very strict art class

IMG_3664Yay! I get to use a third colour at my very strict art class – sanguine (a dark and a light) – used above alongside white conte, white chalk and charcoal on A2 peachy coloured paper.

I never get excited by working from photographs – it seems to be missing the point of drawing somehow – but I learnt a lot from this in terms of the media but perhaps more importantly that it’s possible to add to what the photograph is already saying.

This feels like quite an old-fashioned subject handled in an old-fashioned way, but nevertheless I like my cow – just hope he’s saying ‘moo’ and not ‘meh’.

What I learned:

  • As with the grey paper in the last exercise, I have to remind myself to leave the coloured paper as the mid-tone –  and resist temptation to cover it up all the time.
  • Working from a black and white photograph it seemed impossible to invent colour, but once I realised I was drawing my cow, and not the one in the photograph, it became far easier.
  • Likewise with the texture and shadows, I had to forget trying to understand what was going on in the photograph and think about being up close to the real thing, where the coat would be tufty, where it would be smooth, the bulge of the eye socket, the cup of the ears.
  • To get the shadow on the white – a very light layer of white followed by a light touch with the charcoal. To get the smooth areas around nostrils – white down first, then sanguine and a little smudging.


projects two, three and four


These three projects cover proportion, structure and form. I did the following drawings in a number of drop-in life classes while on part four, so rather than try to shoehorn them into the different projects I’ve put them together here. They are a mix of quick studies and longer, in a mix of media and poses and I’ve added them to this post with the most recent showing first.

(Exercise one of project four ‘the structure of the human body’ is in a separate post project four: structure)

What I’m learning:

  • I do much better on the quicker poses. Anything longer than 10 minutes gives me way to much time to get nervous and over-think.

Note to self: I should still try to get an overall impression down in 60 seconds, even if I know I have an hour to go.

  • I can find myself getting caught up in one area only to stand back and find the overall proportions totally out of whack.

Note to self: be wary of getting lost in an area, stand back very frequently to assess the whole

  • My tendency is to work big and I struggle to fit everything in. When I start to try to measure I often lose my way and can’t make the bits fit together.

Note to self: not sure how to manage this. Perhaps make a half way marker on the sheet and try to keep to that?

  • I would like to try out different techniques (ink on a super long stick for example) but frankly I feel intimidated in this rather rigid class.

Note to self: It’s totally daft being intimidated. Was Lucian Freud ever intimidated? David Hockney? I need a plan… next week there is a 60 minute pose I’ll do four sketches in four different techniques. 

  • Most of these drawings don’t address the figure in terms of tone – they are mainly line drawings. My lame excuse is the very flat lighting at the studio.

Note to self: do the squinty-eye thing and try to work with what light/shade there is

If it all goes a bit belly-up I look back at my early attempts and realise how much I’ve improved and every now and then I get a mini epiphany which makes  huge difference.

My most recent epiphany was that I am drawing a real 3-dimensional body. Sounds daft, but if I think about actually feeling the upper hip bone to the front and the slab of muscle that slides down to the sit bone, or simply that the leg has to slot in to the pelvis (and the sturdiness of that connection) it helps. There’s a strange link from hand to eye – my hand is guided by the eye, but I’m looking with my hand, my hand can feel the body. When I can let go of nerves and draw the body as if I am feeling it, the results are so much better.

Now that I feel more confident that I can draw a body with all the bits attached in the right places I want to be more expressive. From looking at artists that focus on life drawing it’s clear that they can all draw an absolutely anatomically correct figure should they choose too. I think it is having this underlying knowledge and this ability that allows one to be free with the drawing. I’m not there yet but I can see where I want to be, and I really really want to be there.


15 minutes, charcoal, A3

The quickest, the smallest, my favourite. I’m pleased with this, I think mainly because of the sense of light and shadow from the most rudimentary of charcoal smudges. I did this in a different one-off life class from my usual, where the set up was very professional – model against a black stage, and side-lit and everything! (Other sketches from this posted under ‘the moving figure’ as all poses were very short)


A1, charcoal and white chalk on beige paper

Probably the most challenging pose I’ve done (and not easy for the model either). One of those hours that passes in 5 minutes. There are problems with the central part of the body – I haven’t captured the ‘slump’ around the stomach. The right foot (looking at the image) isn’t big enough. But there are bits I’m happy with and it’s one of those sketches that reminds me how far I’ve progressed since 3 months back. I’m still fudging the hands, feet and face but slowly toes and noses are making an appearance.

Still not absolutely sure how to make the best use of the white chalk, though I like it next to the dark line (right leg and foot as I look at image). I was surprised at this, it seems counter-intuitive to put a dark and light line next to each other – usually the effect of a bright white line is because it’s next to a whole area of darkness.


