Leonardo da Vinci was a scientist as well as an artist. He was fascinated by how things worked, whether it was a machine or a human, and spent a lot of time dissecting corpses and drawing the structures of the human body, making copious notes. Did this work influence how he painted?
This beautiful portrait of Cecilia Gallerani shows signs of Leonardo’s observations on the human body, especially in Cecilia’s hand which is observed in detail. The form of the ermine is also very well observed. Having recently looked at foreshortening, I can see Cecilia’s hand comes towards the viewer looking proportionally large compared to her face. Cecilia’s neck and face are incredibly smooth and unlined. Her face, neck and shoulders show no real sign of the muscles and tendons observed by da Vinci in his anatomical studies.
Modern British artist Euan Uglow painted nudes which he measured in painstaking detail. He worked from life and left the remains of his measuring marks on the canvas. His clinical approach creates a strange otherness. A minutely observed human who is somehow other than human.
Interestingly, like da Vinci, Uglow’s models are smooth and unblemished.
American artist Alice Neel painted the people who lived around her in poor neighbourhoods in New York. She also painted female nudes. Her portraits focused less on anatomical accuracy and more on the personalities of the people she was painting through capturing their expressions, gaze and in the non-nudes, their clothes.
It is interesting that a painting which is less anatomically accurate can be a more accurate portrait of a human being. Neel was especially keen on the unsymmetrical eye. In her portraits, one eye almost always looks higher than the other, and she revels in the unsymmetrical nature of a human face and body.
I like the way foreshortening turns the body into a series of shapes.
Fig. 1. Self portrait. Ballpoint pen. The head is a bit big.
The artist Jenny Saville takes foreshortening to grotesque extremes in some of her paintings. In Prop. 1993 The model’s knee, thigh and stomach loom towards you. You know what you’re looking at – but are the proportions really true? Or are they exaggerated? And what effect does this have?
So, why does foreshortening often make images cartoonish or grotesque and why does an artist do this?
There is an element of “in your face” to extreme foreshortening. You have to be very close to someone to get the effect that part of their body is massive. If you move even a short distance away there is still foreshortening but it isn’t so extreme and unsettling. In all my drawings (Fig. 1; 2 and 3) the distance from the model makes the foreshortening much less extreme.
I attended a two day course on Creative Sketchbooks with teacher Brian Raymond at Creative Art Courses in Manchester. Fellow students were mainly from the OCA on fine art/drawing and textiles courses. Debbie, a fellow student, organised a subsidy for the cost of the day from OCASA and the tutor. Thanks Debbie!
Brian taught us a number of ways to make sketchbooks more vibrant and useful. My particular interest is using sketchbooks to develop ideas and Brian took the time to work with me on this.
During the course we learned:
how to prepare sketchbook pages using collage and underdrawing covered with gesso or emulsion paint which created a more interesting base for drawing than a white page.
using a series of drawings of a plant in pen and ink to develop areas of interest and ideas. Brian emphasised the importance of keeping previous work visible to encourage this development.
using a page decoratively to reflect a theme while doing an investigation of a theme – through activities such as frottage, colour & texture studies, experimenting with materials.
Annotating sketches comprehensively to look at what is interesting, what works, what doesn’t.
inserting pages and using interesting formats such as fold-outs, layering, etc to add interest to a sketchbook and make it more coherent.
I really enjoyed the two days and will certainly take many of the ideas learned into my sketchbook work. I am not comfortable with creating a sketchbook as a decorative object in itself but the ideas of page preparation, concept development and experimentation, annotation and artist research are all really helpful. And I do like my final drawing too!
After completing the course I found a couple of videos on sketchbooks on the OCA website which are also useful:
I’m delighted to return to Peter Doig. One of my favourite artists who produced a series of paintings based on Le Courbusier’s Unité d’Habitation apartments in Briey-en-Forêt, north east France. Doig recorded the site using a hand-held video camera then painted his series over a number of years. Four of the paintings in this series were exhibited at the Tate Britain in their Peter Doig exhibition in 2008. Fortunately, the exhibition is still on the Tate’s website and the series of pictures can be viewed here. I love the way the thick woodland around the building creates strong verticals against the building’s horizontal lines. There is a strong feeling of a battle going on between nature and human creation.
I recently saw a film about Monet ‘Exhibiton on Screen: I Claude Monet’ which was an exploration of Monet’s life through his own letters read out by an actor while the film showed the work he was producing at the time the letters were written. It was an excellent film and described the struggles Monet went through including painting the facade of Rouen Cathedral at different times of day. Through the series Monet explores how to portray different times of day and weather through variations in colour and tone.
