Artist research: Edward Burra, James Rosenquist and Josef Albers

Updated on 26 February 2017 (Harvard referencing, some content).

28 April 2016. Following feedback on Assignment 1 I was to have a closer look at three artists.

Edward Burra (1905 – 1976) was an English painter with an inclination to comment on the darker sides of the world. My tutor suggested to have a look at the way he uses negative space in painting around objects. She included in her feedback an image of his watercolour painting “Honesty” showing the gorgeous seed pods of the Silver Dollar plant (Lunaria annua) (Burra, 1965-67), where Burra used nothing but several layers of negative space painting on top of each other, creating a beautiful effect. The painting itself looks almost like a print, but the effect of making negative space a major part of a compositional idea is illustrated here in a powerful way. When comparing this to what Burra used to paint as a keen observer and satirical commentator on city street life, I believe that he was very much aware of the effects of negative space on the overall impression of a painting. In “Harlem” (Burra, 1934), the white pavement is an object, but is at the same time the negative space between the two people in the foreground. I feel that in both ways it helps to draw the persons together.

Since in my report for Assignment 1 I had stated that in my research for artistic inspiration on the painting of tulips I had not come up with anything I wanted to include in my own attempt, my tutor asked me to comment on a work created by pop art painter James Rosenquist (*1933, USA), “Tulips” (Rosenquist, 1987) . To be honest, I am not a particular fan of pop art and I could not see a point in producing a light blue, pink and soft green spring image with a diffuser effect only to superimpose on that sharp pointed bundles of golden rays, which cut through the painting from various angles. There was no interpretation available of the content, but failing to decipher the message I had to assume that the aim was to curtail one kind of common beauty with another. This image would have helped me to decide what I did not want in my painting, in a similar way as “Yellow Tulips” (2014) by Alex Katz (*1927, USA). On one associated website (no longer available on http://www.widewalls.ch/wp-content/plugins/business//server/php/files/3501/1650604429_1448299370.jpg on 28 February 2017) there was an explanation, but to me what is described as “wonderfully bright exploration of the nature and the landscape” looks like something – and no apologies – 3rd grade kids do as their group work in their drawing lessons. The problem with such an approach is, however, that for a beginner like me it would be more important to identify what I like in a painting to then try and work with that. I then went to see what else I could find. The big issue with tulips appears to be that they lend themselves to kitsch or naive approaches all too easily. Here are some examples to illustrate what I mean: “Tulips” (Koons, 1995-2004), a world-famous set of sculptures by Jeff Koons (*1955, USA) , “Morning Tulips” (Hempel, 2015) or “Red Tulips” (Pocisk, n.d.). I could go on like this forever. Try and enter, for example, “tulips painting” in your browser and see whether you can get, for the purpose of learning from other artists, any better than I did.

Finally, I was to do some research on Josef Albers (1888-1976), world-famous art educator, in preparation for the investigation of colour in Part 2 of the course. In particular I am to pay attention to “Homage to the Square” (e.g. Albers, 1965) a series started in 1949 and comprising more than a thousand paintings of various materials, media and sizes “exploring chromatic interactions with nested squares”, in particular in trying to answer the question: “Can an artist create the appearance of three dimensions, using only color relations?” (Roggenkamp, 2017) . In one of the paintings, called “With Rays” (Albers, 1959) for example, the grey centre is explained to appear to float above the more colorful background, while the sequence of colours “encourages the viewer’s eye to move outward from the center of the composition”. It may be the photo on the internet, but I did not see the floating of the grey and in my case the eyes moved from the centre outward only to stop at the darker yellow. Then they were drawn to the darker top edges of that square. The largest square, similar in hue to the second one, went quite unnoticed, until I forced my eye to move there. Another example of the series, “Soft Spoken” (Albers, 1969), makes the appearance of three dimensions in a sequence of colours strongly visible. It may be helped by the position of the squares near the bottom of the largest square, which is interpreted by the human mind as an entrance to something. The series is said to be a clinical exploration of colour relationships and then compared to the more emotional approach chosen by Marko Rothko (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). A video explanation of Albers’ work is available by Nelson (2012). Since his findings are of great importance to both producing and viewing art, I will try and come back to Albers’ work during the course on a regular basis.

