Writing Workshop

The creative instinct, after all, acts at the bidding of the unconscious, which also decides to a considerable degree the exact nature of human relationships.  But Giacometti did not feel that any rapport whatever existed between a portrait and the individual nature of the model.  Not in his work in any case, ‘I have enough trouble with the outside without bothering about the inside,’ he said.’ A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord p38

We were asked to write an introduction to an essay, based on the quote I identified as meaningful to my practice.

‘Taking this comment at face value, we would be accepting that the energy and emotion, that Giacometti unquestionably poured into his portraits, did not come from the artist’s ability to connect with his sitter at an unconscious level, but solely from his process and impassioned approach to his materials.  My own work seeks to capture the essence of my subjects, what Bomberg called ‘spirit in the mass’, delving deep into the character to extract their very thoughts, much as Giacometti succeeds in achieving, without, it would appear, acknowledging.

Working with found black and white family photographs, I seek to weave my memories into the work.’

An inspiring lecture by Joanna Lowry, a theorist and lecturer at Brighton uni.  Description, context, theory, significance, the elusiveness of the work.  The importance of finding the right set of ideas, to enhance my work and deepen it.

There was much in her lecture that resonated and that I can take away into my own writing.  I particularly enjoyed Susan Morris’s writing Drawing in the Dark http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/18/drawing-in-the-dark .  Whilst much of the piece was over my head on first reading, I could see the structure, the argument and the ease of transition between illustrative points.  A skeletal that I can build on.

Joanna suggested that the essay should be approached as pleasurable, an extension of my work as an artist, beginning with an enigma and end with a suggestion of more.  reassuring and supportive advice.

Giacometti 2

It is rare to find intimate detail regarding an artist’s working practice, brush, colour, mood, atmosphere, in fact the daily activity needed to create a portrait, and the character of the genius behind that work.  James Lord’s A Giacometti Portrait, 1, is such a work.

On day nine Lord records ‘Then he would begin to work with the same brush again but using white or gray pigment.  From this I deduced that he was beginning to develop the contours and volume of the head and to add highlights.’ 1, p52

Lord, a friend and muse, sat for several portraits for Giacometti.  This book records the eighteen days he spent sitting for the painter in 1964, two years before the artist’s death.

Image result for giacometti portrait james lord

http://www.christies.com/features/Alberto-Giacomettis-Portrait-of-James-Lord-6658-3.aspx  The work was auctioned last year by Christies in New York realising $20,885,000.

Lord writes honestly but sensitively about his friend, aware that he is living through history.  The repetition, the frustration, the despair of the artist are at the forefront of this work, offering insight into the determination and sheer brilliance of the man.

This insightful video maps the work in progress https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I7Jpy4mAZXg.  This video, the structure of the work as he first applies paint to the canvas https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QS0PzOwfmHo.

Paul Moorhouse, curator of Pure Prescence at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, interviewed for the Christies auction catalogue about James Lord’s portrait, said ‘As each sitting started Giacometti always said, ‘It’s helpless!’, ‘I don’t know why I’m even trying’, or ‘It’s impossible! I can’t make portraits, no one can.’ Lord was driven almost to despair by the length of the process. He thought Giacometti was neurotic and a bit mad. But Giacometti is trying to grapple with pure sensation. He’s trying to capture something that actually precedes perception, and that takes you into a very strange place.’ 2

Moorhouse talks of Giacometti’s double life as a portrait painter.  ‘In 1925 Giacometti said it was necessary to abandon the real, to give up figurative art. He immersed himself in making abstract and surrealist sculpture in Paris. That’s misleading because he was making figurative work throughout.  He basically put out a false perception. He led people astray. What I’m saying in this show actually contradicts what Giacometti said about himself. It shines a light on something less well known. From the word go, age 13 when he started making art, right through to his death, Giacometti had an unbroken relationship with portraiture.’ 2

Referencing Sartre’s comment that Giacometti’s work was ‘pure presence’, ‘He’s describing Giacometti’s interrogation of people, his stripping away of everything that you associate with people — identity, biography, mood, psychology, even their appearance.’2

When Moorhouse was asked ‘Were there any great surprises in the research for the show?’, he replied ‘His thinking. Giacometti emerged to me as a deeply philosophical man. He understood that reality is essentially unknowable — that all you have is appearance. Portraiture was the vehicle for his thinking. It all takes place in the studio with his sitters, interrogating their appearance and trying to unravel the mystery of perception.’2

Giacometti and his researchers have opened my eyes to what I am intuitively trying to achieve with my work.  To expect a formulaic approach is a falsehood.  There is no easy root to capturing the human condition, but it helps to understand that herein lies madness.

