Friday is the last day to see the Ambrose McEvoy exhibition at the Philip Mould Gallery on Pall Mall. And when I say it’s the last day to see it, I mean it, as most of the paintings will go back to their regular lives filling space in gallery basements and private collections.
Although described at the time as the prince of fashionable portrait painters, McEvoy managed to fall into obscurity and failed to be remembered in the way Sargent and Zorn and others in the genre have been. Philip Mould believes this is the result of timing, more than anything else. Having been most active in the late 1910s and 20s, his bright and bold high society portraits were most likely out of step with a society suffering the aftershocks of a brutal world war.
But today his paintings sparkle. His paint is thick, layered, vibrant and often outrageous and his strokes chaotic yet somehow cohesive. It is difficult to believe he was able to lay dramatic strokes of pure viridian or vermillion without upsetting the colour harmony. Up close they are an abstract mess of pigment piled and dragged and smooshed onto the canvas. From afar, the colours meld into beautiful clarity. Photographs simply do not do them justice.
The unfinished works on display give some indications of his processes. He would streak and smear massive globs of colour over the surface, building layers and texture, finding and losing and refinding his drawing. He would paint semi-transparent layers of white over the work and then build accents over the top. He would create a kind of chaos on the canvas that he would eventually, somehow, reconcile.
Funny, then, that in his early years studying at the Slade he was so scathing of the “lack of any methodical training” at the school, despite later developing a method so seemingly lacking in… well, method. It suggests that with a masterful understanding of the core principles and a keen eye for design, you can paint as maniacally as you want.
McEvoy didn’t paint likenesses. He painted paintings, capturing instead some kind of essence of his sitters. He was unafraid of idealising or exaggerating his sitters’ most defining features – often the eyes – and to stunning effect.
According to those who sat for him, McEvoy painted quickly, ferociously, laying down his strokes, rushing back to see the effect and then coming back in with another brush loaded with colour.
It sounds as though he lived that way too, working tirelessly, trying always to please his clients and attempting to finish paintings despite ill health. This contributed to his early death of pneumonia in his late 40s, and what a shame, because really his painting style was one of kind.
Dr Charles Whitehead continues his series of blog posts on the purpose of art from the viewpoint of anthropology.
When I first started to prepare my talk I had an overwhelming urge to use the title page of Galileo’s Il Saggiatore as my first slide. I knew what I wanted to say about this book, but I had no idea why I wanted it in this talk – it has no obvious relevance to art or what art is for. It was some time before I realised a connection. I had recently heard Ann commenting – with a hint of satisfaction – on how much art and science have in common. I guess this followed from “Viewing the Invisible” last September, a creative initiative by LFAS and King’s College, bringing artists and scientists together to compare processes and explore parallels between two disciplines often thought of as polar opposites. In 2018 King’s opened the Science Gallery “where science and art collide”, Central St Martin’s offers an MA in Art and Science, and there are quite a few other initiatives attempting to bridge the two with what often seems to me a naive enthusiasm.
Many scientists regard Galileo’s book as the foundation stone of modern physics. In this work he describes the universe as a Grand Book written in the language of mathematics. This statement has probably done more than any other to drive scientists mad. They love to quote this claim, but seldom cite the rest of the sentence: “…and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometrical figures…” That’s the part that makes it sound a bit less grand and a bit more… well, odd.
It’s true that many things in science can be described and predicted by mathematical equations. But equations are things that just sit there passively on a page or blackboard or back of an envelope. They don’t do anything. And there always has to be something else – something dynamic – that the equations describe. What no one can tell us is what puts the fire into the equations – why, for example, E = mc2 tells us nothing about the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The ghost of Galileo is still alive today, and never more so than since 1948 when Claude Shannon, pioneer of digital computing, published “A Mathematical Theory of Communication” in the Bell System Technical Journal. His aim was quite modest – how to send a message through a noisy channel and have it received with minimal error. Computers never know what anything means, and Shannon was not interested in meaning either. He made “information” synonymous with“entropy” (originally a measure of disorder), and defined “information” as the number of bits required to encode a message. So the sentence “What hath God wrought?” (a Bible quote which just happens to be the wording of the first telegram sent from Washington to Baltimore in 1844) and its scrambled rearrangement ‘a?thh Gugod aWwt hroht’ both require 176 bits in ASCII. Computing had divorced information from meaning.
In 1948, Shannon could hardly have foreseen that his telecommunications work would make him the “father of information theory”, with enormous impact on far-flung realms of thought. He had given to modern science and philosophy an irresistible gift – a perfect instrument of abstraction from reality. Though Shannon is not particularly famous, his impact on western culture has been substantial. Many theoretical physicists now believe that the universe is not made of matter and energy. They think it’s made of bits (binary digits, 1 and 0, like the bits in your computer). Further, the three dimensional world that we think we live in is a delusion. It’s a hologram coded in two-dimensional pixels on the “event horizon” of the universe – though no one knows where that might be. You may think you have a solid body, but you’re more like a paper cut-out living in Flatland.
The same computer-based thinking has hijacked psychology and neuroscience as well. Cognitive scientists assume that the function of the brain is to turn input into output, using an input-processing-output model derived from computing. But brains have to be doing organs before they can become thinking organs. That is obvious in evolution – an animal than doesn’t move is not going to evolve neurones. And until it has neurones to control its movement, it’s not going to evolve sensory organs. So you have output first, then processing, then input last. The same applies when a baby develops in the womb. The foetal brain grows output nerves to muscles before it receives input nerves from sense organs. Again, output first and input last. The computer metaphor for mind and brain leads to a tunnel-vision science that ignores or underestimates the importance of spontaneous output-first behaviours, which means just about everything that makes us human.
Now this is relevant to art, because art is spontaneous in children. It’s one of those things that enable them to grow into healthy, happy and constructive adults – so long as they are loved and no one gets in the way. Babies show a lively interest in bold colourful pictures as soon as they are old enough to sit up on mother’s lap. And at nine or twelve months they start to make marks on any surface – even their own bodies – whether with paint, crayons, jam, or faeces. Art is part of the spontaneous (output-first) and playful things that babies and children do for fun – and in doing so assure their own development and socialization. The narrow thinking of cognitive scientists just cannot accommodate this spontaneous self-development, which is why they get so much wrong when they try to understand art. Colwyn Trevarthen, who spent forty years studying babies and pre-school infants in different cultures, put it like this: “Cognitive science, restricting the role of motives and emotions, puts childhood play and imagination behind bars.”
