Required Reading – Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis

This book starts with a very interesting question about Willem deKooning.  It shows a charcoal drawing by him, done early in his life, and is very different from the abstract style he is more well-known for and asks the question ‘Was it necessary for deKooning to be able to produce this type of drawing before working in the expressive, violent mode of his later style?’.  I find this interesting because it is something I have asked myself, not necessarily about deKooning but about a lot of modern artists and to some extent myself.

The introductory passage ‘a few words’ also makes points of interest to me.  Kaupelis makes the point that really there is no beginning / intermediate / advanced expressive activity.  What all artists want to do is improve and get better and often the only thing that does differentiate a beginner to an advanced student is experience and trying f new techniques.  When I was at school I was guided away from art as a subject and told to concentrate on science and maths subjects so I feel like I have missed out on a lot of experience and I really come into this course with probably a lot less formal experience that others.  However, I also dont’ believe in this inherent property of talent and I do think anyone can learn to express their creativity with a lot of practice and dedication.

It is with this dedication to practice that I love Kaupelis’ sketchbook oath:

I solemnly swear that from this day forward I shall never again be caught without a sketchbook during my waking hours, and also that I shall use it faithfully everyday.

Daily sketching is something I am now in the habit of.  I don’t think many of them are very good and if you flicked through the book you would see how random my thoughts are as I tend to skip around from idea to idea, using places like pinterest for inspiration.  I am currently working in two books, a larger A3 book that is specifically for Drawing 1 exercises and a smaller A5 book that is my random every day thoughts.

The concluding paragraph of the introductory chapter I think is the most important.  It says to work hard, experiment, try anything and everything and that we often learn less from our successes than we do our failures (and that there aren’t really any true failures).

Chapter two covers some basics of drawing.  It has a number of techniques to try as you read the book.  The first of which is ‘blind contouring’, this really made me observe what I was drawing and made me concentrate on drawing what was actually there instead of what I thought was there.  There is a long list of ideas to try on page 21, which I will try to work through in my personal sketch book.  A similarly long list of ideas for gesture drawing is on page 30 which again I will try.


Kaupelis, R.  Experimental Drawing (1980).  Watson Guptill, New York

Research and ideas – Still Life and Happiness

As my theme for my still life is happiness, I decided to do some research to see how other artists have used this theme.

The majority of the paintings and drawings around this theme are bright and colourful and contain items like flowers.  This, on sale aat is a prime example.  Another example is a slightly different example where the artist Helen Bradley uses a vegetable to portray the transient feeling of happiness.

Although I can admire the qualities of these paintings, as I have explained in previous logs my idea of happiness is a little extraordinary.  I want to incorporate objects that make me happy or remind me of happy times but I also want a darker element to my composition.

Assignment one


In this assignment we were asked to find a few objects that trigger a response and place them together to form a still life.  We then had to set them up in a space that created interesting shapes and angles and to light them in a way that they make tones obvious.  At the same time we were to place the experimental mark making sheets we made for exploring texture and gesture near by.   We had to work on A2 or A3 and use a range of drawing tools to create our still life.

Before I started out on this assignment I conducted a lot of research into still life and drawing techniques.  I watched an excellent TV documentary on the history of still life and it’s place today.  From this I picked up a lot of tips and it made me think a lot about the choice of my objects.  One of the most useful tips I got was about composition and so I played around with a lot of objects to create shadows and interesting negative spaces.  I also tried to keep in mind the ‘rule of thirds’ and using the grid on my camera I placed objects at the thirds intersections to try and create some interest.

My choice of objects look perhaps a little odd to begin with but they are all linked with the theme of happiness.  There is:

  • A small sculpture of a mother holding a baby that I was given as a gift when my daughter was born.  This reminds me of the happiest day of my life when my daughter was born and aesthetically I have always enjoyed looking at the soft smooth curves on the piece.
  • A blue crab ornament.  This was given to me by my partner’s Mom the first time I visited them in Virginia so it reminds me of him and his family and also a great vacation in the USA.
  • 3 books (although one is deep in the shadows so not clearly seen).  There is a New York City guidebook as it reminds me of where I first met my partner.  The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien as it is my favourite book and one of the few I can reread time over and an old book called ‘The Company’ which was one of the first gifts my partner gave me.
  • A metal incense holder as one of my coping mechanisms for my bipolar disorder is meditation.  I also like the shape of this particular holder and it gives some interesting reflections.
  • A glass jar of paintbrushes as discovering painting and art has been a major source of therapy for me.
  • As a background is a suede photo album of pictures from University that bring back happy memories, I also thought a dark textured background could be interesting.
  • Scattered throughout the piece are boxes, packets and pills.  These are because I have to take a lot of psychiatric medication each day in order to have some happiness.

