Category Archives: REFLECTION

Reflection: Expressionism from ‘concepts of modern art – From Fauvism to Postmodernism’ Edited by Nikos Stangos

My tutor suggested I read this book to give me a more systematic overview of modern art.

I really like the introduction where he challenges the whole notion of whether he would categorise ‘modern art’ in movements… and how the artistic world now views this period on time and ‘categorises’ it.

Interpretation is fluid and truths change.

Think for yourself!!!


This is my take on this chapter so apologies to Norbert Lynton who wrote about this ‘chapter’ or ‘art movement’ in advance!!!!

It seems to me fundamental in understanding art.

(Always remembering there are very few black and whites and lots of greys).


LOW CONTENT SUBJECT: a milk bottle on a table… a scrubby tree in a field… most still life and landscape. Subjects of and in themselves that if you just took a photograph of would elicit no artistic response.

(Whereas if the same subject was painted by Picasso it would generate an enormous artistic, and financial, response!)

HIGH CONTENT SUBJECT: a message, a meaning, a narrative, a feeling… something extrapersonal to the artist that they wish to express. Aesthetic truth, confirm a faith, glorify a battle, describe a narrative, capture an intimate moment, social campaigning, confirming government or religious loyalties etc, etc!!!! Subjects that by their very nature and concept connect with and audience… speak to them… engage in a dialogue.

Added to this you have:

(1) PERSONAL: The artist is expressing themselves. Their vision and personality… that we exist in a time and in a culture dictates that this is always more than just the artist as it records unconscious personal and super personal forces. But here I’m taking it to mean they are painting their personality and that moment onto the canvas.

(2) EXTRAPERSONAL: The artist is expressing something other than their personality. This could be any content from an academic challenge of the notion of art… to the moment of serenity between a mother and child… to the visual impression od sunlight on water.

So, the Dutch School had a low content subject (still life) to which it added a large dollop of expressive gestures such as colour and composition… it wasn’t a straight naturalistic commonplace copy of reality. They produced art on which to contemplate. They painted beautiful paintings.

Rembrandt added line, brush strokes, colour composition, chiaroscuro and contrast (all subjective elements to his paintings). Which were, if you like, expressive (of his personality… his voice) elements that ‘sugar coated the pill of meaning’ – that phrase is from the book.

Even Classicism had elements of expressionism with its dramatic lighting, rich colours and personal impassioned brushstrokes.

Other expressive elements might be compositional and figurative distortion as in Mannerism.

So, throughout time, artists have never (???) sort to reproduce the naturalistic and commonplace as it truly (objectively would be on camera). I photograph the king… it is a camera… it doesn’t lie… it is truthful and naturalistic… but would not be used.  A portrait of the king would be changed by the artist; he would be properly lit and composed, he would make them look better, thinner, less spotty… more regal! (A lot like photoshopping today). And some artists were better at it than others, their personal style/voice shone through and communicated and connected with the viewer.

Art was never just about the content… it was always partly about the personality of the artist.

(On a side issue… that’s why copies… ‘in the style of’  never work. Because it’s not expressing the artist – it doesn’t come from within their soul… but is mimicking somebody elses personality and therefore always lacks truth. And we’re very good at reading art – almost as good as we are at reading faces!)

The Romantics like Delacroix came nearest to expressionism – their unrestrained individualism bursts from the canvas even as they express universal truths… like the glory of France!

So, it seems to me, that it’s all about balance.

Expressionism has always been a part of art ever since individual artists put their names to paintings in the Renaissance and moved from craftsmen to creators. From visual bricklayers to visual film stars!!!

It is no surprise then that at some stage… moving through Van Gough that the connection with a recogniseable subject (painted ‘realistically’) should weaken… that artists would take an element (in this case individuality) to an extreme and raise it above all other concerns.

So, a fully abstarct painting has zero extrapersonal elements and zero-content (it has neither a visual (subject) or content (extrapersonal) subject and becomes solely about the individuality of the creator.

Which leads us to Abstract expressionism.

In the same way that music directly affects emotions, released from ‘words’ and meaning the colours, shapes, brushstrokes, texture, size and scale can all work on the viewer subconsciously. They ‘move’ us… in much the same way as music does.

This can truly be all about the personality (and the moment of creation) of the artists.

This raises an important distinction between artists who consciously use abstract compositions but are ‘composing’ as opposed to those that are ‘living in the moment’. As in Kadinsky (composing) and Jackson Pollock (in the moment). An artist who is composing is abstract but not expressionistic, they are trying to speak directly to our subconscious and emotions… like Bach or Handel.

In conclusion:

I think expressionism is an element of all art (it is the voice of the artist)… expressionistic tools like colour composition are the language artists use to serve their purpose. Whether that be expressionistic or non-expressionistic.

