Thursday, 26 February 2015

Project 3: Detailed observation of natural objects

Exercise 1: Using markers or dip pens

First I tried pen and ink drawing of objects on moss-and-soil covered stone. I found that it was difficult to get very bright colours of ink from the selection I had, and mixing colours made them even duller.

The composition, of three objects about the same size on a flat background was rather boring too.

This was when I decided to try using marker pens instead
of ink. It was much more sharp and bright, as suggested
in the course work instructions.

This was one I did to try to get more detail
and three dimensional interest

Then I started some more focussed thinking about composition. In particular, what do you do about background if you are drawing natural objects. My initial thought of a mossy stone didn't do so well, partly because of the lack of contrast between it and the objects, and partly because it was rather flat, so didn't hold them up 
in an interesting juxtaposition.

So I decided to put my objects into a plain bowl.This gave it a thrown together look, which allowed shadows and relationships between the objects.

Sketches in marker pen of different compositions and backgrounds for the natural objects.
It was obvious to me, looking at the compositions, that the emphasis would be on different things with different arrangements, and I have made notes of that. However, it was also obvious that using marker pens for these sketches did not show what I was interested in, so the rest of the sketches were done in pencil.
This was a closer focus on the objects
inside the bowl, with the stalk snaking over the top third.
The wavy line and shells are a classic combination,
and they give an interesting contrast to the plain eggshells

By this time I had decided that a bowl was the way to support them, and that broken eggs were going to be the main part of the group of objects.

Vertical composition
I like their texture and the contrast between the smooth shell and the jagged broken edges, and between the orange-brown outside as opposed to the pale mauve inside.

This was the objects in a bowl, with stalks
falling across. I liked this, but the stalk
at the bottom didn't work so well.

Trying out different shapes of paper, I wanted to see the effect of having more weight and detail at the bottom and less at the top of a taller page.

This was good, but had the effect of losing the attention on the eggs.

I then tried a flatter rectangle, which lost some of the interest altogether.

Horizontal composition

Mixing marker pens

I decided to go with the original layout, with closer focus but showing all or most of the supporting bowl, in a square format. The two stalks were to be arranged so that they were both in the middle section, allowing the shadows to add interest to the right hand side.

My last sketchbook work for this exercise was to try out combinations of marker pen to see the range of colours available to me.

Drawing for Exercise 1: Still life with broken eggs
Marker pens

Exercise 2: Detail and simple line

Mushroom drawn with black felt pen without lifting pen from paper

Exercise 3: Detail & Tone

Still life of natural objects

Which drawing media did you find most useful for which effects?
For making objects seem solid - pencil and colour.
I was surprised at how the marker picture turned out - I thought it would look a lot more flat - strong colour blocks intensify the shaping effect of light and shade.
Crosshatching worked well to give shape and detail. Not so good for contrast - might use watercolour pencils to give more contrast of tone.

What sort of marks work well to create tone, pattern and texture?
Combinations in layers give more depth to texture.
Pattern looks good in plain ink lines.
I didn't use frottage for any of these, but it would have been useful for the shell or avocado skin.
Thinking about negative space has helped to shape all these objects, and their markings.

Look at the composition of the drawings you've done in this projects. Makes some notes about how you might create more interesting compositions.
I have an urge to frame things. I don't think this is necessarily a good thing, and I tried in the last drawing to just lay them out and not frame them. The effect of this was to make them look a bit flat and without purpose. I don't feel particularly confident that I know how to do this, to make the background work. I think I just have to try a variety of solutions, and perhaps copy some classic ones, so that I can work out what effect they have on the final drawing.

Project 2 Physical and Visual Texture

Exercise 1
Experimenting with different ways to represent texture in drawing.

My attempts to show the texture of (from top left to bottom right)
pompom, loofah, old suede, and crushed velvet.

This was trying some combinations of wet and dry media

This time starting with wet paper

Frottage with tinfoil, loofah, knitting

Thursday, 19 February 2015

Drawing Project 1 Composition

Exercise 1: Compositional sketches of man-made objects
Picking the objects was trickier than I thought it would be. 'Pick objects that have the potential for creating meaning.'

I went round with a camera looking for things that I could pick. I didn't worry too much about the background for these photos.