Going back to the composition for a moment.  I tried to view from lots of different angles to get the set up I wanted.  The composition I chose in the end was to have the light shining very brightly, with additional lighting from above, at the sculpture and having it sitting on a very white box of medication.  This makes it look as if the box almost isn’t there to symbolise that I don’t like people knowing I am a parent who needs psychiatric drugs and I tend to keep the medication hidden from others but I know I need it to ‘hold up’ my parenting role.  Similarly the other packets and containers of drugs are hidden in shadows and behind other objects, like they are always there lurking in my life but I try to keep them hidden from view.  The very front packet is creeping out into the light just like sometimes I can’t always keep my symptoms hidden from others.  I wanted the main focal point to be around the more ‘normal’ happier objects like the ornament and the sculpture but I feel perhaps like I have highlighted the box of medication too much.


Book review: ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ by John Berger.

I was recently reminded of John Berger by an excellent TV documentary I saw on the BBC called ‘The Art of Looking’.   I have a draft blog post written up about that show which I will publish but in the mean time it did make me look through my local library catalogue for books by Berger.  As I had recently been looking at some work by Picasso the book that caught my eye was ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’.

The book is divided into two sections: 1 a introduction to Picasso’s life with details of the era he grew up in and the politics of the time he was working and 2 The Painter Picasso.

The first section was indeed interesting and I did learn a great deal about Picasso the man and his influences but it is section 2 about him as a painter that interested me the most.

This edition of the book was written in 1980 but a lot of the statements in it have relevance still in the year 2016.  Berger makes the point at the beginning of this section that the painter is now to paint anything they choose.  This of course wasn’t always true when painters were made to paint religious symbols or told by the Academy to focus on the human form.  In this modern era we can pick and choose whatever subject and style we like, of course there is still the commercial element and pieces are made for commission but there is a lot of freedom.  Berger asks the question ‘has art gone abstract because the artist is embarrassed by his freedom?’.  This is an interesting point, because we are so free and nothing is forbidden, artists are constantly trying new ways to stand out, to get attention to their work.  Making very abstract pieces that cause people to stop and think and perhaps work out the meaning is one way of doing this.

Berger also makes the point that because we can now paint anything, sometimes choosing that subject is much harder, we have to search for things to give special mention to.  I am finding this myself in choosing items for Assignment 1.  I have a house full of objects I could choose and give some special meaning to but I am in the process of selecting a small sample to draw for my still life.  At the same time of selecting objects personal to myself, ones that create an emotion inside me, I am also aware of choosing objects that will look visually pleasing in the final piece.  After all my actual aim for this assignment is to show my tutor what techniques I can do and so choosing objects that allow me to do this is also a consideration.

Back to Picasso himself he is quotes as saying: “I don’t know beforehand what I shall put on the canvas, even less can I decide what colours to use.  Whilst I am working, I am not aware of what I’m painting on the canvas.  Each time I begin a picture, I have the feeling of throwing myself into space.  I never know if I’ll land on my feet.  It’s only later that I begin to assess the effect of what I’ve done.’

The idea of working in this way pleases me a great deal,  it is complete contrast to how we are asked to work in most of the exercises and assignments but it is very appealing.  In some ways the early exercise of using emotion was like this, I started with no fixed idea on what I was to create and just went with the flow of whatever emotion I was trying to channel.

In the book, Berger then goes on to say ‘When Picasso has found his subjects, he has produced a number of masterpieces.  When he has not, he has produced paintings which will eventually be seen to be absurd’.  This is quite a statement to say about any artist, but especially one who is thought of in such high regards as Picasso.  I do think it is an important message to take in though, every artist at every level will have paintings or drawings that don’t quite work, that don’t please everyone.  I think that is part of the fun and excitement of art, that you never know what a painting or drawing is going to be at the end of the process, you can never be sure if it will be a masterpiece or end up in the rubbish bin, you never know with certainty if it will be liked by others or not.  Recently I had some experience of this, I posted a series of painting I had done on my facebook page, the one that seemed to get the most attention was actually one of my personal least favourites!

