Foundation Course Diary – Entry 8

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint’, then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” Vincent van Gogh

Wheat field with Cypresses, Vincent Van Gogh

Distance and time have served me well. I have regained composure and begin class in combative mood. There are those who tread too cautiously and cling too closely to the rules and there are those who embark on everything with reckless abandon. I fall into the former and, to this extent, am my own worst enemy because I prefer to beat myself up over the small faults rather than pushing through. But there come a point at which you must commit and take risk in order to improve.

So this week I adopt a different approach: I will drive swiftly through the four stages, from boxes to shadow shapes, without too much pause for thought. Having completed the study I will then be able to evaluate my weaknesses in context and understand where to focus my energies.

I tape the paper to the board, dispel any idea of a small study: one cast, the whole piece of paper, no holding back. I am working in two values – all or nothing. It is liberating and exciting and I am impatient to meet the challenge. In this frame of mind momentum builds quickly, my out stretched arm beats time from the shoulder and conducts precise but sweeping lines of charcoal across the page. Perhaps the gesture is not quite right and my rendition does not do justice to the smooth, ethereal beauty of the subject but there is progress nonetheless and so much more pleasure!

Ann often says that an experienced artist uses many different skills and techniques simultaneously where as a learner takes them one at a time. Then there comes the moment when you are ready to bring them together; at first stumbling and then through trial and error the skills are sharpened, personal style emerges and with that the confidence to stand back, admire the view and yet continue to ask more of yourself. I have a way to go but for now I get it.

I feel more resilient after a satisfying session and stride with purpose across the car park. At the far end I pass a student thumbing a cigarette anxiously; I see in his face the same anguish I experienced seven days ago. Yours too shall pass, I think to myself, but it is easier said than believed.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 7

Follow a beginner on their journey through the Foundation Course.

“Go on failing. Go on. Only next time, try to fail better.” Samuel Beckett

RothkoNo71964

No. 91674, Rothko

Black is the only word that comes to mind today. An iron grip has been tightening around my mind and stomach for the past week and I cannot face yet more frustration and imperfection. Failure may be the greatest teacher but it is also a hard pill to swallow. So this week I opt for distance, in the hopes that I will return in a week with restored determination.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 6

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Painting is easy when you don’t know how, but very difficult when you do.” Edgar Degas

Edgar_Degas_The_Dance_Class
Ballet Dancers, Edgar Degas

I love returning to the studio. Opening the door onto worn, wooden floors, an assortment of art equipment and an array of work at different stages of completion is like stepping back in time. It is almost like taking up position in one of Degas’ paintings of ballerinas; only fine artists rather than dancers surround you.

Ateliers, it turns out, date back to the Middle Ages. They were the mainstay of an artist’s training until the 19th century. Here, a clutch of aspiring artists would work alongside a master, learning through practice and the exchange of knowledge. These teams of craftsmen created some of the most celebrated paintings in Europe, as well as growing to be respected artists in their own right.

However, the tradition died out and with it part of the camaraderie of the artist’s life. Today an artist’s lot is perceived as a solitary one; but it need not be. In fact, arriving at Lavender Hill Studios for the first time you could be forgiven for doubting the myth of the lonely and impoverished artist. Though many still struggle to balance the books, the support and guidance offered by a spirited and like-minded peer group is priceless.

This week I set up my easel next to a student visiting from France. She is here for the week and keen to learn a different method to the one taught at her art school. Although much of our time is focused on the exercise in hand, it is nice to be able to swap notes with your neighbour.

I stumble through my French and pick up some useful jargon as I go. Soon we are pondering the question of proportion and gesture, puzzling over which are the weight bearing lines. I have had a great deal of difficulty in defining how the hips and shoulders tilt, it seems that my instinct is the opposite of what is anatomically possible. It is hugely frustrating, but made more bearable for being able to talk through the logic (or not) of the problem.

It is also a helpful reminder that there is no absolute. There is of course proportion, line and volume, but it is possible to find different interpretations within this framework and everyone at some stage struggles to find their way. Painting is not just about innate talent, as Ann says: the talent is walking through the door; and Scott corroborates: last man standing. Learning to draw and paint is about hard work, practice and perseverance and being part of a community makes it so much more enjoyable and instructive!

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 5

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” Kierkegaard

Foundation ME copy

It is not often that you have the opportunity to stop and evaluate the journey so as to make sure that the next step is better informed and more assured. Today was the fifth lesson of the term and possibly the most satisfying as I did just that.

Until now each session has focused on a specific aspect of drawing and seeing. Like an onion, I have layered knowledge on skill and found to my surprise that there is a discernible method to painting. Notwithstanding there have been moments of frustration, precisely when I have forgotten the importance of process and focused on the imperfection before me.