A2, charcoal, 25 minutes

I had so many problems with this drawing, mainly around the hip. I was so taken with the curve of the hip bone that I plunged straight in, trying to fit the rest of the body around the hip and ending up with something very unlike a body, all the while refusing to believe that my beautiful hip was actually the problem. I’ve managed to salvage something from it and I quite like the end result which is softer than most of my drawings – as a result of so much rubbing out and re-drawing.

I’ve learnt from these two past drawings is that it really is OK to make mistakes – better that than be too tentative. Mistakes can be corrected and it really doesn’t matter if the old marks show – sometimes it adds to the whole. And even when I feel it’s going desperately wrong, a deep breath and a step back will nearly always help.

Above ten minutes with charcoal on A3

Above all quick 10 minutes sketches using the newly discovered conte crayon, which I really like – very soft but impossible to rub out – though I think that helps!



A1, conte crayon, 30 minutes

I borrowed this crayon, I think it’s also a conte crayon – quite dry and hard after the first one I used for the quick warm-up sketches. I’ve noticed that as I’m getting faster at the bodies I have time and more courage to try the faces and fingers  – step by step! Looking at this drawing now I think I should have been more bold with the areas of shadow.


A1, 30 minutes, blue conte crayon

I’ve done this pose before – with the thigh coming straight at me – it’s very tricky to pull off! This is better than my last try but still not quite right. There seems to be width missing in the hips though the left arm is maybe covering that.


one hour, A1, charcoal and white chalk on beige paper

I knew I wasn’t going to get the feet in but in my traditional panic I’d had two false starts and was running out of time so had to forgo them. This is the first time I’ve made a proper attempt at a face. the model had her head tilted away which left a clear shadow under her chin – I think it just about works.

This is one of the drawings I’ve done since the course work on structure and I think it has definitely paid off. I nearly always have problems with the upper body and this time I felt I could get under the skin and feel my way around the bones.

The angle of the model’s right lower leg isn’t right (it almost looks like it’s been put on backwards!). I did notice this, but didn’t correct it enough. The fingers need to be a little longer too.


30 minutes A1, charcoal and white chalk on grey paper

Above is the same pose from a different angle. One of my rare attempts to fill in the face, gutted I didn’t get more time because it was almost working.

Happy with this drawing, though it’s quite tentative. I’m pleased with the slump of the pose, the way the neck and head sink forwards. Again this is something that the anatomy study helped with – the neck sits forward of the trapezius muscles.


A1, 45 minutes, charcoal on white (!) paper

The same pose yet again, from a different angle. Something quite satisfying about having drawn the same pose from three different points. Makes me think of the model as one of those musical boxes. Or else it’s me spinning around her.

This model has very narrow hips, but even so I’m not sure I got enough sense of weight in the pelvis. I spent most time on the foot, it was a real struggle to show it’s position, but in the end I’m happy with it – getting to it in the end thereby thinking of the blocks of bones within.


30 minutes, A2, charcoal and white chalk

Quite tentative! I went in to this wanting to work on tone with some clear shadows and highlights. However the studio has very flat lighting, today it was dull and the artificial light came from above. I made what I could of it but didn’t have much confidence.

The leaning arm is very unsure and I don’t think the hand is big enough.


20 minutes, A2, charcoal and white chalk

There is a problem with the right arm attachment (this is pre my study on structure!) and with the model’s right leg (too long?) but I do like the pose and the simplicity of the sketch.


30 minutes, A2, charcoal and white chalk

Another shoulder attachment problem! I haven’t given enough width at the point where the right arm attaches. I feel with what I’ve learned since that I could actually go back and correct this drawing without the model in front of me. To do list…..

IMG_3643 IMG_3642

Above both A3, 20 and 10 minutes respectively. Happy with the left drawing though the right lower leg seems narrow, this is undoubtedly this particular model’s body. The right has problems with the upper back and shoulder area. She had twisted her body which always throws me in to confusion. I think it probably needs to be broader, or I need to find a signal to show the twist.

IMG_3644 IMG_3657

Above both A2. Disappointed with the above two drawings. I didn’t really think about how I was going to use the white crayon and I haven’t used it successfully at all. It’s a bit of a mess. The drawing on the right I’m also not happy with. I fell back on my mistake of getting too focused in one area, not keeping my eye on the overall proportions, and then running out of time. I think the head is all wrong here, maybe too small? I can’t really tell now, and her right arm is weird too.


30 minutes, A2, charcoal

A male model (very rare around these parts!). I’m happy with most of this though I struggled with the thighs and the marks are now so much harder than the rest now. Not convinced that the lower leg or feet are large enough.


