29 November 2016. In this post follows my self-assessment for the painting produced for Assignment 4, “Claustrophobia”, of Painting 1 (Lacher-Bryk, 2016a):
1. Demonstration of technical and visual skills
I believe that in the course of this part of Painting 1 I was able to make use of most of the skills acquired in the course up to now. For the assignment piece “Claustrophobia” I used the experience gained in planning paintings including subject choice, subject and artist research, testing compositional ideas using sketches on paper and in my sketchbook in the appropriate way as well as drawing on the experience gained in a previous exercise (the river gorge painted for the exercise on aerial perspective, (Lacher-Bryk, 2016b)). Again I tried to transport a message by translating an emotion into a visual language, this time the agonizing feeling of claustrophobia and not being able to breathe due to a trauma left from an own childhood experience (ether narcosis).
2. Quality of outcome
My second charcoal sketch made in preparation for Assignment 4 appeared to me quite strong at transporting my message, whereas the final painting did loose somewhat in this respect. The properties of charcoal are probably much better suited to create the intended atmosphere, because it allows the blending of crisp strong messages and vage suggestions. Also, it could well be that my technical skills regarding the use of acrylic paint are not reliable enough yet. Still I think that I was able to translate my original idea into a working painting. There are some weak points concerning the composition, but I believe that I was able to produce some interesting and beautiful effects using a palette knife throughout (apart from the blue of the sky, which I wanted to be in strong contrast to the rocks of the cave, and the sunrays and haze added).
In this assignment I tried to address a subject, which I believe might be difficult to express to a wider public. If a viewer never experienced the sensation of claustrophobia and/or the feeling of not being able to breathe ever before, I guess that they might not be able to comprehend the strength of the associated emotion to its full extent. However, I believe that nobody is totally free from it, so I hope that my approach might allow them to reproduce what I felt.
3. Demonstration of creativity
I think that I was able to include a large amount of experimentation in Part 4 of the course, both regarding the choice of subject and the use of paint. The assignment piece itself was an extention to the exercise mentioned in 1. above (which I did with the assignment in mind) and so in itself not a totally new approach. However, the choice of subject with regard to the set task of painting a landscape might qualify as being creative.
4. Context reflection
Before embarking on this assignment, I did some intense research on the chosen subject, both regarding the medical and psychological aspects of claustrophobia, the work of spelaeologists (cave explorers), the interplay of light and dust in air and the effect of ether narcoses on patients, as well as on a number of visual artists, who produce(d) work described as claustrophobic and/or addressing the subject of claustrophobia. I think that in this way I was properly prepared to carry out the intended work. I do not think that I was influenced by any named artist, but noticed how references from past and present research came to my mind and help at points when the direction of the next step was unclear.
20 November 2016. In order to make it for cut-off I decided that I would need to start working on my assignment alongside the remaining exercises for this part.
The requirement is a large format. I will go for the largest support I have at home to fit the portfolio (60 x 90 cm grey carton). The landscape will be totally imaginary again and I will try and paint an extensive river gorge/cave in the rough painting-knife style I discovered to work well for me in one of the previous exercises (Lacher-Bryk, 2016a).
22 November 2016. Last night I went in my head through my personal spontaneous reactions when hearing the term “claustrophobia”, and what first appeared as an image in my head was that of a cave diver getting stuck with his oxygen cylinders in one of the rocky tunnels. So maybe this is a pointer for closing around, so to speak, my river gorge theme.
While leaving my last sketch and background for the exercise I am working on at the moment to dry, I embarked on some additional research considering the term “claustrophobia”, so that I would not base all my planning on the overwhelmig feeling of mental overload I have at the moment. I was particularly interested in approaches by different artists. Many works of art are interpreted as being “claustrophobic” by the art world, although they do not explicitly address the phenomenon as main subject of the work. The person shown in Expressionist Edvard Munch’s (1863-1944, Norway) “The Scream” for example is interpreted by others as showing a claustrophobic reaction (Bolton, 2013, p. unavailable), while Munch himself explained his inspiration thus: “One evening I was walking along a path, the city was on one side and the fjord below. I felt tired and ill. I stopped and looked out over the fjord—the sun was setting, and the clouds turning blood red. I sensed a scream passing through nature; it seemed to me that I heard the scream. I painted this picture, painted the clouds as actual blood. The color shrieked. This became The Scream.” (Art Institute of Chicago, 2013) (Fig. 1).