This week, however, I move swiftly and am taken to task, expertly. I settle in front of my cast and divide the page into four. Each quarter will build on the previous: encasement, next four lines, then another four and then, shadow shapes and seeing in mass. Who would have thought that reducing a subject to dark and light shapes could ultimately produce a work so delicate and subtle as to seem whispered rather than massed onto the paper.

I take to the challenge and begin to see the school’s philosophy literally sketched out before me – so organic, so logical. It is the grammar of language, and to this effect, the building blocks of communication. In the bottom right hand corner I push the work to its final stage: I identify and start to fill in the largest and most prominent areas of shadow with soft charcoal, massaging it into the paper over and over again. When I think the paper can take no more, I reapply the charcoal and push the darkness further.

It transpires that there is a spectrum from the darkest dark to the lightest light, and by identifying the two extremes you can then judge the shades of grey in between, and how this plays out in the drawing. Again it is about defining the scaffold to then support the structure.

This lesson is also an experiment in materials. Having spent much of the term working on packing paper I have now progressed to textured white paper, which will absorb or withstand the dense layering of charcoal. The packing paper is a great medium to start with, it releases you from the fear of making a mistake and allows you to be bold in your learning. The white paper symbolizes a ‘coming of age’ but also a lesson in valuing and understanding the tools of the trade. The arts store, located on site is an extension of this. It is a treasure chest of materials sourced from around the world by artists who are sensitive to the needs of their craft.

Learning is so much more that the marks on the page and there are moments when all the pieces fall together beautifully. This week was one such occasion and Lavender Hill Studios the best place for it.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 4

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Art exists that one may recover the sensation of life, it exists to make one feel things, to make the stone stoney. Viktor Shklovsky

Ashmolean Barocci Virgin

I rewind the term so far in my head – from boxes I have progressed to smooth, muscle inflected casts, beautifully lit against black curtains. I have a way to go before I do them justice but as I reflect on the weeks passed I am pleasantly surprised by the trajectory. I begin to see how knowledge and skills are layered to make the impossible achievable.

I also realise that there comes a point where practice, repetition and discipline must be the cradle of technique if I am to come close to mastery. That is the definition of passion and commitment and ultimately talent.

However, this week one of my greatest lessons lies beyond the studios, in exhibition halls. On the one hand it is about context; on the other hand it is about seeing.

Barocci, it transpires was meticulous in his preparation. His sumptuous depiction of religious scenes and beautiful portraits did not fall like manna from heaven but were the result of hours spent laying down the detail – the proportion, the line and volume, developing chiaroscuro sketches and finally beginning to apply colour. I see the Lavender Hill Studios mantra taking shape before me! I am encouraged.

But above all I am excited. After four weeks acquainting myself with the fundamentals of drawing from life, I have not only come away with a greater understanding of how to draw but also, and perhaps more importantly, of how to see. Standing in front of this magnificent collection I see the work with new eyes.

For the first time I discern with confidence the skeleton of the picture. I identify how the chiaroscuro and myriad sketches feed into the final work. I look at the oeuvre and am thrilled by its delicate and thoughtful beauty, but also by my enriched understanding of it: the shadow shapes in the fold of the fabric; the compliment of colour; the lines that encase the scene then carve life out of the block to ensure an accurate relationship of parts. It is ironic that one of my favourite pieces is that of a chiaroscuro study of the Virgin of the Rocks. Incidentally, it is one of the few works by Barocci held in a British collection.

And the real beauty has been that I have assimilated this knowledge without struggle or resistance, almost without realising. Simply through doing. I have been guided by articulate and incisive teachers and supported by a community of peers all eager to exchange and enhance the other’s experience.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 1

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” Andre Gide

Mondrian Journal 1

I stand in front of the easel in studio101. The afternoon sun is streaming through the windows to my right. To my left, a configuration of small white boxes. I am wondering how I got to be here, in this place of beginning and unknowing. But before I am overwhelmed by this train of thought someone is at my shoulder breaking down the task into simple steps: stand back; see the whole; draw from the shoulder and do not be afraid. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel so daunting.

The first lesson is that of proportion: start by seeing the block, of which the white boxes are just a part. If I can identify the outermost axis then I can pin down the ratio of size and distribution. This means that when Icome to drawing a figure, it will not have a head twice as big as the body – I hope.

I spend the next hour drawing lines – top and bottom horizontals first; then left and right verticals; finally the internal edges of the boxes. Then I move onto a wine bottle and cup. I continue to focus on the dominant lines, keeping them straight and the objects two-dimensional. I think I see echoes of cubism yet the technique dates back to Renaissance Europe.