45 minutes, A1, charcoal and watercolour

I’m a newbie to watercolour but I do enjoy it. I went in too heavy here with the Payne’s Grey but there are areas that have worked. I need to hold back a little, leave more white. I was very happy with this drawing, and I feel I’ve trashed it with the paint, but I also know I have to push myself – il faut oser – as the French are keen on saying – one has to dare!


45 minutes, A1, charcoal and watercolour

So I had this idea to add in some pink, but didn’t test it out first, so now my poor model has sunburnt legs. It’s a shame because I think either colour scheme would have worked well – but on the entire body! Again too heavy with the paint – it has lost its translucency.


one hour, A1, charcoal and watercolour

My second attempt at watercolour and I was too tentative, A darker shadow on the thigh would have been good, but I was so frightened of the runaway qualities of the watercolour I simply didn’t put enough. The dark charcoal outline of the thigh is a bit dominant but I quite like the resulting zig-zag of legs.

There’s some foreshortening going on and I did find that relatively easy to deal with in this instance – I just had to see the shapes rather than think about the body.


45 minutes, A1, charcoal and watercolour

First ever go at watercolour in a life class. Using very thin paper (first mistake!) which buckled enormously. Also muddied my colours a lot by layering – remembering too late what I had read about translucency being key with watercolours.


30 minutes, A2, water-soluble crayons

The first time I have added colour and the first time I used water soluble crayons. I didn’t think to test the colours out first which is a bit daft and they have come out a bit garish, but it’s bold, and it was fun to do so I should do again. On the to do list….In terms of the structure of the body – the arm is probably too short and the hands and feet too small.

Below are all drawings done in life class before I started part four, but while I’ve been on Drawing One.


I’ve only come across this model once, and I enjoyed sketching her. She was not about contrived poses – she sat, she stood – in fact she stood very straight and firmly balanced on both feet, something not often seen!

In the above I lengthened the raised arm as an afterthought – though as it was slightly behind her head so seen at a foreshortened angle I’m now wondering if the correction should have happen more at the armpit and with the angle.

Below I was really focused on proportions. My classic shoulder problem presents itself again – the right looks ok though perhaps to straight? The right seems to lack width at the clavicle.



Above – I ran out of time – a shame because it’s almost there – I think the upper body and head probably needs to be bigger. The right arm isn’t quite there. The white has shown up harsh on this photograph.


Again I like the poses this model takes. Simple and natural. I’ve cunningly hidden the hands in this sketch….but what’s missing most to me is shadow under her bottom – she looks like she’s levitating.

Three drawings of same pose above. I struggled a lot with the idea of weight on the arm – trying to get the slump and the twist of the torso. The sketch with diluted ink I really like – I worked straight in with ink, no pencil and it was exhilarating. It reminds me (in media, not style!) of Diebenkorn’s ink figure paintings. Not sure why I haven’t done it since.

L’annonciade, musée de Saint-Tropez

The trick of living in the south of France is to go in to hiding during high season, while the roads are clogged and the markets jammed. A quick trip to Saint Tropez before the tourists arrive had me popping in to L’Annonciade, a museum that while in a prominent harbour position, gets overlooked as some of the world’s most ostentatious boats scream out for attention.

I haven’t been to this museum for years so was intrigued to realise when I got back home that I bought the very same two postcards I’d bought years ago:


Photo of postcard: Nu au bas noir, 1905, Pierre Girieud

I’m not sure what is going on with the face in this painting. It seems a very odd shadow. But other than that I think it’s pretty staggering. There is such solidity to the body. I’m intrigued by the bold contour line, which I’ve seen recently in Alice Neel’s paintings and Egon Schiele, while the sturdiness of flesh reminds me of Lucian Freud.


Photo of postcard: Claudine vue de dos, 1906, Raoul Dufy

This appeals to me primarily because of the greens and blues in the upper right corner and the way that Dufy has tackled painting the hand – he’s just left it out! And yet this absolutely works – the left side of the body and left arm are in full light, there is such a bright spot at the hand that we don’t even make it out. This really gives me the feeling that he painted this to show us not what but how he saw.

(That said, I am a bit disappointed in the lower half of the body, I find the shadow under the left buttock and the left leg a bit unconvincing).


Sous la lampe, 1892, Edouard Vuillard

Couldn’t stop looking at this painting! I am fascinated by the matte black shapes of the two women’ jackets, their hair, the chairs, window and lampshade. What confidence. As I break down the composition into its parts it seems extraordinary that it hangs together as it does: blurry sofa in foreground, crazy red and black wall paper, two women with their backs to us, sitting by a window, night-time.

I got as close as I could to this painting without freaking out the museum guards, to see if there was any tonality in those black shapes. Not one bit, they are perfect solid black shapes. And yet we can feel the curve of the backs of these women, their tight corseting, padded shoulders.

There is barely any suggestion of tone or form anywhere. Alongside the black shapes is a flat brown shape of a skirt, just a couple of lines to suggest folds. A pale blue lamp base lit from above, maybe the hint of shadow at its base.