Georgia O’Keefe produced a series of paintings of the Cerro Pedernal mountain in New Mexico which she could see from her home. Like Monet. O’Keefe explores the changing colours and tones due to weather effects and time of day.
Painting the same subject repeatedly allows an artist to build up information for themselves about how landscapes change depending on weather, time of day and season. Over longer periods of time changes in actual landscapes can be noted such as trees growing or dying and new buildings and roads being built.
In the middle of my landscape module it is becoming clear to me I have a fairly limited idea about what makes a good composition. I have to admit I turned to youtube for some ideas.
I came across a 23 minute video by artist Jill Poyard. ‘Developing an Eye for Landscape Composition’ which is aimed at students and is excellent at outlining some of the theories of composition while emphasising that most artists produce work which doesn’t follow these theories! I like the way the video looked at composition in relation to paintings to examine how artists composed their work.
I’d recommend watching the video but my notes are as follows.
Landscape differs from other forms of art in having to tackle:
atmosphere: sky, air, and the way this affects how we view a scene especially at a distance
weather: has a strong affect on the mood of a painting, sunlight, shadows, rain, mist.
land forms and features.
The landscape can be broken into a series of planes with the lightest planes being horizontal and the darkest being vertical.
Determine a focal point and look for lines that lead the eye around.
Don’t split your painting in half
Don’t place your focal point at the centre
Do use an odd number of elements
Do vary sizes and space between elements
Rule of Thirds
This is a popular design format similar to the golden ratio. Divide your composition into thirds vertically and horizontally. Place focal points on some of the intersections between the lines. Place your horizon on one of the lines.
A very low horizon line has interest
The L shape is a classic
The S shape leads your eye into a picture – for example a river or road.
A strong diagonal
A large central object – either lighter or darker than the surrounding area
Triangulation – either the whole composition or elements of the composition.
I have subsequently spent a lot of time with a camera taking pictures and attempting to get my compositions to conform to some of these ideas about composition. I instinctively place the horizon lower or higher than the third point suggested by the rule of thirds and also have difficulty with the idea of multiple focal points. I have always been attracted to dark and fairly central focal points and elements of symmetry while looking for ‘lines’ in the composition which lead the eye around the picture.
Fig. 1. Landscape with a woodland pool. I find this landscape drawing by Albrecht Durer quite touching. The artist carefully detailed the foreground reeds, but left a section on the right unfinished. It seems to be an artist capturing a scene made unusual by a certain play of light, to help them remember it. Have I seen a sky like this at sunset where the blue fades out to white and the clouds are in shadow? It looks like the kind of scene about which you might say: “That’s amazing. I wish I had my camera.”
Fig. 2. Pastoral landscape by Claude Lorrain. In this drawing I like the way the artists has captured the clouds and birds in the sky. The day looks breezy. The composition is balanced and the use of brown ink and wash in the foreground with a cooler grey ink and wash in the background adds depth to the picture. The textures and tones are all beautifully rendered.
In this oil painting Lorrain uses the perspective of the classical buildings to lead the eye into the picture. Despite the towering ruins, I’d describe the scene as lively with the activity in the foreground, the feathery foliage, clouds and birds.
Georgia O’Keeffe painted landscapes throughout her life, some quite detailed, some tending towards abstraction. Her shimmering colours brought you into the hot landscapes of New Mexico, the cool turbulence of Lake George, New York or, in fig. 4., the clouds as seen from an aeroplane. I like the playfulness of this picture.
Tutor feedback from my last assignment suggested that I analyse Pierre Bonnard’s work to look at composition and shifting viewpoints. I have always enjoyed Bonnard’s paintings, mainly for the sense of drowsy heat he captures, his use of colour and the richness of his images.
Bonnard often features a large patterned area in his work. In this case, the tablecloth takes up about 66% of the picture. Our viewpoint of the table is high while we see the coffee pot, cup, dog and coffee- drinker from a lower angle. The figure on the right blurs into the top of the picture and there is an odd decorative border on the right-hand side. A painted door frame or patterned curtain? The luxurious patterns continue in the background while to the left the floor and wall are simple but colour-saturated. The yellows and reds radiate a comfort and warmth. The light is coming from the right – maybe morning sunshine coming through a window.
The Tate also holds preparatory sketches for this painting which show Bonnard exploring different angles for the table and the light falling on the figure. I like the ultra sketchy sketches!
The colours in this picture are simply beautiful. Everything glows. I am especially interested in the viewpoint of this picture. The artist is very close to the desk in the foreground so at the bottom of the picture we look down on the patterned table cloth, then a little further away the table cloth pattern is at an angle. While some areas are broken up in to almost abstract blocks, the eye is still led into the picture with the zig zag of the window bar and balcony, and, in the other direction with the village houses leading to the hills.