Book Review: What are you Looking At? by Will Gompertz

This is a truly excellent book for anyone interested in modern art.  Gompertz writes in a very accessible way in an almost novel like style and he makes the subject interesting and relevant.  In this book he covers a great deal of history from Pre-Impresionism up to the current era.  Alongside the vast amount of knowledge are relevant photographs of pieces of art, both black and white in the text and relevant colour plates in the centre of the book.

As I have been struggling to get back into my coursework, this book has provided the much needed push back towards enthusiasm for art that I needed!



Gompertz, W. What are You Looking at? 150 Years of modern art in the blink of an eye.  2016.  London: Penguin Books.

Book Review: A Concise History of Modern Painting by Herbert Read

I started this book back in December and have finally reached the end.  As I mentioned in the previous post what I do really like and find useful about this book is the good mix of images an text.  Another very useful feature is at the back of the book is a pictorial survey of modern painting with key paintings displayed in chronological order, it makes you appreciate the general trends but also pieces that at the time bucked the trend.

What this book has made me think about in a lot of detail is how movements are formed, how they develop and how they change.  Is it a case of being in the right place at the right time?  Certainly in the past I think that was a key issue, people had to geographically relocate to be at the hubs of activity in Germany, Paris, New York etc.  Is that still the case today?  I don’t think so, due to the influence of social media, better transport, video links, electronic communication and ease of communication in general.  I do still think there is a massive importance on reading about other artists, looking at work from both the past and current exhibitions and linking in with people as much as possible.  I don’t think  it is possible for someone working in pure isolation to get their ideas on the main stage.  By nature I am quite introverted and generally like to work alone, I’m also not that confident in sharing my work and tend to back out of discussions but I need to push myself out of my comfort zone slightly and get more involved with other people working.  Studying with the OCA is quite isolating in that we don’t work together in studios and see each others work regularly, we rely on people posting online and you never really get a true sense of a piece of work from just an image.  However, we need to make the most of what we do have and that is great internet discussions and I will try and get even more involved in them.



Read H, 1998.  A Concise History of Modern Painting .Thames and Hudosn Ltd London

Research – Natural Objects – Shells – O’Keeffe

In the initial section of Part 2 we are asked to focus on natural objects.  As I have lots in my garden (no idea why, they were there when we moved in!) I initially focused on shells.  Whilst  working on my drawings, Georgia O’Keeffe’s work on shells was brought to my attention.

In ‘Red Hill and White Shell‘ the white shell is the key image of the painting and it is placed in front of a red hill and magnified to look oversized compared to the hill.  It is a painting where either the shell is enormous or the world around it is miniature.  The words that spring to mind when looking at the painting are: miniature, oversized, smooth, cool, hot, contrast, wonderland, sea, atmosphere, thunder, fantasy, dream.

I was attracted to this piece as it has a shell as the main focus but also because I like the contrast in colours between the cool, pearl shell and the red hot mountains.  The choice of colour helps to magnify the shell even more and make it pop against its background.  Although the drawings in the coursebook seem to be getting us to draw based on observation, this painting has made me think a lot about the choice of background for our natural objects.  Do we have to stick with a realistic ‘in situ’ background or can we add interest by placing our natural objects in a stranger world?

This piece of art by O’Keefe makes me think of Alice in Wonderland and I do question the proportions of the hill and the shell.  Is the shell really that big or is it drawn from the perspective of something much smaller?

The thunderous, dramatic sky also add to this fantasy illusion, as do the soft folds of the ground around the shell.  Again, the use of colour is interesting, the folds appear to be a mix of the red used for the hill and the white used for the shell, to help link everything together in this otherwise distorted world.  I am also drawn to the spiral of the shell, it seems to suck you right into the centre of the painting as if you are falling down a spiral staircase.

Shells traditionally are symbolic of love and fertility, placing this in front of soft red folds that could almost be uterine in nature could be significant.  O’Keeffe always rejected any feminist or freudian symbolic meaning to her work but countless others have attributed symbolic meaning to her work, could this shell be another of them?

O’Keeffe used oils to paint this piece and the original is a big piece of work at 36inches square.  The use of oils has given the shell a very smooth texture and the colours are blended perfectly to add to the smooth appearance.  It gives the impression that the painting would feel just like that type of shell.  The shells I have been looking at are different in their nature and especially as they’ve been in my garden for some time they are rugged, rough and full of imperfections.


Research Point – Positive and Negative Space

As I have previously written about here negative spaces are the gaps between objects in a still life and they can often provide the interest and drama to a final piece.  One artist mentioned in the Course book is Gary Hume who incorporates negative space dramatically in his work.