The next part of this section deals mainly with Picasso’s inspirations: women, sex, the Spanish war, Communism, despair…it is well worth a read but it mainly made me think about myself.  What are my inspirations?  Where is my art voice currently?  I get a lot of my inspiration and subjects from colour and the effect that can create.  I also tend to paint things I know other people would like, but I feel like I need to get away from that to express my own feelings in my work.  As I have a mental health condition there are a lot of confused feelings sometimes and I tend to try and suppress my own feelings to concentrate on other people, I feel to find my own inner voice this is something I perhaps need to work through.


‘The Art of Looking’ (2016).  BBC Television 6 November.

Berger, J. ‘Success and Failure of Picasso’ 2nd Edition (1980), London.  Writers and Readers.


Research Point 1 – Odilon Redon, Two Trees

From  –  (1875, Charcoal on paper, 49.5 x 63.5 cm)

The drawing above was made using charcoal on paper in 1875 by Odilon Redon.

The artwork is clearly of two tree trunks in what looks like the entrance a forest or wood.  The trees have an almost human like quality and it looks like they are embracing each other with the tree on the left whispering something to the one on the right.  There is what looks like a path running from the front of the image and passes through the centre of the two trees and leaves the painting as some steps up a small hill.

The words that come to mind when I see this are: darkness, light, anthropomorphism, glade, wood, gnarled, rough, bumpy texture, bark, fairytale.

Although this an image we have to look at as part of Drawing 1, there is a great deal which attracts me to it and would have enjoyed looking at it even if it weren’t compulsory.  The sense of fantasy appeals to me, it wouldn’t look out of place in Tolkiens work which are my favourite books.  I also like the intrigue the piece creates, where are the stairs leading?  Are these the only two trees in the wood?  I mentioned Tolkien as I get the sense that when you turn your back on the trees they would spring into life as the tree on the left in particular looks like it is in an unnatural pose as if it has just been caught.

When you first look at the drawing you are drawn to the space between the two trees, like an entrance way leading you to the steps, you then notice the entrance is guarded by the two big trees and then finally you notice the tree details like the gnarled branch and the texture of the trunk.

There are a variety of different lines made in this drawing.  The tree on the left has twists and curves that follow the shape of the bent trunk, there are also shorter lines to give the texture of the bark higher up in the shadow.  The tree on the right has much straighter vertical lines to show perhaps it is a younger tree, it is less deformed and has a smoother texture.  Around the trees are lighter more free lines of the small plants on the path with longer lines to show the shadow from the trees.  In the centre the dark entrance is created by dark small close shading.

The shapes too are varied, the right tree is almost like a long cylinder and the left tree is a more twisted shape but still fundamentally is a cylinder.  Both are shaded to show the concave and bulges associated with old trees.

Tone is used with exceptional detail in this piece.  There are very dark areas to areas of light where the sun is shining down.  In between are a whole range of mid-tones created using close shading and some hatches.  Overall thought there is a very soft blended almost warm feeling even though it is a monochrome piece.  There are no harsh lines between the different shades and the tones blend in to create a very realistic piece of work.

Odilon Redon created this piece around the year 1875.  Redon was a French painter born in 1840 and so was around 35 years old when he drew this, he was known as a symbolist painter.  In 1870 he served in the Franco-Prussian war and so this was drawn just after he had seen battle.  He called his series of dark drawings which were done in shades of black his noirs. and it was not until 1878 that his work gained any recognition with Guardian Spirit of the Waters, therefore Two Trees was made before he was well known.

Guardian Spirit of the Waters (47 x 38 cm, charcoal on paper, 1878)


In Guardian Spirit of the Waters, Redon is still using charcoal on paper to create a very dramatic, atmospheric piece.  Again there is a huge range of tones from very dark shadows around the face to bright highlights on the boat and lit part of the face.  It is a very strange piece in that it should be scary and nightmarish with a giant head floating above a small boat but the dream like quality makes it more fantasy like than frightening.

After 1900, Redon moved on from his noirs to use colours and pastel work, often using Buddha in his drawings:


This is moving away from a style that was reliant on monochrome tones but Redon still captures the mystical fantasy atmosphere in his work.  The plant towards the front of the picture for example is drawn in a very fleeting whimsical way to give it an ethereal quality.  The patches of colour in the background are a mix of tones which again helps create the unreal impressionistic atmosphere.




Book Review: The Artist’s Handbook of Materials and Techniques by Ralph Mayer (required reading for Drawing 1)

When I started Drawing 1 and saw the reading list my first action was to check my local library catalogue to see what I could borrow and not buy.  The only book on the reading list that was in my local library collection was this one.  At over 700 pages long it isn’t a book to sit and read cover to cover but more of a encyclopedia for artists to dip into when needed.

