A Self-Reflection on Progress to Date

Following the last exercise I decided to reflect on my progress on the course so far.  Whilst my tutor feedback has on the whole been positive, I am still reverting to my safe option of drawing the visual appearance of the object without experimenting enough.  This tends to produce a drawing that is OK,  however, I feel I am capable of much more but for some reason am not realising that potential.

At my last feedback session my tutor advised me not to treat the course as a tick-box exercise but to approach the course in a more organic way – cross fertilising ideas between different exercises, research and sketches, taking forwards things that have worked and looking back at previous work to see what elements I think could be used in future drawings.

I do have a tendency to put the previous unit away in a portfolio once it comes back from my tutor and never look at it again.  I therefore got out every piece of work I have completed so far and laid them out on the floor so I could reflect on my progress.

One of the first things I noticed was that I was more experimental in the first unit when the subject matter was looser than in the still life unit when I stiffened up my approach, which in many ways has continued into the landscape unit.  It would be easy for me to blame the unit exercises and say it is because they are more perspective in the choice of subject and style of drawing but that would be untrue.  I have always felt I have a great deal of freedom from my tutor in my interpretation of the exercise requirements.

Looking at my work laid on the floor I seem to work best when approaching the drawing from two seemingly opposite views point – focusing on detail and being experimental.  My drawings of the clarinet, texture of objects, the bath and the stairway all focus in on the detail of a view and are therefore quite analytical.  The drawings of recycling waste on a KFC bag, frontage prints, continuous line drawings and panorama are more experimental in nature and have a vitality lacking in many of my other drawings.

It is also clear from looking at my drawings that narrative in an image is important to me.  This  can be seen in the drawing of my feet in the bath and the series of still-lifes on man’s impact on the environment.

I clearly get better at drawing when I repeat a subject and work larger, as well as when I just play – such as my continuous line and blind drawings.  Surprising for me, my pencil drawings look the weakest whilst my pen/ink and charcoal drawings the strongest.  On looking back at my pencil drawings this is probably because I am not using enough contrast in the tones, with the range of values far too narrow.

In relation to research even though I go to exhibitions and undertake research, once that post or piece of research is written, it is forgotten and I am not actively taking forwards much of what I have gained from seeing the artist ‘s work.  The except to this is the skeleton drawings following my research into the shelter drawings of Henry Moore.

So, why do I return to trying to portray an accurate rendition of the visual appearance of the object when my better work includes an element of experimental and randomness?  Well, amongst other things it is easy, safe, I think it is what the assessors will want, it saves thinking too much and culturally, it is probably what I have been conditioned to think is ‘good’ art and this rises from my sub-conscious each time I try to produce a drawing.

Why I am not taking forwards previous ideas and successes from past exercises and my research?  It is because once completed they are filed away and will not see light of day until I go for assessment.  This has clearly got to change.  I need to keep everything together so that I am continuously reviewing work and research and incorporating what I have learnt in future pieces.  In effect,  keeping a visual diary of work for the exercises, sketches, research notes in one place so that each time I pick things up I can refer back to sparkle new ideas.  I thought I had started to achieve this by working mainly on A3 paper so that I can bind it all together at assessment time.  But clearly these are still being put away as completed and not seen again until the assignment due date or assessment.  I will reflect on how to move this forwards which works for me.

The Future

  • Focus on detail where appropriate
  • Be far more experimental (paper, medium, mark-making, random events, accidents, process, etc), expressive, and enjoy the moment (stop over-thinking)
  • Include narrative where appropriate
  • Interpret and re-interpret the exercise
  • Stop trying to be neat and be more uninhibited
  • Continually review past work and research to incorporate it in future work
  • Bring everything together in one visual diary to achieve the previous point.

Following this self reflect I looked at my tutor feedback reports for assignments 1 & 2 (another thing I file away) and unsurprising, all the above has been mentioned.  Sometimes however, you need to discover it for yourself in order to move forwards.

Proj 3, Ex. 1: Developing Your Studies

I looked back at my sketch walk drawings and 360 degree studies and chose to develop the Dungeness studies.  I tried out a couple of compositions before decided to have the power station buildings as the background with the huts and beach in the foreground.

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Even whilst doing the initial sketches I knew I was not completely happy with the composition but thought I would adjust it as I developed the main picture.  I prepared a paper with an ink wash to give some random variety to the sky and added a yellow ochre band at the bottom of the page.  I then used conte crayon to develop the buildings and rest of the picture.

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I think this image is unsuccessful.  Whilst I do like the simple block shape of the power station looming over the landscape,  the perspective of the middle and fore ground is wrong, the marks are not varied enough, the path is all wrong and the colours are wrong.  Also, once again, whilst I enjoy drawings which have gestural marks which show energy, this drawing has defaulted to my restrained approach of depicted the visual appearance in too literal a way.  It is not the move towards a more abstracted drawing that I wanted for this drawing and admire in other artists.

I thought back to my feedback from my tutor at the last assignment and decided to go back over all the work I have completed to date, lay it out and reflect on what has worked and what was less successful, look at her assignment reports and look at a way forwards for the rest of the module.

