Research Point: Painting People by Charlotte Mullins

I was attracted to Painting People by Charlotte Mullins as I have been working on the figure in Assignment 5. The book covers a number of contemporary painters including some I have studied as part of the Drawing 1 course such as Elizabeth Peyton, Jenny Saville and Peter Doig. In the book, Mullins clarifies the difference between a portrait and a figure painting saying ‘this book focuses on artists who use the figure – whether specific examples or anonymous bodies – to engage with wider themes……the portrait, by its very nature, reflects the emotions and actions of its specific subject, and its subject alone. It does not engage with universality, and the focus remains squarely on the named individuals who are represented.’  (Mullins, 2006:8)

I hadn’t considered this distinction before and was very struck by it in the context with which I was working. I was drawing my son but I don’t think I was trying to produce a portrait of him. Instead I was trying to capture something more general about childhood.

The book also tackles the issue of using photographs as a basis for painting. ‘Photographs are a vital tool for twenty-first-century artists. Photography is no longer seen as the assassin of painting, as Delaroche and others initially feared it would be, but as an accomplice to painting’s continued existence.’ (Mullins, 2006:16) For many of the artists featured, photographs are an essential part of the process of making their art including Chuck Close, Elizabeth Peyton, Peter Doig, Gerhart Richter, Rui Matsunaga and others. Many select generic images from magazines, newspapers and other mass media as a basis for creating a whole new world or of commenting on our world as it is now.

Covering established contemporary artists, the book introduced me to many artists I hadn’t seen before and whose work I was drawn to including Henning Kles whose rich and mysterious paintings Mullins describes as ‘Whistleresque’ and I find have echoes of Peter Doig. Also, Hernan Bas whose paintings resonate with Elizabeth Peyton and according to Mullins are largely autobiographical while again being richly coloured and beautiful to look at. Anna Bjerger produces expressionistic paintings based on her own and found photographs while Mika Kato produces meticulous paintings of doll-like figures, each with a tiny flaw. Beautiful and deeply creepy.

Once again, I find the artists I am drawn to produce work that is beautiful, richly-coloured and sometimes very detailed, but also unsettling and strange.

I’d definitely recommend this book which looks at a wide range of contemporary artists who use the figure. Mullin’s introduction is an excellent overview of artistic approaches to the figure.

Mullins, C. (2006) Painting People. London: Thames and Hudson




Assignment 5. Reflection

Assignment 5. Reflection.

In Assignment 5 I wanted to continue the work on the figure I did for Assignment 4 looking at my son in relation to the moving figure.

I enjoyed the challenge of looking at how to draw a moving figure although I feel I could have been more experimental in producing my final assignment piece.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills. I enjoyed using various media to explore the idea of movement including pen and ink, watercolour, pencil, charcoal and pastel. As I progressed to the final piece I was drawn towards pastel as a medium in which I could explore colour and skin tone. I looked at various compositions and while the final “close” composition may have lost some of the movement of my original drawings it created an intimacy which I felt was also important.

Quality of outcome. I like the bold composition and colour of the final drawing. I would have preferred more abstract feeling of movement in the image – I feel I didn’t go far enough with the final drawing and could have incorporated a more vigorous use of line.

Demonstration of creativity. I did a lot of preliminary drawing exploring ways to represent movement and also as a personal response to my son. It was interesting that the subject of the drawing is one I love and I think that influenced the direction my work took. As such it encouraged the development of a personal voice.

Context reflection. I looked at a number of artists including Richard Hambleton, David Haines, Elizabeth Peyton, Frank Auerbach and Jenny Saville. I found the book Painting People by Charlotte Mullins an extremely engaging overview of the figure in modern art. It addresses the use of photography in contemporary art practice in a way which reassured me about its use in my own art practice.

Part Five: Artist’s statement

How to draw a constantly moving child?

How to draw a constantly moving child? In these drawings I aimed to explore how to draw a child who doesn’t stay still. This followed on from a drawing from assignment 4 of my son lying on a sofa but clearly just about to move off (Fig. 1).

