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.

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.


Exhibition – Benedict Drew: KAPUT at Liverpool Walker Art Gallery

Kaput is an art installation by Benedict Drew that occupies two rooms in the Walker Art Gallery.  The information before you enter the first room  warns you of darkness and explains the installation is on the themes of space tourism, day dreams, learning and the power of music.

As you first enter you are greeted by a mock wall of day-glo posters with very psychedelic colours reminiscent of the 80s.  In the main section of the first room are numerous elements, you can’t miss the giant day-glo Richard Branson portrait at the end of the room overlooking the rest of the installation.  Also on the left hand side is a black and white pyramid sculpture which is interesting on its own but when thought about in context of the rest of the room is even more so.  In the centre of the room, again in day-glo colours, is what looks like a sculpture of a human corpse, wired up with day-glo wires.  In the four corners of the room, wired up to the Branson portrait’s eyes are four speakers with a metal like foil sculpture on each.  Also present in the dark room are two TV screens and music is playing to add to the eery, anxious atmosphere.

These are the words that I wrote in my notebook whilst experiencing the installation: eery, weird, dystopian, darkness, control, power, out of body experience, scary, anxious, frightening, torture, influence, death, disturbing, pain, hair raising.

This wasn’t actually the exhibit that I went to see, I went originally to the Walker to look at what still life paintings they had on display to do some research for my next assignment but this exhibition is the one caused the biggest reaction in me during my visit.  I was intrigued as the exhibit door was blackened out and the notice on it warned about the darkness.  The exhibit was labelled as looking at ‘space tourism’ and so that also attracted me as Physics is my other passion.  To be honest, the only part of the space tourism I got from the experience was the link to Branson but I don’t think that idea shone through that strongly.

One thing that the exhibit did remind me of is the Netflix TV series ‘Black Mirror’.  Black Mirror looks at the way we use technology and often has quite dystopian themes.  Whilst I was in the installation room and talking to one of the gallery staff afterwards, I very much got the dystopian message of Drew’s piece.  The overriding image I have is one of big businesses (represented by Branson) taking control of our lives through technology and how technology itself is becoming apart of us.  The four foil sculptures to me seemed like the four chambers of a beating heart that was wired up to Branson, when you stood close to them, they did seem to beat like a heartbeat.  The body in the middle was our sense of individuality being dead and we are just robots in the corporate technology machine, again controlled by rich individuals.  The pyramid structure was interesting as pyramids are a symbol of entering the after-life and ancient religious practices and it here seemed to suggest we have left one life and are entering another world where technology is even more powerful than it is now.


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!