk on Fantasy Art.
To summarise my talk: Fantasy art has evolved throughout history to take so many different paths that it would be a travesty to try and sum it up in one particular style of painting. Fantasy art influenced by literature including religious and mythical texts is still quite diverse but it is easier to track its evolution and the change in trends throughout history. From the religious works of Hieronymous Bosch and Gustave Doré to the paintings based of Arthurian legend and chivalry by J.W. Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton and then the dramatic and vivid work of Frank Frazetta, all have attempted to present captivating and believable representations of the fantastical. At present a lot of modern fantasy art is a product of the influence of Tolkien and the pulp magazines, however, the genre is still broad and isn’t confined by a certain definition.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911) influential American illustrator Most well known for his paintings of pirates.
Wrote and illustrated (woodblock prints) his own Arthurian stories. ‘The Story of King Arthur and His Knights’
Pulp Magazines Inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from around the early 1890s to the 1950s. Considered as low-brow.
Some fantasy pulp magazines include The Argosy and Weird Tales.
Frank Frazetta (1928-2010) Widely considered to be the most influential and most emulated fantasy artist in history.
He defined the look of Conan the Barbarian.
Concept Art, and art form of creating ideas in order to create something more. Imagery for the space, the characters, the setting for video games, films and so much more.
Just before Christmas I met up with a dear friend to take my girls on an adventure of sorts. We chose to go the V&A to see The Winnie the Pooh exhibition. I think I was a little more excited than they were and I was not disappointed, it is a wonder! You might feel out of place if you go without tiny children – mine were the oldest there, but they seemed completely unfazed by this fact and I did spot quite a few adults without children….it is well worth seeing.
The marriage between the work of A.A.Milne and E.H.Shepherd is a phenomenal one. In my mind, both men are geniuses in their own right, who managed to transcend their own art form. A.A.Milne used his words in a most visual way so that as the narrator we are led to perform, rather than just read the text. The language is of course simultaneously simple and clever; prefiguring Roald Dahl, Milne manipulates language and creates words to aid our imagination, which have since become part of our lexicon, from a tiddely-pom to heffalumps and woozles.
Likewise E.H.Shepherd drawings are not just images used to illustrate but add weight and animation to the text, his drawings are an equally important part of the narrative. A simple line can change the energy of the image. And like Milne’s language, his images have become part of our nostalgia.
In using a child’s range of vocabulary for his text, Milne is quoted as saying “It is difficult enough to express oneself with all the words in the dictionary at ones disposal, with none but simple words, the difficulty is much greater’ but, perhaps the reduction of text available is the same as the perceived limitations of drawing and line as compared to animation and colour; it is indeed the simplification and purification of both text and image that is so wonderful and allows visual freedom in our imaginations.
Milne writes for all ages and levels, giving adults a delicate humour as they read aloud …
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…
E.H.Shepherd’s drawings are equally sophisticated, despite the simplicity of the subject matter. He does not just illustrate the text but adds more, putting the characters and their stories within a context; in the landscape, amongst the trees of Ashdown Forest.
His drawings are a mixture of accurate draughtsmanship, value shapes, shaded with mass, with hatching, with squiggles or clear marks and with abstract accents, the distillation and simplification of subject matter with so many additives… this is much more than mere copying. The exhibition itself is interesting on the method he worked in from the block printing etc, starting in pencil and moving into pen and ink and then colour.
We are not mere onlookers, Shepherd makes sure we are part of the story, looking on just behind the characters, inviting us into the story, partaking in the set.
The characters are composed for comic effect within their setting.
We also see how Milne and Shepherd used the images within the text and around the text to add to the story. In “Winnie-the-Pooh goes visiting” all the characters are pulling to get Pooh out of Rabbit’s hole; Shepherd envelopes the text with trees and Pooh on one side and butterflies and bees on the other side whom obviously can’t help to pull Pooh out, but who do add to the drawing. Piglet is pulling the tail of a mouse and another mouse at the end of the line reluctantly moves to hold the hedgehog, all to help the pull!
Shepherd also adds little elements to his drawings to express the changing seasons, from the wind, cast shadows, sweeping leaves, ripples of water and slashes of rain.