Gary Hume is best known for his stylized depictions of everyday objects using high-gloss industrial paint, he works in a simplified, reductive aesthetic, “The edge is the only thing that matters,” he explained of his paintings. “I used to think of the areas of color as tectonic plates meeting, so in the paintings it’s like there are these molten plates that would hit each other and dry. I wanted one of those plates to be higher than the other, and I wanted the hit to be more abrupt.”  It is clear from looking at Hume’s paintings how important this edge of colour and the spaces between the blocks of colour are, as the ‘objects’ are so simplified, the spaces between them seen to have even more emphasis and are seen as equals to the positive spaces.

Other artists use negative space as part of the drawing.  One example I really like is on the cover of a copy of ‘Peter and the Wolf‘ and is an illustration by Phoebe Morris.  It is using negative and positive spaces in a very different way to Hume and the negative space is almost a different positive depending on how you look at the piece, it reminds me of the visual illusions where you see either a rabbit or old woman depending on how you look and the two images constantly flick into view giving the piece some dynamics.

A book my tutor recommended to me in my assignment feedback was ‘Vitamin D – New Perspectives in Drawing’.  I have managed to pick up a copy and I decided to look through, focusing on how artists featured use positive and negative space.  Early on in the book are drawings by Ryoko Aoki and one caught my attention for its dramatic use of negative space ‘Sewing Factory’.  Aoki deliberately leaves the faces and body parts of the women blank and the outlines are created just by the positive shapes around them, this leads the women at work to have an anonymous, soulless quality devoid of any individuality which can be the feeling when working in a mundane factory type job.  The use of the positive and negative space really helps to capture the emotion of the people at work, feeling like they are no more than a part of the factory.

Flicking through, another that strikes me is Memed Erdener, he uses very simple materials and working in monochrome in his works ‘Europe, Europe Hear Our Voice’ (2004) he uses positive and negative spaces to create a silhouette type effect, again keeping the people involved anonymous, like they could be anyone in Turkey.  The black and white provides huge contrast, like they are two sides fighting against each other.

Frances Richardson’s ‘Paradise Lost‘ also caught my attention.  In this piece she uses the negative space to create the illusion that parts of the drawing have been erased. As the rest of the drawing looks like a sketch of a religious icon or stained glass window the erased look makes it look like religion has been wiped out or lost.  A very powerful use of negative space.

Looking through ‘Vitamin D’ has been an inspirational activity, there are so many artists and drawings that I will keep coming back to.  It has also made me want to experiment more in my own work, there is such variety within the book and so many techniques and approaches to try.  Looking specifically at negative space has also been helpful as I don’t think I have considered the powerful nature of them before and have always concentrated on the positive objects instead.  Food for thought indeed!


Burton, J. and Herman, J. (2011). Vitamin D. 1st ed. London [etc.]: Phaidon.

Book Review: A Concise History of Modern Painting – Chapter One by Herbert Read

Yet another book I picked up from my local library.  On a first glance this book looks very inviting, it looks like a good mix of text and full colour photographs of artworks.  The preface sets out the author’s position on the book, Read talks about significant omissions and sets the caveat that of course there is some personal prejudice about the artists he has chosen to include.  I think that’s an important point to keep in mind when reading any art book.  The book will never tell the whole story of art.

Chapter One covers the origins of modern art.   In the first paragraph is a very interesting point: in art, a school once established normally deteriorates as it goes on, it starts off as a burst of perfection sometimes too quick for a historian to capture and the equilibrium is permanently unstable.  This to me is why Art is so exciting, it is unpredictable and we don’t know what the next big trend will be, where it’ll come from or how long it will last.  I think in the modern age where information can be spread around the world so quickly and people from their own homes can share their artwork globally this is ever true.  There are little pockets of activity dotted worldwide and I don’t think we are confined to the big exhibitions anymore as our source of movements.

A few paragraphs later is the author’s definition of art ‘as a means of conceiving the world visually’.  The artist is simply the man who has the ability and the desire to transform his visual perception into a material form, this requires first perception and secondly expression.  A very important point made is that ‘we see what we learn to see’, we see what we want to see sometimes.  This is true in drawings I have done and then looke dback at, I have drawn what I thought was there instead of a true observation, something I am working through with the help of the ‘Required Reading – Experimental Drawing by Robert Kaupelis.

The author makes the claim that what is called the modern movement began with a painter who was determined to see the world objectively – Cezanne.  Cezanne wanted to an object without any intervention of the mind or untidy emotions. Cezanne followed the Impressionists who had seen the world subjectively and he wanted to get rid of the shimmering and ambiguous nature to get to the true reality that wasn’t changed by the senses.  Cezanne also thought the human perception was confused and he saw it as an artist’s role to bring some sense to this confusion.  The result from his attempts to eliminate the act of perception was what he himself called an ‘abstraction’.  Read goes on to claim that there was no considerable artist of the twentieth century that was not influenced by Cezanne, such was the importance of his break from impressionism.

