Research: “Do we smile much when undertaking a self-portrait?”

Tutor comment from assignment 4 feedback: “Do we smile much when undertaking a self-portrait…?  Look at the evidence throughout history; Rembrandt, Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait, Lucy Jones, Frida Kahlo, John Coplans, Jenny Saville… Cindy Sherman.  Self-portraiture is self-reflective / reflexive and contemplative there may be moments of joy and insight, yet it is an internal-external dialogue or conversation with ourselves; as we draw or paint.  I wonder what your thoughts are on this and how it might inform your next self-portrait?”

I am very interested in this question because I think the way we view the face and the smile is changing with massive growth of the “selfie”. We are used to the artificial nature of a pose, the expectation to smile for a picture, the mask that we put on and present to the world – not necessarily a false mask, but to communicate “I am having a great time” we smile. It is a message in a picture. When we meet people we smile to welcome them. A smile is a social construct. It conveys the message that we are not a threat.

In drawing my self portrait for Assignment 4. I decided to make myself look less cross by smiling slightly. I felt this conveyed my inner self more than an intense gaze. I was aware at the time that this was slightly unconventional for a self-portrait although I did look at Rembrandt who has a higher smile rate in his portraits than most.

Rembrandt, stark beschattet
Fig. 1. Rembrandt self portrait. Etching.

I love this etching (Fig.1) which is full of vigorous lines but also delicately drawn to bring out the facial features showing a little smile. It is mysterious but good humoured, full of energy but still.

Rembrandt Laughing / Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn
Fig. 2. Rembrant Laughing. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Oil paint on copper.

In Rembrandt Laughing (Fig 2) the young artist portrays himself as laughing out loud in costume. This gives a hint of why portraits of fleeting emotions, like a belly laugh, are so rare. They make it harder for a viewer to suspend disbelief. Unlike a photograph, a painting is made over a period of time. A person sitting for a portrait would naturally sit still and maintain a steady expression, a person viewing the portrait can fool themselves that they are looking at a person sitting still and looking back at them. Looking at a person laughing out loud, you know immediately that they are a painting because they are not moving. This makes a laughing portrait more artificial. This is actually one of only a few self portraits by Rembrandt showing himself smiling or laughing although he did do a number of portraits of other people including his wife Saskia smiling.

Saskia van Uylenburgh als Mädchen
Fig. 3. Saskia van Uylenburgh als Mädchen. 1633. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn Oil on Oak

Cindy Sherman’s work is very much about artifice. Since the late 1970s she has produced self portraits using props and makeup to reflect various “styles” of depicting women from film noir and horror to Renaissance style portraits (which also included some pictures of men). These pictures reveal the narratives about women which are embedded in our culture. But Sherman herself says they are not “self” portraits at all.  ‘People assume that a self-portrait is narcissistic and you’re trying to reveal something about yourself; fantasies or autobiographical information. In fact none of my work is about me or my private life.’ My vile bodies: Cindy Sherman interview by Judy Rumbold – Guardian archive, 1991. Although in the same article she admits that the work may come out of her own neuroses. ‘Maybe I am well-adjusted because I live out my neuroses on film instead.’ Which means maybe they are self portraits after all.

Sherman’s subjects are often grotesque and their smiles are too. In a series from 2008 she depicts groomed older American women whose masks sometime slip, showing the vulnerability underneath the clothes and warpaint. It is interesting how the backgrounds to the characters are an important part of the image conveying wealth or poverty, power or vulnerability.

Fig. 1. Rembrandt. Harmensz Van Rijn, “dark shading” (translated from German). Etching. from archives at Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden

Fig. 2. Fig. 2. Rembrant Laughing. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn. Oil paint on copper. The J. Paul Getty Museum

Fig. 3. Saskia van Uylenburgh als Mädchen. 1633. Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn Oil on Oak. from Gemaeldegalerie, Dresden.

Article on Rembrandt Laughing: http://blogs.getty.edu/iris/laughing-out-loud-rembrandt-self-portrait-now-on-view-at-the-getty/

My vile bodies: Cindy Sherman interview by Judy Rumbold – Guardian archive, 1991

Eva Respini MOMA Assistant Curator discussing Cindy Sherman’s work in relation to a retrospective of her work at MOMA in 2012.

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Tutor Feedback on Assignment 4

Overall Comments

Thank you for the care taken in preparing, selecting and organising your portfolio.  This contained the three assignment outcomes: two A1 and one A3 drawings,  two A4 / three A3 part-filled sketchbooks; (with post-its to examples,) three drawings from Pj 4, Ex 2.  The log was available and up to date.  I will comment upon specific aspects under the key headings.