This ‘failed’ drawing is a good thing as it has made me question my approach and review my progress.  This is also probably a good time to undertake the review as I am about half way through the course and need to reflect to improve.  I shall undertake this reflection this weekend and my next post will detail the result.

Proj 2, Ex. 3: 360 degree Studies

I took this exercise to be about finding drawings in unexpected places.  I therefore choose to go to a place where I knew the landscape would be pretty uninspiring and see what, if anything, I could draw.  I went to Oare Marshes, a flat marsh landscape next to the estuary with lots of mudflats.  My first two drawings show part of an old WW2 concrete structure in the foreground and then the vegetation extending back to the estuary in the first drawing and to the power lines in the other direction.

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My next drawing shows the layers of vegetation plus various plants and the final drawing in ink looks across to the wind turbines on the Isle of Sheppey.  These four drawings did bring home to me that you can find a subject in any landscape and whilst I might not choose to develop any of them further, just drawing them sparks ideas for other locations.

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I decided to extend the idea of this exercise and complete a larger panorama drawing.  I want to have some definite fore, middle and background so picked a higher viewpoint looking across a valley at the top of Wye Hill.  At my last feedback my tutor encouraged me to use charcoal more so I decided to use this medium for this drawing.  The drawing was completed over two days at the same time each day to try to keep the light the same.   It is 1.10m long by 0.32 m high.

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I enjoyed undertaking the panorama so went down to the coast to complete a drawing in colour using conte crayons.   This is of the salt marsh at Pegwell Bay with Ramsgate cliffs in the background.  this drawing is 1.07 m long by 0.38 m high.

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I think the charcoal drawing is the more successful of the two panoramas as it has a greater depth of field and a better variety of marks and tones (although this is difficult to see in the blog photograph).

Proj 2, Ex. 2: Sketchbook Walk

For my sketchbook walk I chose to go to Dungeness, a place I visit quite often both for the nature reserve and because I like the variety of the environment – quite bleak beaches, old and new beach houses, converted industrial buildings, unusual beach plants and, of course, the power station.

For my sketch walk, I kept my materials quite simple – pencil, pen and A3 paper attached to a drawing board.  My four small sketches show the diversity of buildings at the site – a broken down wooden hut, a group of more traditional beach houses, a former lookout building now converted to a modern home (right next to the lighthouse fog horn) and a final sketch of the beach itself.

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Whilst there I decided to do a larger pen and ink drawing of the old lighthouse and round keepers residence with the new automatic lighthouse in the background.   I used a sketching water-brush to wash the ink and provide the tone.

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Finally, I also drew the power station in pencil, setting it in the context of the single landscape.

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I enjoyed this sketch walk as, despite my initial reservation of drawing outdoors, I am finding that my confidence is growing and I am becoming less concerned with passers-by.  The sketches are not my best work but do capture something about the place.

Proj 1, Ex. 3: Study of Several Trees

Whilst I was sitting in the woodland two things struck me – one was the range of greens in layers from the tree canopy down to the undergrowth and the second was the way the light was dappled.  I therefore decided to capture this in oil pastels on a textured paper.  I kept to a very loose style only picking out a couple of the tree trunks, avoiding adding any real detail of the individual plants and trees to order to concentrate on the effect of the light and colours.

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I am quite satisfied with the result and think I have captured what I set out to achieve.  It is a long way removed from my normal style of precise and detailed drawings but I am trying to try different methods and styles in order to explore my creativity more.

Following my last assignment my tutor suggested I try to use charcoal more and also to rub back with an eraser to create highlights.  I found this small patch of woodland where the tree trunks did not have any noticeable bark, were a silver-grey in colour, overall were quite bare (not the norm for this time of year) and quite strange shapes.  I used charcoal for this drawing, using the grain of the textured paper to create the ground and background foliage.  I rubbed in the charcoal for the tree trunks to create that smoother surface and then adding back in small patches of texture.  I used the point, edge and sides of the charcoal to create different marks.    I finally added the highlights to the sides of the trunks using a pencil eraser.

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I am happy with the resultant picture as I think it captures the overall feeling I had of this patch of woodland and I fairly successfully used a medium I would hesitate to use before undertaking this drawing.

Research: Landscape Artists

There are so many landscape artists that this research point became almost overwhelming.  I therefore decided to provide a brief overview in this post on the named artists in the course manual plus other artists whose work I have recently seen in exhibitions.  I will then pick a couple of artists whose work I find interesting to research further in later posts.

Durer’s (1471-1528) landscapes are the earliest surviving examples in Western art of pure landscape studies.  During a journey through the Alps in 1494-5 he recorded a series of topographical watercolours; these studies were then often used in this later etchings and woodcuts, for which he is probably better known.

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Durer, Study of a Rock-Face in a Quarry near Nuremberg c 1495-6.