Look at “Piglets ears …streamed behind him…like banners”. Shepherd animates the 3 stages, 3 little vignettes. The strong wind is explained with Piglet’s ears, his squinting eyes and one single leaf.
The drawings all seem so naturalistic, but if you look at the drawing of Rabbit and Tigger you can see that Tigger is drawn from a toy with stumpy legs and expressionless, while Rabbit is from an actual Rabbit with squiggly fur (because Christopher Robin didn’t have a rabbit teddy so Shepherd drew a real rabbit). Shepherd creates his characterisation not through facial expression but postures.
Pooh’s face hardly changes but his sturdy unflappable nature is shown in his solid stance, his arms behind his back listening earnestly.
Shepherd and Milne worked together on the page layouts, “There came a loud buzzing noise”. The text and image work together so that the text pushes up the bees.
Both Milne and Shepherd add their own humour wherever they can; Pooh says ‘Ow. You missed the balloon” when Christopher Robin shoots him rather than the balloon. But Pooh is just a stuffed toy, and in the illustration the gun is just a pop gun …
Often the images alert us to the story before the text, so that children are brought in on the joke before the text, as in when Pooh is looking for Eyeore’s tail and pulls Owl’s bell-pull.
There are so many sophisticated little choices Shepherd has made, scaling down the size of Christopher Robin in relationship to the toy, creating character through gesture and stance rather than facial features, setting the toy characters within a naturalistic setting. The publisher also recognised Shepherds enormous contribution as he was paid not just in one off payments but shared in all royalties.
For me Shepherd’s drawing and Milne’s text are a pure joy and the perfect synthesis of two art forms which are in equal measure simplistic and sophisticated.
Ann Witheridge – London Fine Art Studios – Art Courses: Full-time, Part-time, Evening, Weekend & Short Courses
“Do you not see that among the beauties of mankind it is a very beautiful face that arrests passers-by and not their adornments.” Leonardo da Vinci
Today I went to see a wonderful exhibition of drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.
Its premise was so simple and yet revealing. The curatorial side was really nicely balanced; a little art history with well-placed texts and quotes. No convoluted dialogues about the socio-political context or the psychology of the sitter or artist, just informative text about drawing methods and the reason we draw.
‘Work hard and don’t on any account neglect your drawing.’ Michelangelo
The walls were painted a beautiful dark blue grey which set off the simple classic wood frames. Nothing from text, wall colour and frames, took away from or belittled the drawings; that they could be seen for themselves, uncluttered by words or theories. Some of the attributions were a little over ambitious but on the whole, it was a perfect exhibiting that achieved what it set out to do.
Refreshingly the show was laid out neither chronologically or by country so that varying artistic styles could be better appreciated. The Dutch rather more linear approach with some amazing Rembrandt drawings all drawn on one page, demonstrating his thought processes and musings. The Venetian drawings displayed more mass and shadow shapes compared to the more accented and linear central Italians drawings.
There was an especially lovely selection from the Carracci school who started the first Atelier as we now know them at London Fine Art Studios and across the States and Italy. My favourite was Annibale’s beautiful drawing of a study of a young Man. He must have known the arm was too long, but it is so touching to be irrelevant. I love the quote on the side which makes the drawing even more moving “Non so se Dio Me aiuta”. The softened mass with the red chalk balanced with little accents is so tender too.
“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth by Holbein’s hand.” Nicholas Bourbon
The last room shows many of Holbein’s master drawings. Some feel so modern as if one of the characters is just in the room right next to you.
He is surely the master of exquisite variety of technique and line from the refined drawing in the portrait to the softening of beard with accents and then near scribbled clothing.
The last quote of the show is so encouraging and relevant.
“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.” Cennino Cennini The Crafstman’s Handbook, c1400
For drawing is not just about line, it is about the medium you use. It doesn’t have to be for public.( I’m sure poor Van Dyck would be horrified to see his drawing on show.)
So draw in a sketch book or doodle every day – not for end result but for the process itself.
2nd Year student and De Laszlo scholar Nneka Uzoigwe took the opportunity to visit the Fantin Latour Exhibition in Paris. It has now moved to Grenoble until 18th June. I remember taking a train to the Bowes Museum to see an exhibition of his work. It was definitely worth it.