The flowers were pretty and classical, but a lot of the interest is in the colours and early decay, and it is a bit of a cliche.

The bikes would be quite interesting to draw, and could mean togetherness or affection. The daleks are a joke. Not so meaningful, unless I did them against something that made you think about what they represent. They are very hard looking, and I find I prefer to have something soft in the picture.

Boots are a cliche, but for a reason - they do seem to tell you something about the people who wear them.

There is something intriguing to my eye about collections of similar things 'Accumulations'. There's an exhibition of artists collections at the Barbican at the moment which looks interesting. Magnificent Obsessions exhibition

So I tried an accumulation of umbrellas. They looked interesting like this.

I tried a sketch of the chinese parasol in my sketchbook. I think it looks  bit like a flower. The sharp but delicate edges were interesting to draw with a relatively hard pencil.

So I decided to use umbrellas for my manmade objects.
Here are the thumbnail sketches I did of some different compositions.

'Thumbnail' sketches for Exercise 1

Reading from left to right in the top row: My first try was using charcoal, but that obviously wasn't going right - I needed something I could do a bit more detail with, and the transparent plastic umbrella just wasn't going to be do-able. I like the floorboards lines giving a bit of depth, and my second try with soft pencil worked a bit better. The pile of umbrella handles in a clump wasn't really working so put them in a wine rack. That showed me that the wine rack wasn't as interesting to draw as the umbrellas! I started drawing in the negative shapes, which gives the solidity to it in places.

On the bottom row, there's a more typical arrangement of umbrellas and other objects in a basket in the corner. That looked a bit better, but not very meaningful or interesting. The middle one is the arrangement I liked most. You can see that this one caught my eye more, and I have filled in the detail more as a result. Why? The light and shade is clearer. The shapes of the handles are laid out in a way which alerts you to the contrasts between them, the repetition of the curves in the wine rack, and the three dimensional feel of the handles. The folds of the umbrellas are picked out by shading in the negative spaces. And the perspective floorboards make it more lively to look at. I initially made this one rectangular, but I think it has more power and depth when it's a square. I made a note that it needed more directional light.

Finally, bottom right was an attempt at a more birds eye view of the basket with umbrellas, to use the flower-like shapes. I think this would be the next best choice to the previous one, but I would have to do a bit more work to get the angle right.

Exercise 2: Compositional Studies of Natural Objects

For this exercise I picked some shells and a piece of foliage that was going a bit brown.
The objects looked good on a page together, like some of the illustrations I found in my researches on still life drawing.

I wanted the arrangement to be a little more natural looking, so I picked snail shells and foliage, and did some arrangements in my sketchbook using a B pencil.

Pencil studies for exercise 2

What I found was that it is very much more difficult to show the three-dimensional form of these natural things by shading, because their surfaces are so much more complex, and you want to use shading to show that as well. In my first drawing (top left), I put so much of the surface detail in that the shapes of the leaves are not really distinguishable. The shadows are the part of this sketch which allow you to tell what shape the objects are.

For the second drawing (right), I changed the arrangement so that the snails were snuggled behind the leaves. I tried using shadows and lines only for this one. This allowed the shapes to stand out better, but left the leaves without any interest or contour to them. I tried putting in the veins but that didn't work so well. I was more pleased with the stalks of this one, as I saw that they had intensity changes along their length.

The third one was even more of a sketch, where I was focusing on the double shadow I got from a lamp and a window, and on the detail of the snail shells. The arrangement was to emphasise the structure created by the shadows around the shells. At this point I noticed that the shapes of the brown on the leaves was quite unexpectedly geometrical because it reflected the shapes between the veins.

So, the challenge in the fourth drawing of these natural objects was to draw in some of the leaf detail, without confusing this with the shadows. I decided to try using coloured pencils to do this, with blue/purple/grey for the shadows. The arrangement was almost the same as the third one, but seen from a little higher up so as to widen the shape formed by the shadows.

Compositional study of natural objects
Coloured pencils

Is it easier to suggest three dimensions on man made or natural objects?
I found it much easier with man-made objects. I think this is because of the regularity of the shapes of man made objects, allowing the shading to be used mainly for three dimensional shape rather than texture.

