24 August 2016. In most of the portraits I made in this project so far the environment already played a role, so I decided that I would take a step further and tell a little story. Since we will need to go to Aschaffenburg this weekend and may come back with a son to be fed mostly on fat for as long as he can stand it, I wanted to have him as the subject of this exercise.
7 September 2016. We are back from the hospital in Aschaffenburg. Our son will have to stick to the modified Atkins diet for as long as he can stand it, ideally for at least two years to hopefully achieve a positive result. It did not take him long to realize that he will have to go, for an endless time in the world of a nine-year-old, without sweets or pasta or bread, fruit or vegetables. He is allowed ten grams of carbohydrates per day, which is next to nothing, say 3 gummi bears or 12 medium-sized grapes. Thankfully there is a growing market for quite nice alternative products, which we are trying to get acquainted with. We are a bit tense at the moment, because medication and diet will not tolerate any mistakes.
Since I lost more that two weeks from the course and the preparation of the unfamiliar diet needs to find its place in our daily routine, I will need to plan well the preparations for the following two exercises and the assignment to be able to meet the deadline at the beginning of October, while also having to consider the requirement to send my parcel by carrier. I already know my subjects for all of them and I might switch between them as I go along. The exercises will be on smaller size acrylic paper, the assignment on canvas carton.
Of all the moments during the week spent in that hospital room I remember most vividly my son sitting on his bed, getting more or less ready to hop down, while obviously in deep thought. This moment I want to capture as I have it in my mind. I decided not to take any photographs to help me remember, but would like to see whether I would be able to build a paintig from memory while taking the opportunity to fill the “gaps” in photographic detail with the associated powerful emotions. As I write this I realize that there are two nested sets of emotions, as I will be able to portray my son’s state of mind only through my own. In order not to disturb the flow between memory and my paint brush I will paint directly on my paper prepared with hospital greenish-yellow and glazed over with a transparent foggy layer of Paynes grey.
13 September 2016. I came up with the following, which is exactly what I had hoped for. First I produced the background, which is not as straightforward as it may look at first and consists of about ten semitransparent glazes, using a foam roller. The latter I had not used in years, because it would get clogged with the different types of acrylic paint I had used then. With my new brand of paint using the roller is a great experience, allowing – with practice – the praparation of interesting backgrounds (Fig. 1).
On this I painted with the same mix of colours, using a slightly denser texture, but also with several glazes on top of each other. My mix of turquoise, yellow and white produced an uncanny glow on the painted structures. The interior I deliberately reduced in detail so as to focus on my son’s emotional situation. I really like the result (unfortunately difficult to reproduce digitally), so I decided to stop working at that stage. For the scaffolding on which to attach my story I placed three small focal points of pure red on the paper, in strategically important positions on the patient monitor, the alarm button next to the door and my son’s mouth. By the way, the bed was as small as it looks: five more centimetres in height and my son, who is not exactly a giant for his age, would have got stuck :o) (Fig. 2).
I think that I managed to tell the intended story and am glad that I did not continue working past the present stage. To me the finished painting radiates some of the uncertainty of the situation my son was in and I also think that I managed to investigate both my own and some of my son’s emotional state.
7 September 2016. A choice of two or three examples for paintings of persons in interiors is not a lot to gain a comprehensive overview over the subject. On the other hand, a careful selection may allow to see changes in perception of the relationship between rooms and their occupants over the centuries.
First an example for Northern European genre painting, i.e. that period of time starting in 16th century Flanders, when the middle class first came into wealth, which allowed them to become interested in the interiors of their homes and surround themselves with paintings. The everyday situations depicted preferably – i.e. persons in their interiors – exerted a special appeal and became immensely popular at that time (Meagher, 2008).
Having to pick a painting I found that I was eerily uncomfortable with most scenes, no matter how brilliant the painting. For some unknown reason they felt both familiar and totally dark and foreign, so I went for a more lighthearted watercolour by Adriaen van Ostade (1610 – 1685, Dutch Republic) (Fig. 1):
The scene looks tidy, pleasant and at ease (maybe this is the special appeal to me, overwhelmed by our own situation as I am), the people look well-fed and comparatively well dressed. The weaver’s family is seated in a makeshift arrangement near the open door, presumably in order to allow the reader of the newspaper to see the print. As stated by Meagher (2008) the Dutch Republic was a poineer nation to publish newspapers on a regular basis at a time when being able to read the news and interpret the contents was by no means natural. I guess that one of the purposes of the depicted scene is the presentation of the family as well-educated and involved in the public affairs of the country. By producing a stable triangle consisting of the three grown-ups the primary focal point lies at the centre of the lower half of the open door, which at the same time is one of the brighter areas of the interior. While there is nothing in particular to see in that spot this setup might carry a message, although I might be totally wrong here: By opening the door light, and thus enlightenment, can enter the inside of the house. Both lie at the foundations of a prosperous family and this is what the commissioner of the painting may have had in mind.