When entering the search term “claustrophobia” into my browser, it became immediately obvious that there does exist a need of visually transporting this feeling. There are many similar ideas, with persons trapped in tiny, bare, box-shaped spaces with no way out. Many of them with outstretched arms or arms crossed very tightly across the chest, as if trying to make the space (outside or inside the body) larger and/or avoid for it to get even smaller, see e.g. a collection of related images on Pinterest (Pinterest, n.d.(a)). Many of them do not feel related to what I am looking for, but the eighth photo down on Graphics Think Tank (2011) probably gets close to what I need. It appears as if there are many different kinds of claustrophobia, some of real places, some of real people, some of unavoidable overwhelming situations. And I will have to be very careful, because obviously the subject is a playground also of the horror movie gang.
24 November 2016. Maybe better to follow my own idea, especially since I do not want a person at the centre of this picture, but the landscape. A claustrophobic landscape, basically, is one that provides too little space for the person entering it. If I want this effect to work for everybody, I will need to employ strong signals, e.g. abnormally low ceilings in a cave. Today I came across the work of Ted Pim (*?, Ireland), who draws his inspiration from the Old Masters, but takes his dark subjects into abandoned buildings. What I found especially haunting at first sight was the location of one of his outdoor murals, “Bass Brewery” (Pinterest, n.d.(b)). Looking further for “claustrophobic landscape” I found the work of American concept artist and illustrator Jack Gallagher and his small series called “Obstructions” (Gallagher, 2016), which composition-wise comes close to where I want to get, although mine would be somewhat more complex.
However, while watching this short video documenting attempts at entering a cave via an impossibly narrow crack in the rock (Bennett, 2012), I kept thinking that I am looking in the wrong places. For me it is probably not so much the fear of getting stuck, but the fear of not being able to breathe. And this finally takes me to where I really need to be in this assignment. It is all about an operation I had when I was six years old. It was no spectacular operation, just having my nasal polyps removed, because until then I had been able to breathe through my mouth only. Back then, 44 years ago, it seems to have been common still to get etherised. At least this was what I got, black face mask pressed hard on my nose and mouth, sick, sick feeling of suffocating, wanting to scream and kick with my arms and legs only to be held down by doctors and nurses, taking ages (several minutes in fact) to fall asleep with operation theatre going round and round in dark circles. Just now I found a detailed German language article describing exactly my own experience to the smallest detail (Zimmer, n.d.). It is basically a trauma, which left me with horrible nausea every time I smell ether or related substances and an intense fear of places, situations and stressful experiences, where there might not be enough oxygen.
So I need a really tight place to transport the feeling. Like this (Vela, n.d.).
26 November 2016. I decided that the best way to proceed would be initially to produce several spontaneous large-scale (A2) charcoal sketches while trying to invoke the traumatising situation from the operation. Here comes the result of the first round, experimenting with an imaginary cave, which suggests a way out, but which by the looks of it is agonizingly narrow. The rock I want to feel heavy, but smooth, without too many sharp points and cracks, because this is what the increasing paralysis provoked by the ether felt like. While drawing it was difficult for me to breathe, so this approach is probably not far from what I need. Interestingly, the drawing worked in all directions (looking somewhat like a coloscopy image :o)) and I compared them for their relative properties (Fig. 1-4):
The second version was my favourite, since it appeared to provide the greatest resistance to leaving the cave, but I will have to increase the stifling feeling inside the hall. It is too spacious yet. So I produced another large-scale charcoal sketch on the basis of the former and tried to make the interior feel tight, with the way out near-blocked several times, while the sky is clearly visible (Fig. 5):
Although the cave is not as dark as I would have liked it to be, the arrangement seems believable. Guessing from the chosen eye-level the size of the nearest crack is probably too narrow for anyone but the slimmest persons to fit through without squeezing. In addition, there is no way of telling whether the path behind that obstacle would not be narrow, too. The making of the cave was a very enjoyable experience (apart from indeed feeling claustrophobic), because the charcoal allowed whatever change came into my mind with absolute ease. It would incorporate any previous layers, which had looked completely different at various stages of developing the drawing. Overall I like the way the daylight falls into the cave with the innermost speck of light more or less mirroring the “window” to freedom.