How did you create a sense of solidity in your compositions?
By using the way the light fell on them to create shadows (with shading and filling in the negative space), and how they interact with each other eg leaves falling behind each other.

Did changing the arrangement of your composition make a difference to your approach and the way you created a sense of form?
Yes, some arrangements of the umbrellas led me to use negative spaces much more than others. (Which increased the sense of form). Some arrangements led me to leave out details so that the overall composition became more the focus (eg the right hand study of natural objects).

Still life research after 1800

Unless I say otherwise, the photos for todays' entry are taken from the art encyclopaedias listed below.

Vincent van Gogh Sunflowers 1888 oil on canvas
Probably the most famous flower picture in the world.
It has physical substance because he used so much paint.
Paul Cezanne Still life with a curtain 1895
Image from
Cezanne is the turning point in still-life in the articles I have read. This painting shows how he took the classical idea of a still life and used it in a masterly way to explore colour and volume.
Paul Cezanne Still life with skull 1985-90
the background seems to be there to give depth and contrast to the gorgeous fruit and skull.

Childe Hassam The Room of Flowers 1894 oil on canvas
This painting is full of clutter and light and I didn't notice the woman reading until well after I had taken in the weather and warm summer air. I suppose that her presents stops this being a still-life, but its interesting that you can get so many medium sized objects of different colours and textures into a painting without it becoming just a mess. I think it must be because of the clarity of the yellow-green window brought to the foreground flowers adn then the green carpet in a sweep of composition.

Jean Gris Glasses, Newspaper, and a bottle of wine
1913 collage, gouache, watercolour, coloured chalk, and charcoal on paper
Lots of different materials, but the whole thing is unified by the vertical slices and narrow colour range.
Apparently he didn't aim to be cubist, but has used typically cubist techniques to show different parts of the same object and discard shading.
Pablo Picasso Still life with chair caning 1911-12
The painter was playing with the still life genre, and asking what is real.
According to Amy Dempsey, the caning was painted onto oilcloth, which was then stuck to the canvas.
The objects of the still life are painted in a fragmented way which prevents us from identifying them easily, but which Picasso thought was more 'real'. 

Georges Braque Clarinet and Bottle of Rum on a Mantelpiece 1911 oil on canvas
The cubist way of representing objects from all sides at once, rather than as they are usually seen, from one side only.
This experimentation was going on in Europe at the same time as other experimental variations on classical painting.

Emile Nolde Red Poppies c. 1920
Watercolour on paper
As a German Expressionist he wanted to 'grasp what lies at the very heart'
In this flower still life he does this through colour and shape, and the use of water to give detail and atmosphere.
I think that soon I should look at this group of artists in a bit more depth
because whenever I see their work it appeals to me viscerally. (They're not usually as pretty as this)
Pierre Bonnard The Open Window c.1921 oil on canvas
The group of artists he worked with, The Nabis, aimed to express feeling through colour,
and to simplify the lines and shapes in their paintings.

Stuart Davis Egg Beater No.4 1928 oil on canvas
American artist who used abstract shapes and colours to depict everyday objects, inspired by jazz.
 It's amazing how unlike the object it can be and still be a 'still life' - in this case with a lot of movement in it!

From the early 20th Century, it becomes more and more tricky to work out where the boundaries of 'still-life' are, because represenations or collections (or sculptures) of medium sized objects began to be used more or less subtly to demonstrate things other than the appearance or feeling of the objects themselves.

Salvador Dali Lobster Telephone 1936
Exploring the effect of surreal juxtapositions of objects.
'a spontaneous method of irrational knowledge.'

John Bratby Table top 1955
'Kitchen sink school'
Painting in the shadow of the nuclear bomb. Painting each object as if it is the last time he would see them.
When I am really in the moment of drawing, it doesn't feel despairing, but it does feel as if the world of the object becomes extraordinary and intense and able to teach me profound things about the world.
Louise Nevelson Royal Tide IV 1959-60
Assemblage of wood scavenged from the street.

Maria Elena Vieria da Silva Checkmate oil on canvas 1949-50.
The focus on the chess board is so intense that the whole room has become imbued with the game.
Muted palette lines and gently twisted central perspective in abstract style.
Thinking about how I could use this idea to extend the way I feel about an object into the surroundings.
Also that it's not necessary to make it look the way it actually looks!