My concern is with so much up to date information available in digital form these days, how much extra value does this book actually give.  To be honest if I have a query about a particular technique or material I am probably going to look on the internet and compare sources rather than use this book.  The book does contain a lot of detail such an incredibly intricate chapter on the different pigments available, how they are made, what properties they have, the chemistry of the materials etc etc.  However my learning style is very much one of doing and experimenting with colours so I’m not sure how likely I am to read about the particular pigments and then choose them, I am more likely to experiment with colours until I find a combination I like.

It will be interesting to hear if any other students further along the course have used this book much and what in particular they have found the most useful about this book.

TV Documentary : Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting.

As I know Assignment 1 is on the general theme of still life, I was intrigued by a BBC documentary on iPlayer entitled ‘Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting.  The 90-minute show is both a history of still life in art and full of characteristics of the different still life techniques.  I can honestly say I learned A LOT from this very informative show and recommend it to anyone who wants to know more about Still Life in art through different movements.

What I did find thought-provoking throughout the documentary was the ideas behind what still-life represents.  It is something I will consider more as I prepare for assignment 1.  The show made the point that we’re bombarded with images but the story of still life isn’t about looking, its about seeing.  Still life asks us to stop and consider the world anew and to take pleasure in the simple things, to understand the beauty of nature whist at the same time valuing the material world.  Almost everything has aesthetic qualities and to appreciate the moment and ordinary things, still life can help.  It isn’t about painting the most valuable or significant objects with obvious signs of importance.  It asks us to consider things we normally neglect.

The TV show defines a still life has having four main elements: the objects, their place in space, lighting, framing and how composition works.  These are things I will definitely experiment with when I compose my own still life in the coming weeks.

The next part of the show was an interesting history of famous still life pieces of art. It considers the importance of Still Life through the movements, how it has been relegated many times but then rose again to play the key role in revolutionary movements.  Like a lot of art it has always been intertwined with religion, politics and wealth.


By Caravaggio – Own work, user:Lafit86, Public Domain,


‘Basket of fruit by Caravaggio (1596)’ which was painted with realism and detail is historically the first known painting of basket of fruit, people had never seen a painting like it and it is considered the first major still life.  It opened a new chapter in art history but is  Caravaggio’s only still life.  In the painting you can see he was full of doubt, all the fruit are imperfect and damaged like the worm eaten apples which are said to represent Eve’s apple that condemned man.  It also contains religious vine leaves to represent Christ as vines make wine that is his blood, so it thought to be a painting about death and hope for eternal life with huge doubt.  Even the vines are withering to show salvation isn’t certain and in fact the whole basket on ledge as if about to fall.

However, Caravaggio was not the first to paint still life.  He actually resurrected a popular ancient discipline. In ancient Egypt there were paintings with elements of still life, in   Ancient Greece too.  However, the finest example of ancient world still life was discovered in Pompeii (Xenia art) where 2000 year old Roman still life frescoes were found. They were to represent gifts between hosts, trade in goods and ideas, diplomat visits and in general to advertise to the wider word how cosmopolitan Roman life was and what hospitality to expect.  The paintings were of domestic humble things, range of textures, natural and man-made, overhang the edge of the table, they helped to define the rules of composition and direction of light in paintings.  Still in the majority of gallery paintings, light comes from the left hand side, it is thought it is maybe to do with literacy in the West which also from left to right.

From popularity in Roman Xenia art, Still life fell to be destined to be considered the lowest form of art.  Pliny the Elder who wrote a Natural History, considered the first encyclopedia wrote a whole paragraph on still life.  He described it as ‘simple and base things’  and the painter of low and mealy things, it was considered a base form of art.  Pliny’s work set the tone for future centuries that still life was to be seen as vulgar and low status and it disappeared with the Roman empire until Caravaggio resurrected it.

In the medieval age there was no place for ordinary objects due to the rise of Christianity in art.  The church had no place for secular ordinary objects and as still life did not contribute to Christian society it had no place.  All objects were symbols, e.g. apples to represent Adam and Eve, you wouldn’t see just an apple, you’d see apple, tree, Adam, Eve and serpents.

The introduction of oil as a binder during the renaissance allowed more realistic objects to be painted as previously artists were limited to the flat dull tempera.  In the 15th Century the Church still commissioned most artworks but gradually painters started pushing Jesus to the background of scenes and more prominence on every day objects was seen with many more elements of still life.  Caravaggio was the first to replace all religious symbols and just painted the basket of fruit.