Here again I find a false perception from Giacometti, confirming my belief that his comment that he had enough trouble with the outside, without bothering about the inside, that he was copying from life, was far from the truth.  Maybe he did perceive it to be true, but the facts speak otherwise.

1    Lord, J 1980, A Giacometti Portrait Faber & Faber

2    Moorhouse, P Christies Catalogue http://www.christies.com/features/The-double-life-of-Alberto-Giacometti-6568-1.aspx

50 Shades of Grey

I have been back to basics regarding colour, to enable me to move forward from a knowledge base, rather than intuition.

Starting with co-primaries, prismic colours, cool red, blue, yellow, warm, red, blue, yellow, warm advances, cool recedes.  Cool red moves towards violet, warm red towards orange;  cool blue moves towards violet, warm blue towards green;  cool yellow moves towards green, warm yellow moves towards orange.



Fig 1

Hue – name of the colour

Value – Lightness on the grey scale

Saturation – richness of colour

Overtone – colour temperature, leans towards

Analogous – adjacent on colour wheel

3 ways to change a prismic colour into muted tones (second circle fig 2), adding white, adding grey, or adding a complimentary colour (secondary triad fig 1).

Chromatic grey (third circle fig 2), discernible hue, eg bluey-grey


Fig 2

Achromatic grey has no discernible colour, fourth row in, fig 2.

Yellow/Violet – greatest difference

Blue/Orange – best grey

Red/Green – opposite and equal, can interchange

Triadic is the triangulation of colours across the colour wheel.

Colour range:  Same family, oranges/red;  Complimentary – yellow/violet,  blue/orange,  red/green;  Organisation – triadic



Mixing muted and chromatic colours from complimentaries


Repeating above with slightly differing proportions in the mix


Of particular interest is the second row, cool.  All other attempts to mix a grey have had a bias towards mushroom or lilac.  This mix produced the closest to achromatic grey.

From a slightly different perspective, I have been reading about the history of colour, human response to colour and anecdotal stories about colour.

Bright Earth and Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox, were both recommended by recent MA graduate Alexa Cox.  Both are must reads.

In Bright Earth, Philip Ball traces the history of each colour in painstaking detail, to create a surprising page-turner packed with insights into the derivation of the colours but also their application through history.

Victoria Finlay is like an intrepid detective seeking out stories in remote parts of the world in Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox.  Her determination to route out the truths concerning colour is highlighted by her trip to the depths of the Aboriginal heartland, with the patience and permissions that that entailed, to uncover the secret of a particular white, used exclusively by a particular Aboriginal painter.  Her writing is engaging and so informative, from de Menonville’s determination to break the Spanish stranglehold on the red dye market, to the pencil museum in Keswick, in the Lake District, built to celebrate the area’s graphite deposit.  Not content with visiting the museum, she travels to Seathwaite looking for the unmarked mine in the depth of winter …pure delight.

Faber Birren has written many books on colour and is referenced in others.  I was therefore surprised by the weakness of Colour & Human Response.  Drawing on the research of others, he condenses and repackages the information for a wider, non-academic market.  The work dates back to 1978, which perhaps explains the irritating illustrations accompanying the start of each chapter and the weakness of the work.

Ball, P, 2009 Bright Earth, the Invention of Colour, Vintage

Finlay, V, 2002, Colour -Travels Through the Paintbox, Sceptre

Birren, F, 1978, Colour & Human Response, John Wiley & Sons


‘Artistically I am still a child with a whole life ahead of me to discover and create. I want something, but I won’t know what it is until I succeed in doing it.’ Giacometti, source unknown

It was a chance encounter, whilst waiting to collect my granddaughter from nursery.  I was familiar with the elongated sculptures, but not with the paintings or drawings.  Of all the exhibitions I have seen recently, Pure Presence at the National Portrait is the one that has had the most profound effect on my work.


Extract from The Artist’s Mother 1950 (photographed from my book of the exhibition)

So many questions.  How does he see like that?  Where would I start?  How do I incorporate that degree of passion, of sensibility or pure presence, into my work?

The answer came twofold.  I found an exhibition catalogue of drawings and watercolours bequeathed to the Kunsthaus Zurich by his brother Bruno, in 2012, and exhibited in 2014.  These works clearly chart his development and offer some insight into his process and approach.  I tried to understand by drawing alone, but then a teacher appeared to guide me through the mental process of drawing, the mood, the perspective, the sensitivity, the mark making, the sheer joy of drawing.


Bodies dancing

My drawing emphasis is on the importance of each line, during the continual movement, to capture the energy, the form.


Working with torn collaged marks, I am discovering a fragility and sensitivity of mark, drawing the torn pieces into a narrative.


Giving weight and form to fabric.

In the summer I used such a drawing to develop a painting.