Fig. 1

I used a still photograph as a basis for this drawing and I wanted to understand how artists have worked with photographs and film stills to make work. Peter Doig is one artist I have looked at who uses photographs and film stills as a basis for his work and as I drew my son I was also drawn towards the work of Elizabeth Peyton especially her composition and cropping of the figure and her use of colour.  Her work developed from drawing from still photographs of celebrities.  Now she focuses on friends. While she draws people in repose, I wanted to capture movement.

One of the previous areas I looked at was why don’t artists usually smile in a self-portrait? I think there is a relevance to representations of people moving. There is a suspension of disbelief when looking at a representational image. If the image is of something that is naturally still then it is easier to imagine you are looking at a real object or person. If the image is of something fleeting – a smile or a movement- then it is harder to suspend disbelief. Having said that, clearly whole swathes of art tackle moving people. Painting historical events and Greek myths was traditionally one of the highest forms of art. As a research point I also looked at the work of Richard Hambleton and David Haines who depict movement in very different ways.

I started exploring movement with drawings of my son bouncing on a trampoline (Fig 2)



I liked the energy of these drawings but wanted to get back to the idea of the moment between stillness and movement. From a different video I chose another still. I spent a lot of time on this drawing (Fig.3) I found myself wanting to give a feeling of warmth to the drawing as well as movement so I was drawn to using pastels.

Fig. 3

While I liked this drawing I was aware I hadn’t really explored alternatives.  There were also some issues because other people couldn’t recognise what the picture was of. The upside down figure and the fact that one arm is tucked behind the body seemed to cause a problem seeing the figure.  I put this problem on an OCA Facebook group and got some interesting feedback. Suggestions included: look at the proportions of the feet, make the feet clearer, crop the image to focus more on the figure, choose a pose which shows both arms.

I decided I had settled on the initial pose and composition without exploring any alternatives so I went back to the sketchbook to look at other options (Fig.4).



I explored a closer view showing both arms (Fig.5).

Fig 5.

As I worked through my drawings I came to realise what I enjoyed  capturing was a sense of intimacy combined with a slight exclusion. I am in my son’s world but not completely.  He has his own thing going on.

Fig. 6

I found my final drawing very challenging (Fig.6). The pose was difficult to draw. At A1 size there’s no hiding a misplaced line except by over painting and over drawing. While I had explored techniques of overpainting, looking at Frank Auerbach and Jenny Saville, I feel I lost some of the energy of my previous sketches in my attempts to get the figure “right”. Having said that, I do like the composition of the drawing and the push/pull of intimacy/exclusion. I think the process of drawing has led me to an honest place about my relationship with my son.

Assignment 5 Final work

Fig. 1 A1 pastel, charcoal, acrylic

My final drawing of assignment 5. I’ll probably carry on messing with it though. My aim was to focus on “poised for movement”. While I think the composition and pose work in this respect I’m not sure the drawing is fluid enough to really capture a feeling of movement.  This drawing was a huge challenge and while I’m happy with some aspects of it, the repeated over-drawing perhaps means some of the lightness of touch I value is lost. I had a lot of trouble with the position of the arm so I drew it over and over again.

I feel like I need to call it a day on this drawing now.

Decisions decisions

I have continued to think about the way forward with my final assignment piece.

I had reached a point where I liked where I was (Fig. 1)

Fig. 1

However, I realised some people who saw this weren’t sure about what they were looking at. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, I wanted to know why and posted on the Drawing 1 Facebook forum. Feedback was very positive and suggestions involved making the feet clearer, drawing his left arm in a more obvious position and focusing in on the figure.

I did a few sketches (Fig.  2 & 3)

Fig. 2
Fig. 3

I liked the composition in Fig. 3. and decided to explore this further.

Fig. 4

In Fig. 4 I used pastel  on a coloured paper. I like the closer perspective on the figure. I wondered about the effect of cropping for an even closer view. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5

This has made everything much more intimate but maybe has lost the sense of movement in Fig. 1. I would also have to get the drawing of the figure very accurate and I am working off a blurry video still.

