Research: Georgia O’Keeffe

I decided to look at the art of Georgia O’Keeffe as I admire her simplification of shapes and forms in her landscapes and cityscapes.  One of the things which struck me when looking through her images was how much to me they seemed to be design-led.  This was from some of her very first images, such as the charcoal drawing Early No. 2, 1915 through to her flower paintings (e.g. Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928), her cityscapes (e.g. Radiator Building – Night, New York, 1927),  her landscapes (e.g. Red Hills and Bones, 1941) and her later works (such as Above the Clouds I, 1962-63).  I think this may come from her early training and her first job as a commercial artist working as a freelance illustrator.  I have also read that it comes from the influence of photography in the early 20th century and in particular her marriage to Edward Stieglitz who was a famous photographer.

What I like about her work is the clean lines she creates catching the main shapes devoid of other clutter, the way she uses positive and negative shapes to create form, her use of colour and the decorative patterns she creates from the shapes she observes.  She also captured the sense of place and time whether it be the city or a New Mexico landscape.  Her work shows her interpretation of what she observes rather than the visual appearance, something I am trying to achieve in my own art.

Book Read:  Georgia O’Keeffe, Randall Green, Phaidon Press, 2014.

Links to images:

Early No. 2, 1915

Two Calla Lilies on Pink, 1928

Radiator Building – Night New York, 1927

Red Hill and Bones, 1941

Above the Clouds 1, 1962-1963

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Research: Anish Kapoor Drawings

My tutor recommended I look at the drawings of Anish Kapoor.  Obtaining information on the drawings rather than his sculptures and installations proved surprising difficult until I eventually found a book by Jeremy Lewison of an exhibition he had at the Tate Gallery in 1990/91.

The introduction of the book mainly relates Kapoor’s drawings to spiritual, cultural, sexual and religious ideas, with repeated images of mountains, voids and explosive eruptions.  For me the drawings have a predominately sexual origin, particularly the vagina.  He defines the forms through the energy of his marks and his use of strong colours.  Many of the drawings seem to have an element of chance and spontaneity which I would want to capture in my own drawings.

It is difficult to refer directly to any one drawing as they are all untitled, however,  Untitled, 1987, an explosion of yellow on a brown background with a thin void in the centre, caught my eye for the sheer energy in the marks; as did Untitled, 1990, a blue phallic like void at the centre of a mass of black marks on a swirling brown background.

These drawings inspire me to be more free and experimental with my drawings and to focus in on a shape or idea and experiment, then experiment again with just making marks.  Transforming a drawing (which might be the visual appearance) until the final drawing is far removed from the original by a process of change.

Artist’s Website here.

Research: Cubism

After reading the piece on Cubism in the Shock of the New by Robert Hughes (see previous post), the thing that stuck in my mind was the statement that our knowledge of an object is made up from multiple viewpoints.  I decided to create a drawing of these different viewpoints in a cubist style.

I used a silver metal Indonesian statue as my object and drew it first from the front (black) then from the side (red), then from the back (blue) and finally from the top and bottom (green), overlaying the lines.

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I quite liked the outcome but thought I would take it to the next stage by tracing over different parts of the drawing to get multiple viewpoints in one image.  The lines traced were part choice and part chance as it was quite difficult to follow one set of lines.  I do like the way the bowl in the hand is repeated three times from different viewpoints, the two part-profiles of the head, and the two viewpoints of the bird from different angles.

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I throught the top of the image worked better than the bottom so I cropped it and enlarged it onto A3 pastel paper.

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I then used coloured soft pastels to fill in the shapes, keeping repeated elements the same colour to provide unity to the drawing.  I brought the lines back out using black ink.

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From a bit of creative play, triggered by a phrase in a book, I ended up with a drawing which is fairly successful and a process that I could use in future drawings.  It has sparked a number of ideas I could use in my final assignment for this unit.

Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

Chapter 2:  The Faces of Power

In this chapter Hughes opens with the view that World War 1 changed the sense of modernity created with the age of the machine and moved culture into an age of mass-produced, industrialised death.  Of course, all WW1 did, was to bring to the attention of the people, whilst machines could be our salvation, they could also be used to destroy us.  This chapter moves away from Paris as the centre of modern art to mainly examine art in Germany (the Weimar Republic) and post-revolutionary Russia, as it is in these places that art struggles to redefine the social contract.