Whilst Claude Lorraine (c 1600-82) lived prior to the Romantic period his landscapes to me have that idealised, romantic, pastoral feel.  Figures are often present in his landscapes and the peasants have that clean, happy, contented feel which is probably far removed from the actual reality of often living in poverty with poor working conditions. Whilst I can admired the technical ability in his landscapes the works themselves do not really engaged me as the viewer; perhaps they are just too far removed from my own interests.

Lorrain, Claude, 1604-1682; Landscape with a Goatherd
Lorraine, Landscape with a Goatherd, 1635-36

As landscape as a genre in itself becomes established, there is a proliferation of artists working in this field.  JMW Turner (1775-1851), John Constable (1776-1837), Thomas Girtin (1775-1802) to name just a few.

Perhaps one of my favourites painters of this period is Samuel Palmer (1805-1881).  It is the fairytale, mystical quality which his drawings and paintings process that I find intriguing;  I can look at some of his images for a long time and keep finding new things.  Also his range of mark making and the stylised quality of this forms draws me into the images.  This stylised form recurs in later landscapes I have seen by artists such as Paul Nash (e.g. The Falling Stars, 1912 and Landscape of the Vernal Equinox (III), 1944) and even Grant Wood (e.g. Young Corn, 1931).

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Palmer, Early Morning, 1825.

I recently visited the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam and his landscapes moved away from depicting the ideal to depicting reality as he saw it.  I particularly admire the mark-making in his drawings and his ability to show the ordinary as a subject worthy of drawing or painting.

Carpenter's workshop, seen from the artist's studio window, 1882 blog
Van Gogh, Carpenter’s workshop, seen from the artist’s studio window, 1882.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986) is probably best known for her close-ups of flowers, however, it is her landscape which I enjoy.  Her ability to take a panoramic view and just put the essence of the shapes and colours into the image without it being distracted by detail is something I would like to achieve in my drawings; the shapes in many of her landscape take on animal or human form.

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O’Keeffe, Purple Hills No. II, 1934

L.S. Lowry (1887-1976) is a painter whose paintings I know well but actually know very little about the artist.  I grew up seeing Lowry’s pictures on television and knew the associated phrase (wrong in my view) ‘matchstick men and matchstick cats and dogs’, later made into a pop song.  Lowry painted the industrial north and the associated houses and landscapes.  I have never been that struck by his paintings as I found them a bit of a ‘variation on the theme of’.  However, on looking closer at his paintings one of the things I gain from the images is the depth of field he creates in some of the images by having a strong fore, middle and background, whilst using aerial perspective to fade away the background.

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Lowry, The Football Match, 1949

I went to the recent Paul Nash exhibition at the Tate (see post here) and have always been drawn to his early images of trees (e.g. The Three in the Night, 1913 and Tree Group 1913) and also his depictions of the battle fields of World War 1 (e.g. We Are Making a New World, 1918).  At the exhibition I found the landscapes whilst he lived at Dymchurch fascinating.   Perhaps it is because this is very familiar territory to me that I was drawn to these images but what I particularly liked was the strong graphic nature of the paintings with very little detail, highlighting for me the isolation of the individual in a vast expanse of the landscape and man’s need to control nature.

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Nash, The Shore, 1923

Grant Wood (1891-1942) is probably best known for his painting American Gothic which I recently saw at the Royal Academy exhibition, America after the Fall.  However, he also painting landscapes using stylised forms (as indicated previously) and it is these which I found interesting.  In many ways they do not show the poverty and problems of the depression of the time but rather a sanitized version of reality.

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Wood, Young Corn, 1931.

John Piper (1903-92) is another artist I have always felt drawn towards for his often dark depictions of buildings, such as The Gatehouse, Knole, 1942.  What I was less aware of were his depictions of the wider landscape, such as Tryan Mountain, 1950 and his move towards abstraction, such as House at Niton.

Seaton Delaval 1941 by John Piper 1903-1992
Piper, Seaton Delaval, 1941

I came across Barbara Rae (b 1943) a few years ago and what struck me in her paintings was her ability to take a landscape (sometimes focusing in on one small part) and convey the mood she feels when painting the image.  She creates the drama she sees in the landscape with vivid colours and abstract strokes; getting away from representation is something I struggle with, so I admire artists who can do achieve this style.

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Rae, Blue Fence

George Shaw (b 1966) is not an artist I was aware of before undertaking this research.  His early paintings of the estate where he grew up remind me of my own upbringing on a council estate.  He paints the ordinary houses, garages and other buildings which were as familiar to him as the London churches and squares where familiar to JMW Turner.  I really like the absence of people and for me the way his images, rather than conveying a harshness and brutality, convey a warmth, understanding and sympathy with the surroundings.

Scenes from the Passion: Late 2002 by George Shaw born 1966
Shaw, Scenes from the Passion: Late, 2002

Sarah Woodfine (b 1968) creates drawings mixing the real and the imaginary.  She uses optical illusions and puts the drawings into a three-dimensional space to create a fantasy environment; this seems to come from her training as a sculptor.  I have never thought about cutting up drawings and creating in effect mini-theatrical scenes.  Something I might try in the future.

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Woodfine, Somewhere, 2007