Feb 4 2018
Monochrome – Painting in Black and White – Van Eyck to Gerhard Richter
This Friday I set off with India and Maggie to see the exhibition at the National Gallery.
It is a must!
The title might not excite most, but any painter will know how alluring this subject can be. Ironic that the Colour exhibition held in the same rooms only 3 years did not include black and white as colours.
For us as painters we often limit ourselves to tonal paintings, often just using umbre or black and white as an exercise. The exhibition analyses the many reasons for which artists might reduce their colour palate, and the effects and consequences.
At London Fine Art Studios we encourage students to draw in charcoal first, so that they can understand the importance of values (light and dark) in creating form. From charcoal we move onto oils, but remain within this reduced colour palette. In this way we can learn how to create form and a likeness through values (light and dark / black and white), without the added complication of colour. This stage of painting is known as grisaille which comes from the French gris meaning grey. A grisailles can be painted in an earth tone, or in black & white. Having been to the amazing Zorn exhibition at the Petit Palais in Paris I have been using a limited palette, reducing my colours to red, ochre, black and white. Having seem this exhibition I might go further still and take out the red and ochre.
Still-life two cups. I reduced the subject to 3 colours, took out the handles and the pattern. I wanted the light and paint quality to be the focus.
Can the light and dark and the paint quality be as arresting as colour?
The exhibition tells the story of black and white painting from Van Eyck to Richter, from scared spaces to Jasper Johns and an immersive Danish piece.
The wall panels are very clear as is the exhibition lay out, which has the rooms themed and follow a rough chronology which naturally goes with the development of the themes.
There are many reasons for which artists and those commissioning them used monochrome painting in religious paintings, as a form of simplification to allow for prayer and meditation, in monastic spaces to clear out the clutter and opulence of everyday life, and to quieten and focus the mind.
Monochrome painting was also balanced alongside colour paintings, as framing device and for story-telling emphasising different aspects of a story.
The Nativity scene is here painted by Petrus Christus in exquisite colour, in contrast to the Old testament surround which frames the nativity. The stories from the Old Testament are painted as if they are carved sculptures surrounding the living Nativity.
This distinction between the Holy Family and the Saints is again shown in Hans Memling’s The Donne Triptych. The outside panels of Saint Christopher and St Anthony Abbot, are painted on oak in monochrome, as if they were sculpted figurines. We open the triptych up to the rich oil colours and Holy Family, no longer portrayed in a sculpted niche but within an intricate interior with views to a detailed and peaceful landscape.
Agony in the Garden is a wonderful painting over 4meters tall on indigo cloth/ canvas painted with white. We are more used to painting tone on white cloth or canvas. This effect is very powerful, like a daguerreotype. The indigo cloth here is what the Geonese often used. The French called the Geonese Les Genes, hence the word Jeans!
In reducing colour we manage to make the image more ethereal.
Studies in Light and shade.
If I had been asked before going to the exhibition why artists worked in monochrome, my answer would have been all about technique and methodology. Artists often used grisailles or monochrome as a stepping stone in the process to work out the composition in terms of values and the fall of light. This could be done on the final surface, canvas, or as a separate preparatory work on linen, wood panel or paper.
Beccafumi’s study of Saint Matthew painted with tempera and emulsion on card is more alive and painterly than the final piece which was painted in full colour for Pisa Cathedral. As these works prove, colour can be a wonderful addition, but in no way is it a necessity.
When we think of Boucher we think of his form and his delicious sense of colour. In this painting Vulcan’s Forge it is all design and value patterns. The design of rhythms, composition and patterns. He would often give this subject to his students as it offers so many design possibilities. The commission was ultimately for a tapestry. Boucher painted the grisailles, the he painted it in full colour for the tapestry weavers.
Many of the grisailles sketches were collected by artists; to us painters it is obvious why we find the purification and simplification of a subject more interesting.
The following room takes it to another level, showing how artists use painting in grisailles or monochrome independently of the final painting, as artworks in their own right.
Ingres’s painting of the Odalisque in Grisailles is a sumptuous work. It would make a wonderful spot-the-difference for both children and adults. Not only spot-the-difference but why the difference? The most intriguing aspect of this painting is that he painted it 10 years after the original Grand Odalisque which now hangs in the Louvre. Here he rethinks the composition, stripping away the colour, the background, the objects, reducing the painting to its most essential. And of course its most essential is always the values and shapes, not the colour and detail. This is an essential lesson for any student, and indeed it was in his workshop when he died, for Ingres had many students passing through his studios and he must have used this painting as a learning tool.
Jan Van Eyck’s Saint Barbara has always remained a mystery. Was this just an underpainting? But the frame is contemporary. Is this the first monochrome painted as an image in its own right, and not as a learning tool or preparatory sketch?