Now that I’ve told you a few of the things that scientists get wrong, I think I can explain what art and science have in common and how they are profoundly different.
First, both art and science are exploratory behaviours.
Many animals have curiosity and will investigate things. Laboratory rats will explore a maze and discover where a food reward has been hidden. Curiosity is what motivates science. Einstein emphasized the role of wonder: “Anyone who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” But he also believed that “the process of scientific discovery is, in effect, a continual flight from wonder.” Which is one difference between science and art.
Science has ancient evolutionary roots, because it works in exactly the same way as perception. Light is focussed on our retinas in an unedited way. But the brain interprets this information, creating “object hypotheses” and constructing models of the world, very much like a scientist. When the model makes a wrong prediction, the brain will modify the model and try again. In exactly the same way, scientists must revise their theories whenever a theory makes a wrong prediction. So perception is exploratory. Babies learn to perceive by exploring their environment – picking things up and putting them in their mouths, knocking things down, crawling around and bumping into things, and so on. Even invertebrates like octopus and squid have evolved eyes that work very much like ours, so perception is an ancient and widespread adaptation.
But many vertebrates – especially social carnivores and primates – have evolved a more sophisticated form of exploration that enables their young to develop skills and knowledge – especially social skills and knowledge about themselves and others. They play. Even herbivores may have some form of play. A lamb gambols, so exploring the potentials of its own body. Young carnivores will do a lot of play-fighting, so exploring social relations and dominance relations, as well as their own bodily capacities. This is called embodied play – discovering what your body can do and exploring the physical and social environment.
Embodied play begins very early in human babies. Only 30 minutes after birth they can imitate the facial expressions of their mother – the beginning of contingent mirror play. If the mother sticks out her tongue, so will the baby; if the baby gurgles, the mother gurgles back. And this is not a case of simple imitation, as assumed by too many cognitive scientists. Babies spontaneously initiate such games themselves, and if the mother refuses to respond (as confirmed in laboratory research), the baby will make strenuous efforts to get her to play. If those efforts fail, the baby will lapse into what looks like severe depression.
Embodied play continues throughout life. Children will climb trees, swing on swings, play-fight, ride on carousels, and play games like tag and king-of-the-castle. Football is a conventionalized form of embodied play, and a goal scored in a big match can rouse powerful emotions in an audience of billions, even though a goal delivers no obvious economic or biological reward (unless you have a bet on the outcome). Many animals enjoy embodied play. Dogs, for example, enjoy play-fighting, fetch, and bait-and-snatch. It’s the most primitive form of play.
…we might say that art is less primitive and more sophisticated than science.
In human infants, pretend play begins twelve months later than embodied play. The first kind of pretend play is called projective pretence, because an idea is projected onto a toy which represents, but is not mistaken for, a real thing – such as pretending that stones are sweets, or a toy aeroplane is a real aeroplane, or pretending a doll is a baby and feeding it with imaginary food. Other than human children, pretend play has only been observed with certainty in great apes, unless you count play-fighting as pretence.
Human play also develops into what I call “performance”. For example, around three months of age babies begin to synchronise melodic babbling with balletic limb movements – the beginning of song-and-dance display. Their early interest in bold colourful pictures is the beginning of art, followed by their own mark-making at least six months later. These are examples of embodied performance. Performance is similar to play – being pursued “just for fun” – but, unlike play, performance can also be goal-directed and manipulative. This is true in certain animals as well as humans. For example, two or more dolphins can engage in song-and-dance display, with rhythmic whistles and buzzes synchronised with body movements. Performance can be used for social grooming (establishing and maintaining friendships and alliances) and social entrainment (establishing rapport and enabling two or more “selfish” individuals to behave like one great big selfish individual). Dolphin song-and-dance displays are used to threaten potential opponents (“if you attack me you attack my friends”), or to bully females (“we can do this the hard way or the easy way”).
Just as embodied play can lead to embodied performance, so pretend (representational) play can lead to mimetic (representational) performance, such as iconic art (creating pictures, often of the “mummy, daddy, and me” variety).
As exploratory behaviours, we can say that both science and art are extensions of play. But science, exploring the physical world, is an extension of embodied play, whereas art is an extension of pretend play (making representational toys). Further, art is a performance. Science too is a form of performance, though largely at an intellectual level, whereas art involves entrainment at all levels – kinaesthetic, body image, sensation, and emotion, as well as the intellectual level of ideas. As performance is a refinement of play, and pretend play is more sophisticated than embodied play, we might say that art is less primitive and more sophisticated than science. The ultimate roots of science are even more primitive than play – in curiosity, pre-social exploration, and perception. In my last blog I also suggested that the aesthetic aspect of art – particularly evident in “decorative” pattern-making – is also ancient. But it cannot pre-date perception.
On the other hand, we can also argue the other way round, making art more primitive than science. From a historic perspective, art is much older than science (in the strict sense of the term). Our ancestors were making vivid representational art at least 35 thousand years ago, whereas the first systematic science – astronomy and medicine in ancient Mesopotamia and Egypt – is a tenth of that age. Further, our intellectual abilities are certainly less primitive than our sensual and emotional capacities, though every department of mental life has become more sophisticated as humans evolved.
Perhaps we should call it quits
I am a scientist (if only part time) and I think science is great. It can do a lot of good for humanity and all living things (when it’s not being abused for political ends). But scientists are a different matter. Most scientists today are guilty of what I regard as a serious sin. They have embraced an ideology called “physicalism”. People who don’t believe in physicalism call it “scientism” – presenting something which is not science as “scientific fact”. Physicalists believe that the universe evolved for 13.8 billion years “in the dark”, until brains of sufficient complexity evolved, and then a miracle occurred – consciousness “arose” from “physical processes” in the brain. They believe that everything in the universe is reducible to physics.
Only art can speak to the human heart.
Physics is the study of the movement of bodies in space. Physicalists believe this means the movement of dead bodies propelled by meaningless forces. But it is surely self-evident that consciousness cannot be reduced to the movement of dead bodies in dead space. Which means that physicalism is just plain wrong. And it’s not just scientifically wrong, it’s morally wrong, because (if we accept the rhetoric) it affects the way we see ourselves – as deterministic, mechanistic, depressing robots – with no conceivable role for consciousness, free will, compassion, or other positive qualities that make us human. Since we can’t have any free will, there is nothing we can do to make the world better unless it was predetermined from the moment of the (miraculous?) Big Bang.