References:

Albers, J. (1959) With Rays [oil on masonite] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/59.160/ [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Albers, J. (1965) Homage to the Square [acrylics on canvas] [online]. Detroit Institute of Arts. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Josef_Albers#/media/File:Josef_Albers%27s_painting_%27Homage_to_the_Square%27,_1965.jpg [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Albers, J. (1969) Soft Spoken [oil on masonite] [online]. The Metropolitan Museum of Arts, New York. Available at: http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/481031 [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Burra, E. (1965-67) Honesty [pencil and wash on paper] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/2014/1000-ways-seeing-l14313/lot.68.html [Accessed 26 February 2017]

Burra, E. (1934) Harlem [ink and gouache on paper] [online]. Tate, London. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/burra-harlem-n05004 [Accessed 28 April 2017]

Hempel, A. (2015) Morning Tulips [n.k.] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: https://www.artworkarchive.com/artwork/anne-hempel/morning-tulips [Accessed 28 April 2017]

Katz, A. (2014) Yellow Tulips [screenprint] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: https://www.artsy.net/artwork/alex-katz-yellow-tulips-5 [Accessed 26 February 2017]

Koons, J. (1995-2004) Tulips. [stainless steel sculpture, transparent colour] [online]. Wynn Las Vegas. Available at: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/59391288809686724/ [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2016) Research: Merging a Limited Colour Range – Mark Rothko and Renny Tait [blog] [online] Andrea’s OCA Painting 1 blog. Available at: https://andreabrykocapainting1.wordpress.com/2016/02/28/research-merging-a-limited-colour-range-mark-rothko-and-renny-tait/ [Accessed 26 February 2017]

Nelson, R. (2012) Albers Homage to the Square: An Explanation [online]. Richard Nelson. Available at: https://vimeo.com/25215702 [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Pocisk, R. (n.d.) Red Tulips [acrylics on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: https://www.etsy.com/listing/72751686/reserved-red-tulips-painting-16-x-16 [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Roggenkamp, S. (2017) Albers, Homage to the Square [online]. Khan Academy. Available at: https://www.khanacademy.org/humanities/art-1010/abstract-exp-nyschool/ny-school/a/albers-homage-to-the-square [Accessed 28 April 2016]

Rosenquist, J. (1987) Tulips [oil on canvas] [online]. [n.k.]. Available at: http://www.artnet.com/artists/james-rosenquist/tulips-wvDVy4oOrVdzt6oOhHYZ-A2 [Accessed 26 February 2017]

 

Part 2, project 2, exercise 3: Still life with natural objects (step 3: sketching of objects)

Updated on 26 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

2 May 2016. With my newly discovered skill of keeping a sketchbook diary properly, I embarked on the next step of this exercise, making sketches of the objects to get acquainted with their properties and having a look at negative space created by placing them. This was most enjoyable and I think relatively successful (in contrast to the mini disaster to follow …).

My preliminary sketches I did in watercolour with ink pen, on the lookout for chance findings to make use of in my finished painting. I found the somewhat abstracted coloured shadows pleasing to look at, while also object likeness was not bad. The most difficult part was the shiny blackness of the pumice, which I was unable to copy, but since the overall structure of the rock was good and I wanted to keep this as a reference for later, I left the sketch as it was (Fig.1 ).