This Spring I was lucky enough to make a day trip to Paris. It’s purpose was to go see, ‘A Fleur de Peau’, the first and rather monumental retrospective of Henri Fantin-Latour since 1982. As a favourite artist of mine the exhibition did not disappoint. Displayed at Musee du Luxembourg were over a hundred paintings and works on paper by Latour, as well a collection of rare private photos and lithographs displayed alongside working drawings, illustrating Fantin’s amazing imagination in translating reality through to mythology and symbolism.
One of the things that surprised me the most, was the feel of optical illusion when viewing his work in person. I spent a lot of time in the exhibition walking back and forth in amazement. Fantin’s paintings are highly detailed but only more so from a distance and when flattened in photos. So this made it hard to photograph certain area’s, when I wanted to take some personal visual notes on his possible processes of application and layering. Up-close a lot of the brush marks were broad and rough and built up in careful layers of thin to thick, which expertly brought to light what could be achieved by simply following the same processes we’ve been learning at the studio.
A couple of notes I took –
Figures sketched in thin wash soft grisaille – then opaque mid tones brushed on showing form and brush marks – thick dry lightest lights then applied – then colourful glazes and thin opaque darks.
Warmth of background shown through leaves and stems.
If a cold background – a warm transparent umber wash applied first – before adding on opaque greens thinly and expressively for the leaves.
Background pre-prepared for still lives – flowers built up in thin colours and darks sketched in in rich glazes – lights dryly and thickly put in.
Yesterday I went to the Howard Hodgkin portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. It would not be my show of choice but a dear friend absolutely loves his work and wanted to take a couple of us to see his work.
She was right to bring us; it was so lovely to go to an exhibition, which was just about colour and feeling. A disregard for representation and shapes and why not? If the colours and patterns of shapes work together and balance, which with Hodgkin they do, then the abstraction is rather refreshing and liberating.
This portrait of Peter Cochrane is the most figurative. I love the bold colour and patterns!
Most shows zoom through an artist’s life chronologically or within subject matter. Here the show started with one of his later pieces and most abstract. It really helped put the rhythm of the subsequent paintings within a context: Seeing the end to understand the beginning. In his painting Absent Friends, is the title ironic or is it even prosaic of me to think that?
During the war as a young boy, Hodgkin was an evacuee to New York City thereby having the opportunity to visit MOMA and be in a city not focused and devastated by war. This must have been a huge influence. What sort of an artist he would have been if he’d been an evacuee to Wales like my father?
On returning to England he studied at Camberwell under the tutelage of Coldstream. I love Coldstream’s paintings, not least because I was lucky enough that my dining hall at school was hung with Coldstream paintings, (apparently he partly paid the school fees with paintings).
So as with NYC and Wales… I wonder how my artwork would have differed if it had been Hodgkin’s paintings informing every mealtime rather than Coldstream.
With all of Coldstream’s measuring and observation, what they would have thought of each other.
After Camberwell, Hodgkin went to study in Bath where the tutors were much more open to his ideas. Ironically the examples the NPG showed of his time in bath were his most figurative, some of the most wonderful and powerful portrait drawings in Pencil from around 1953, with a strong use of line and mass. I’m sure Coldtream with all his meticulousness and measuring gave Hodgkin a thorough grounding, to help the leap into abstraction.
His philosophy on the abstraction from the figurative portrait is equally applied to his use and deconstruction of the frames. It is very playful.
To choose a favourite would be difficult, though the one that sticks in my mind is probably one of the most figurative. I just found the character leaning over very enchanting and the colours so refreshing. Perhaps it is its figurative nature that makes it memorable to me.
If the paintings are about a response to people and memory, I would ask if he either has a very rich visual memory, or are his paintings an emotional response to the memory? – two very different things, and in my mind, the latter easier to access.
I wonder what was going on in his mind? Was he being playful or utterly sincere? I do hope a little playful, as this would give the work some freshness and would take away the pretense of some of the written word!
If you do go and see the exhibition it is a wonderful tour de force in colour and colour combinations, in patterns and juxtaposition of shapes.