27 November 2016. With this working setup tested for effectiveness on my husband (“I don’t like this, I cannot breathe.”), I started on the next step of the project. In my expectation the choice of colours would play an essential role. I would need a colour standing for freedom (a light blue most likely) to enter the cave to meet a combination of colours, which suggest a suffocating atmosphere. The latter for me always comes with a substance present in the air (ether!), so I went to have a look at the chemical properties of diethyl ether (University of California, n.d.). It is a colourless liquid with a boiling point of 34.6 °C. So it might be reasonable to assume that some (colourless) haze might be visible in the darker parts of the cave to support the message. The light falling into the cave could be made visible in “dusty” rays. I will first test this effect (haze plus light) to see if it would increase or decrease the primary effect. Apart from that I will try and apply intense colour only in areas exposed to the light from outside, the rest of the cave should remain as in the charcoal above, maybe in a warm dark grey in order to make the presence of haze believable (somewhat higher air temperature near cave entrance).
28 November 2016. After having tested a few painted thumbnail sketches with two warm (grey, brown) and cold (violet and blue) versions of the cave, I decided that I would stick with the brown version, because it is much easier to create a believable stifling atmosphere in a seemingly warm environment. Also I had the impression, when comparing the cold variants, that these colours tended to “push me out” of the cave, while the warmer ones “wanted to keep me in”, so to speak. The paper in my sketchbooks unfortunately is not ideal for loose painting, despite priming the paper tends to come off in tiny flakes and the colours grow dim while drying (Fig. 6):
Next I tested how to reproduce the sunlight inside the cave (Fig. 7):
28 and 29 November 2016. I prepared a mix of dark brown, primary cyan, primary magenta, gold ochre and white to produce a warm grey tone. With this I painted a uniform background on a 60 x 90 cm grey carton, then proceeded through several stages to produce the cave. It took a large number of correcting steps in order to create believable lighting conditions inside the cave and an arrangement of rocks, which would cause the required “closed-in” feeling. In the end I found that with this painting it was crucially important to always align my eye-level with the intended size of the cave. A few centimetres out would immediately cause the volume of the cave to “grow” and thus “widen” the way out.
Here are some of the stages (Fig. 8-12):
After having finished the main painting, I found it difficult to determine whether I would be able to include the sunlight and haze interplay as intended. The viewpoint is slightly outside the cone of light, so it might be possible to see some of it, but I was not sure whether it would add to the atmosphere. So I left the painting to dry and returned a few hours later.
Here is the finished piece with the added sunrays. I noticed that extremely good lighting conditions are required for the colours to come out properly, but overall I am quite happy with the result (Fig. 13):
For a detailed analysis of the finished painting please see my self-assessment report (Lacher-Bryk, 2016b) posted separately.
Vela, C.M. (n.d) Cave Explorer [photograph] [online]. Cristian Mihai Vela, Caransebes. Available at: https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-photography-cave-explorer-image19113302 [Accessed 24 November 2016]
Zimmer, J. ( n.d.) Die Entstehung und Therapie von posttraumatischen Belastungsstörungen [lecture script] [online]. Available at: http://www.joerg-c-zimmer.de/57.html [Accessed 24 November 2016]