Art too can do a lot of good for the world. But artists too have committed a sin called “postmodernism”. It’s not quite as bad as physicalism, but it’s all about deconstructing the very idea of art. I twice saw Damien Hirst (the wealthiest artist in the world) being interviewed on television. Both times he was asked to define art, and both times he said “Art is anything you put in an art gallery.” In other words, there was no art until someone had the brilliant idea of creating a gallery to put it in. In effect, he is saying “There is no such thing as art, but as long as you want to give me vast sums of lovely cash for my non-art, I won’t complain.” It’s cynical, and it’s probably the result of physicalism.
Science has limitations which are not shared by art. You cannot use science to sing a baby to sleep or relax a child with a bedtime story. That takes art. Only art can speak to the human heart. There is a lot of good that artists can do, but I think one important duty of art is to repudiate physicalism.
Theodore Major – a visionary artist from my home town (Wigan) – said:
The purpose of art is to find and express meaning and understanding of man’s spiritual existence on earth.
I left out an important point – that physicalism is not the only ideology that has influenced science, as well as education and western culture more generally. Another influential bias is the Protestant work ethic – associated with the rise of capitalism and the industrial revolution – resulting in an ethos which values work over play, object over social skills, logic over imagination, and science and technology over the arts. I think that is one reason why so many people are interested in forging links between art and science – it’s an attempt to reaffirm the value of art.
There are other ideological biases affecting science, notably western individualism (which undervalues human sociality including the social significance of art), cognocentrism (the input-processing-output paradigm which neglects output-first behaviours like child art), genocentrism (the idea that “selfish genes” and “selfish memes” determine what we are and God is a parasitic virus), and logocentrism (the attribution of such major importance to language that other social mirrors – including art – get overlooked). These are discussed more fully in my chapter “Health, development, and the culture-ready brain” in The Oxford Handbook of Cultural Neuroscience (Oxford University Press). Download DOCX
If you fancy a more pungent critique of western science (and are interested in the paranormal!) send me an email and I will send you two articles from the latest issues of The Paranormal Review – email@example.com.
Last term, Dr Charles Whitehead gave a fascinating talk entitled ‘What is art for? – An anthropological view’. However, with enough material to fill a book, there simply was not enough time to cover everything. He has kindly agreed to carry on the discussion over the course of several blog posts, starting here.
Ann asked me to write a “short summary” of my talk. That’s a very hard thing to do because my talk was already too short – the things I covered were glossed over far too briefly and many things I wanted to talk about had to be left out. So I think I should just blog a series of topics, starting with one I did not talk about.
So take a look at the picture of the Makapangsgat pebble. This is a jasperite pebble with a striking red-brown colour, and it is a natural object – no one carved or drilled it to make it look like a human face. But it was found in a cave with Australopithecine bones, in deposits dated to three million years ago. And it must have been carried to the spot, because the nearest source of jasperite is five kilometres away. It seems some Australopithecine found it interesting enough to pick it up and carry it to the cave.
In Uganda, young chimpanzees – our closest relatives – have been filmed playing with sticks and stones as though they are babies, even making a nest at night to put the “baby” in. Captive apes love to play with dolls. So it seems likely that pretend play (make-believe or “imaginative play”) is at least seven million years old (when the last common ancestor of chimps and humans lived). If so, it would be no surprise if some Australopithecine child picked up a face-like stone to play with. I believe that the earliest iconic “art” – that is, something chosen or made to look like something real – would have been a child’s toy. You might say that more modern artworks are toys for grown ups.
Now look at the second picture. This shows one of two abalone shells used for making paint, accompanied by grindstones, all with traces of haematite or red ochre – found in Blombos cave, South Africa. The cave was evidently used as a workshop around 100 thousand years ago, and it seems red paint was being manufactured on a near-industrial scale – over 8,000 pieces of ochre were found, often polished smooth by rubbing or grinding, and some of them engraved with cross-hatched lines. Similar zigzag markings were made on a shell found in Indonesia dated to 430,000 years ago, presumably made by Homo erectus. Archaeologists argue about such things, but a reasonable consensus holds that the likeliest use for ochre would have been body-painting.
Body-painting is not usually iconic, and may represent what developmental psychologists call “mark-making” behaviour, as in the “scribble stage” in the development of child art. Or it could involve non-figurative patterns. Zigzag lines also represent pattern-making, which began in our ancestors almost half a million years ago, and perhaps earlier. Many animals seem to enjoy mark-making when given suitable materials. Animal paintings often have an apparent sense of pattern, though never quite so organised or geometric as those created by Homo erectus (and Neanderthals). Not just chimpanzees, but also monkeys, elephants, a beluga whale, naked mole rat, and even Bini the Bunny have produced paintings which are a kind of kinaesthetic play. Many zoos have now inaugurated “enrichment programmes”, including painting activity, to relieve boredom in captive animals.
Creating iconic images (representational art) and making patterns (“decorative” art) are two very different activities and may have evolved independently. Of the two, only pattern-making is necessarily aesthetic – that is, having colours, shapes, and composition that are intended to be visually pleasing in their own right. Mark-making probably also has aesthetic motivation, but this is hard to prove. Certainly, art critics have been fooled into writing rave reviews about animal paintings, believing them to be the work of talented human artists.
Philosophers and scientists who study aesthetics often define the aesthetic as any sensory or emotional response to art – even horror and revulsion. This risks obscuring the fact that there is a double dissociation between art and aesthetics – all that is aesthetic is not art (think of a beautiful sunset), and all that is art is not aesthetic (the art of Gobekli Tepe is intentionally nasty and repugnant – more on this later). A relatively new sub-discipline in brain science – neuroaesthetics – also tends to conflate “art” and “aesthetics”. This kind of thinking further collides with a popular biological opinion that aesthetic responses evolved to support adaptive choices – indentifying things that favour genetic fitness, such as the selection of ideal potential mates and locations that provide food, water, safety, shelter, and comfort. This biological view defines aesthetics in terms of attractiveness and beauty, and I prefer to stick with that more traditional view.