Basket of Fruit has been in the same Milan gallery since 1607.  Its founder Cardinal Federico Borromeo began commissioning other still life works of art as he enjoyed the style of painting so much.  He collected work from people like Flemish painter Jan Breugel’s ‘Bouquet’.


Artists from Northern Europe would then start visiting Milan as part of their training and returned influenced by the Still Life paintings they saw as a result, Holland provided the golden age of still life.  The market for still life exploded in Amsterdam around 1600 and then spread around Europe especially during protestant reformation where extravagant Catholic art was torn down.  Holland became free from Monarchy and the Catholic Church and so embraced secular still life.  Holland also became richest country on Earth in 17th Century and you see worldwide objects in the still life, exotic fruit, Chinese ceramics, luxury goods, symbols of wealth that decorated homes.


‘Still Life with Cheese, Floris Claesz. van Dijck, c. 1615’


The demand for still life became so high, artists would invent new compositions using old drawings to satisfy the amount of customers, so the paintings were not necessarily from observation.  This can be seen in paintings where flowers that couldn’t be in the same season are together in one painting.  Banquet pieces of art also appeared which were uninhibited displays of possession and wealth, objects like lobsters, cut tulips (which were very very expensive at that time).  However symbols also appeared things were painted having been pushed over to show wreckage as consumption, the principle of corruption of wealth.  Although Holland was embracing the secular there were  residual religious sentiments, Calvinists shouldn’t be celebrating wealth and so reminders of mortality show up to satisfy the protestants.  Symbols of death appear like skulls vanitas paintings were common to show the futility of accumulating material possessions.  Militia symbols were also commonplace to show the effects of war, musical items again were symbolic,  as soon as you stopped playing music at that time it was dead as recording was unavailable.  The general theme being to celebrate riches but also with an undertone of meaning that it will all fade one day.

‘Still life with a gilt cup’  – the cloth could be pulled out from wealth at any moment.


Spanish painters also took up still life e.g Cotan’s bodegone art which were austere larder pieces of art.  Food was displayed within a concrete block and suspended on string but painted in a very realist style, it got back to this idea of looking at simple things (Cotan lived a monastic life) but in an unworldly way.


As the centre of the art movement moved to the French academy in the Louvre, the hierarchy changed again as they viewed human figure art as the most important, the placed still life bottom of the heap again.  It wasn’t until Chardin that it beganto be taken seriously again.

‘The buffet’ Jean-Baptistse Chardin 1728


Chardin was the first to have some objects in focus and others not and so introduced a slightly new style of still life. In the French Academy, still life was one of the few disciplines women were allowed to do.  Women could not acquire figurine painting skills as they weren’t allowed to view naked men but they could look at baskets of fruit.  Anne Vallayer Coster in fact was one of few women to be accepted into the academy based on her still life works.


In modern art it was Paul Cezanne with his rushed, imprecise distorted style (the antithesis of realism that had dominated for centuries) that showed still life in a new way.  Cezanne  emphasised painting is about how we see things and what we see is not fixed, you can see this in things like the double outline of apples in how work.


He painted very simple objects were the form and reflection was his  main interest and he concentrated on how scene was perceived, abandoning the fiction that painting is reality.  The rules of painting could be bent allowing reworking of the visible world and impressionistic painters like.  Renoir, Monet and Gaugin followed.

As photography skills developed, artists started to move away from the photographic look and concentrated on what painting could do that photography couldn’t.  Art can add emotion and no longer had to look real,  photographs couldn’t capture texture or create 3D texture like paint could.  This became the foundations for cubism through the likes of Picasso.

Green Still life – Picasso 1914


Cubism allowed exploration from different viewpoints at once a sort of spatial chaos and still life became illegible and experimental.  Instead of reality and photographic quality paintings, perception has become the central idea that everyone sees things differently.

What I find particularly interesting is the role of still life today.  Like I mentioned at the start, the TV show highlighted that we’re currently inundated on a day to day basis by images and material possessions.  Still life is one of the most common features in modern day advertising, we see it in bus stops, on the side of buses, as photos in magazines.  However, do we appreciate the objects that it depicts?  We bring so much new stuff into our homes we don’t often stop to explore the relationship we have with those objects.

Life certainly isn’t still anymore but what still life does is make you stop and look closely, observe closely, not something we do anymore commonly, we seem to like change and newness has prestige. We buy new stuff but don’t study it.  Perhaps when I do compose my own still life for assignment one this is something I will focus on.



Apples, Pears and Paint: How to make a Still Life Painting 2014, television program, British Broadcasting Corporation, London , Watched online 21 November.