17_Sketching_objects
Figure 1. Watercolour and ink pen preliminary sketches of my objects

Next I experimented some more with placing the objects on my prepared background and already had a feeling that both ideas would probably not go together: I arranged the objects on the support where I thought they would both connect in their geological context and form an interesting pattern regarding the negative shapes between them. Doing this I could see that the shadows, if they were to be coloured, would clash with the negative space, making its properties less visible.
Since however this is supposed to be an experiment and my tutor advised me not to get distracted by seemingly finished paintings in the mind, I went ahead with my arrangement anyway. I made a rough charcoal sketch to identify the important negative spaces (Fig. 2).

18_Negative_spaces_charcoal
Figure 2. Placement of objects, shadows and negative spaces

Looking at the above sketch I thought the setup looked fidgety, since although everything pointed towards the centre, there was nothing to see there. In order to decrease this effect, I used a bit of beautiful white mesh normally used for decoration purposes and glued it into the sketchbook like an additional page.

19_Negative_spaces_charcoal_mesh
As above, with mesh added

Now the arrangement was more pleasing to look at and I still did not look forward to translating it to acrylics, it was full of foreboding of the weekend to come :o) …

Assignment 1: Reflection on tutor feedback

Updated on 26 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

28 April 2016, Yesterday I received the feedback from my tutor on my first painting assignment. It reflects very well where I see myself at this point of the course.

Going through the comments in sequence of appearance:

  1. Although I take great care to provide the best possible photos of my sketches and paintings, the warning at the beginning of the feedback letter made me aware of the limitations set by a blog-only submission. I do not know yet whether I will be able to send a portfolio every time, since I am based in Austria and it is either excruciatingly expensive or takes weeks to use a parcel service (the post office does not accept my portfolios addressed to the UK due to insurance restrictions), but I see that I want to be even more careful with my blog posts in the future. In particular I will add closeup images to allow my tutor to assess surface structures.
  2. I was very happy to read the line “You have made a promising start to the course”. Our everyday life took a nasty turn last year and I am struggling to keep up with the enormous additional effort to help our little son into a good future, while hoping to develop as a painter. I will keep this line in mind and hold on to to it, if things get difficult again.
  3. “… unexpected happy accidents …” and “What may be an ‘unsuitable material’ for one exercise may produce the best effects for another.”:
    Since I had not been sure about the degree of freedom for experimentation in this course I think that I can safely interpret the above as expectation to be as inventive as possible. I can see how the difference in experience I have in drawing as opposed to painting in acrylics has a major influence on the degree of creativity I am able to put on canvas. I am much more reluctant with paint and during the first part of Part 2 of the course I discovered some beginners’ mistakes using acrylics I have been making so far. For me this course is not only about coming to terms with “what paint can do”, but also “how to treat paint”.
  4. In the sense of the above I will try and include a number of different types of support in my experiments. Since my tutor was positive about my idea of painting on sandpaper with pastels or other media, I think that I will come back to it for the Part 2 still life with man-made objects, which will be my next exercise.
  5. “You should look for opportunities to use negative space …”: I am intrigued by the possibilities offered by negative space and still I keep forgetting about consciously making it part of my compositions. Since is not only negative space that gets lost repetitively in this way, I decided that I will place a large piece of flipchart paper on my studio wall with “negative space!”, “golden mean!” “complementary colours!”, and another few, so that I cannot fall back into my old habit of purely intuitive work. My tutor advised me to look at work by Edward Burra (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). As a watercolour painter I am used to painting around shapes with dark colours, but did not see this technique as making use of negative shape so far, since to me it was part of the whole process of interacting with a developing work and I had no name for it.
  6. I have already started making better use of my sketchbook in developing ideas. So far I often experimented on large sized sheets of paper, which might be seen as oversized sketchbooks, but of course this is difficult to follow if serving the purpose of illustrating a process of development. Most of my newspaper clippings and references to artist research have not made it into the sketchbook so far, because I think that I misinterpreted how to use the blog. Everything I thought useful went straight into a blog note. As I realise now this may be the reason why I keep losing the discoveries I made in the past. If time allows I will therefore try and have a sketchbook recording as well as a blog post.
  7. Regarding my split painting on white and coloured ground my tutor was not too keen about the idea. She suggested I redo the exercise as described in the study guide, so that a direct comparison of the whole arrangement becomes possible. Regarding her question, why I chose to have a monochrome painting on the dark ground and a coloured one on the white ground I would not know a valid answer except for an intutive decision when looking at the objects. Those on the monochrome side were, by coincidence, the simple shapes and strong tonal transitions, while the kitchen scales on the right provided some challenging shapes and forms. The former seemed more attractive to be depicted in shades of grey. If I find the time, I will repeat the exercise with a less demanding setup on two different grounds, although I quite liked the smooth transition between the techniques on the one support.
  8. Regarding the assignment piece (black tulip): I did not include my other sketches in the blog because they were both quite technical and not pleasing to look at due to getting the viewpoint wrong, while also I did not like the idea of having a break in the development of my idea. In the future I will however include all preliminary sketches. The photo I included in the blog both to give readers an idea of the original setup (something I do most of the time) and, in this case, as stated in the blog post, to have a backup: Tulips often wilt within the matter of hours. Due to my son’s condition I do not always know whether I will be able to finish a painting as intended. It took me a several days to complete it. In the meantime the bouquet had changed in colour and overall appearance – tulips tend to grow considerably after having been cut and then start hanging over the edge of the vase. In the future I will have to take more time to consider my choice of subject for aspects of durability.
    I mentioned in my post the research on paintings of tulips, but omitted the findings, because, as I stated in the blog, the ones I did find were nothing I wanted to paint (many were extremely badly carried out or gaudy or both) and so decided that I would like to see whether I would manage without referring to other artists. Not used research I will however also include in my blog from now on.
    The uniformly grey shadow area was intentional. The tonal variation in the shadow came mostly from folds in the cloth I had put under the vase and I had the impression that including this would draw the eye away from the message: I wanted it to serve as diametral contrast to my black tulip and coloured shadow, but I see now that by concentrating on an idea I forgot about the technical execution and thus got the tonal value wrong. The coloured shadow did not just have a yellow outline, but went from a green centre to red to yellow, so as to include all the colours in the bouquet itself. This was probably impossible to see on the blog photo. Since my tutor suggested that the idea of introducing a coloured shadow was worth pursuing, I will try and develop a line of thought from here.
  9. As mentioned in pt. 6 above I know I need to work at putting more emphasis on structured sketchbook work. I have no idea why the concept is so difficult to grasp for me, but I will get there eventually. I already draw on a daily basis in my small sketchbook. Due to time constraints the things I draw are probably difficult to use in course projects, but I keep coming back to them and some may be worth pursuing.
  10. I am happy that my learning log largely corresponds to what is expected from me. Again I will have to find a way of always having at hand the results I keep in my blog without having to produce a double diary. There simply is no time for that yet. Also, I know that a working knowledge of other artists’ approaches to a subject helps immensely with overcoming problems. My tutor suggested that I have a look at James Rosenquist’s painting ‘Untitled (Tulips)’ to support the idea (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). It is probably that I am on my own with the rare option of direct contact that I tend to want to solve problems my own way. In the near future I do not see too many chances to visit galleries, although I take every opportunity. This year I went to several already, but having to guess at the probable contents of an exhibition left me somewhat disillusioned at how to make the best use of the time I have.
  11. I will try and spend much time experimenting in Part 2. In this context my tutor pointed me to Josef Albers and his series ‘Homage to the Square’ (Lacher-Bryk, 2016). She suggested that I should repeat some of his studies in my sketchbook in order to gain deeper insight into colour theory. The suggestion made it clear to me that my experimentation on large sized formats may not be required at all. I will try and reduce the size, where possible, to include it in my sketchbook. Maybe here is where I can gain the time needed.
  12. And finally some more pointers for the next assignment:- apply results of experiments into final assignment painting
    – make a large number of preliminary studies from different viewpoints, look at
    range of ideas for composition and use of colour and tone, explore support –
    hopefully there will be enough time to do this in a serious way, I don’t want to rush
    them
    – develop a visual diary in my sketchbook – I know that many other students do this
    in a brilliant way, I just need to figure out a feasible strategy for myself

So, overall, most of what I need to change has to do with trying to approach my projects in a more structured and reflected way. Help!

