I have a new set up in the garage which means I leave the house to do my art… this has the big advantage of being a dedicated space which is strangely much easier to treat as work and ignore the phone etc.
It has all my resources easily and books to hand on shelves. I could even buy a cheap kettle and make coffee!
The biggest disadvantage is light… when I photograph my sketch book it looks yellowy, even though the page looks white to my eyes. My eyes adjust (interior white balance!) but any colours I lay down will be wrong and would only look right in strip lighting.
More expense. But I think the solution is to buy a daylight strip light.
Being outside has also made the possibilty of braving the big outdoors more possible. Can’t explain it but just being oiut of the house is very freeing.
This is an exercise in line drawing.
I set up a still life from tools in the garage as they all had a practical connection. The only flat space was the freezer top… so I treated this as a large shelf composing the tools with invisible lines, triangles, circles and straight lines. The idea was that the long access of the objects created movement (and shapes) and the colour to pulls the composition together.
Then I drew these three preparatory sketches – all from the front – at eye level, 45 degrees and from above.
This was difficult as I had to kneel on the concrete floor for an hour and feet kept going to sleep. Also I had to keep swopping glasses to see clearly as I need glasses for long and short sight.
I’d expected it to look very uninterseting side on but the result was surprising. If you bend the paper on the page you can see the picture frame – a long, thin rectangle.
Next was 45 degrees – sitting this time though still the issue with glasses.
Finally I tried from above… this time I took a photpgraph with the iPad and used that.
The photgraph was difficult to work from.
(1) The iPad kept turning off and falling down.
(2) Although I’d thought it would be okay as I had been closing one eye to ‘see’ the composition I couldn’t move my head and look in and around the objects – and a photograph doesn’t look ‘real’ and lacks personality and 3D ness.
Anyway, as I couldn’t hover in mid air I gave it a go!
This seemed to lack energy and tension and was drawn least well. Apart from the objects being recogniseably a hammer, a screwdriver etc they looked flat from above and the tensions disappeared.
Hard choice but will look at eye level and 45 degrees then mak a choice for my line drawing.
As I bought some coloured ink I’m going to incorporate colour and work from my preparatory sketch and real life… basically work from the sketcth as a lot of the work has been done. But check back with real life by getting down on my knees.
It’s just dawned on me that Art is all about composition…
Yes, it’s how an artist sees, yes it’s about fulfilling a commercial prerogative and yes it can be about verity… but really it’s all about composition
This has come to me reading Musee d’Orsay… I know we’re not supposed to read art books cover to cover but I just love it.
This is the page it hit me!
The phrase from Whistler was that the portrait of his mother must have ‘value in its quality of construction’ not because it was his mum. Of course… who wants to see a ‘picture’ of his mum apart from her son?
It’s like looking at other people’s holiday/family photographs. Of no interest.
Then it all came cascading in… art is like music or literature.
If I randomly hit notes on a piano people would politely tell me to stop. But a professionally played sonata can move an audience to tears or control the emotions of a film audience. I can write a letter but it’s doubtful if anybody would pay to buy a novel I just made up.
So too, art is a fully developed language we just don’t normally think of it in those terms. We know music and novels have structures but don’t artists just paint what’s in front of them?
Art as taught at school or even night school is all about copying reality… can you draw this pear, apple, still life. You might even learn some of the basic building blocks such as reflected light, highlight, mid tone, dark tone, linear perspective, colour perspective, line, shape and tone.
To compose music or a novel you need to learn the language and apply it. And so too in art.
(I should add here that to consume music or literature you don’t have to be able to create it… but because we all contruct text and are aware of musical scores we have more awareness of their construction.)
In the Whistler painting it’s all about the aesthetics: strong verttical and horizontal lines, white bonnet against grey wall, black dress… which creates something wonderfully contemplative. That doesn’t have to be how it actually looks!!!!
Just as an author can use different bits of people and places to create story so an artists can mix many visual elements and change those in front of him/her. Like a film script it is a completey unreal creation that looks real.
Art, as I see it, lies midway between novels and music. It affects us emotionally like music by it’s visual power – aesthetically – but also psychologically like novels (empathy, story, meanings etc).
What I’d taken to be two people sitting in a cafe by Degas turns out to be far more complicated. It manages to be a deeply moving painting which is aesthetically pleasing and comments on the existential nature of man in modern society.
None of this is explicit… (well, only to the trained eye!) but as fellow humans we’re captivated by the painting. It communicates on a non verbal level complex verbal states which we process without a thought. Though, of course, if we discuss the painting these might become verbalised.
The composition goes someway to answering the question why does this painting work but not that one.
It is because of what the artist is trying to convey – and I don’t think this has to be conscious otherwise the art can become merely illustrative propoganda like ‘improving’ stories. What she is trying to convey drives the composition. So if the artist (however skillfull) is copying a style, or is not otherwise driven from the inside they will create ’empty art’ without immediacy or soul.
Here’s another example from Degas where he fills a picture with immediacy, life and tension:
There seems to be some simple categories for what art is trying to convey in the paintings I’ve been looking at in this period (mid nineteenth century):
Aesthetic – visually pleasing – a harmonious construction that takes you to a special place.