You have worked hard and developed a momentum throughout the assignment.  Actively reflecting on and working through the feedback and pointers from assignment 3.  This has fed into and informed your approach to the life-drawing, research and exploration of media and process.

You are recognising some key strengths and that the process of working, erasing and redrawing offers interesting and dynamic visual qualities. This also conveys the act of engaging visually with your subject; reflecting time-spent, paying attention to the drawing (in action and outcome) and the ‘sitter’.  Developing sound observational skills to take forward.  This erasing and redrawing process may be a purposeful strategy to begin your assignment 5 preparatory studies.

Your approach and application of research is becoming more purposeful, as well as being relevant.  The reflections and insights you make, are feeding into developing your drawing strategies, process and visual language.  There is a sense that this is beginning to inform more personal intentions.  

You began the course with an inquiring approach to drawing and research, asking questions which have continued to feed your curiosity and deepen your understanding.  This is an important aspect of studying at degree level, I encourage you to continue this whilst trying to formulate and develop a visual vocabulary and emerging personal voice.

Good to see and read your appreciation and critical analysis of what you are doing, making and thinking around your work.  Take this balanced reflection and analysis forward into assignment 5.  Remember to acknowledge the qualities and approaches that work for you, and think about how you might apply and develop these at assignment 5.  

Well done.

Assignment 4 Assessment potential

“I understand your aim is to go for the B.A (Hons) Fine Art Degree and that you plan to submit your work for assessment at the end of this course. From the work you have shown in this assignment, providing you commit yourself to the course, I believe you have the potential to succeed at assessment. In order to meet all the assessment criteria, there are certain areas you will need to focus on, which I will outline in my feedback.”

assessment (see Conditions of Enrolment, Section 2 a). Contact the OCA Course Advisors to discuss this further.

Feedback on assignment

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Quality of Outcome, Demonstration of Creativity

There was an acknowledgement on your difficulty at scaling-up from A4 to A1 and how this translates to a less-fluid quality of line.  When you draw how much do you take notice of how you position yourself in relation to paper, support etc, are you seated, croached or standing.  This affects how you draw and how you observe your subject, whether ‘real’ or photograph.   For example if you draw flat on a table-top, seated in close proximity then this limits your gesture and movement (probably) to finger – wrist fluidity.  Try standing and have your paper / support propped up, stand far enough away to be able to draw from the shoulder, elbow… and expand on the way you ‘feel in your body’.  Mark your feet (with masking tape), so you can return to your observational position.  Try this out and record your thoughts, learningnotice how the different position inform the quality, fluidity, control, freedom of the line and marks.  (see Pointers)

You made some very astute and interesting comments in your log, which I encourage you to further explore and expand on.  One being your response to your friend who asked “Is that how you see yourself?” and you chose to add a slight smile or softening of the mouth and jaw-line.  

Do we smile much when undertaking a self-portrait…?  Look at the evidence throughout history; Rembrandt, Alice Neel’s nude self-portrait, Lucy Jones, Frida Kahlo, John Coplans, Jenny Saville… Cindy Sherman.  Self-portraiture is self-reflective / reflexive and contemplative there may be moments of joy and insight, yet it is an internal-external dialogue or conversation with ourselves; as we draw or paint.  I wonder what your thoughts are on this and how it might inform your next self-portrait?  (see Pointers)

Three quite different approaches to your; self-portrait , seated figure and your son.  What I notice having them spread out before me; yours is the smaller, contained and perhaps reflects the approximate literal size of the mirror, though it may be / proffer a more psychological, spatial connection / reading.  I wonder if you spent less time considering the scale / format / composition of the self-portrait.  How would it be if you drew the self-portrait again on A1, how might that open-up, invite a challenge to explore and expand on your visual language?  Do you have a full-length mirror to draw yourself; ‘Self-portrait as artist’?(see Pointers).

The seated figure has certain fluidity of line, the figure is hanging-in space rather than situated within the ‘room’.  There are various diagonal and sweeping lines around the figure on the page, but I’m unsure what these are meant to convey, they don’t relate to any edge, structure of elements in figure or chair, table.  Interesting that the figure appears calm / self-contained whilst the lines convey a frenetic quality.