At this same time in history were a couple of other significant influences, from Great Britain was the Arts and Crafts movement as styled by the likes of William Morris and Charles Rennie Macintosh, and from Japan came the likes of ‘curios’ and woodcut print.  For example in the background of Manet’s portrait of Zola (1868) is a Japanese print and there were many other examples.  Van Gogh took the Japanese influence further and began to copy Japanese woodcut prints in oil paint, even using Oriental reed pens for his ink drawings.  Gauguin was another to adopt features of Oriental art.

Georges Seurat was another to chase after the objective nature of objects and he read scientific papers on optics and colours in order to break down colours into their constituent hues and adding them to the canvas in tiny brush strokes or dots.  This is another technique I want to try when we start looking at colour later in the course.  His research into colour was followed by a scientific look at aesthetic harmony.


Read H, 1998.  A Concise History of Modern Painting .Thames and Hudosn Ltd London

Still Life Research for Part 2

Unknowingly I have already conducted some research for Part 2’s theme of still life.  Here is my write-up about a recent TV documentary that covered the history of Still Life.

Instead of repeating what I have written there, I am going to for this research point concentrate on contemporary still life as I feel that is an area I didn’t really look into last time.

Firstly I researched in a very modern way, I went to instagram and searched for the hashtag #stillife I did this as being on instagram myself it seems to be a common place for new, contemporary, currently unrecognised people to post their artwork.


What I noticed straight away was a lot of photographs, still life seems to be a very common photography theme (there were over 1 million search returns).  I also noticed as I scrolled through there were a lot of fruit, flowers, vessels and food, similar to the themes of the 16th and 17th century Dutch greats but obviously more modern versions of these.  When I searched for the more specific #stilllifepainting:


Again, there are a lot of flowers, fruit, vegetables and vessels.

Artnews wrote a piece on contemporary still life in 2014 and features numerous artists, one of which is Mat Collishaw’s ‘Last Meal on Death Row, Texas’.  Although a photographic piece not drawing, I find the concept eeringly fascinating.  Collishaw has set out the items in arrangements like the 16th century still life paintings, with objects overhanging the edge of the table and food items scattered over the plates and table, even the background being very dark is similar to works of the Dutch still life painters.  It is only when you know the reason that particular group of foods are together that you also realise another connection with the 16th century vanitas paintings and the morbid image of death.

In the article is a quote from Paul Martineau saying ‘The issues of death and time and consumption are key to the genre’.  I hope to move away from the issue of death with my own still life and build on my previous assignment piece to have recovery from mental illness as a theme, so the total opposite of death.  It is therefore interesting for me to see images and pieces of art associated with death to help me build a contrast in my own work.

Another artists mentioned in the article is Saara Ekstrom, again another photographer but their work is equally fascinating to me.  Ekstrom photographs images again associated with death and decay.  One of my favourite pieces by her is Clouded Yellow Bud which is a time-lapse of mould forming on a cup of tea.

It is not just photography where the still life genre is flourishing in the contemporary world, painters too seem to be still embracing it too.  Jorge Diezma is one who paints on oversized canvases in a photorealistic style with similar themes of decadence and death as the traditional still life paintings.  Emma Bennet takes the themes and ideas of traditional still life but paints cropped sections of them in a series to show the ideas in a new and interesting way.  Viewing her work has given me some ideas of things to experiment with, I wonder what cropped sections of my drawings would look like.  Rebecca Scott has a series of Still Lie paintings calles ‘Perfect Life’ she paints in a way that the series could belong to an instagram feed or appear as photos on social media.  This theme of people portraying perfection on social media is fascinating to me as it is something I have thought of in detail before, I will definitely be coming back to this theme in the future.  Tom Brown is an artist I stumbled upon through following various links, he paints still ife but with a lot of energy and movement in the marks.  I like the effect he has produced and again it is one I wish to experiment with myself in the future.

Unfortunatley the Oxford Art OCA login isn’t working at the moment, but I’m mentioning it here to remind myself to go back there when it is!







Negative Spaces – SAA ‘Paint’ magazine

I recently joined ‘The Society for all Artists’ (SAA) and as part of the membership I receive a copy of Paint magazine.  In the recent magazine is a tutorial by Trevor Waugh on using negative space in still life.  This interested me as I have been looking at still life in my research and for the assignment work I have been doing.

In the article are some useful pieces of advice that I will try in my own work:

  • Take you time setting up your still life and consider the negative spaces as well as the objects.  In assignment one I did take my time setting up the objects and I tried various arrangements but I can’t say I took that much notice of the negative spaces at the early stage.  In my next arrangement I will focus more on these.
  • The shapes you leave out are usually the ones that speak.  Waugh is writing about watercolour in particular but I think this also applies to many media.  When I look back with fresh eyes at my assignment piece I do see the negative spaces and they do help connect the objects but many of them in mine are in deep shadow.
  • The shadows connect all the objects.
  • Negative spaces help throw objects forwards
  • Your work is personal to you – make every mark with care and remember sometimes less is more.


Waugh T, Shadow Play.  Paint Nov 2016 page 12-13