Charcoal on paper 42 x 30cms                                Watercolour on rough paper 78 x 58cms

This work is moving from ‘Bachelard’s notion of image and Bomberg’s spirit in the mass’  1 through to Giacometti’s truth.2

This approach to work is a huge departure for me.  Drawing, such as it ever was, was a scribbled outline using a pipette, to create a muted placement.  The starting point of drawing, particularly with charcoal, is enabling a more tactile approach, feeling my way around the form, which in turn, is giving rise to a more painterly process.

Whilst searching for the essay Jean-Paul Sartre wrote about Giacometti, The Search for the Absolute, I came across a thesis by Sebastien Fitch, Following Giacometti: A Case Study for a Multidisciplinary Approach to Art Education, 3, in which he argued for the return of copying as a valid art practice.  There are frequent references to Giacometti’s practice of copying, so this paper, by Fitch, who is widely read on the subject of Giacometti, documents the author’s discoveries whilst immersing himself in what he perceives to be Giacometti’s practice.  He concludes that Giacometti’s visual style was as a ‘product of his process – a byproduct of his obsessive working method’.   I am sure that is true, but whether you need to copy his process to appreciate that, is another matter.

It is here that I am also alerted to the importance of the gaze for Giacometti, an idea that is to surface again, during the exhibition review exercise.  He quotes from Danto ‘..what makes him alive is without a doubt the gaze. Not the imitation of eyes, but really and truly a gaze.’ (Giacometti, as quoted in Danto, p154) 4.

I am aware that I avoid the gaze, in fact all facial detail, in my work.  It is Giacometti’s truth, but at this point in my work, it is not mine.  I am still working with Bomberg’s ‘spirit in the mass‘, the essence, the sensibility of the form, the sensitivity of mark making, the importance of colour, that is my truth, and it is only by ‘gazing’ and being enveloped by its very being, its spirit, that I can represent the form in a meaningful way.  What Giacometti is teaching me is to see from within, that painting is a struggle, a mountain to conquer.

This week that teller of truths, Leonard Cohen, died.  Here was a man who wrote 80 verses over five years to Halleluja, before finding peace.  These two great men have taught me that sensitivity, passion and determination are essential to the creative process, there is no short cut.

I am six months older than Giacometti was when he died.  If the best is yet to come , I need to press on with single-minded haste.

1  Oxlade, Roy 2010, Art & Instinct p118

2  Moorhouse, Paul 2015, Pure Presence

3 http://spectrum.library.concordia.ca/15166/1/Fitch_MA_F2011

4  Danto, Arthur C. (2005). Unnatural Wonders: Essays from the Gap Between Art and Life. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Thought for the Day



Georgia O'Keeffe 'Jimson Weed' Boxed Note Cards

Georgia O'Keeffe 'Jimson Weed' Boxed Note Cards

A prerequisite of studying for an MA is reflection.  So much of my time is spent reflecting, that if I were to record it all, absolutely nothing would get done, but this particular thought confounds me and I want to process my reflection through my blog.

While I was researching for my presentation on the reviewers  of the recent Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at the Tate Modern, I came across the second  image above.  I had always assumed that the painting was just the flower in the bottom right corner, a bold but lack lustre image.  I now understand why most references to the painting, including the Tate, don’t bother to include the rest of what is really a very dull image.

The two images are to scale, the top one 100 x 100 cms, the second 101 x 122 cms.  Allowance obviously needs to be made for the reproduction qualities, but that said the top image was taken on a phone.  I haven’t seen the second image in the flesh, but reviews refer to the artist being able to ‘neuter its potency so effectively’ (Ben Luke in the Standard), and Mark Hudson in the Telegraph calls her work ‘painfully’ minor.

The first work was not influenced by O’Keeffe, whose  work does not inspire me, but happens to be part of the process I am working through and forms a useful comparison.  I could have used the work of many other excellent painters.

The first work is currently for sale at £600 and someone tried to negotiate the price down by 20%.  The second recently sold for $44.4m.

My MA journey is about understanding the art world.  I am nearing the end of my course and still, for me, it makes no sense.  The artists that inspire me, the art I am passionate about producing and experiencing, is not the art that is part of, let’s call it the O’Keeffe world (OW).  Perhaps it is time for the two worlds to be officially separated with a new title for the OW, that reflects the hyped commodity trading that it is, rather than continuing to call it art.  Hudson refers to the work ‘..as an encapsulation of a moment in America’s understanding of itself..’, and perhaps that is how this commodity should be viewed in general.  


Beyond the Realms

Emma wrote this week ‘It seems logical to follow the path that started with breaking our practice down, questioning it on fundamental levels, and then building it back up again.’  This thought follows my every conscious minute and I suspect, my subconscious as well.