(I guess the opposite to expressionism is concept art where the idea is 100% and the artist is zero!). A blue canvas with a slash to reveal the artificiality of ‘art’ and raise a debate or the toilet labelled ‘this is art’.

In a very big sense expressionism is the humanity in art… it is the Shakespeare in the play… forms may vary (TV has taken over from theatre and ‘naturalistic’ dialogue from blank verse). But the human dilemmas in Shakespeare are universal and timeless. So too the artist in the painting shares our humanity.

We are all alone and a great artist is able to make us not alone. In great art we ‘see’ a human soul.

In the same way that technology has changed since Shakespeare’s day… and entertainment adapted from theatre to film, so art has adapted to technological change… most recently to photography. The ‘history of art’ and the ‘artistic movements’ is more about the history of mankind than is is about the history of ‘art’. It is the history of the buyers, of the power brokers in society… of contemporary mores and interests.

Finally categorising art in discrete movements like Impressionism or Classicism seems very crude. Al art is attached to society – and it always has a human, or expressive, element. It is built on an alliance between history, society and individuality.

It’s not a series of boxes!










Reflection: On new preface in updated and enlarged 1994 edition of: Concepts of Modern Art by Nikos Stangos.

Concepts of Modern Art  From Fauvism to Postmodernism        Edited by Nikos Stangos     1994 edition with new preface in updated and enlarged 1994 edition: Reprinted 2015.

My tutor recommended I get an overview of ‘Modern Art’ as, ‘An introduction to 20th Century art would also be helpful… useful introduction to the language of art and why and how it changed so radically in the late 19th early 20th century, right up to now.’ and suggested this book and The Shock of the New – but that was much more expensive so I opted for this one.

I’ll try and read a few pages a day and then write a reflection when I’ve finished but was so taken/shocked/food for thought by the introduction that I had to put down a few words.


The biggest concept for me was not thinking about ‘Modern Art’ in terms of Movements… distinct artistic flowerings that can be chronologically charted with one leading to another, but that it was more like an ecosystem.

Or even a virus constantly adapting to its changing host (society being the host) and the virus – without its negative connotations – being art. More like an ever evolving coral reef with every artistic life form inhabiting its own artistic niche but always relating the underlying coral and warm waters… or society.

So not always getting better and evolving chronologically but more like a dialogue between artist and society (with each affecting the other and issues coming and going), either consciously linked to stated manifestos or subconsciously linked by dint of being a member of society bathed in the same social and cultural milieu.

This raises an important question for me… does art have to have a meaning? A conscious concept in its developement (as a film might explore age in society, or the loneliness of the modern worker or abuse of power) or can it – by dint of it being successful and connecting with an audience – have that meaning inside it. That is, because it deals with and connects to an audience, it has meaning even if that meaning wasn’t consciously built into the work of art during its production.

Which brings me to another point…

To make a living a fine artist has to sell paintings for, say £2000 each or more. Who can afford that? The rich, state (eg museums) and non state (eg church) institutions. So, she is – unless she has an independent income – dependant on critical (art critics) and/or commercial (high prices) success.

Which presupposes that that audience dictate the dialogue of art?!

Secondly to be ‘art’ – I would say a painting has to have a universal truth… in that a human can look at it and be drawn to/effected by it. Such as Hopper or Picasso. And as such it would probably have to be of a high technical standard and/or be versed in artistic language and discourse such as it was appealing to academic individuals or institutions like concept art.

There again labels, in terms of artistic movements, seem to be like trying to box sunshine. A false premise in lumping art with surface similarity – such as the Fauves – when in fact they were all disparate and on separate journeys that just touched with some similar (exposure to Gauguin’s and oriental art) but also different (very different personalities and personal goals) causes.

It could be said you need to understand the ecosystem of art and that labelling the ‘movements’ like labelling a particular species of crab on the coral reef tells you very little.


Finally, Nikos refers to six areas of concern in delineating ‘Modern Art’ as written about by Simon Watney, ‘Modernist Studies: The Class of ’83’, Art History, Vol. 7, N0. 1, March 1984. p. 109.

I paraphrase my understanding rather than quote.

[1] A break with the idea of chronological movements – I agree with this.

[2] Understand how artists give ‘truth of our nature’… this has always been so and in rooted in all great artists across different genres… like Shakespeare. I think every painting should give something of the truth of humanity… even if only a tiny grain!

That for me is the difference between art as entertainment – decoration – advertising –  and fine art like Leonardo Da Vinci or Picasso.

[3] Art constantly explores the boundary of licit and illicit expression of sexuality in a patriarchal society.

This is massive but western society (and most world societies governed by religion) have been and are patriarchal… imagine what the art world would have been like if the real world had been governed by women.

The exploitation and titillation of a male audience and sexual normatives in society are always being explored.

