Research point – the still life genre

Still Life history

For early still life drawings and paintings we have to rely on what has survived as mosaic, or later in books.

After the Hellenistic period, art lost its old connection to magic and religion, so the subject matter did not have to revolve around people. Looking at work done then, I am amazed how easy it was for people to misinterpret divine action. This always reminds me of the tower of Babel, how this is apparently the case of divine jealousy, it makes me laugh, I suppose life ought not have diversified spirulina a couple of billions of years ago and then we would really all be the same.

Anyway, back to still life, there are some beautiful examples in Pompeii preserved as mosaics, such as two lemons and a glass of water and pictures of animals.

Further ahead in time the Dutch painters made an art of still life. Subjects other than humans provided a great testing ground for painters to hone their skills. They spent their lives specializing in one area, becoming masters in their field. They succeeded in showing that inanimate objects can be intensely beautiful and also that the subject matter is really of secondary importance. In “The Story of Art” E.H. Gombrich describes this time as ‘the mirror of nature’.

By the late eighteen-hundreds art, as visual description, had come full circle. Paul Cezanne and the Impressionists began re-evaluating the same principles that had interested the Dutch painters. Painting was like a new language that had just been created and perfected over hundreds of years. The alphabet was made and words were created.

Some ‘work’ the painter does is creation, when he sets his mind to a task and solves it: makes an image out of an idea, for instance.

But sometimes the work of a painter is like translation. I think that is what I had not understood. When I paint a painting or draw, then it is done – I have solved it – but I was being asked to translate the solution, using a different tool perhaps.

Each tool has its own language and sometimes one language is better at expressing a picture than another, so the exercise can be useful. I think this is what Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque were trying to do with their still life paintings, or papier collé as it was called then; they probably delighted in the freedom and ability to explore new ways of expressing local colour as well as the light and depth of an image which they found in papier collé.

Still life has changed from being inanimate objects with people to just inanimate objects and more recently to include collage, moving images and installations.


Shadows and reflected light

Drawing exercise 3 (6) Charcoal sketch_ 17 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

In this exercise we have to use two different reflective surfaces, I used a stainless steel coffee pot, as suggested, and a plain ceramic mug, and using charcoal and putty rubber, show the reflected light and shade of one object falling on another.

Creating shadow using lines and marks

Drawing exercise 3 (5) Tonal Sketch_ 15 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

The sketches using blocks of tone were quick and in that sense easier, also I blocked off daylight to a large extent for those.

The sketches using lines and spots took longer. I continued to use a spotlight which creates a less fluctuating shadow and decided to ignore any change occurring as a result of variations in daylight. This made it simpler, though it is surprising how difficult it is to gauge exactly how light or dark any one area is.


Drawing exercise 3 (4) Sketchbook_ 13 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

Make four distinct grades of tone using four tools and lines, hatching and spots. Daylight was so soft it only made two tones. I added a spotlight to create a bit more variation.

Research Point: Odilon Redon

We are asked to think of how tone can create or change the atmosphere of a  drawing, looking in particular at the work of Odilon Redon. What I find interesting about his work is the progression I can see from his earlier works in charcoal to the later ones in pastel.

His charcoal paintings are very atmospheric, sometimes dark, surreal or mystical; he worked the charcoal, manipulated it to express his intention. He applied the charcoal over the entire page, also ground and applied with a brush, which he could then move about, or erase with a putty rubber to expose the white paper underneath. He used fixative to create layers which he could then also work into. The fixative, over time created a golden hue. He was aware of this but continued with the practice. That was the only colour that appeared on his charcoal drawings however.

Gradually he started to add pastel colours to his drawings. Initially he would complete a charcoal drawing as a first layer and then cover it in pastel. Also using fixative to progress between the layers and continuing with the same manipulation of the material he was using. Eventually he was able to work directly in pastel. He had learned, through practice on charcoal, to make tone do his bidding, and was able to progress to do the same with colour.

Ref: The American Institute for Conservation, A Technical Investigation of Odilon Redon’s Pastels and Noirs by Harriet K Stratis (1995)

Observing shadow using blocks of tone

Drawing exercise 3 (2) Tonal sketch_ 10 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

Drawing exercise 3 (3) Tonal sketch_ 11 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

The blue sketch was made using my watercolour sticks, I really liked the texture this created, but there is the drawback that it melts without the paper around it.

Groups of objects

Drawing exercise 3 (1) Drawing 1_ 9 August 2015_ 59.4 x 42 cm

In this exercise we are asked to loosely describe 6 objects, the weight, transparency, shine and also describe the entire object as though we could see through it. They suggest to vary the surface, eg do the drawing on newspaper, but I thought there might be enough going on without that.

Research Point: Form and Shape

Trouble with language. The course explains that we must not confuse the term form and shape. Form is 3D whereas shape is flat. I have to accept that this is the common language used in the art world, but I have trouble understanding it. I wrote in my earlier post about Barbara Hepworth’s shapes and that word sounds perfect to me; on the other hand I would not describe the body as a shape. Perhaps my logic is not perfect either. I looked for the origin of the words.

Form is from the Latin forma – derived from Greek morphe

Shape is from Old English gesceap: a creation

How can something that has morphed from something else be more 3D than a creation?