The drawing of your son (undertaken from photograph) offers an arresting figure.  You say you noticed how you draw differently from photograph, yet don’t elaborate…. can you do so as this will be helpful to you (record on your log).  Your son’s gaze fixes the viewer, it is steady and direct, yet soft. You have captured the point at which he is about to shift; hand out toward the viewer and foot slipping off the edge of the sofa and the edge of the drawing.  Thinking ahead to assn. 5 plan to do lots of different studies of your son, especially his fidgeting hands, feet, head…

Analyse the range of quality of the surface, marks and tonal values of this drawing.  Looking closely there are some aspects; the far arm of the sofa where you use the eraser to draw and though minimal means use a variety of tone, erased mark and conte.  How might you use these marks to indicate movement in his foreshortened arm and fidgeting foot, lower body.  I think the black and white image in your log has an element of movement / out of focus hand.  These may be useful thoughts and consideration to inform the assignment 5 prep work.  Writ up your thoughts on your log). (see Pointers)

Sketchbooks

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills, Demonstration of Creativity

A good use of your sketchbooks and exploratory drawing processes.

You have used your time well, to explore a range of wet and dry techniques and processes.  You have also chosen to explore fewer media in an experimental and purposeful way.  By exploring the combination of emulsion paint as a ground for pencil, charcoal and tinted paint.  Continue this process as you experiment and make studies for assignment 5.

Your range of approaches across the life-classes has enabled you to focus upon your observational skills.  This has clearly improved your looking and drawing skills.  There is a lovely sense of energy and fluidity in some of the drawings reminiscent of Egon Schiele’s female nudes.

There is a sense of weight and gravity in others: the two large males online: Croquis cafe drawings.  A decisive use of tonal values and strong directional marks, conveying the bulk of form.  Interesting how the figure ‘embodies’ the space on of the page.  The diagonal composition and placement in one, and the relationship of the figure to the ‘ground / surface / negative space’ in the other.  There is an interesting notion in the latter regarding being of the same matter; an interconnectedness.  (We can discuss this at Hangout on Tuesday 29th at 3pm).  

Research

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

Your research into Auerbach and Saville has proved inspiring and purposeful.  Through your reflections and visual analysis you applied and developed some useful strategies.  Incorporating creating a tooth for the charcoal (emulsion paint) and experimenting with erasure and reiteration of marks.  An interesting approach to expanding upon your visual vocabulary.  Continue to explore this approach at assignment 5.  (see Pointers).

Regarding following up on previous feedback; you undertook good critical analysis of the compositional structures in Doig and Berg’s works.  This also included colour and how these elements convey certain visual and psychological responses.  It would be useful to take this further and see how you might apply, what you learned from this analysis, that you could utilise in your own composition or use of colour.  Don’t force this if it doesn’t seem appropriate at assn. 5. (see Pointers)

Good concise reflection and analysis of a range of research across historical and contemporary figuration.  Try and visit one or two exhibitions during the progress of assignment 5 for e.g: Giacometti at Tate Modern:

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/giacometti

Read the (mixed) reviews of the forthcoming film on Giacometti;

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/final-portrait-review-geoffrey-rush-shines-in-stanley-tuccis-witty-giacometti-sketch

Good, consistent practice of Harvard referencing throughout.

See Research / Viewing / Pointers

Learning Logs or Blogs/Critical essays

Context, reflective thinking, critical thinking, analysis

Good use of your log to archive, critically reflect on your research and developing processes.

The log is a site where you are concisely and analytically reflecting on your creative strategies and how you are using these to explore qualities of charcoal, ink, pencil, pastel and paint.  

It was a smart choice at this stage (about to launch into the final assignment 5), to focus upon a smaller range of media, whilst exploring what you can do with this range.  You made good use of your exploratory process to explore making ‘interesting drawings’.  Try and develop these aspects at assignment 5, rather than further expanding on your range of media.  

Focus on what you are doing well and what you feel excited and inspired by, and apply this to your assignment 5 proposal.  Think about creating a structure to help you set an: Exploratory & Research stage, Review and Preparatory stage, Research and work on final outcome, Reflection on assignment with reference to the assessment criteria.  We can discuss this further at Hangout early next week (email me some dates & times).

Suggested reading/viewing

Context

In relation to the notion of movement, linear dynamic, sense of energy in drawing;

Giacometti’s drawings and paintings of; Caroline, Diego and Annetta

http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-modern/exhibition/giacometti

New bio-film:

https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/feb/11/final-portrait-review-geoffrey-rush-shines-in-stanley-tuccis-witty-giacometti-sketch

Claude Heath use of touch / blind fold drawings / introduction of colour through layering of line….etc

http://www.claudeheath.com/

Kathe Kollwitz German Expressionist;  useful in relation to her dramatic use of full range of tonal values and drawing of children.

https://www.moma.org/artists/3201

Charlotte Spencer is an interdisciplinary dancer, choreographer….. the link is to a specific collaborative project.  It is a bit tangential (so do ignore if it doesn’t resonate with you), however it seems to connect with the notion of being in a continuous state of flux / movement ( your thoughts on your son… youthful energy and vitality..) also the quality of the residual marks are interesting in how they are both a record of an activity and interesting as ‘drawings’  https://charlottespencerprojects.org/2011/11/23/embodied-drawing/

for the next assignment

 

  • Reflect critically on this feedback in your learning log.