We can certainly argue for a very ancient origin for aesthetic sensibilities. When a peacock woos a peahen by displaying his gorgeous tail, it is hard to believe that the peahen is not emotionally moved by its beauty. The fact that we humans can also appreciate the beauty of those iridescent colours and multiple eye patterns – not to mention the stunning song-and-dance displays of birds of paradise – might even suggest that there is something universal about beauty. We can also appreciate the beauty of the bold wing patterns of certain butterflies. These patterns can serve such functions as camouflage and predator defence, but they also serve to attract choosey females. So even insects may have aesthetic responses.
Though chimps can read photographs and enjoy television shows, only humans are known to create iconic representations.
Neuroaesthetic research implicates very primitive brain regions in humans. For example, a study of people listening to their favourite music – the kind that gave them “chills” – found that these chills were linked to increased activity in the reward centres of the brain, just as the brain responds to food, sex, and drugs. These are part of the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain, which is similarly present in reptiles as well as mammals. There must be more to it than that of course, because we do not usually regard the pleasures of sex and eating as “aesthetic”. The reward centres do send signals to the prefrontal neocortex, where such distinctions might be made. The neocortex is the most recently evolved part of the brain, and the prefrontal lobe, which serves important social functions such as empathy and compassion, is the last region to become highly expanded during human evolution, and the last region to mature in young adults. Some of us would regard our aesthetic experiences as transcendent or spiritual, but most scientists regard such things as embarrassing and wrong. Neurotheologians study the neural correlates of spiritual experience, and not all of them are atheists. So far I am not aware of any collaboration between them and neuroaestheticians.
I think we can conclude that there are two distinct kinds of behaviour and response that can (but do not always) converge to form the foundations of what we regard as “art” today. Aesthetic responses, that can motivate mark-making behaviour and are certainly required for “decorative” pattern-making, seem to be extremely ancient and common to many animals.
Making iconic images, on the other hand, depends on pretend play, which has been observed only in our nearest ape relatives, and is uniquely elaborated in humans. Indeed, though chimps can read photographs and enjoy television shows (such as boxing matches and the movie King Kong) only humans are known to create iconic representations, and the earliest evidence for that ability may not be much older than 300 thousand years. The Berekhat Ram “Venus” is a scoria pebble which has been apparently engraved to enhance its resemblance to a female figure. Kill-joy archaeologists argue that the pebble is entirely natural, but there is no naturally occurring scoria anywhere near the place where it was found – a Homo erectus site on the Golan Heights in Israel. Microscopic examination has convinced others that the grooves around the neck and along the arms have been deliberately engraved. Similar arguments apply to the “Venus figurine” found near Tan Tan in Morocco.
One thing these objects are certainly not is Venus figurines, which are beautifully carved sculptures of the Upper Palaeolithic, widely distributed across Europe and Eurasia, starting around 200 thousand years later. I think it much more likely that they were dolls, made by or for children to play with.
So what does all this tell us about what art if for?
The earliest archaeological evidence points to two distinct kinds of behaviour. The first suggests kinaesthetic play – exploring the possibilities of bodily movement when artificially extended with engraving tools or paint, and the feelings that can be evoked by such action. This is one kind of embodied play and many animals are capable of enjoying it. The second suggests pretend play, or imaginative play using iconic toys that represent real things. During child development in modern humans, embodied play begins within an hour of birth, preceding pretend play which follows around a year later. And both these forms of play are part of the spontaneous repertoire of human infants, which enable them to grow themselves into healthy and socially constructive adults. Nor does play end with childhood, being essential to health and happiness throughout life.
As George Berhard Shaw put it: “We do not stop playing because we are old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
What is etching? The word etch itself is a Germanic word for eat, where the acid would literally eat the metal. Etching is an intaglio method of printmaking, intaglio methods include hard and soft ground etching, engraving, drypoint, mezzotint and aquatint. All these methods share a common ink transferring process. The design is etched into the plate and the ink is added over the whole plate and a scrim or starched cheesecloth is used to force the ink into the etched areas and remove excess from the plate surface. The plate along with dampened paper is run through a print press at very high pressure forcing the paper into etched areas containing the ink.
The other common method of printmaking is relief printing i.e. woodblock and lino cut prints. Here, areas of the block are carved away and a roller is used to transfer the ink to the areas that haven’t been removed. As the process doesn’t require the pressure used in intaglio prints to transfer ink from areas, hand printing or relief presses can be used.
The most historic of intaglio methods is engraving, evolving originally from goldsmithing, although being a truly ancient technique finding the source would be impossible. Examples of engraving can be seen in museums across the world in the form of intricate designs of jewellery, armour, guns and other precious and non precious metals. It is said that as early as 1446 sheet music was printed using engraving techniques along with playing cards.
Engraving requires the use of a burin, a sharply pointed tool of a hardened metal. The engraving process is a long labour intensive one, the design is drawn onto the metal and then slowly cut away using a burin. The engraver must have patience and skill to not make mistakes as there are no shortcuts to correcting one.
The armour below is probably the work of Italian armourers brought to England by Henry VIII in 1511. Some of the earliest examples of etchings are in the form of armour, particularly that of Daniel Hopfer (1470-1536). This is an example of an etched piece of armour, thought to be attributed to Hopfer dated around 1515-1525 . Yoou can see the differences etween the engraved and etched armour, the engraved armour have much sharper lines with deeper reliefs than the shallower etched metal.
Hopfer was a craftsman from Augsburg,Germany who would have used an acid resist probably made from asphaltum, rosin, and beeswax to cover the particular peice of armour. When the resist was dry the etcher would draw the deisgn on the resist and, using a needle, reveal areas of the metal to be etched by the acid. Etched armour and other forms of etching became a much quicker and more economic process than the slower method of engraving.
The earliest known signed and dated etching is created by Urs Graf in 1513. This was etched onto a steel plate with one line weight. Here is a similar example titled “devil captures solider” dated 1516.
Hopfer though was to popularise the medium and become the first well known craftsman to apply the etching process to flat iron plates. Here is an example of a etching plate with five soliders, etched into steel and dated around 1520-1536. Here, Hofper has considered the fact that the prints are a mirror image of the plate and so his initials in the central figures drum are reversed and the soliders have their swords strapped to their right hip so it will print on their left.