References:

  1. Lacher-Bryk, A. (2016) Artist research: Edward Burra, James Rosenquist and Josef Albers [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA Painting 1 Blog. Available at: https://andreabrykocapainting1.wordpress.com/2016/05/02/artist-research-edward-burra-james-rosenquist-and-josef-albers/ [Accessed 26 February 2017]

Part 1, project 2, exercise 4: Monochrome studies

Updated on 19 February 2017 (Harvard referencing).

6 March, 2016. I am not sure why, but I found it very hard to make sense of the instructions to this exercise. Looking at the respective work of some of my student colleagues did not help either: In both paintings the ground can be a wash and in both I paint over that with a predominantly opaque layer. In both sheets, opaque and transparent paint need to work together. The only difference I can see is that in one case it is the background, which remains transparent if I choose this approach, in the other it is the tree. In particular I am unsure what to make of the sentences “Mix up a light grey and apply this to the shapes formed by branches … Modulate this grey as you move away … “. I guess that this instruction is meant to apply to both paintings, but if I paint over either the positive or negative representation of the tree, it will mean to cover up the only real difference between the two. Since I understood the goal of this exercise to compare opaque and transparent approaches to painting a tree, I decided to – for the moment – ignore the above instruction and wait for tutor feedback. I got ready choosing two sheets of acrylic paper and mixing a dark wintery colour by combining primary magenta, gold ochre and bluegreen, with white or water to be added where required.

7 March, 2016. Finished the two paintings today, having decided to paint the apricot tree in our garden, which is getting ready to grow its buds.
Here are the results. On top is the “positive” tree, which I decided to paint with relative coarse brush strokes on top of the light grey opaque ground in order to make visible the bark characteristic of this species (Fig. 1).

1_Winter_tree_positive
Figure 1. “Positive” tree: solid mix on top of opaque light grey ground

The dark wash prepared for the second part of the exercise I had to produce in two layers, otherwise it would not have been dark enough to compare to the solid colour in the first painting. I quite liked the brush strokes and decided to set them diagonally in order to emphasize the relative direction of growth of the tree (Fig. 2). Despite the help of charcoal it was not easy to reproduce the negative spaces correctly and I had to literally talk myself through the exercise. In a few places I painted over a twig, but most of it seems more or less correct.

2_Winter_tree_negative
Figure 2. “Negative” tree: negative spaces painted with solid mix of light grey on dark semitransparent wash

I am unhappy with both paintings for the coarse approach to the subject, but again it may have been me misinterpreting the instructions.
Asked to assess the strengths and limitations of each technique I would – cautiously – assume that painting a positive object on a prepared ground will produce a more realistic feeling of space (object in front of background). The greater transparency of a background wash will most likely produce a more credible feeling of air, while a completely opaque background will suggest a dull day, probably in stifling weather. Also, I found that an object as complex as a tree is by far easier to paint positively. However, I like the effect produced by painting the negative spaces better. Probably due to my lack of practice in doing so the tree is more alive and seems to physically make contact with the air surrounding it. Since both paintings are silhouettes only, I am so far not able to compare the respective strengths of the two approaches regarding credible representations of trees.

What I also learned in this exercise was to be wary using acrylic paper. The “professional” paper I had bought rolls up in the most unfashionable way and is almost impossible to reshape. I had therefore to place a glass plate over the sheets in order to take the required photos and unfortunately could not get rid of all the reflections. Also, the colour is not quite correct and the brush strokes are hard to see. I will retake the photos if I am instructed to have another go at this exercise.