Maternity Eugene Carriere. One could not have a monochrome exhibition and not include a work of Eugene Carriere. I always use him as an example in our studios. I love the reduction and simplification of his works to values, and harmonious tonality. Testament to his skill and genius is the fact that Rodin had quite few of his paintings at his home; they were great friends and admirers of each others work, often collaborating together.
There is so much more to say about this room and the other works, I’ll deliberately skim past the Picasso’s insult to Velazquez and Giacometti’s proof that he should have kept to sculpture.
The next room discusses the debate of Paragone, (italian for comparison) which was the Renaissance debate amongst artist as to which was the greatest art form; sculpture or painting. Even Pliny the Elder used the term color lapidum (stone-coloured) or grisailles painting. The use of paint to describe sculpture relief is not new!
I have always loved Titian’s paintings and in this portrait of La Schiavone he clearly settles the Paragone debate, displaying the difference between the painted portrait of the lady and the painted sculptural relief. It is evident to us which side of the debate he was on.
Monochrome painting was even used as a tool for sculptors. Canova commissioned Nocchi to paint a monochrome relief of his Deposition. This was for him to see how the composition would work and the fall of light, before the work on the big marble relief began. The grisailles painting would have a dual purpose; for the sculptor Canova as a visual tool and for the clients to help them see the final painting. Sadly the final piece was never realised.
Monochrome paintings were also produced for etchers and print makers to copy. As with Rembrandt’s Ecce Homo, his painting marks are less painterly but more descriptive for a printmaker. Artists knew the advantage of having prints, in order to promote and disseminate their works. Jan van Vliet’s etching is very true to the original. It is interesting that Rembrandt despite being such a master etcher, also uses other artist to reproduce his works.
Chardin painted Back from the market on several occasions, as it was so popular. It was also translated into an engraving by Lepicie and then ingeniously parodied by Etienne Moulinneuf in an oil on canvas. Moulinneuf painted the trompe l’oeil as if it were an engraving with the glass broken, including the indentation of the paper from the press. This highlights his virtuosity with paint while breaking our simple understanding of the visual illusion. I had to go up close to the painting to understand the extent of its illusions. It really is a clever piece of artifice.
The rooms are themed to explain artists reasons for using monochrome, which also happens to be more or less chronological. In the next room the impact of film and photography is felt. There is a beautifully broad and energetic landscape the Tempest by Peder Balke, which he painted for himself. His usual works were larger with a tonal use of colour.
The energy of this painting must surely owe to the results of new photographic techniques, as with Gustave Le Gray’s wonderful Great Wave.
At the studios Chris Gray loves monochrome (in his art not his life). He is also our etching tutor..is there an coincidence to their names?
Celestine Blance’s painting carries on the irony. Can our name dictate our style? Her portrait of the Head of a girl is so soft and silent. Is its peace amplified by the lack of colour? It is also so like my daughter’s likeness. Are artists here responding to photography with black and white paintings? Despite what the label next to the painting suggests, the image does not have a stiffness like an early photograph, but a beautiful stillness.
The penultimate room looks at abstraction in black and white. It does make sense that in the distillation and reduction of colour, we will also get the distillation and reduction of subject matter into abstraction. Malevich claimed he was the first true abstract artist. This painting of the Black Square is powerful and proves the abstract debate with a perfect distillation and balance.
There are many great abstract paintings in this room, and within the context of this exhibition, they somehow have more to say. I love the way Bridget Riley, Cy Twombly’s and Elsworth Kelly’s paintings express such varying moods from each other with the same pigments within the same decade.
I urge you to go and see the show. You will learn so much about why artist worked in monochrome, the beauty and power of monochrome, the infinite possibilities of simplicity.
I won’t go into too much detail about the last room, but for me it perfectly continues the dialogue of monochromatic art in a playful and exploratory way, just what art needs!
Jan 18 2018
Our scholar Benj Randell gave a wonderful and insightful talk on Fantasy Art.
To summarise my talk: Fantasy art has evolved throughout history to take so many different paths that it would be a travesty to try and sum it up in one particular style of painting. Fantasy art influenced by literature including religious and mythical texts is still quite diverse but it is easier to track its evolution and the change in trends throughout history. From the religious works of Hieronymous Bosch and Gustave Doré to the paintings based of Arthurian legend and chivalry by J.W. Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton and then the dramatic and vivid work of Frank Frazetta, all have attempted to present captivating and believable representations of the fantastical. At present a lot of modern fantasy art is a product of the influence of Tolkien and the pulp magazines, however, the genre is still broad and isn’t confined by a certain definition.