Here is an example of a zinc plate with hard ground, being drawn through with a needle. Note the fact that this plate is unsmoked. Traditional ground has a translucent appearance and so etchers may “smoke” their plate with beeswax tapers to darken it. This will allow them to clearly see the lines being created.
Of the most famous printmaker during the 16th century, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) only made 5 etchings that are known and mostly he tried to imitate the far more formal qualities of the engravings that he was used to producing before. Here are two examples, ‘Man of Sorrows’ and ‘Agony in the Garden’.
There were artists during the same era as Durer, most notably Italian artist Mazzola (1503-1540), who made great use of the free movement given by etchings and created a series of brilliantly expressive prints. 100 years before Rembrandt, he is showing the same understanding of cross hatching and developing rich tonal areas just as Rembrandt will come to achieve and surpass. All these are dated in the early 1520s.
It was really the French printmaker Jacque Callot from Lorraine who lived between 1592-1635 that began to use step biting or multiple bites within his etchings. Developing a sense of distance by stopping out areas further away first, many earlier etchings had a single bite time for all the lines exposed to the acid.
Callot was one of the most prolific printmakers of his time, rivalling that of Rembrandt for output, during his life working exclusively as a printmaker he made over 1400 plates.
There are reports of Callot incising the metal after the original etch with an engravers burin to help reinforce the lines created. Examples of this can be seen in his series the “Miseries of War” produced around 1633.
Callot is credited for inventing the echoppe etching needle, this needle has a slanting oval area at the end and in a similar way to a fountain pen will allow etchers to swell and fill lines in a similar manner to engravers.
Callot has also been attributed to the development of an improved hard ground for etching, instead of using a wax based formula he used lute makers varnish. This allowed for lines to be bitten for longer without the risk of fouling biting, foul biting occurs when acid gets through the ground where the etcher had not intended, normally resulting in spots on the image. Because of this etchers could create highly detailed and clean prints rivalling that of engravers.
One of the followers of Jacque callot, one Abraham Bosse, spread his innovations all over Europe with the publication of the Manual of Etching in 1645. This was translated into Italian, Dutch, German and English. While no direct link can be made between the publication of Bosse’s manual and the explosion of printmaking during the 17th century, the information in the manual gave the readers everything they needed to start printing, including making a press, hard and soft etching ground recipes and tools used.
Of course Rembrandt, alive between 1606-1669 the most famous etcher of all time was active and prolific during this age, capturing subtle tones and atmosphere in line alone. Rembrandt’s early etchings like many before him were fairly timid compared to his bold use of the medium later on in life. In “The rest on the flight into Egypt” completed in 1626.
‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’ shows an artist just beginning to get to grips with a medium that would come to define him and this golden age of etching. You can see how much of the plate is bitten for a single etch and the tones created by the density of line, although when looking through his early work you begin to see the familiar style coming through, like that of The artist’s mother produced in 1628 and Old man with snub nose in 1629. This etching was etched for some time asyou can see the lines are very bold and there is foul biting around the etch.
Some of his most famous work is of course his self portraits, ‘Self Portrait in a Cap’ 1630 (image 21) shows his development using freer more expressive lines, also one of his most famous etching self portrait. Note difference in style and confidence to his first known etching – ‘The Rest on the Flight into Egypt’.
In his mature works Rembrandt begun to really push the mark making potential and improvise directly onto the plate. Below is an example in ‘Self Portrait Drawing at a Window’ from 1648. We can see the use of both hard ground and drypoint where Rembrandt has wanted to push areas darker. Probably a first print would have been taken using just hard ground and then using a needle Rembrandt would of scratched directly into the plate creating burs along the edge of the line where ink will get trapped and create the rich dark velvety lines that stand out from the uniform lines of a hard ground.
In the second state you can see where he has begun to push the darks in the background and within the portrait. The amount of states (the name given to each development in the etching) would completely vary depending on the plate. There are records of up to 11 changes, and some plates like the smaller ones would be more of a sketch on copper and little else. Here, in the third and final state you can see that the darks have been pushed to their full potential and an indication of a landscape out side of the window has been placed.
Another extreme example of this is ‘The Flight into Egypt ‘, from 1651. Here the first state shows the figures in clear light, but in the second they are almost completely darkened with only the lamp standing out.
Aswell as adjustments, Rembrandt would make significant changes to his plates. Here we see that in ‘Christ Presented to the People’ completed in 1655
(image 27)and the second state shows where Rembrandt has completely removed the figures in the centre foreground (image 28). You can still see the ghost lines for the figures.
Two tools would have been used in removing the figures, a scraper and burnisher. A scraper is a three sided sharp edge that is pressed flat against the plate where you want a line to be erased, and is then scraped over that area, making sure it does not dig into the plate as this would create more areas for the ink to hold. A burnisher is then used to flatten the area completely so no ink can be held there. The time this takes is greatly affected by the time the line was etched for, and in some instances ghosts lines might always persist.
Hard ground has been one of the most direct and popular form of etching, and still is. Throughout the ages different printmakers have utilised it brilliantly. A few of my favourite etchers to use hard ground include James McNeil Whistler (1834-1903), Anders Zorn (1860-1920), Ernest Lumsden (1883-1948), Frank Short (1857-1945) and James Mcbey (1883-1959). As you can see, in over 500 years of etching history people are still reinventing and finding new ways to use the most traditional of etching techniques.
Although hard ground line etching takes most of the limelight, there are two common types of ground: hard ground and soft ground. During the late 18th and early 19th century, soft ground became very vogue This technique involves carefully placing a peice of tracing paper over the grounded plate and using it as a bridge to rest your hand on. The etcher then can “draw“ into the tracing paper and remove the ground below. Because of this, the lines of soft ground etching are usually more unclear and have a more pencil-like quality, allowing for them to look very similar to drawings. Unlike hard ground, soft ground will remain somewhat tacky, allowing the etcher to press objects like leaves in to the ground and take a print. Here is an example of leaves and fabric being pressed into the ground to create an impression.
Soft ground by its nature creates a lot of foul biting, and so I believe for that reason it tends to be put to one side when considered work is required. Nelson Dawson was an etcher at the turn of the 20th century who made great use of soft ground as a preferred method of etching, creating wonderful lively etchings with a soft draughtsman’s like touch.
Other artists of note that used soft ground were Degas, Pissarro and Cassatt. The contemporary etcher Joel Ostlind makes superb use of soft ground in order to capture atmosphere and gesture deftly and with ease.