[4] History is the history of the winner – as much in art as in life.

Who decides what art is produced and is influential: it is art that can be sold and has status. Who makes those choices:  rich individuals, with a vested interest in society how it is now, and institutions, similarly concerned with maintaining the status quo. Therefore, art tends to reinforce the values of those in power and constructs normative images of society.

It will articulate some social differences and ignore others.

Where today is mainstream – accepted – Muslim art? I’m sure there must be highly skilled Muslim artists living in the UK.

[5] Question the hierarchy of signifying practices. I take this to mean why do we still give higher status (financially and in terms of ‘respect’) in society to one medium over another?

Why is oil painting a higher status than pencil drawing, pastel or watercolour?

In the same way that the hierarchy of genres was challenged and defeated in the past so now we should challenge the hierarchy of medium.

I agree partially – but think there’s more too it as some mediums are more temporal, some lend themselves to capturing emotion… others to ideas. So I don’t think it’s as simple as saying the medium should have no impact on the status.

Like any financial, emotional and intellectual transaction there are a multitude of factors determining price and status. But I agree we need to articulate and examine artistic ‘value’ (as determined by medium) much more.

[6] Problematise the separation of verbal from the visual. Together with ‘picture’ consciousness such a separation presupposes.

This is massive!!!!

I would say that written word (a physical capturing of speech… as we translate it in our heads to access the meaning) is merely one way of communicating with other people. We are, after all, all alone. And communication and forming groups is a basic human drive.

That music communicates, art communicates, film communicates… and many more.

And you can’t put them in separate boxes.

Like everything there are a million shades of grey from almost white to nearly pure black. Some art is an expression of a verbal movement – some communicates directly with the subconscious – some speaks to the ‘soul’… some is premised and boxed by an overt ideology like the Futurists.

But in reality they are all interconnected.

So, yes, I would say it is impossible to separate the visual from the verbal… and the verbal from the visual!









Tutor feedback on Richard Diebenkorn

In her excellent feedback on Assignment 2 my tutor, Doris Rohr, commented that some of my quick house sketches reminded her Richard Diebenkorn and that I should do more – and generally work more quickly.

So I thought I’d better have a look!








They are wonderful!!!!

And certainly speak to me… I love the empty spaces and the patterns… the looseness of the work and yet the beautiful way it captures the mood of the room as well as the individual objects.

Every object is individual and loved with its own quirky personality.

But each view has a harmony of composition and ‘friendliness’ that makes it feel like my house. I could look at these for hours.

And are they anything like mine (apart from I would aspire to this way of expression…)

Well, strangely, yes… they give me the same feeling.

And lead me to value them more.

Except that his are more finished and painterly.

I’m still escaping from the yoke that the time put in determines the value of the output, so hadn’t valued these quick sketches. I can now see they capture something special (in a different ways to the carefully finished and worked pieces).

That’s a new and really hard concept for me to grapple with.

But I like it…

… and I’ll definitely do some more!!!!!

Thanks Doris! 🙂

Reflection: The Art Book by Phaiden; VITAMIN D2 – NEW PERSPECTIVES IN DRAWING and Anatomy for Artists by Barrington Barber.

I have read a couple of pages of these every day for the last couple of months and a few things are starting to happen in my brain… weird wiggly things which are unbidden but slowly beginning to take shape!

VITAMIN D2: The drawings in here range from so skillfull it’s truly mind boggling to almost concept art with little traditional skill.

However all of them are ‘justified’ by a page of esoteric text.

It’s as if they are each a different ‘visual’ language invented by the creator, be it discussing identity, or the nature of art, or time, or inner yearnings… and that without the translation ‘manual’ at the side they would be meaningless.

Within their own visual ‘linguistic’ world they are poetry of the highest order but outside of it they are impenitrable.

They are more works of discourse or polemic than drawings. In the sense that drawings are accessible to everybody… be they realistic, surrealist, futurist, impressionistic or aesthetic – to use a few boxes. While for discourse you have to be trained and understand the language.

I believe all art involves ideas and what it is to be human (rather than craft , design or pattern making which is pleasing but doesn’t connect, either to our subconscious or conscious mind, in the same deep way) – artists can paint emotions in expressionism or the visual reality of light flickering through leaves, in impressionism. But what all art has in commen is it’s universality – the lonliness of Hopper’s characters speak to anybody who’s ever lived and worked in a modern city… Dega’s pastels are both aesthetic abstract (geometric and colour) paintings that reach inside us as well as capturing the emotion and frisson of a voyeuristic moment and a glimpse of hidden narratives.

The other end of art is when it is so personal that it holds meaning only for the creator. It is impenetrable.

For me the drawings in D2 are not art because they are not universal (however interesting they are in the context of the descriptions, which decode their language, and therefore illuminate their meaning).  They are closed worlds – like lost languages – accessible only to the initiated.