Howard Pyle (1853-1911) influential American illustrator
Most well known for his paintings of pirates.
Wrote and illustrated (woodblock prints) his own Arthurian stories. ‘The Story of King Arthur and His Knights’
Inexpensive fiction magazines that were published from around the early 1890s to the 1950s. Considered as low-brow.
Some fantasy pulp magazines include The Argosy and Weird Tales.
Frank Frazetta (1928-2010)
Widely considered to be the most influential and most emulated fantasy artist in history.
He defined the look of Conan the Barbarian.
Concept Art, and art form of creating ideas in order to create something more. Imagery for the space, the characters, the setting for video games, films and so much more.
Jan 15 2018
Just before Christmas I met up with a dear friend to take my girls on an adventure of sorts. We chose to go the V&A to see The Winnie the Pooh exhibition. I think I was a little more excited than they were and I was not disappointed, it is a wonder! You might feel out of place if you go without tiny children – mine were the oldest there, but they seemed completely unfazed by this fact and I did spot quite a few adults without children….it is well worth seeing.
The marriage between the work of A.A.Milne and E.H.Shepherd is a phenomenal one. In my mind, both men are geniuses in their own right, who managed to transcend their own art form. A.A.Milne used his words in a most visual way so that as the narrator we are led to perform, rather than just read the text. The language is of course simultaneously simple and clever; prefiguring Roald Dahl, Milne manipulates language and creates words to aid our imagination, which have since become part of our lexicon, from a tiddely-pom to heffalumps and woozles.
Likewise E.H.Shepherd drawings are not just images used to illustrate but add weight and animation to the text, his drawings are an equally important part of the narrative. A simple line can change the energy of the image. And like Milne’s language, his images have become part of our nostalgia.
In using a child’s range of vocabulary for his text, Milne is quoted as saying “It is difficult enough to express oneself with all the words in the dictionary at ones disposal, with none but simple words, the difficulty is much greater’ but, perhaps the reduction of text available is the same as the perceived limitations of drawing and line as compared to animation and colour; it is indeed the simplification and purification of both text and image that is so wonderful and allows visual freedom in our imaginations.
Milne writes for all ages and levels, giving adults a delicate humour as they read aloud …
Once upon a time, a very long time ago now, about last Friday…
E.H.Shepherd’s drawings are equally sophisticated, despite the simplicity of the subject matter. He does not just illustrate the text but adds more, putting the characters and their stories within a context; in the landscape, amongst the trees of Ashdown Forest.
His drawings are a mixture of accurate draughtsmanship, value shapes, shaded with mass, with hatching, with squiggles or clear marks and with abstract accents, the distillation and simplification of subject matter with so many additives… this is much more than mere copying. The exhibition itself is interesting on the method he worked in from the block printing etc, starting in pencil and moving into pen and ink and then colour.
We are not mere onlookers, Shepherd makes sure we are part of the story, looking on just behind the characters, inviting us into the story, partaking in the set.
The characters are composed for comic effect within their setting.
We also see how Milne and Shepherd used the images within the text and around the text to add to the story. In “Winnie-the-Pooh goes visiting” all the characters are pulling to get Pooh out of Rabbit’s hole; Shepherd envelopes the text with trees and Pooh on one side and butterflies and bees on the other side whom obviously can’t help to pull Pooh out, but who do add to the drawing. Piglet is pulling the tail of a mouse and another mouse at the end of the line reluctantly moves to hold the hedgehog, all to help the pull!
Shepherd also adds little elements to his drawings to express the changing seasons, from the wind, cast shadows, sweeping leaves, ripples of water and slashes of rain.
Look at “Piglets ears …streamed behind him…like banners”. Shepherd animates the 3 stages, 3 little vignettes. The strong wind is explained with Piglet’s ears, his squinting eyes and one single leaf.
The drawings all seem so naturalistic, but if you look at the drawing of Rabbit and Tigger you can see that Tigger is drawn from a toy with stumpy legs and expressionless, while Rabbit is from an actual Rabbit with squiggly fur (because Christopher Robin didn’t have a rabbit teddy so Shepherd drew a real rabbit). Shepherd creates his characterisation not through facial expression but postures.
Pooh’s face hardly changes but his sturdy unflappable nature is shown in his solid stance, his arms behind his back listening earnestly.
Shepherd and Milne worked together on the page layouts, “There came a loud buzzing noise”. The text and image work together so that the text pushes up the bees.
Both Milne and Shepherd add their own humour wherever they can; Pooh says ‘Ow. You missed the balloon” when Christopher Robin shoots him rather than the balloon. But Pooh is just a stuffed toy, and in the illustration the gun is just a pop gun …
Often the images alert us to the story before the text, so that children are brought in on the joke before the text, as in when Pooh is looking for Eyeore’s tail and pulls Owl’s bell-pull.
