Research: Alex McFarlane

My tutor suggested I look at this artist, who is mainly a painter and sculptor.  She particularly wanted me to look at his Industrial series, where he combines the use of drips and accidental paint runs with accurate renditions of the object.

I must admit his art was a revelation to me – the large industrial landscapes, the combination of accuracy with free expressive use of paint, the drips and runs to depict the foreground trees or water coming out of the pipes and finally, the incorporation of actual pieces of metal pipes/plumbing attached to the painting, providing a transition between painting vs sculpture.  For me many of his painting had a sinister psychological feel and reminded me of scenes from the George Orwell novel ‘1984’, despite the colourful nature of many of the images.

Two of my favourite paintings, for their grimly atmospheric industrial feel, integration of the drips of paint into the water flowing from the pipes, colour palette and use of actual plumbing supplies are River View and Soot 2.

Looking at this artist inspired me to have a look at drips and runs more, and the use of bleach on inks and watercolour.  I also went out sketching to Dungeness to have a go at my own Alex McFarlane inspired image and then took this further into other drawings using drips and more accidental effects.  These appear in a separate post.

Link to artist website here.


Research: Insights – Self Portraits by Liz Rideal

Before I start the exercise on creating a self-portrait I thought it might be useful to do a bit of background reading.  I picked up this book many years ago at the National Portrait Gallery after visiting the BP Portrait Award exhibition.

The book presents self-portraits as a form of personal expression, self-reflection and self promotion.  They can be direct, as in a direct depiction of self or indirect, as a concealed or cryptic portrait only recognisable to friends or cognoscenti.  Mortality is also discussed in the book along with ‘memento more’ (‘remember you must die’); self-portraits are a way of achieving immortality.

For me the book highlighted a number of things for me to consider when drawing my own self-portrait:

  • it can be used to emphasise both my physical and cultural identity
  • a mirror creates an image that is smaller and reversed with infinity stretching outwards – using a mirror means we do not see what others see
  • the importance of considering the composition eg direct eye contact, staring back, etc.
  • what you wear communicates something about yourself
  • if you include other people it can record something about people and relationships important to you at a specific time.

This was a useful read and contains a wide range of images of self-portraits across all periods of art and in a wide range of mediums.

Rideal, L.  (2005) Self Portraits. London: National Portrait Gallery.

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

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.


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


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.


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.