Hughes first examines the rise of the DADA movement from the Cabaret Voltaire in February 2016.  He states that DADA can be encapsulated as the ‘eclectic freedom to experiment, enshrine play as the highest human activity.. with the main tool – chance’.  This is a useful description as I am trying to move more towards this goal in my drawings.  Two images by Kurt Schwitters stood out for me in this section of the chapter –  Merz 410 ‘Irgendsowas’, 1922, which is reminiscent of the collage paintings by Robert Rauschenberg where all objects and materials have equal value; and, Cathedral of Erotic Misey, 1923, which sparked an idea to combine this with an acrylic encased drawing (Sarah Woodfine would also be an influence here, see previous post).

Hughes goes on to look at Expressionism and the DADA response to this movement.  He states Expressionism is midway between idealised German gothic and an unattainable Utopia where the self or the void, ecstasy or chaos, were the choice of the artists in this movement.

The chapter then moves to art in post-revolutionary Russia where the art patron was the state.  Hughes uses a quote from Anatoly Lunacharsky which I found interesting –

‘Art is a powerful means of infecting those around us with ideas, feelings and moods.  Agitation and propaganda acquire particular acuity and effectiveness when they are clothed in the attractive and mighty forms of art.’

This brought to mind that whilst art, and particularly poster art in Russia, at that time fulfilled this need, today the same role is being assigned by states to TV and social media networks.

The rise of Constructivism is charted, particularly the work of Tatlin.  I found his corner sculptures interesting, which he equated to icons.  Making a drawing in a corner would be an interesting idea.  The poster art  of Aleksander Rodchenko were then explored where he combines design and photography to create powerful visions for the state, feeding into a view of the new state as a total work of art.

The chapter ends with a look at Futurism as the house-style of Italian fascism (e.g the EUR architecture) and Picasso’s Guernica, which Hughes states is the only humane, political, work of art in the last 50 years to achieve real international fame.  I not sure I agree with this last statement as I am sure works by Rauschenberg, Hockney (particularly his drawings around sexuality) and even Warhol to name just a couple, have a political message.

I found this chapter interesting, with some memorable quotes and ideas for future art.

Research: The Shock of the New – Art and the Century of Change

I picked up The Shock of the New by Robert Hughes when looking through the library for a book which could give me an overview of art in the 20th century,  It seems to be quite a good read for me at this stage of the course as it is written in fairly straightforward language which will serve as an introduction to the subject prior to any further in-depth reading.

Chapter One:  The Mechanical Paradise

This chapter introduces the notion that the speed of change in scientific and technical discoveries and the rise of the machine age at the beginning of the 20th century is reflected in the pace of change in art.  Robert Hughes cites the Eiffel Tower as example of the change in our visual perspective with the symbol of change not only the view of the tower itself  but the view the spectator gains from the top of the tower; this view creating a new landscape based on frontality and pattern rather than the familiar recessive and depth perspective.

He used Cezanne’s remark that one must detect in nature the sphere, the cone and the cylinder, as evidence that he was the father of abstract art and his paintings of Mont Set-Victoire, with the broken outlines and blocky brush strokes, as pointers towards a greater abstraction of the image.

He then goes on to look at Cubism, mainly the work of Picasso and Braque.  A couple of notable things from the text were that firstly, that our knowledge of an object is made up of all possible views of it – the front, back sides, top, etc., and that cubism tries to encompass all those views into one image.  Secondly, that in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso (said to be the first ‘modern’ art painting) by leaving out the men (two were in the original sketches for this painting, a sailor and a medical student) Picasso has turned the viewer into voyeur.  Thirdly, that cubism stacks the forms up the canvas in a pile, as through the ground has rotated 90 degrees to the eye.  All these things I need to think about trying in my drawings – a multi-viewpoint of one object; leaving out something in a drawing thereby changing the nature of the interaction between the viewer and the image; and, stacking the shapes up the canvas (e.g. my Dungeness drawings).

Hughes states that Cubism took abstraction only to the point where enough of the real world is left to supply tension between reality and the visual language within the frame.  He goes onto say that they actually moved back from pure abstraction in their later pieces by including pieces or images of actual objects in their collages.

This chapter goes onto to look at the work of Delauney,  who explored the mechanical age via its light, structure and dynamism, and Futurism, whose practitioners believed that the machine should be worshiped and could be the saviour for all social ills.  The work of Francis Picabia, I See Again in My Memory My Dear Udine (1914) and Marcel Duchamp,  The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (Large Glass), (1915-23), are discussed which Hughes states explores machine action and sexuality.

This was an interesting opening chapter for me as it both sparked ideas for my own art (outlines in a previous paragraph) and introduced a number of new works to me.  It is of course just one work on this era of art written from one critic’s point of view and I will bear that in mind as I continue reading the book.

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.

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