Georgio Morandi Still Life 1960
oil on canvas
The Art Book comments 'the sense of calm meditation that 
pervades his paintings invites comparison with Chardin and Cezanne.'
Plain shapes in subdued colours and blank background.

This links to Nicolas de Stael Bouteilles Rouges 1955 oil on canvas, which shows what can happen when the painter takes a step further towards complete abstraction. The focus becomes even more the colours and shapes and their relationships with each other. The background here has as much intensity as the objects themselves. 

Robert Raushenberg Reservoir 
1961 oil, pencil, fabric, wood and metal
Wanting to act 'in the gap between'
art and life. 
Which seems appropriate for still life.
Inspiration for pop art movement.

Claes Oldenberg Giant Hamburger 1962
Printed sailcloth stuffed with foam (132x213 cm)
Marcel Broodthaers Casserole and closed mussels
1964-5 mussel shells, polyester resin & iron pot
This is the Belgian version, satirising the bourgeoisie

Sculpture rather than still-life in the usual sense, with the meaning supplied by the image's advertising prominence in the USA.

From 1960s, most of the still-life works I can find, or find interesting, are three dimensional.

I'll have to think about why that might be, other than that it has been unfashionable to draw or paint still-life.

Jeff Koons Two balls 50/50 1985

Wolfgang Tillmans Snail Still Life 2004
The arrangement of the objects asks questions about still-life as an art form and about their degradability making me think about the ephemeral nature of art movements.

Tony Cragg Eroded Landscape 1992 glass
Is this a still-life? It's familiar medium sized objects made of glass and then arranged to represent - well it's called a landscape, but what it makes is up to us. I think it's
about shape and meaning, repetition and how your imagination works on things.
I'm thinking I might go for a repetitive grouping of objects to capture something of this.

Dempsey, A (2010 edition) Styles Schools & Movements. The Essential Encyclopaedic Guide to Modern Art Thames & Hudson, London

1994 The Art Book Phaidon, London

Saturday, 14 February 2015

Still-life research to 1800

According to Anthony Langdon in the Oxford Companion to Western Art (1), 'Still-life paintings are pictures that are complete works of art in t hemselves and which depict inanimate things of medium size.'

The articles I read that were most interesting on this subject covered it in chronological order, so I have too. The early references are about inanimate objects as the subject of painting, and are included as antecedents of true still life paintings according to this definition.

The origins of still-life
Ancient Egyptians made paintings of tables with food on them, within the pyramids, so that the dead could eat once they had crossed over. (2) The Greeks had a word for painters whose subject was everyday things - rhyparaographoi, literally painters of vile objects. They are referred to, eg Peiraikos in Pliny's Natural History, but there are no surviving examples.

In Roman times, paintings of objects were used to decorate buildings, and they took pride in the natural appearance of the objects. So much so that there was a story that birds tried to eat some painted grapes, and the grape painter tried to draw the curtains painted by his competition.

Wall painting from Pompeii showing the attempt at naturalism

In the early Renaissance, paintings of this kind began to be used in the backgrounds of religious paintings, reflecting an increasing interest in the world of the painter, as opposed to the subject of the painting.

Giotto wall painting in Scrovegni Chapel - Annunciation to St Anne 1304-6
Showing his attention to domestic objects such as the shelf and lamp, and objects hanging on the wall, in contrast to the usual symbolic or God-glorifying backgrounds in pre-Renaissance religious painting.

As the Renaissance grew and spread in 15th century Italy and Netherlands, still life painting was used for the symbolic meaning attached to the objects. An example of this is the appearance of realistic looking lilies in annunciation paintings of the time, symbolising Mary's virginity.

Antonello da Messina c1475 St Jerome in his Study
I don't know what all these objects symbolise, but a lion refers to a story that he pulled a thorn out of a lion's paw,
and books a symbol of learnedness referring to his translation of the bible into Latin. I suspect the peacock on the windowsill may be expected to make the viewer think about pride and the partridge about truth?

In Italy, another use of still life was trompe l'oeil, used in painting and marquetry as a decorative feature in buildings, reflecting progress in perspective drawing, and a resurgent interest in Greek and Roman architecture and decorative arts.