 

  • Explore your media and processes to convey qualities and ideas for assn. 5: movement, energy and the ‘enigma’ of children.  
  • #In relation to your critical visual analysis of Doig and Berg; ask what you may specifically take / apply -to explore and develop in your own work?  Is there anything you might learn from these to inform your composition, use of colour and marks, then set some aims?
  • Try shifting and exploring your positions when drawing. Notice / record how your position in relation to the drawing support and your ‘subject’ affects the qualities of line and mark.
  • Try and undertake a larger  self-portrait (A1?) and if possible use a full-length mirror ( do this after the above exercise).
  • Continue to use your sketchbook (and loose sheets) regularly to explore composition, mark-making and palette: monochrome & colour.  In relation to your ass. 5 aims make  notations, test of marks to convey movement & childhood energy; rubbing, erasing, smudging through the range of tonal values.  Record what you learn from this experimental process; set aims to explore these at the prep stage.
  •  Continue to record the erasing, smudging and rubbing stages as you draw.  Do this through series of digital images, notations and short video clips.  Note your thoughts on the technique and visual elements; how might you incorporate some elements of these as part of your planning / prep process?

Gallery visit. Julie Mehretu, Serralves, Porto, Portugal

On holiday in Porto, I was delighted to find the contemporary art gallery Serralves had a major exhibition of work by Julie Mehretu whose work I enjoyed seeing as part of a study visit at Tate Modern last year.

I find her massive canvases intriguing with a combination of architectural-style drawing,  vigorous mark-making and controlled use of colour. These are layered with thinly applied acrylic paint creating a depth of impressions.

It is not obvious what all the marks mean to the artist. In Venice (fig. 1a & b) The architecture of Venice lends itself to the repetition of ornate structures especially windows which gives an impression of the overwhelming nature of being in the city.

Fig. 1a Venice (with figure for scale). Ink and acrylic
Fig. 1b. Venice (detail). Ink and acrylic.

In Plovers Wing (fig. 2a & b) The architectural drawing is there but more abstract and is combined with beautiful, mysterious, coloured shapes. Do the shapes describe the movement of the wing in the title?

Fig. 2a. Plovers Wing. Ink and acrylic.
Fig. 2b. Plovers Wing. (Detail). Ink and acrylic.

While researching online to find out more about the artist I was interested to read an article in The Guardian by Brian Dillon from 2009 which describes Mehretu’s use of studio assistants who transfer the drawings – which are abstracted from photographs – onto canvases. Looking at the canvases you marvel at the detail combined with the overall impact.

A canvas where mark-making comes to the fore is Mumbo Jumbo (Fig. 3a & b). Shoals of ink marks make their way across the colourful canvas. The architectural drawing is hinted at but is not as prominent as in other canvases.

Fig. 3a. Mumbo Jumbo. Ink and acrylic.
Fig. 3b. Mumbo Jumbo (detail). Ink and acrylic.

Mehretu’s drawing/paintings work from a distance and in detail.  They seem coherent and accomplished on every level.

Alice Neel exhibition. Victoria Miro Gallery.

I have been interested in Alice Neel’s work since seeing a documentary on the artist on BBC iplayer. I was keen to see this exhibition featuring her work.

Neel successfully brings out aspects of the sitter’s personality. How does she do this? In many ways her paintings look quite naive with black lines delineating the subject’s outline, blocky tones, colourful clothes, distorted proportions and often sketchy backgrounds.

But the personality shines through.

 

Assignment 4. Reflection

I enjoyed Part 4 partly because I enjoy the process of setting down on paper what I see before me. While I produced some good drawings, I do feel I moved away from experimenting with media in this module and this is reflected in my final 3 pieces which I executed in oiled charcoal, charcoal and graphite.

Having said that. My research into other artists did influence me and the processes of Jenny Saville and Frank Auerbach were especially influential. I also found Alice Neel’s portraits fascinating for the way they conveyed character and personality. This led me to experiment with processes rather than media, using techniques to remove what has gone before (painting over, erasing) and looking at how working from photographs changes the way I approach an image.

Demonstration of technical and visual skills

I worked with pencil, charcoal, pastel, ink and brush/pen/masking fluid and I feel that although I was less experimental with my media I produced some interesting drawings using media I had learned to use in previous parts of the course. This included drawings in ink with masking fluid, charcoal, drawing pen, pencil and pastel. A lot of the drawing was from a life model so was constrained by time which developed my drawing skills.