Every so often a firm yet sensitive voice intervenes and poses two simple but fundamental questions: Too big or too small? Too wide or too narrow? I think for a moment, stand back and seeing things afresh, start again.

I am no prodigy but begin to discern a method. I realize that there is a journey of learning that everyone passes through, even the greatest artists. Above all I feel supported by the authoritative and sensitive intervention of my teacher.

Like nowhere else, Lavender Hill Studios has created a space in which I feel safe to expose my unknowing. The teachers are trained in house and supported to develop their practice. As a result they are best placed to coax novices through.

My first class over and I have learnt a parallel lesson: that of perspective. By standing back I see the whole better; by seeing the whole I understand its relationship to the parts. Perspective teaches me that genius is rare and hard work is better. Perspective, in painting as in life, allows me to loose sight of the shore.

Foundation Course Diary – Entry 2

Follow a beginner on their journey through the foundation course.

What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? Robert H. Schuller.

Demoiselles Entry 2

My second lesson and I am quite literally back to the drawing board, armed with packing paper, charcoal and shamy leather. For a perfectionist I have grown remarkably comfortable with the idea of getting it wrong, rubbing it out and starting again. I have learnt not to be precious and above all not to be afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are never mistakes just the art of learning. It is amazing how much you get out of a lesson at Lavender Hill Studios.

I pick my spot and resume my experiment in boxes. However, this is just a warm up as my teacher points me in the direction of a cast of three nudes, their arms interlaced, their backs facing the spectator. They look beautiful, like three vestal virgins.

I know I will not do them justice but nor was Rome built in a day. The exercise still lies in seeing the whole before the parts but now I am also adding strong diagonals. In my head I have come to identify these as lines of flight – where the latent power of the composition escapes and so gives it depth and meaning.

I begin to cut across the right angles with a few key strokes. I avoid curves and stick to straight lines. Soon, new shapes (and spaces) emerge from my block and the curvaceous bodies of the cast whisper across my page.

I haven’t got the proportion entirely right and I have given one of them larger hips than is flattering – may I be forgiven. But I am grasping the principle and can place the technique within a history of art. I am reminded of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and understand how indebted cubism is to its renaissance forefathers. Again, the context (or the whole) is helping me to refine my perception and hone my skills.

In retrospect I am amazed by my composure. I resolve that, yet again, it is testament to the teaching and preparation I have received. I have been given the confidence to try, and better to overshoot than to never try. With hindsight I know I was too ambitious but I have learnt so much more in the doing than if I had erred on the side of caution. It is OK.

Over the three hours I am never criticized only ever instructed. I stand beside more experienced students who have joined the school precisely because they have felt frustrated by the lack of rigour in their previous training. I feel fortunate to be learning so much without ever feeling the pain. I am looking forward to lesson 3.

John Singer Sargent Quotes

 

John Singer Sargent Quotes

John Singer Sargent Quotes

Here are some painting notes attributed to John Singer Sargent

 

1. Painting is an interpretation of tone. Colour drawn with a brush.

 

2. Keep the planes free and simple, drawing a full brush down the whole contour of a cheek.

 

3. Always paint one thing into another and not side by side until they touch.

 

4. The thicker your paint—the more your color flows.

 

5. Simplify, omit all but the most essential elements—values, especially the values. You must clarify the values.

6. The secret of painting is in the half tone of each plane, in economizing the accents and in the handling of the lights.

 

7. You begin with the middle tones and work up from it . . . so that you deal last with your lightest lights and darkest darks, you avoid false accents.

 

8. Paint in all the half tones and the generalized passages quite thick.

 

9. It is impossible for a painter to try to repaint a head where the understructure was wrong.

 

PALETTE: Silver White, Naples Yellow, Yellow Ochre, Ochre dew (English Red), Red Ochre, Vermillion, Ivory or Coal Black, and Prussian Blue.

“Yes…But is it art?” Morley Safer’s Infamous 1993 Art Story

Morley Safer’s Infamous 1993 Art Story.

A vacuum cleaner. A urinal. Three basketballs floating in water? In 1993, when Morley Safer took a critical look at the contemporary art world, these kinds of household items were being sold as high-priced art.

In his now-infamous 60 Minutes story “Yes…But is it art?” Safer took on artists, dealers and critics of the 90s with equal gusto. The artists, he said, make mostly “worthless junk,” or better yet, hire craftsmen to make it for them. Dealers, he said “lust after the hype-able.” Critics write in a language that “might as well be in Sanskrit.”

 

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