Today I set off with my mother and daughter Florence to see the Caravaggio exhibition at the National Gallery. Unfortunately this time it was the exhibitions last week so my New Year’s Resolution’s is to see the exhibitions before their last weekend, perhaps in their first week! That would be a good thing so that you might be able to take a little from what I have written with you around the exhibition. I am not an academic or a historian. My intention in these posts is just to give a little insight into the visual language of the artists. A little insight so that when you are on Museum trips or when you are drawing or painting at the studio or in your home, you can see the paintings from an artist’s perspective.
Many of the paintings on show are from the National Gallery’s own collection, so there are still many opportunities to see them. The rooms were heaving, which although for selfish reasons is less appealing, is a wonderful testament to Caravaggio and to figurative oil painting as a whole. I’ve never been squashed for space at Tate Modern or visiting the Turner prize, and this isn’t just because of the scale of the buildings!
For sheer number of paintings the exhibition was a little overwhelming but I always chose just to look at a few paintings in each room that grab my attention. As a painter your main job is not to imitate nature but be selective, so to at exhibitions, more often than not the curator is just bulking out the show with numbers, so you too can be selective about which paintings you look at! Though perhaps it’s in seeing the second rate along side the masterpieces that we can better appreciate the masterpieces. It’s also nice to see that even Caravaggio had his off days!
One of Caravaggio’s key skills, is that his paintings often leave a great proportion of the canvas to the imagination, lost in the scuro of the chiaroscuro. The premise of the exhibition was that Caravaggio’s use of chiaroscuro (light dark) and his realism were novel and ground breaking, and that artists from across the continent, even some who didn’t know him would borrow from his style and methodology, traveling to Rome to see his work. Personally I find this overly simplified. Artistic movements and tastes are not created by a single individual, but might be dictated by the patron, a dissemination of many artist, and other art forms. It is no coincidence that the birth of opera happened around the same period- a dramatization of music and drama, both on the stage and on the canvas.
Though I liked the fact that the narrative that went alongside the exhibition was not wordy or overly intellectualised. In the rooms there was a clear painting to grab ones attention, amongst lesser works. In the first room the painting by Caravaggio of a Boy with a Lizard is so fresh and alive. Here he really is showing off his skills, the beautiful still life, the portrait, the wonderful chiaroscuro and the paint quality which is exquisite and controlled and yet the image is so dynamic and lively.
In the second room, despite knowing the painting so well, I was again thrilled by the supper at Emmaus. I asked my daughter if she noticed anything odd about it; I wanted to see if she could spot the misjudged proportion of the hand in the distant, she did notice that his arm looked too short, which is another way of saying the hand was too big. She also thought Jesus looked rather feminine but what really struck her was the feet on the roast chicken! Even Abel and Cole while including the giblets and necks, always remove the feet!
In the 5th room Caravaggio’s paintings are hung next to Giuseppe Ribera’s work. Ribera is one of Scott’s favourite painters, and it is obvious to see why. Where Caravaggio’s style is slick and punchy, Ribera is powerful and emotional. Caravaggio is an amazing artist and image creator, but there is no doubt that Ribera has a greater mastery of paint. The paint quality of a Ribera is astounding, the chiaroscuro just as powerful but the naturalism so much greater than a Caravaggio. The emotional impact and the fleshiness he achieves is awesome.
In the final room the Gerrit van Honthorst has a different sense of chiaroscuro, although it is all about the light, the palette is so much softer, and this lends to the tenderness of the subject. And there are so many other artists to mention, like Georges de la Tour but the blog would get too long!
Instead as it is a Caravaggio exhibition I will leave on his painting of Saint John the Baptist. The cleanness of his shadow shapes and the clarity of his images are unrivalled in painting. He is a wonderful painter to look at as an aspiring artist and as a resource for a teacher. As we tend to want to overcomplicate and over-explain our images, his simplification of value patterns and clarity of colour notes and shapes are such a good lesson for us all.
This morning I got up early to set off on my first artistic and cultural adventure of 2017, accompanied by my daughters. We left Broccoli behind as, although she loves our arty escapades, Museums are less welcoming to furry friends.
We drove to Oxford, with Rene Aubrey playing in the background. Driving through the city, waves of nostalgia washed over us – the architecture and familiar street names have inspired some of our greatest literature, most gripping murder mysteries and characters.