Quality of outcome

Having felt confident about many of the drawings I produced during the exercises, I was frustrated in my final Assignment pieces to find I wasn’t as good as I thought I was! This was partly because I had only produced one A1 piece of work during part 4 so the size of these drawings was a challenge. To work at this scale and retain the spontaneity of life drawing was really hard. In Figure Study using line (seated), I attempted to use a technique I had already tried – underdrawing in pencil then overdrawing quite quickly in oiled charcoal to try to retain the spontaneity of a quick life drawing. I feel I was only partly successful in this.  In Figure Study using tone ( reclining) I followed up on an interest I had in drawing my son and worked in charcoal from a photograph. I am interested in the fact that he is always moving and tried to “recline” him while capturing that he was poised to slip off the sofa and run away. I think this is a successful composition though it was hard to get the darkest tones and I used conte crayon to deepen the darks. In my portrait the final drawing was a bit conventional but the process I went through to produce it – drawing then erasing the drawing – was interesting and I’d like to carry on with this.

Demonstration of creativity

In Part 4 I have experimented with processes for producing work including preparing paper with emulsion and graphite or pastel and working by erasing and overdrawing. I have also experimented with drawing the same thing in different media to study the effects of different media on an image.

Context reflection

I found looking at how other artists tackle portraits and the figure really interesting. There seem to be so many approaches to drawing the figure. I enjoyed researching Jenny Saville, Frank Auerbach, Richard Hambleton, David Haines, Alice Neel, Elizabeth Peyton, Graham Little, Euan Uglow and Leonardo da Vinci.  This was the area where I felt most inspired by the work of other artists and adopted techniques based on their work.

 

 

 

 

Assignment 4. Self portrait using line and tone 

Two things influenced the way I approached this self portrait. The first was the work of Frank Auerbach and Jenny Saville who use reduction as part of their drawing method. They draw then rub out, then draw and rub out over and over again in theory getting to the essence of their subject. The second was a friend’s reaction to two self-portraits I did earlier in Part 4. “Is that how you see yourself?”, she asked, sounding surprised.

It made me realise I had tried to draw how I looked rather than who I was.

I decided to do all my work on one piece of paper.  Drawing and rubbing out and hopefully getting closer to who I think I am.

I based the work on some preliminary sketches I had already done. Taking on board my friend’s comment I decided to try to look more cheerful and to include my hands, drawing pad and pencil in the picture.

It was only after I had rubbed out the drawing the first time and drawn over the remains that I realised I should be photographing each stage so here are the next stages.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 2.
Fig. 3.
Fig. 4.
Fig. 5.
Fig. 6.

When I reached Fig. 5. I had to decide whether to rub out again or carry on to a completed piece. While it would have been interesting to carry on with the process I was conscious of a deadline approaching. I would also have found it much harder to rub this one out as I liked it much better than the other drawings. I decided to complete the drawing (Fig. 6).

I slightly regret stopping here as it would have been a real challenge to carry on deleting and redrawing. I’d like to develop the stamina and confidence to do this. I also originally thought I might start incorporating different media and deleting by painting out marks to erase them. This is something I’d like to look at in further work.

Assignment 4. Seated figure using line.

Fig. 1. I erased “mistakes” in the drawing with white emulsion and redraw the hands, feet and face. The line is more balanced but the face has less character.
Fig. 2. First drawing from life

In this drawing, I was influenced by Jenny Saville’s large scale drawings based on Leonardo de Vinci’s Madonna and child. She draws with charcoal on watercolour paper primed with emulsion.  I used the technique of priming paper with emulsion over soft pencil lines and like the way it disrupts the surface. I drew in pencil and when I felt that the structure was accurate I drew in oiled charcoal. This gives a dark black line which can’t be erased with a rubber and doesn’t smudge easily. I  used this technique in a previous life drawing (Fig. 3). In this drawing I liked the way the drawing looked quite quick and spontaneous even though it was A1 size and took about 50 minutes to draw.

Fig. 3 Life drawing using line

I wasn’t completely happy with my first attempt at the seated figure which was drawn from life (Fig. 2) the lines weren’t as flowing as I’d hoped and the feet and head seemed tentative. I decided to use white emulsion to erase areas I wasn’t happy with and redraw them. I redrew the face, hands and feet. While I’m happier with the overall drawing (Fig. 3)  I feel the face has less character and the feet are too big. Painting over and redrawing the features I want to change is an option. Artists I have looked at like Jenny Saville and Frank Auerbach use this technique to trace the process of drawing and to reveal the interaction of artist and subject.