When flicking through “Vitamin P2” (Schwabsky, 2011) in order to gain an overview over the trends of the present decade, I got the impression that there might be an increasing interest in fusing interiors of buildings with the interior, so to speak, of their occupants, and even the paintings themselves with the interiors of the buildings they are presented in. It is as if artists were investigating the limits of dissolving boundaries between all insides and outsides. After Vitamin P2 the concept of figures in interiors appeared somewhat outdated.
So I had to go elsewhere for more information. Looking for contemporary examples I came across the following in the Saatchi online gallery, by Sherre Wilson-Liljegren, called “Gallery Visit” (Wilson-Liljegren, n.d.). The style is described as magical realism. There is nothing like a gallery visit to be seen in this painting, two cuddling baboons are seated on a stylish sofa in a living room, which is bare except for an electric fan on the floor and a painting above a tall radiator. I like the setup, the extraordinary idea, the colours and the wonderful light in that painting. There is not a lot I could speculate about on the artist’s intentions for choosing such an arrangement, but it is a nice and at the same time worrying concept that other primates might take over seamlessly from what a failed human species left behind. Here the interior does not fit the occupants at all and this is what creates an impulse to have a closer look at a subjectwise inconspicuous painting.
A more typical example for what a present-day painted representation of figures in an interior might look like I found on Saatchi, too, by Pavel Kryz, “The Television” (Kryz, n.d.). The piece radiates that weird uninvolvedness, which I mentioned before in a number of research posts and which seems to have infected 21th century artists at a pandemic rate. Both the room and the person seem totally exchangeable, there is nothing there to help guess whether the man belongs in that space or was left there by the owner of the room. He seems unable to change anything about his position or the situation and his hovering near the wall radiates discomfort. Personally I find this style unspiring, because I feel that whatever there is to see in such a painting will make no difference to me or the world whatsoever. I rather wish for 21st century artists to take responsibility and get involved with all their strength. At least this is where I want to see myself with my own work.
22 July 2016. A first opportunity to test whether I am able to emulate rather than illustrate using paint instead of drawing equipment. I think I realised now that, when my tutor told me to be more creative, she was not talking about the ideas I want to transport, but my use of colour. To be honest I am a bit confused at the moment, because I need to take the study guide as a rough framework only and chose whatever I feel is adequate as a technique. There is so much contemporary work around that I do not know where to start to take me off my well-worn tracks.
First of all I had another look at Vitamin P (Schwabsky, 2002) and some of the more figurative painters:
23 July 2016. Karen Kilimnik (*1955), an American installation artist and painter, was the first of these, with three examples of seemingly naive but artificial-looking portraits on (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 174-175 ). I have never been sure whether to feel attracted or repelled by “pseudo-naive” art and an interview I found made me feel strangely alienated from her (Mulleawy and Mulleawy, 2011). The answers she gives appear deliberately both careless and cryptic. Since I am looking for inner resonance, I decided that I would leave her for the moment.
When studying the examples included by Marlene Dumas (*1953, South Africa) I feel less distance. Her subjects radiate more than sheer presence, they present a fate on their skin (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 100-101). On the other hand, Dumas actively employs “marketing gags” by addressing our animal instincts in order to attract attention. This is something I have always had a big problem with myself. I am no self-promoter at the best of times and have self-inflicted moral standards, which I feel are getting in my way of developing into a 21st century artist.
For me it is far easier to connect with John Currin (*1962, USA) and his paintings (e.g. Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 68-69), which transport famous historical subjects into the present. While I do not like his in places gaudy style, the absurd situations and combinations resonate as if we shared a common language.