Human – this could be a moment such as a mother looking at her baby or a young girl nervously staring into space or the human dynamics of a social situation like Degas’ ballet dancers running up the stairs… or about the nature of existence in the modern world.
Visual – capturing a visual moment like sunshine on a petal or a crowded cafe. This was mainly the impressionists.
That said paintings can mix all these up in different amounts.
What I would imagine happens is that as the artist begins their training they slowly learn to see (colours, line, shape, patterns etc) and develop skills to capture that such as weighting a pencil line or including reflected light. And gradually they learn the language of art and begin composing.
And finally a few make it through to become great artists with a passion that drives them to compose wonderful paintings.
Very brief notes: I enjoyed this immensely and was surprised how well you could indicate tone and shape with line (contour line, hatching and stippling)… and the range of weight both by pressure and breaking the line.
Another thing I played with was finding the pattern and trying to find a composition/interesting aesthetic as well as be true to the object. So, true enough to read but also have compositional elements that improve artistic balance. This was mainly intuitive by ‘feeling’ what worked.
This is the first time I’ve drawn something and not felt I had to ‘copy’ it exactly as it was. A different criteria for success – it’s liberating and opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
A few things I found especially hard.
This was an oyster shell in case you hadn’t guessed!
There was lots of pearly white with minute gradations in texture/tone that became apparent if you stared at it for several minutes. To render this was extremely difficult.
However, if I could have done it as the eye is extremely sensitive and would have picked it up.
So, in terms of realism the tones were challenging – part of this is lack of skill with the pencil but also part of it is making a strong structured composition which required stronger local contrasts.
Finally two technical points.
If you press on too hard and ’emboss’ the paper you can’t draw over it and it loses it’s life. Much better to build up dark tones by many layers light application. Note to self: be patient!
Using the rubber to try and lift some pencil to indicate a lightening of tone didn’t work and just made the shell look muddy. Even going back over it didn’t rescue it. So I abandoned this as a technique fairly early on. I think the rubber works best to lift ‘dust’ off highlights not lighten hatching… or maybe where you’re shading it works better than when you’re using line.
I’m happy that my drawing achieves some of what I attempted – it resembles the shell and has some compositional elements.
This was the hardest to research as I wanted to look at artists five years out of Art School just finding their own voice and gaining a market.
Searching online it was easy to find expensive contemporary still life paintings through commercial sites such as Saatchi Art with still lifes selling for up to $9,000. But the artists were (usually) in their 50’s and this would only show me what was commercially successful not what was artistically successful.
If the equivalent of the early Impressionist are out there breaking rules and living in a garret their work won’t feature on the Saatchi site.
I tried all sorts of search terms for young contemporary still life artists such as ‘Best young still life artists of 2015’ (sale price is a commercial filter but I wanted an artistic filter so was looking for a list by a recognised art expert) but found nothing.
So, even though it’s a bit of a random, I decided to go to Art Schools, find this years degree show for Fine Art, put ‘Still Life’ in the search box and see what comes up. And take the first three without filtering so I didn’t influence my results with personal taste.
Random, but any student who has done three years training and specialised in still life (as their final piece) should throw up something interesting about the genre?!
This proved really, really, hard…
Firstly most of the universities didn’t have an online gallery of their final show degree students and the yearly shows online were just directions to the venue and some advertising shots left over from the shows which had now closed.
When I did find final year students’ degree work it was very difficult to find any still lifes.
There were plenty of traditional still lifes (pre nineteenth century representational bunches of flowers in a vase or fruit in a basket) on the expensive non degree art ‘school’ websites – of the no qualifications necessary, everybody welcome and we will teach you to draw like a master if you give us £500 and study for a term.
So, I’ve learnt that still life doesn’t have a very high status in the academic artistic world, at least not among young art students. Whatever they’re about their end goal doesn’t seem to be painting pretty flowers in a vase.
In contrast the commercial sites show there is a market for more edgy still lifes with a social comment, like a bed strewn with clothes and pants or a close up of a wedding table jammed with expensive crockary and half a person standing at the side. Both picture planes were crammed full of objects right to the edge of, and breaking out of, the frame and looked like ‘found’ still lifes. The clothes looked like they could be the woman’s bedroom and ‘The Perfect Hostess’ which shows wedding table (by Rebecca Scott, 2006, from her series The Perfect Life) is a tight shot of a ‘perfect’ wedding table piled high with plates and silver cutlery.
(1) “Rebecca Scott, 2006, In her series The Perfect Life (which includes paintings called Oh, it’s a perfect day, and The Perfect Christmas Dinner), Rebecca Scott’s work skewers the “perfect” lives found on the pages of women’s magazines and catalogues. Scott questions the fictional notion that by buying some new tableware she could or should make her home perfect. Scott recognises that these illustrations of domestic bliss are aimed at her, not her male partner. It is her job as a woman, the Perfect Hostess, to provide this unobtainable ideal. She paints these readymade images that hope to instruct her and other women to buy such wares and in doing so disrupts what would otherwise be traditional still lifes.”
