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. Reclining figure using tone

I have been wanting to draw my son, who is 8, for a while now. He is never still and always pulls a silly pose if I try to take a photo of him. I knew I would have to draw from a photograph if I wanted to draw him.

I managed to get him to lie on the sofa while I took his picture but you can see he is sliding off ready to run away. I took several pictures then chose the one I liked best.

I did a few sketches mainly to try out different media.

I like the drawing using ink and masking fluid but I didn’t feel I have the ability to make an A1 drawing in ink.

In the photograph he is holding a remote control and a sock. When I drew the pose without the objects there seemed to be less of a reason for him to be in the position he was so I decided to draw them as well.
I wanted to show him looking out at the viewer. I find children mysterious and I wanted to express this enigmatic quality. I  like the light coming from behind the sofa.

I painted watercolour paper with white emulsion mixed with some brown pastel.  This was to add texture and a warmth to the picture. I drew on this with charcoal.

I chose charcoal because I knew from previous drawings that I can work with it on a large scale and it is very forgiving of mistakes and good for expressing tone.

Generally I am pleased with the drawing although I think the photo I worked from distorted the image a little to which I added some inaccuracies in the drawing. This has lengthened the image horizontally.

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.

Project 6. Research point. Portraits

In his self portrait, artist Frank Auerbach seems to use a series of simple zig zag lines to depict his face. Behind the final marks are the remains of previous mark-making which is then rubbed out building up an interesting surface and showing the artist working out the image. To Auerbach, erasure is as important a way of making a mark as using a pencil.

In Portrait of EOW Auerbach has painted then scraped away the paint until the paper falls apart and is patched and repainted. I find this technique of mark making then erasure interesting when making a portrait. You can never truly know a person so each time you are attempting to get closer to the truth but never really achieve it. It seems to acknowledge imperfection of art while at the same time making something worthwhile – a portrait of looking at someone.

There is an interesting profile on Auerbach on the Tate website

Graham Little draws from photographs of women in old magazines. His drawings in gouache and coloured pencil are meticulous and slightly creepy. It feels like he is referencing classical art – but I can’t put my finger on which painting any one of his drawings refers to. Maybe they are generic rather than specific. The women make tea, fold washing, talk on the phone or just sit. A photograph is a frozen moment in time. To then draw the frozen moment – to spin out the moment for months – imparts a certain quality to the drawing. Like these women are specimens for the artist’s pleasure. The women look bored and trapped.

Elizabeth Peyton uses thinned oil paint or watercolour to depict famous actors and singers as well as friends and boyfriends.  All her portraits share a look – pointed chin, pale skin, red lips. Her compositions are dynamic and unusual and she uses the patterns in clothing and backgrounds as a foil for her drawings.