I did a new drawing using the closer viewpoint. (Fig. 5)

Fig. 5

I like the tension of the pose and I think the closer view works well. I also like the non-blended pastels on the figure. I think this is the composition I will try to take forward to my final drawing.

Gallery visit. Tate Modern and Basquiat

A day trip to London and I chose to look at some of the free exhibitions at Tate Modern and to visit the Basquiat exhibition at the Barbican.

At Tate Modern I enjoyed an exhibition on artists’ working practices. I would have liked there to be far more information but it was great to see some pictures I had researched in real life. A painting by Bonnard that I looked at for Part 2 was paired with some preliminary sketches and there was also a Morandi painting which I had looked at during Part 1.

Fig. 1. Bonnard
Fig. 2. Morandi

The first two exhibits were an Anthony Gormley figure ‘Untitled (for Francis) 1985. and an Agnes Martin ‘Faraway Love’ 1999 which were contrasted for their approach to realism/abstraction. From the gallery guide: “Martin was one of many twentieth-century artists whose work turned away from the recognisable world and towards abstraction. Gormley’s sculpture shows how, at the same time, artists have continued to find new ways to represent the human figure…Gormley sees his sculpture as a tool to link ‘inner and outer worlds’ while Martin believed strongly in the power of abstract painting to elicit experiences of beauty.”

There was an interesting room full of photographs and videos of artists in their studios which I enjoyed. I always like seeing videos of artists working on YouTube.

Basquiat at the Barbican in ‘Boom for Real’ was a fascinating insight into a unique artist. Again, the artist’s practice was an interesting part of the exhibition. From early graffiti art as Samo, Basquiat moved very quickly and very young into a successful career as a painter. He channelled a mass of cultural influences into his work from race history to Gray’s Anatomy, Picasso, Michelangelo, jazz, sport. He was prolific and seemed to work straight onto canvas seeing himself as the art equivalent of an improvising jazz musician. I think his work is appealing because he was so direct and so much himself when he made it. It is fascinating but also quite alien. I felt there were few points of connection between Basquiat’s mind and my mind. It was a very odd feeling.

There was no photography allowed at Basquiat.

In the weeks after seeing these two exhibitions I have frequently thought about the way different artists make art. Agnes Martin, Morandi, Bonnard and Basquiat are all artists who have produced important, influential work. But their approaches are so very different. Considered or spontaneous, abstract or representational, symbolic or realistic, political or domestic.

Self portrait


Following Assignment 4, my tutor suggested I look again at a self portrait.

I did a sketch each morning drawing on top of the previous sketch.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2

I like the way the echoes of previous drawings are retained in the picture.

I enjoyed working like this and wanted to carry on. The problem is that it gets harder and harder to draw over a picture, both emotionally as you erase more and more work, and physically as it gets harder to lift off previous marks.

I had intended to take this further on a larger scale. Maybe paint out marks and perhaps prepare the paper to make it stronger.

These sketches (Fig. 1 & 2) were A3. I decided to try an A1 sketch (Fig. 3). This turned out to be a bit of a surprise. I started drawing in charcoal, intending to lay down some broad compositional shapes before priming the paper with dilute acrylic. Instead I ended up with a completed drawing 2 hours later.

Fig. 3

There are several aspects of this drawing I like. I like the texture of the hair and jumper. The face is generally well drawn but the right eye as you look at the picture doesn’t look directly at the viewer despite my attempts to correct it. I also like the abstract background which does relate to what was behind me at the time. I think the image is quite unsettling especially the way the jumper trails off into lines then charcoal dust (it’s going to be hard to retain this even with fixative). The jumper also looks like feathers and maybe looks a bit constricting as I haven’t drawn my arms.

I also want to note that I listened to music while I was drawing Fig. 3. ‘This Mortal Coil’ was an 80s/90s band playing an ethereal indie goth type music. ‘Song to the Siren’ is fairly typical. Did this influence the way the drawing went?

Finally, following tutor feedback I tried propping up my drawing board on a chair and sitting on another chair to draw. This freed up my arm which, I think led to more expressive mark-making.