There are so many sophisticated little choices Shepherd has made, scaling down the size of Christopher Robin in relationship to the toy, creating character through gesture and stance rather than facial features, setting the toy characters within a naturalistic setting. The publisher also recognised Shepherds enormous contribution as he was paid not just in one off payments but shared in all royalties.
For me Shepherd’s drawing and Milne’s text are a pure joy and the perfect synthesis of two art forms which are in equal measure simplistic and sophisticated.
Ann Witheridge – London Fine Art Studios – Art Courses: Full-time, Part-time, Evening, Weekend & Short Courses
Oct 15 2017
Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt
“Do you not see that among the beauties of mankind it is a very beautiful face that arrests passers-by and not their adornments.” Leonardo da Vinci
Today I went to see a wonderful exhibition of drawings at the National Portrait Gallery.
Its premise was so simple and yet revealing. The curatorial side was really nicely balanced; a little art history with well-placed texts and quotes. No convoluted dialogues about the socio-political context or the psychology of the sitter or artist, just informative text about drawing methods and the reason we draw.
‘Work hard and don’t on any account neglect your drawing.’ Michelangelo
The walls were painted a beautiful dark blue grey which set off the simple classic wood frames. Nothing from text, wall colour and frames, took away from or belittled the drawings; that they could be seen for themselves, uncluttered by words or theories. Some of the attributions were a little over ambitious but on the whole, it was a perfect exhibiting that achieved what it set out to do.
Refreshingly the show was laid out neither chronologically or by country so that varying artistic styles could be better appreciated. The Dutch rather more linear approach with some amazing Rembrandt drawings all drawn on one page, demonstrating his thought processes and musings. The Venetian drawings displayed more mass and shadow shapes compared to the more accented and linear central Italians drawings.
There was an especially lovely selection from the Carracci school who started the first Atelier as we now know them at London Fine Art Studios and across the States and Italy. My favourite was Annibale’s beautiful drawing of a study of a young Man. He must have known the arm was too long, but it is so touching to be irrelevant. I love the quote on the side which makes the drawing even more moving “Non so se Dio Me aiuta”. The softened mass with the red chalk balanced with little accents is so tender too.
“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth by Holbein’s hand.” Nicholas Bourbon
The last room shows many of Holbein’s master drawings. Some feel so modern as if one of the characters is just in the room right next to you.
He is surely the master of exquisite variety of technique and line from the refined drawing in the portrait to the softening of beard with accents and then near scribbled clothing.
The last quote of the show is so encouraging and relevant.
“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.” Cennino Cennini The Crafstman’s Handbook, c1400
For drawing is not just about line, it is about the medium you use. It doesn’t have to be for public.( I’m sure poor Van Dyck would be horrified to see his drawing on show.)
So draw in a sketch book or doodle every day – not for end result but for the process itself.
May 19 2017
2nd Year student and De Laszlo scholar Nneka Uzoigwe took the opportunity to visit the Fantin Latour Exhibition in Paris. It has now moved to Grenoble until 18th June. I remember taking a train to the Bowes Museum to see an exhibition of his work. It was definitely worth it.
This Spring I was lucky enough to make a day trip to Paris. It’s purpose was to go see, ‘A Fleur de Peau’, the first and rather monumental retrospective of Henri Fantin-Latour since 1982. As a favourite artist of mine the exhibition did not disappoint. Displayed at Musee du Luxembourg were over a hundred paintings and works on paper by Latour, as well a collection of rare private photos and lithographs displayed alongside working drawings, illustrating Fantin’s amazing imagination in translating reality through to mythology and symbolism.
One of the things that surprised me the most, was the feel of optical illusion when viewing his work in person. I spent a lot of time in the exhibition walking back and forth in amazement. Fantin’s paintings are highly detailed but only more so from a distance and when flattened in photos. So this made it hard to photograph certain area’s, when I wanted to take some personal visual notes on his possible processes of application and layering. Up-close a lot of the brush marks were broad and rough and built up in careful layers of thin to thick, which expertly brought to light what could be achieved by simply following the same processes we’ve been learning at the studio.
A couple of notes I took –
Figures sketched in thin wash soft grisaille – then opaque mid tones brushed on showing form and brush marks – thick dry lightest lights then applied – then colourful glazes and thin opaque darks.
Warmth of background shown through leaves and stems.
If a cold background – a warm transparent umber wash applied first – before adding on opaque greens thinly and expressively for the leaves.
Background pre-prepared for still lives – flowers built up in thin colours and darks sketched in in rich glazes – lights dryly and thickly put in.