German-born Eberhard Havecost (*1967), on the other hand, captures fleeting everyday moments, seemingly irrelevant scenery and at the same time lifestyles typical of the 21st century (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 136-137). Although to me the chosen subjects appear cool and unengaged from the painter’s perspective, I have always liked the idea of paying attention to the sideshows of life. His way of painting reminds me somewhat of the approach typical of Lomo photographers (Lomography, 2017). Very similar approaches are chosen also by the Swedish Cecilia Edefalk (*1954, Sweden) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 102-103), Wilhelm Sasnal (*1972, Poland) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 288-289), Mantalina Psoma (*1967, Greece) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 262-263), Elizabeth Peyton (*1965, USA) (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 244-245), or even my former school colleague and successful painter, Lisa Kunit (*1966, Austria).
All of the above have in common a relatively naturalistic style reminding of photography depicting everyday subjects in a quasi apropos fashion, which in Vitamin P is described as an indicator of contemporaneity (Schwabsky, 2002, p. 287). But Vitamin P was published in 2002 originally and contemporaneity will without doubt have moved on since then. So I moved on to study the contemporary artists suggested by my tutor.
From the first moment I loved the weird use of colour and the wonderfully ironic approach by Glenn Brown (*1966, UK) (Brown, 2017), as e.g. in “The Dance of the Seven Veils” (Brown, 2014) or “Cactus Land” (Brown, 2012) and a video (Gagosian Gallery, 2014). Less sure what to make of her work I am when looking at Stella Vine (*1969, UK), here is a selection (Vine, 2017a, scroll down a bit for the great number of portraits). When reading the analysis (Vine, 2017b) of her personal approach posted on her website, it reads like a page-long apology to the art market and like the diary of a girl who tries to make sense of the world that keeps hurting her. Alex Katz (*1927, USA), who held a retrospective exhibition in Salzburg in 2013, I think might serve as a template for all the painters mentioned above. His approach is like that in 21st century painting, his subjects appear largely uninvolved (type “Alex Katz” into the image browser to get an overview). I wonder why this “cool”style bears such an attraction to the viewer. Maybe it leaves open a lot of room for interpretation, but I find that extremely difficult to tolerate in my own painting. I want to transport stronger feelings and it makes me hurt if I can find none.
Since, however, I first need to get into a habit of sketching with paint, I went to look for methods of doing so. Denis Castellas (*1951, France) uses a way of combining painted shapes and line, which looks very attractive to me, although I guess that there is a major element of drawing in his sketches (Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 62-63). Similar, but more energetic, are the sketches by Merlin Carpenter (*1967, UK, Schwabsky, 2002, pp. 60-61). Again, the figures remind me of photography. The painted areas behind and to the sides help to position the figures in space and support the movement. Since this was not quite enough to establish a firm background, I searched for “figure sketching contemporary” on the web. Most of what I came up with was of course drawing, but I found a selection of painted sketches by Robert Burridge (*1943, USA), which strongly appeal to me, e.g. “Seated Nude” (Burridge, n.d.(a)), “Blue Nude” (Burridge, n.d.(b)) and “Suze” (Burridge, n.d.(c)) . I would like to learn a style like that in my painted sketchbook. Regarding tone I was advised by my tutor to have a look, among others, at the work of Euan Uglow (1932-2000, UK). Again the subjects appear distant and uninvolved, but the use of tone in his nudes is wonderfully delicate and I am quite drawn to the structure and colour of his backgrounds (Plotkin, 2010).
24 July 2016. Bearing the above and my subject idea in mind I prepared two split backgrounds, one monochrome and one using the colours I had left over from the previous exercise, in my square sketchbook and I tried to paint my husband kneeling down in my workshop, pretending to do some garden work. I had to work fast and divide the work up into several very short sessions, since the position was very awkward to keep for more than a very few minutes. These are the results (Fig. 1-2):
I prefer the black and white version, also because my husband appeared more relaxed the first time over. In the coloured sketch it is obvious that the position hurt both feet and spine. Overall I was surprised that it was possible to create, in a very short time, a believable impression of volume and movement in my square 20 cm sketchbook with a comparatively large flat brush. In the coloured study my husband’s face is relatively close to life also. I will have to give the background of the finished painting particular attention, however. This is not a particular strength of mine yet. In order to make progress here, I will refer to the researched artists, in particular “Suze” by Robert Burridge (see above).
For the painting itself, my husband attending to the maize plants in our little “urban plot”, I prepared a 60 x 80 cm painting carton with a split background layer, one with my “skin” colour and one with a mix of sap green, yellow and primary blue for the maize. I would like to keep and improve on the above loose style here and will see whether I am able to do this on a larger scale, while keeping in mind a what I think might be a contemporary approach to the subject (Fig. 3).