The final of the early etching techniques is drypoint. Drypoint is the most simplisitic and direct form of printmaking: the printmaker would scratch into the plate using a fairly blunt needle, known today as a ‘whistler’ needle. The “bur” that is kicked up similar to when a field is ploughed will hold a lot of ink and create a unique velvety soft line. Almost all etchers who utilised line will at some point use dry point in their work. The duality of strict regimented hard ground lines and smokey black drypoint lines are a timeless combination. Here a few drypoint examples by Whistler.
However, unlike soft and hard ground etchings which are etched into the metal, Drypoint gets it characteristics from the burr it creates, and these burrs will slowly wear down over time through the force of the press resulting in the prints becoming gradually fainter and fainter. Rembrandt would often completely rework a plate once the burrs were worn down enough, developing it into a new etching of similar composition. ‘Christ Crucified between the Two Thieves: The Three Crosses’ of 1653 is an excellent example of this.
Apart from line and cross-hatching, one of the eariest ways of producing a tonal etching was through the use of a mezzotint. The mezzotint process was developed in the 17th century in Amsterdam. The earliest known example of mezzotint work, done in 1642, is a portrait of one Amelia Elizabeth, showing the tentative development towards fully tonal etchings.
A mezzotint is a print made using a copper plate which has been “grounded” but with a mezzotint rocker. The rocker is semi circular with very fine teeth, and is rocked across the whole plate and then again perpendicular to the first rocking, repeating the process in every direction. The idea is too create a surface or ground that is evenly roughened, because in this state the plate will print a solid black. The artist shown below is starting from black and then using a scraper and a burnisher to slowly develop the print. Initial guidelines can be drawn on with pencil or chalk.
By the 1680s mezzotint was well known and it became the preferred medium for reproducing portraits due to its painterly effects. Here we can see two examples of those painterly effects in full use:
As you can see mezzotint has a very recognisable soft characterist which is very hard to achieve in other forms of etching. Here are a few modern day mezzotint prints.
The last and in most cases the hardest of all intaglio methods to work with is the aquatint. An aquatint is a way of producing tonal values, and is named for the ink or watercolour wash effect that it creates. Credit is given to Jan van De Velde IV for inventing the technique in Amsterdam in the middle of the 17th century, around the same time that the mezzotint technique was developed – but unlike mezzotints, the aquatint was largely forgotten until the 18th century. To create an aquatint the artist traditionally used powdered pine resin. The resin is placed in a box and a crank or bellows are used to blow the fine powder into the air. Before the resin settles, the artist places the plate in the box, which allows the resin powder to settle on the plate in a fine coat. Next, the underside of the plate is heated until the resin melts onto it. The resin will now cause a partial resist to the acid, causing a similar effect to a very high resolution half tone print as shown below.
As you can see, from far away the dots appear as an image but upclose you can see the individual dots. This works the same way in aquatints, but on a microscopic level on an etching plate. The tones are achieved by stopping out, going from white to black. This means that you would start by stopping out the whites and gradually working down to black. Test prints would be used to let the etcher to know how long to submerse the plate in the acid for.
The most famous etcher to use an aquatint is of course Francisco Goya. Goya used a line and tone approach to aquatint. First a line etching would be produced and then an aquatint applied over the top to help accent the tones.
Through the years various etchers have found their own approach to aquatints including Australian etcher Sydney Long, Ernest Lumsden and Frank Short.
One of the greatest masters of this technique would be Norman Akroyd, an etcher sitll alive today who almost exclusively uses aquatint as a method of printmaking. Recreating the brooding skies of the Scottish Highlands, Akroyd uses a technique called spit biting extensively which is a method of painting acid straight onto the plate to achieve the smokey soft edges. Traditionally the etcher would spit onto the plate before brushing the acid on, as this acts as an adhesive for the acid to stop it from beading on the plate.
As you can see, while etching has been developed throughout the half a millennia it has been around, the fundamentals have not changed, allowing us to have a medium that is as much the same as it ever has been or ever will be. The rich historical background of these methods means that there is a very deep connection between everything you use. Etching is a process that requires thousands of hours of dedication and developing a feel for not just the etching process itself but the inks, paper, wiping of the plate and the press itself. These other factors warrant many articles of their own and we would be here for quite some time to discus it all. However despite all of this hard work, every time I lift a print I get the same excitement from it that I did from the first print I ever produced, and I am reminded anew of the subtlety and uniqueness of this medium.
Like many people, I stumbled into London Fine Art Studios (LFAS) by chance one rainy day in search of art materials. At this point in my life two years ago I was in the process of rediscovering a neglected love of art, though I was unaware there were still schools teaching the methods of the artists who inspired me – many of whom, like Philip De Laszlo, are long dead. After a tour of the studios, I knew I had to enrol. But it wasn’t for another year that I was able to arrange my life and save enough money to commit to a year of studies.
The first year flew by. I became embedded in a community of likeminded individuals and learned more than I could have imagined in such a short space of time. I could feel myself progressing with each term. Yet after every Ah ha! moment – and there have been many – there spanned before me a wilderness of new, unforeseen challenges to overcome. Us artists, it seems, are endlessly chasing this horizon but the journey is neither fast nor free.
Having looked up to, been taught by and made friends with many of the award’s previous recipients, I was keen to put myself forward for it.
On my first visit to LFAS I was impressed by the relationship it had established with the De Laszlo Foundation and after my first year of full-time studies, I was finally eligible to apply for the De Laszlo Scholarship. Having looked up to, been taught by and made friends with many of the award’s previous recipients, I was keen to put myself forward for it.
It has been an honour to have been granted the scholarship. Not only has it provided me with funding to continue my studies and rent my studio, it has also given me the confidence and support I need to pursue my dream of working as a professional figurative artist.
The award is not just a bursary to help students get by financially for another term. It helps to establish them firmly within the school and provides an extra rung in the ladder on their way into the dizzying world of professional fine art. Each De Laszlo scholar is following in the footsteps of a succession of great artists and it is a privilege to be a part of this tradition.
We are really excited about Felicia Forte coming to teach with us again this summer.
Last year, with the funds raised from her painting demonstration evening, Felicia very generously offered travel funds to two of the students who had attended her workshop and whom she believed would greatly benefit from time with her in Detroit.