And there is a big ‘amateur’ market in traditional still life training as the internet is jammed with non degree Art ‘Schools’ that offer weekend, week and termly courses and feature traditional still lifes heavily in their advertising material.
In the end after a couple of hours looking I only found two examples of final year degree students still lifes.
Manchester Met and Slade.
Sophie Chen (Degree show Fine Art Manchester Met: 2016)
My practise involves selecting and depicting in oil paint still life objects of culture from our everyday. I intend to provide a re-enchantment of the things that are overlooked. Initially selecting the objects through instinct, filtering the material world around me. Thinking about the properties of these objects and how they lend themselves to being painted: how they occupy the picture plane, colour, form, shape and line.
Purge, Nicholas McLeod2016, acrylic on linen, 30 x 36.5 cm.
I found these very, very interesting… firstly both are fresh and alive (not copies of traditional still lifes) involving ideas and a developed visual language.
This was in direct contrast to all the low to middle priced commercial art I found (which obviously sells) which were technically brilliant but ’empty’ copies of traditional still lifes such as realistic and aesthetically pleasing arrangements of objects, Impressionistic, Cubist and what I call ‘Warhole’ still lifes… extreme close up of objects like a coke can or pair of trainers (usually sketchilly painted in bright acrylic). I couldn’t fault their technical skill but they didn’t engage me and lacked soul.
(Which I know isn’t an artistic term but I can’t think of how else to put it.)
Wheres the two examples of student work above are fresh and captivating. Alive and immediate.
So, to the question of how do young contemporary artists differ from traditional practice in terms of subject matter, materials and composition?
They both conform to the definition of still life as being arranged objects… one a single object the other a collection.
Sophie Chen is part of a modern movement where the artist selects a single object with a psychological purpose in mind. In her case to ‘reinvigorate’ everyday objects… to turn design into art and make us see the world around us with new eyes.
With a different purpose, but equally immediately, Peter Jones – an established artist – paints old stuffed monkeys – soft toys at the end of their lifespan – (one of the Guardian top ten practising artists 2013 :
(1) “Animals have always been depicted in art, showing the wealth of the owner – horses and hunting dogs for the rich, along with heaps of dead rabbits. Foxes were seen as cunning, a randy goat stood in for the devil and a lamb for Christ. And Peter Jones often paints lambs and bunnies, but his major fascination lies with monkeys; not real ones but vintage stuffed toys on the verge of falling apart. Monkeys were traditionally painted to hint at the beast within each man or woman, our link to untamed nature and the sexual danger within us. Jones’s Ollie and all his kin are nearing the end of their lifespan, worn out from love (or neglect), and their vulnerability is doubled because, as still-life subjects, they lie ready for inspection.”
Taking a single object as a subject with ‘blank’ negative space around it seems to be a new developement in still life and intuitively feels as though it has it’s roots in Warhole’s close up paintings of Coke cans etc.
Nicholas McCleod takes a conventional grouping of plates and bottles…
Sophie Chan paints with oil (she doesn’t say what on but it looks like board) which is a traditional medium.
Nicholas McCleod paints with acrylic on linen. Acylic is traditional from the fifties and linen is unusual (maybe because it is expensive?) but I would suppose acts as a very fine canvas allowing highly detailed work?
Sophie Chan uses elements of traditional composition with the object (traditionally a group of objects rather than a single object, such as bunch of flowers) surrounded by monochromatic negative space. It has elements of geometric design which reminded me of Viennese Art Nouveau – clean strong lines and geometric shapes such as the different size triangular corners of negative space [the ‘corners’ are all linked by being the same tone] and a triangular book with straight sides). She uses linear perspective on the book but no colour perspective on the background just flat negative space like Patrick Cauldfield.
So a mixture of compositional elements that force us to focus on the book and think about it’s inherent beauty… it’s shape, colour and the texture of its surface. And in seeing a functional object anew it reinvigorates our whole sense of the world around us.
Nicholas McLeod uses modern comositional elements such as making the objects break the picture frame.
‘Purge’ reminds me of an old black and white photgraphic negative. The objects are not the focus of attention but the aesthetic arrangement of positive and negative shapes. It turns the mundane into the beautiful and yet we are still aware of the objects. It’s almost an abstract painting made out of a conventional still life composition.
After a while you don’t notice the objects you are just lost in the moment.
Had this been painted realistically with colour and all the ‘traditional’ compositional elements it would have been a traditional still life. His treament has taken us away from the objects and to a place of meditation.
I don’t think the big difference is the subject matter, the materials or the composition (if you take composition to mean the application of a visual language and artistic technique).
It is the intention of the artist which has changed.
Having an intention has always been part of great art. Young artists today are reflecting their artistic and social world just as the young Impressionists and Cubists did.
Nicholas McCleod is working in the tradition of an artist investigating the aesthetics of looking (like the Cubists) while Sophie Chan is teaching us to see beauty in the ordinary (just as the Impressionists taught us to ‘see’ in a new way.)
The big difference is that the world (both artistic and social) has changed so the artistic dialogue has changed. And when you look at young contemporary still life artists you are being included in a creative dialogue which is fresh and invigorating.
The best will stand the test of time like Manet or Poussin.
They have soul.