2 August 2016. After a very intense 10 days doing other things, including having to find a new lawyer, again, and painting our son’s bedroom after a planning phase of a mere 4 years (:o)), I finished my exercise yesterday. I could have gone on forever, proesumably, but my tutor pointed out to me to be more sensitive about when to stop painting and there was a clear message by the painting, saying “Enough!” So this is what I got (Fig. 4):
There is a certain roughness in my approach to the subtle tonal differences on skin and fabric, but I decided that I would not refine them in order not to destroy the loose painting. In some places I think that the technique was quite successful, especially when looking at both hands and arms with the light coming from behind. I was also quite happy with the fabric and face. Less successful were the legs, but the photo looks much worse in this respect than the actual painting. What I like in the background was the effect of the white behind my husband’s back and the darker earth colours left of his knees, both helping to shape the volume of his body. With a few exceptions I think that I was successful in using tonal differences in forming a believable representation of a three-dimensional body in space.
Gagosian Gallery (2014) GLENN BROWN at Gagosian West 21st Street, New York [online]. Gagosian Gallery, New York. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZGgzv5-dBnc&feature=player_embedded [Accessed 22 July 2016]
Updated on 4 March 2017 (Harvard referencing and changes to contents).
18 July 2016. Since there is very little time available at the moment and my tutor suggested that I paint my sketches for this exercise rather than draw them, I decided that I would combine exercises 1 and 2. My husband sat for me in my workshop and despite our everyday worries the sketches with watercolour on A2 sketch paper (Fig. 1-3) went somewhat better than expected. Since I want to paint my linear figure study with palette knives, I also tried my favourite flat watercolour brush in one sketch (Fig. 2 below). Here I found that it requires a lot of practice to switch from the flat side to the edge in rounded objects such as the muscles in my husband’s arm, so there is ample scope for improvement here, but I enjoyed the experience (despite both of us nearly falling asleep after a demanding day).
I like the setup in the third sketch best, because there appears to be – at least to me – a pleasing combination of tension and relaxation. The chair my husband was sitting on is playschool size, so he had to find a position to give his legs the necessary room (tension), while the weight of his upper body was supported by the arm resting on the backrest (relaxation). We’ll see whether I will be able to include both in my painted study.
Before jumping right into the exercise I had a look round the internet to see some palette knife painting tutorials and find some artists, who use a technique I like. What I do not want is a very rough approach, which to me produces paintings looking like the tiles on a stove of the nightmare kind we sometimes used to get in our area (not surprisingly I cannot find any examples on the web, horrible stuff): Some painters seem to be making a habit of placing the same kind of knife mark at regular intervals, which have no connection with the actual subject and consequently appear to drain all tension from a painting. What I would like to try is to see, whether I am able to “draw” with the palette knife in a way that creates believable organic structures.
In order not to get overwhelmed by the new technique I decided to reduce my palette to the denim range of blue and the colour of skin (Fig. 4):
The background I prepared with a mix of dark brown and titanium white, which dries close to skin colour. Since this was to be my first experiment using palette knives and I am not confident yet regarding my drawing abilities in that respect, I drew the outlines first with charcoal (Fig. 5).
It took some time to get used to the properties of the palette knives, but I think that with some practice it shoould be possible to produce volume and tension with just a few marks. I was surprised to see how easy it was to mold the thigh and folds. But the way, my husband’s hair is not quite that flashy – it was the result of having put too much pressure on the palette knife, which went flying and left some interesting hairstyle in its wake ;o) … (Fig. 6):
It was relatively straightforward to outline the chair as well, and then things got difficult. I have no expertise yet in forming limbs and faces and I found the palette knife awkward to use in tight places. Also it was necessary to carefully think ahead. The paint had to be in just the right place on the knife in just the right amount and the mark-making does not yet come naturally. I also had to take into account whether a structure would have to be rounded and smooth, come with a darker and/or sharp edge or merge with another structure (Fig. 7).
After a bit of a struggle I started seeing some progress. Human forms are still very awkward, and especially faces, where I have not found a solution yet to correct mistakes (sorry, Franz, I promise to be more experienced next time!). Still, when looking at the overall result, the composition, selection of colours and part of the outcome I am not unhappy. In particular I do think that my intention of showing tension and relaxation is visible in the finished piece (Fig. 8):