We will be devising another exciting plan for a project with the funds raised by Felicia in conjunction with the Studios Next Generation Fund. The Next Generation Fund helps aspiring artists study at the studios and beyond.
Georgie Vestey writes about her experience in this blog:
Detroit with Felicia Forte, Claudia, and I arrived at Detroit airport at the rather anti-social hour of 2am. Nevertheless, Felica and Matt were there to take us to what would be our home for the next two weeks! This was my first trip to America and I was immediately thrilled as we drove past ‘The largest tyre in the world’ (literally) which was on display at the side of the highway for all to see. We received the warmest of welcomes, not only from Felicia and Matt but from their wonder dog, Seven who was overjoyed to have two Brits crashing in her pad and would later take it upon herself to become our personal and very personable alarm clock!
Felicia’s home was incredible; built in the 1950’s by people who clearly knew how to party, wacky colours and cutting edge furnishing ran throughout the house and it was impossible to move an inch without another enticing object catching your eye. We subsequently spent our first day painting interiors, I chose to take on a turquoise and lemon yellow bathroom; being inclined towards using a colourful palette, I was in complete heaven!
We’d set up a still life and paint it all together, it was amazing to see Felica at work and was in awe of the level of control she had over every brushstroke. I learnt that less can definitely be more and that it was worth slowing down when you’re not running around London in pleinair mode and covered in paint. Felica had kindly organised models to sit for us which I really enjoyed, having been out of portrait painting practise for a while it was really refreshing to see her method and found honing in on one feature relatively early on in the process really helpful. We also sat for each other which gave us the opportunity to work up some of our portraits and listen to ample supernatural podcasts.
As well as painting our socks off, Felicia and Matt were keen to give us some all American experiences. Off we went to the drive-in movies where we ate hot dogs and watched a double feature; a slightly suspicious shark film followed by an alligator thriller. It was magic. We went to visit the Detroit Museum of Art where we found Whistlers, Rembrandt’s and Kokoshka’s hanging on the walls.
It was a fantastic experience and I feel so inspired by Felicia’s gung-ho attitude towards her art, especially the scale of her larger pieces and challenging subject matters she seems to capture with ease. At one point we had discussed painting an inflatable paddling pool, whilst Claud and I shied away in fear, Felicia was already on Amazon prime organising a next day delivery! I’ve definitely walked away wanting to be more ambitious in my studio, especially with scale and subjects that I might have run a mile from before.
I had a wonderful day at the Dulwich Picture Gallery on Saturday. We organised a portrait workshop in conjunction with the exhibition Rembrandt’s Light.
I had 16 students and a lot to cover; materials, portraiture, techniques and all in relationship to Rembrandt. Each student got a linen panel, rosemary brushes and oil paints. The workshop was so much easier to teach because we were all working on linen, which is such a lovelier surface to work on. We started with burnt umber, really focussing on values (lights and darks). Ironically though we all talk about Rembrandt’s light; his real skill is in creating the darks and leaving so little space for the light. So, with the students, we started quite dark, and just with the umber so that values were understood to be the most important factor. In finding the likeness of the portrait, I explained the 5 essential darks value which can be found in portraits. As if to clarify my point, Rembrandt offered us a perfect example of this when we went into the exhibition.
Slowly the students added black and red to deepen and enrich the darks.
At lunchtime, we went into the exhibition to see Rembrandt’s Light, or rather his imposition of dark to emphasise the concentrated light.
It was such an amazing experience, having juggled with paint and values, to then go and see his works and look at how he kept the darks thin and built the lights. There were beyond amazing examples of what we had been discussing in the morning, and the simplification of the value patterns, and his purity with form. His utter sophistication and allure are not in the multiple value patterns but in the simplification. His painting of the Entombment of Christ was so modern, more sublime and looser than any 20th century painter.
Freud has often been named the heir to Rembrandt. I met Freud once when selling him books on Rembrandt at Thomas Heneage Art books. At the time I didn’t recognise him, and had to ask him his name. Like me, he couldn’t pronounce his Rs so I still didn’t recognise him when I thought he said Foyd. I did redden quite a bit when he had to spell it for me, and I suddenly realised who I’d been selling the Rembrandt books to. Whilst Freud’s work is very different, it is wonderful to think how much an artist of Freud’s recognition admired and understood Rembrandt and his works. Rodin was also an ardent follower of Rembrandt and believed that Rembrandt was such a god in art that we should all kneel in front of his paintings.
He remains the master of oil paint and a supreme modernist; his sophistication is the perfect balance between the genius of paint handling and simplicity. The complexity is in the paint manipulation, the build-up of paint and the scraping back. The transitions don’t happen in the value patterns, but in the temperatures within the lights or the darks.
Cinematographer Peter Suschitzky worked with the Dulwich Picture Gallery on the lighting and the spaces, and this was a huge success – the lighting absolutely added to the impact of the paintings.
I found it overwhelmingly emotional and powerful. You can get really close to the paintings and really analyse them.
In the second half of the workshop, we went into further details. Something we often have to repeat and convince our students is that the term ‘whites of the eyes” is completely deceptive. The whites of the eyes should be called the muddy half-tones. I had the wonderful example of “A Woman in Bed” to show them. I had bought the postcard and took it around with me.
One of my top favourite painting in the history of art is A Woman Bathing in a Stream. I have often been to visit it at the National Gallery, but here it is at Dulwich Picture Gallery beautifully lit and drawing us in even more. The colour palette is so limited and yet so sophisticated, the hand is so extraordinarily simple, just a block-in, the legs are so dead coloured, and yet the paint handling is so unbelievable. It is many people’s favourite painting. It is hard to put into words why and this is perhaps the reason. Paint handling can also be overwhelming and overtake the necessity for words.
What an incredible privilege to do an art course and discuss portraiture and materials with Rembrandt as an example.
We are really excited about Felicia Forte coming to teach with us again this summer.
Last year, with the funds raised from her painting demonstration evening, Felicia very generously offered travel funds to two of the students who had attended her workshop and whom she believed would greatly benefit from time with her in Detroit.
We will be devising another exciting plan for a project with the funds raised by Felicia in conjunction with the Studios Next Generation Fund. The Next Generation Fund helps aspiring artists study at the studios and beyond.
Claudia Newcome writes about her experience in this blog:
In February 2019, after having finished my third course taught by Felicia Forte, I had the exceptional luck of being selected for a residency programme in her home town of Detroit.
