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

Book Review: ‘Think Like an Artist’ by Will Gompertz

I have been in a bit of a slump recently, my own mental health hasn’t been too great and I have started to neglect my Drawing 1 coursework.  To be honest I’m struggling with all the still life early on in the course and am lacking a bit of inspiration for the work leading up to Assignment two.  In order to try and perk myself up I went to the local library and had a look through their art books.  I found this book and as it is only about 200 pages long I decided to give it a read to see if it would help me get back into the creativity and productive work I was doing before the new year.

Will Gompertz is the Arts Editor at the BBC and someone whose other books and TV shows I have enjoyed in the past, he writes about Art in a very accessible way and so I started with high hopes for this book.
The introduction starts with a bold claim that ‘we are all artists’.  This is interesting in itself as I have recently been following an online discussion thread with fellow Drawing 1 students about when we start calling ourselves artists.  What are we now?  Are we artists?  Are we student artists?  My own feelings are similar to the statement in the book, I think we are all artists, we all have the ability to create and express ourselves but that some of us do it in different ways or choose not to.  Yes, we have different levels of skill and experience but I don’t think that some of us are more talented than others just that some people have chosen to focus on art and their way of expressing and so have spent time and energy developing their skills to a higher level than others.
The following chapters each take a theme each and state how artists employ them and what others can learn from them.  I don’t for one moment see this book as a blueprint as to how live a creative life but there are a lot of useful hints and tips and for me, a reminder of why I like living a creative life and why I get great satisfaction from expressing myself.
Chapter Two ‘Artists Don’t Fail’ is particularly interesting to me as it is all about how artists experiment, try, go to plan B etc until they find their own personal artistic voice and style.  Experimenting more is something my tutor highlighted to me in my feedback to Assignment 1 and it is something I need to do more in my preliminary work for assignments.  I need to try something, reflect on it, experiment and repeat until I find my own personal style and voice.
Chapter 3 about curiosity is also interesting to me, especially at a time when I’m struggling to engage with the course tasks.  Artists are naturally curious about the subjects they draw and paint, they study them in immense detail and immerse themselves in research.  To do this they must find subjects they are passionate about to dedicate the time and energy required.  I think this sums up why I am struggling with the tasks in Part 2 so far, I haven’t yet found the angle or subject within them that I am passionate about.  Perhaps I need some time reflecting on the course materials and tasks and try to find an angle I can take that I can get behind.

Project 1 – reflections

I was a little confused with the instructions for this section and so I did a mismatch of different media and concentrated on two types of natural object: shells and oranges.  In the end I drew a set of 3 oranges with coloured pencils.

The coloured pencils were effective at layering up colours and showing the multitude of different oranges, reds, yellows and browns in the fruit.  I felt like I showed the individuality of each of the 3 fruits, how they were not a standard orange or perfect spheres.

I am pleased with my final piece but I don’t think I have experimented enough with different marks and textures.  I need to do some more work in this area.

I did learn to read instructions more carefully before starting as this would have allowed more focused work and allowed for more development time.

If I were to repeat this, and I probably will repeat it, I would concentrate more on experimenting with marks rather than focusing on the end result.  I don’t think I did this part of the task effectively and having looked at other students work on their blogs I am inspired to try this again.  I would stick with one media and just work on using that media in a different way,

I have achieved my first use of colour in this course.  I am used to dealing with colour from a painting perspective but haven’t really used colour in terms of crayons and pastels much before so it is all a big learning experience!

I don’t really think I have linked theory and practice very well in this section and it something I will try and do more of in Project 2.  I did enjoy looking at how artists use negative space and I did consider that when I was building my compositions with both the shells and the oranges.  I have also read a lot about colour theory in the past and so utilised this on knowing how to blend different shades for the oranges.

In my future pieces I will build upon this use of colour and experiment more with mark making and compositions.  This is exciting for me as I think it will lead my paintings to become more unique to me as I will have my own story in each of them.

Part 2 – Project 1 – Exercise 1 Detail and Tone

Project 1 was on the topic of detailed observations of natural objects.  I initially focused my attention on shells as I had some sitting in the garden that had some interesting weathering effects to them.  I experimented with different media, initially starting in my new preferred media charcoal and concentrated on trying to show the texture of the shell.  I then tried soft pastels, pencils, ink, frottage, pencil and chalk experimenting with loose and tight strokes.
One thing picked up in Assignment 1 was not showing in my sketchbook how I was experimenting with compositions and layouts.  So I took this as an opportunity to experiment, both with physically moving the shells and doing quick sketches of the layouts.
I also experimented with using sandpaper as a background material and so stuck a piece of this in my sketch book.  It really didn’t work as well as I had planned and needs much more experimenting with.
I then re-read the task we were asked to do and realised it was more about tones and colour.  Although my shells had some colour I felt like I needed to use something with more varieties of colour so I went back to something I had experimented with early in my sketchbook.  I picked out a selection of oranges and first played with different media.  I used crayons, pencils, ink pens, oil pastel and soft pastel.  I liked the watercolour nature of both the crayon and the pencils but felt the crayon worked best with water on this paper.  The pens were a disaster as the colours did not blend at all and my mark making was not as effective as it could have been.  I liked both the soft and oil pastels as the colours layered and blended well so show all the orange tones in the fruit.
I used the oil pastel to draw one composition:
However, upon reading the task again I realised we were supposed to use pencils and so I reverted back to my coloured pencils to draw another composition.

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.