That said I’m enjoying the book and will carry on to the end.

The Art BookThis is fantastic!!! I love the way it zips about in time so an artist from 2012 might be next to somebody from 1385. Because it’s alphabetic (surnames of the painters) and not in time order or by movement.

This is the third book like this that I’ve read cover to cover over the last 10 years and suddenly all the fragments are starting to come together like a net of lights… rather than being linear (footprints in time slowly plodding from pre-history to the present day – each generation progressing in skill till it all exploded with the industrial revolution and the invention of photography) they are all starting to connecting up into one whole.

Sorry, I can’t explain it any better than that!!!!

Also, I’m beginning to notice structure in paintings… artistic language??? Shapes, colour, gesture etc. It must all be soaking in and now some of it is now it’s becoming visible, which is really exciting.

And when I go for a walk I’m starting to ‘see’ things differently.

Light falls, waves ripple – the nearest I can explain it is instead of ‘hearing’ noise I can suddenly hear birds sing and twigs crackle.

It’s like the visual world is suddenly coming alive!

Anatomy for Artists: (by Barrington Barber) This is not as useful as I thought… it’s intersting but I’m never going to learn all the bones and muscles and the covering of flesh is so different and varied in real people that it makes what’s underneath useful but not essential.

And the drawings are poor – they are (no doubt) anatomically correct – but I find them hard to look at as they have no ‘life’.

What I’ve found myself doing (and this may be much more useful when I come to people in section 4) is getting a blunt pencil and drawing over the sketches. Imagining I’m doing them and trying to see the limbs.

I’ve also traced over a few.

Again, as with a tree… or a mountain… every person, every foot, or ear or hand is different and this book needs to find a way to connect an understanding of underlying principles (how a foot is made up) with specific feet.

At the moment it feels like… oh… I know how to draw a foot… it’s like this, and I draw that rather than the foot in front of me.

Maybe I need an anatomy book that is more artistically linked than illustrational.

Reflection on Books: ‘Experimental Drawing’ by Robert Kaupelis; ‘The Art Book’ by Phiadon new edition first published 1994; Vitamin D2 New Perspectives in Drawing; ‘Anatomy for Artists’ by Barrington Barber.

Have just finished ‘Experimental Drawing’ by Robert Kaupelis at two pages a day… I know we’re not supposed to read a book cover to cover but I find doing a little a day I can afford the time… it lives in my mind… and informs my practice.

On the day’s I can’t draw it keeps my mind in the ‘Art Box’ and allows me to change the way I look at art and the world around me. I’ve also been doing two pages a day from ‘The Art Book’ by Phiadon new edition first published 19894 reprinted 2011. Small prints but interesting as you can see the overall design and colour and it covers a wide variety of practices.

As drawing is as much about looking and understanding as it is about mark making (I say that as if it’s fact but it’s just my opinion.) I’ve found maintaining this connection invaluable when my time has been otherwise very limited.

Having finished ‘Experimental Drawing’ I looked around for another book and picked up the book I’d been putting off as intellectual and academic… rather like one fears a cold shower!!!

Vitamin D2 New Perspectives in Drawing: IT’S BRILLIANT. So, the course must be doing something.

So far I’ve only read the introduction ‘DRAWING TODAY’ by Christian Rattemeyer which puts ‘Drawing’ into a historical perspective. It’s like suddenly having the shutters lifted from your eyes. Suddenly ‘drawing’ is a living thing, which changes and evolves with history and people… has it’s own momentum. Artists, in one sense, are merely the vessels that contain it in any given generation. It is not fixed. My worries about the last few chapters in ‘Experimental Drawing’ suddenly heave into focus.

I can probably only take in 10% of what’s on the page but that’s fine I’m in my first year. It’s enough to excite me, I can take what I need and understand, and as I go through the book more will become accessible. It’s like learning a new language. At first you just have a few words but already it gives you access to untold wonders… more will follow.

Finally, I’ve started, ‘Anatomy for Artists’ by Barrington Barber. So far, just on the introductiuon but it’s looking like it will be a good introduction to figure drawing. I went to life drawing classes for a couple of years when I was younger knowing nothing about the human body – now I’m older and have less time!! And less money!!!!! this will have to do… at least I can try and throw my mind back to real bodies as I work through it and try copying some sketches.

My only caveat so far is that he states he deals mainly (exclusively?!) with well toned muscled bodies. That’s not the real world in which most aren’t toned and are often draped in fat. Maybe I need to study how material folds as fat is just semi liqid in a skin sack???

However, it will give me a basic understanding of structure, muscles and faces and hands.

Oh to have the luxury of being a full time student!



Moved to the garage

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.


Art is Composition

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.