I had gotten to know Felicia over her week long stays at London Fine Arts Studios, not a difficult task as she is immediately engaging and always eager to go out with students after a day’s teaching.
I had first signed on for one of her courses the previous February, having admired her work for some time, and found it to be one of the most constructive and rejuvenating classes I had ever taken.
She was generous with her demonstrations, working in a calm, measured way which still managed to have us all on the edge of our seats, answering any questions put her way and encouraging good natured dialogue.
We all flocked to buy the demos she had laid out, with people putting their bids in before she had even finished a painting.
When it came to teaching she was kind yet firm, encouraging everyone to come up with one thing they needed to work on, then honing in on that. I found myself and my work being pushed in a way it hadn’t in a long while, and after the initial horror at being put slightly outside of my comfort zone (which is painting painstakingly slow, colourless still lives on my own in a shed) I found myself thriving and producing work which felt fresh and bold.
I came away inspired and signed on to the next two courses.
Fortunately, Felicia must have seen some promise in my work as by August 2019 I found myself, along with fellow artist Georgie Vestey, on a plane to Detroit, Michigan to spend a little under two weeks painting with her.
Felicia and her boyfriend, Matt kindly picked us up at around one in the morning from the airport, frazzled after a 14 hour journey. They were kind and relaxed from the go, taking us back to their incredible time warp of a house, all 50’s décor, crazy colours, art, and eccentric paraphernalia.
We were set up in a large room off her studio, filled with her paintings, laid out with baskets of goodies and racks of hand selected records for us to play. Stayed up just long enough to toast our arrival and say hello to their overgrown puppy, Seven, before collapsing into bed.
After a day spent settling in and exploring, we settled down to paint some interiors. Tricky to find a spot for this as every corner of the house felt inspiring, but we ended up painting a bathroom and a room off it, with me, sat on a loo painting a sink. This was a challenging start as neither Georgie or myself had much experience with interiors and I found myself getting hopelessly lost with my painting, but in a way, I think it was good diving in headfirst like that, certainly I got a few internal meltdowns out of the way!
The next day we went for something a bit simpler and did a still life. This went much better and I started to feel I was finding my feet. Georgie and I had laid out our painting aims and inspirations in an earlier email to Felicia, and having gone back over them, she began pushing us in the right direction.
One of my goals had been to be bolder with colour which I was now regretting as Felicia was encouraging me to pump some life into my very subdued bananas. It felt good to be pushing my work though, and over our stay there we thrived on focusing less on a finished, safe result and more on trying out new techniques and experimenting.
For the next week or so we painted a crazy friend of Felicia’s, did a portrait and nude of a beautiful young model, attempted more still lives and gave an art lesson to a 15 year old girl. In the end, though, I think we all found we had the most fun painting each other. We did this towards the end of our stay and I think by then we had really got into the swing of it and developed a very easy rapport with one another. In this easy company, encouraging each other and pushing ourselves that last bit, I think we produced our best work.
I think we could have happily stayed painting for another month there, if not longer. It often feels in these situations like you’re leaving just as you’re really getting into it, but in fact, we had been producing good work and packing in so much from the beginning. The portraits of each other felt like a lovely way to end our stay, just the three of us working together, joking around, and for myself at least, feeling excited about painting again.
We left filled with ideas, already formulating plans for a joint showing of our work, with promises to keep in touch and keep the momentum going.
Now back in England, I’m putting those lessons into practice, feeling inspired and more confident, excited about trying out new ideas with my art.
And of course, I will be signing on to Felicia’s next course.
Scott and I decided to have a date night at the Royal Academy.
It was also so wonderful to see how many people were at the exhibition, we didn’t see it the first week, or even the last, some bland middle of the exhibition visit, and yet I was amazed how many people were there and of all ages. Scott and I were in the older team! How wonderful that on a Friday night in London, this many people of all ages are visiting exhibitions.
The Helene Schjerfbeck exhibition at the Royal Academy is definitely worth going to see and should satisfy everyone’s taste, as her artistic career spanned tradition and figurative art to modernism and near abstraction in a very systematic clean sweep. I was obviously more drawn by her earlier work, her sense of tonality, her paint handling, and even her subject matter. She really does have such a wonderful sense of calm and harmony while building, layering and glazing paint.
She was fortunate enough, at the age of 30, to be commissioned by the Finnish Art Society to head to the Hermitage, St Petersburg to do a series of copies of Velazquez, Hals and then onto Florence to study at the Uffizi. What an opportunity and what an invaluable lesson. Her series of self-portraits work wonderfully as she steps from naturalism into modernism into expressionism and near abstraction. But her later paintings only work because they started from such a solid basis with her amazing sense of colouring and tone. Her draughtsmanship was so beautiful and her paint handling, but her real skill is her understanding and balance of tones and muted colours. Her compositions of tone are as beautiful with a figurative subject as with a near abstract. I think the problem is many artists dive into abstraction and modernism, but they haven’t yet stepped through the study of tradition, with the demands of the understanding of draughtsmanship, values, edges, colour and paint handling. A painting only works if these steps are understood and executed. With a figurative piece of artwork, it is obvious when it is unbalanced. A modern piece of artwork might seduce some into believing the work, but great artists like Helene Schjerfbeck stand the test of time because her abstraction stems from representation, her sense of design and balance is founded on realism, from which one can’t deceive. Much like Klimt, who was born the same year, her journey to modernism and design was only so stunning and successful because of her initial training and success as a figurative painter. Her journey was as natural as her early paintings were naturalistic, and as a consequence her later works have that balance of sincerity and beauty.
We had an exciting turn out and atmosphere yesterday at the private view opening of the much-anticipated exhibition Viewing the Invisible. Thank you to everyone involved in getting the exhibition together, we have thoroughly enjoyed working with you.
“Viewing the Invisible brings together scientists and artists to explore the similarities in their working methods. The exhibition is a multi-faceted display including videos, photographs, paintings and text, as well as an accompanying events programme.”
In conjunction with the exhibition we will be holding a panel discussion and live portrait painting demo by Ann Witheridge at the National Portrait Gallery next week, Sept 15th as well as a number of workshops at Bush House for the Welcome Week at KIng’s College from the 17-19th Sept.
To read King’s College Article on the private view Click Here!