Follow this link to see a wonderful Jacopo de Barbari tromple l'oeil painting. Even his signature is painted on a fake piece of crumpled paper. The link also shows some other still lives mentioned in this blog, and compares them to a contemporary artist's version.

Another stream of still-life painting was the use of dead animals or skulls to remind the observer of the mortality of all people, however rich or famous - called Vanitas.

Follow this link for a watercolour dead bluebird by Albrecht Durer.

and this one for gloriously pretty Joris Hoefnagel illuminated manuscripts from the Getty Museum

This famous painting by Jan van Eyck, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife, is in the National Gallery in London. Oil on oak panel 1434. It has many domestic objects and references, each of which has a symbolic meaning.
Image taken from

Peter Aertson in Flanders, and Passeroti in Italy, painted shops and markets with mounds of produce, this time in the foreground, inspiring many subsequent masters to paint still lives.

Peter Aertson 1507-75 The Fat Kitchen, an allegory

Bartolomeo Passerotti 1529-92 The Fish Stall
Galleria Nationale di Arte Antica, Palazzo Barberini, Rome
photo from
Still-Life as an independent art form
At the end of the 16th Century, the still-life became an independent subject in its own right. Langdon suggests this is for several reasons - the increased cultural importance of the artist (as opposed to the subject), of scientific accuracy, of illusionist skills, and artists trying to show they could do better than classical art.

Flower painting became a speciality for some painters including Jan Phillips van Thielen, Jakob Merrell, and Jan Breughel the elder.

Jan Breughel the elder c.1606 Flowers in a wooden vessel, oil on board

Other still life painters of the period, especially Italians, focussed on fruit.

Fede Galizia 1602 Basket of peaches
Image from
Galizia was a painter of portraits and religious scenes during her lifetime
but is better known now for her small still life paintings. This one is 11 inches across.
These paintings are clearly luxurious in the extreme and aimed at wealthy patrons. However, there were also still lives being painted for humbler customers. For example, the Spanish painter Juan Cotan painted collections of vegetables for bodegas around 1600. Here is a link to some of them which shows that they were beautifully skillful too. Here is a link to some of them which shows that they were beautifully skillful too, and surprisingly modern looking in composition

There was also another new market for paintings growing at this time, the middle classes in Flanders and the Netherlands. Claesz and Heda produced paintings for this market which Langdon describes as an 'understated celebration of a comfortable lifestyle', often in a very restricted range of colours.
This links to Pieter Claesz 1636 Still-Life with Herring, and an appreciative article about his work

But of course there were still wealthy art buyers and still lives from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries increasingly overflowed with opulence.

Willem Kalf c1653
image from

Cornelius de Heem Still Life with a Basket of Fruit
He and Snyders started altering the composition in this diagonal way. They appear to have been highly influential.
Image from wikicommons
 At the same time there was a more austere strand in the still lives of Zurburan, Lubin Baugin, and Rembrandt.
Francisco de Zurbaran 1635-40 Agnus dei
Sanfrancisco Museum of Art USA
Image from

Rembrandt van Rijn 1655 The Flayed Ox
Louvre, Paris
image from wikicommons
And the vanitas strand continued. The links lead to images of vanitas paintings by David Bailly, and Pieter Symonsz Potter

Eighteenth Century Still-Life
Rachel Ruysch c. 1704 Still life with flowers
She and Willem van Aelst introduced a diagonal composition into floral still life
Image from wikicommons
The other prominent proponents of still-life in Europe in the eighteenth century were Chardin and Melendez, who had very different styles.

Luis Melendez Still Life with Bream, Oranges, Garlic, Condiments and Kitchen Utensils
Very skilled and almost photographic in its realism.
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Francisco de Goya Still life with golden bream is very different, with a freedom of style that gives a more natural feel.
image from wikicommons

Jean-Baptiste Chardin 1760 Glass of Water and Coffee Pot
This is very attractive to modern eyes, with its simplicity and calm atmosphere.

(1) Langdon, A (2001) still-life The Oxford Companion to Western Art ed. Hugh Brigstocke, Oxford University Press (from Oxford Art Online)
(2) Van Miegroet, Hans, J (2006) Still-life Grove Art online OUP