When I look at the ‘sixty seconds worth of distance run’, I marvel at the discoveries, the enlightenment, the breadth of knowledge I have acquired in such a short time.  But I am not ready to distill that learning into a single project yet, there is still too much to learn, to explore.  I am still in training for the event, I need another year just to gather my thoughts, the world is moving too quickly, the whisk is still whirring in my brain.  A friend compared my journey to the life cycle of a caterpillar and declared I was at the ‘caterpillar soup’ stage, just before the butterfly emerges to dry her wings.  The process is working, it cannot be hurried by prissing open the pupae.  It has to be worked through to be authentic.

But focus I must for the future is now.

Visiting curator, Harriet Loffler asked us to introduce ourselves and our practice, and the voice in my head was the visitor to our open studio, who unabashedly declared my work to be ‘random’.  I understand what he was alluding to, even if I found his delivery uncompromising.

So unpacking my work, what is going on?

In my life drawing, line and form dominate.  The mark making is thoughtful, empassioned, Bomberg is ever present.


A 10 min charcoal sketch A3

In my chalk work the process is meditative and tactile.  I am exploring my journey through floral images.img_3564

Work in progress 112 x 112cms

My watercolours are challenging me.  I am currently working on canvas to develop my technique on this surface, with a view to producing large scale works.  Again the layering is meditative, progress slow and thoughtful, colour and texture dominate.img_3569Work in progress 100 x 100 cms

For a while I was unable to fathom why I was compelled to paint this image, when at first glance it appears to be ‘just another flower painting’ and I have other, more pressing and relevant work to complete, but I slowing realised it is a response to Yeats’ poem, a gentle reminder, as I fret over where I am going.

The Cloths of Heaven

Had I the heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light;
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

W. B. Yeats


I was asked why watercolour?  It has always been about the translucency, the delicacy, the marks no other medium can make, the challenge to push the work beyond conventional boundaries.

Next I will return to my family photos armed with my newly acquired drawing skills.

Working through my blog, I can feel the exploration of my world, who I am, where I have come from, my journey and the distance traveled.  It is a small world, which makes no attempt to tackle political statements, social commentary, injustice or any of the other issues that occupy my thoughts, instead it burrows deep within shedding light into all the nooks and crannies.

To paraphrase Rumi ‘Beyond the realms of right and wrong, there is a garden.  I will meet you there.’




Open Sesame

I volunteer at the local collective art gallery http://www.hastingsartsforum.co.uk, (HAF), a bright, double-galleried space overlooking the sea in St Leonards.  Of the 9000 people who live here, as opposed to Hastings, on the other side of the recently refurbished pier, (we are the equivalent of Hove to Brighton), it is calculated that as many as 600 are creatives.  We need to do more to highlight that we are a very creative town.

HAF is directly on the www.coastalculturetrail.com which runs from the Jerwood in Hastings, to the Towner in Eastbourne, via the De La Warr in Bexhill.  St Leonards also competes heavily for attention with Hastings, so has a need to distinguish itself.  I am on the committee for the annual family festival in St Leonards, but Hastings has a festival most weeks, so it passes almost unnoticed.

The recently appointed chair of HAF, Christine, is keen to make a difference as to how the organisation is perceived within the local art community.  To this end I organised a meeting for her with a friend who heads up the Coastal Culture Trail.   HAF has also been rebranded, but it is not enough.  HAF needs to demonstrate a reason why it deserves to be on the trail.

During the research for my contextual study last year, it became apparent that in spite of watercolour being one of the oldest mediums, it is considered to be the realm of amateurs, of genteel ladies with time on their hands, avoided by professionals, with reputations to protect.

There are currently three national exhibitions, the Royal Institute, Royal Watercolour Society and the Sunday Times, which through membership or intent, err towards the traditional.  Earlier this year I presented a proposal to the trustees at HAF regarding the opportunity to seek out and showcase the very best in contemporary watercolour.  This week they have finally agreed to proceed and meetings have been held with the chair and chief curator.  IT, judging and sponsorship issues, timescales and roles are being considered, with possible names to assist, being suggested.  I have also had a meeting with Alison Bettles at the Towner gallery, who managed the East Sussex Open, to identify how best to approach such an undertaking.

We will be looking for innovation.  That may be with surface, scale, subject matter, who knows, I await to be amazed.  The application, judging and acceptance will be online.  it will only be when the work is delivered that we will see whether it lives up to expectation, for the first time.

A serious, high profile undertaking, which is exciting and challenging.  If we succeed in attracting artists who are pushing the boundaries with the medium, curators and gallerists may be prepared to revisit watercolour with a degree of enthusiasm that has been sorely lacking for a generation.  Planning is key, failure isn’t an option.