We arrived at the Ashmolean in good time. The building was recently renovated and boasts light and airy modern spaces. There is much to see, too much and for this reason we decided to focus on just one floor. We will have to return for the other floors and to revisit our favourite paintings.
A whole room is dedicated to Dutch flower painting. We felt spoilt by the number of paintings and whilst it was a treat to have so many masterful examples of the genre in one room, by the end we were able to be quite picky about what we enjoyed and what we felt was overdone and overwhelming.
We concluded that the paintings just marginally under life size did not work, they looked mean and disproportionate rather than merely under life size. There really is no need to paint something as small as a flower under life size, and it doesn’t make visual sense. Obviously this is not a rule that holds true to all subject matter, for a building to be painted life size would be ridiculous!
The lighter backgrounds were fresh and stood out amongst all the dark backgrounds. Why were Dutch flower paintings predominantly painted on dark backgrounds? Fast forward to the delicious Colombian feast we went onto after the Ashmolean. It was served on typical dark Colombian pottery, which Maria considered an effective way of emphasising the colour of the food. It made me think of the Dutch flower painting – perhaps the dark backgrounds were a device to accentuate the colours? Then again, in the days of no artificial lighting, I would have thought it would have been brighter to have lighter images?
My daughters were fascinated and did a great job finding at least one bug in every painting, like an arty Where’s Wally. I wonder, were the bugs there to entertain the artist, the children, or help explain the freshness and aliveness of the flowers!?
From flowers to landscapes, we moved through two rooms dedicated to the landscape sketch, mainly from the Gere Collection. These paintings are always a delight to see, their freshness and purity – no bugs needed, just pure observation. Leighton’s sketches are uncluttered and utterly underworked (very different to his large paintings); Valenciennes’ colours and shapes are crisp and simple, almost modern. Here too we were spoilt by the number of paintings and yet, by the end, similarly judgmental and quick to comment on the lack of accurate perspective. There is a clear difference between exaggerated perspective, which helps give the effect of distance, to forced and misjudged perspective.
The Constables were at the end of the room and had great impact. I am a huge fan but on closer inspection and after the light sketches of the Roman Campagna, they were disappointing.
The last room we entered was much more eclectic both in terms of timeline and genre. The jamboree of images did have some advantages as it made it very easy to pick out the gems in the crowd! The portrait by Lawrence, on a bone ground was striking and particularly remarkable for its colours and simplicity.
In the same room was the most amazing Hogarth sketch, a small oil painting on canvas. It is phenomenally modern, if it weren’t for the style of dress one would think it was a Walter Sickert. The painting is a sketch for the final episode of Marriage à la Mode; the looseness of the paint and the melting edges are incredible. However, what really brings the painting into the 20th century are the pure colour notes thickly applied, and the use of impasto to guide the storyline.
The painting feels very free, today we would be astounded by the sureness of touch and paint quality – alla prima at its best. Yet for Hogarth it was just a preliminary sketch!
There is so much more to be said – and this is just the second floor! However, my account would not be complete without indulging in what was the greatest pleasure of our visit: the Van Dyck studies. Two preparatory sketches of bearded men both in ruffs on a grey ground that brings a delicious warm tone to the work.
Van Dyck uses a very limited palette, his colours are clean and direct and every brushstroke has a purpose. This is not painting sketchily, nor slowly finding your way round till the end fits in with your visual start. It is instead considered and carefully applied so that, every brushstroke makes sense, in terms of its shape, value, temperature, colour. In these paintings there is nothing to trick us or lure us; no flashy colours, unnecessarily thick paint, or layers of glazes; no dripping paint or splashy backgrounds; just the purest form of honest painting. Every brushstroke is purposeful and none is excessive.
As an aspiring painter, what more could you hope for than the purest distillation of paint, and a lesson to apply to more aspects of our lives than just art!
Last Wednesday Elli Koumousi, Head of Education and Cultural Strategy for the Mall Galleries joined us to explain a little about their history and initiatives to support artists in their professional development.
A great talk and resounding message: “don’t be shy – apply, apply, apply!”
With this in mind a handful of lucky artists were given free entries to Mall Galleries competitions in 2016/17. Watch out for all those talented individuals, we hope to see their work gracing the walls of many an exhibition space to come.