The pose of the women appeals to me. They have made themselves comfortable, they are unwatched, unposed. The woman on the right seems to have her hand up on her shoulder, she’s leaning in to the chair. The other is leaning in to the table, as her chest slumps forwards her forearms bear her weight and her shoulders rise.

project four: structure

exercise one: the structure of the human body


In life classes I’ve been struggling with arms and shoulders and heads. Which sort of makes up most of the upper half of the body. And then there are the problems with feet and ankles.

Doing these studies I think will help – I get to test them out in a life class tomorrow. I have an idea of the width of shoulders by comparison to the head. I understand what is going on under the skin with clavicle, sternum and top of arm settling snugly in to the shoulder blade. I often lose width across the shoulders, so I need to think about the span of that clavicle.

I draw arms like understuffed sausages. Looking at the muscles – beautiful mounds layered under each other will definitely help. I’ve spent some time copying arms drawn by the masters. It’s interesting that they really seem to go to town on the curves of the arm muscles. And there other are certain features they all point out – the curve around the shoulder muscle, the dip of sternum and clavicle.



Having ago drawing myself in mirror – trying to draw ‘over’ the bones.


Drawing these reminded me how high the hip bones come at the back, they are lower in the front – the jutting out hip bone. There’s also a point on the lower hip that juts out – actually the top part of the thigh bone. As with the shoulder and arm, muscles are layered on top of each other – major ones over buttocks, front of thigh and back of calves.


Drawing my own legs and feet with mirror. I have peculiarly long toes and feel I need to asterisk that in case anyone points out an anatomical error.


Drawing my feet and doing a second version with just line, wondering how much can be said with line. I think it probably depends on the position of the feet. The best lines are under the big toe, ball of foot, arch. If these are obvious I think a line is easier to do. I’ve struggled with toes and fingers in life classes. Now I see that toes are really all about the shadow between one and the next.


Examining how the masters tackle bodies (looking mainly at shoulders). This was such an interesting thing to do. The easiest by far was Modigliani. Schiele was the weirdest. I felt I was just drawing abstract shapes, but of course the whole works. Blake was also interesting – he seemed to be really thinking anatomically – the planes of the body, the muscles mass.


Hands are definitely tricky. Things I learnt

  • using own hands as model – the nearer they are to me the harder
  • getting the angle of the nail right is importantIMG_3509
  • it helps to get the shape of the palm down first, then the angle of the fingers
  • middle finger is as long as palm
  • structure of thumb goes all the way to the wrist


Beginning to think about using something other than a pencil…here I did a really bad sketch with charcoal, rubbed it out furiously and finding the ghost of my hand left in the charcoal went in with a 9B to pick out just a few elements. The hand on the left is interesting (on the right I didn’t quite get the ghostliness) – a technique to be investigated!


I haven’t doodled with biro since those hours spent in boring meetings (in another lifetime) and really enjoyed the freedom they give.

Wasn’t sure about this to begin with. The left leg looks so much larger than the right, but when I went to check it was pretty much correct except that the right foot should be a tad longer and the right thigh a tiny bit wider. Maybe shadows on the ground would have helped explain the position better?


Using charcoal, red and black pencil. A self portrait so not a very interesting position, and tricky to keep arms still.

I’m very tall and that does come across, maybe from the extreme portrait shape of the sketch, but also the ranginess of legs coming forward, as if there isn’t quite enough room for them on the chair or within the frame.


  • little toe – something has gone very wrong there
  • forearm is way too short – I did try to fix this and consequently the hand?!
  • the hand!

Funny how I only spot these things once I’ve uploaded the photograph to the blog.

Following on from above image, hoping to correct the arm but turns out it’s all in the crook of the wrist. Thinking about Diebenkorn and Alice Neel and using blank ink with paintbrush. I don’t have much patience (or is that time?) and am delighted in the way the quickest dab of diluted ink can create shadow.

project one: fabric and form

Exercise one: drawing fabric using line and tone

From sketchbook (including photographs of drapery studies by Da Vinci, Durer and Waterhouse. I used a soft wooden shawl – very gentle folds – rather than the crispness of cotton or linen.


Wanting to try for the sharper folds of cotton. Using black and white chalk on green paper. Not really successful, I think down to the media. The crayon is too harsh and can’t give any subtlety and the green paper is just a bit weird.

By chance came across this in a museum in Arles: Studies of drapery by Jacques Réattu (pierre noire with highlights in white chalk). Very helpful to see up close – most daunting is the amount of work gone in to these studies, they are not quick sketches. they really are ‘studies’.


Felt pen on A2 – I approached the jeans and the cotton shirt differently and was surprised that actually it takes very little to get across folds – I’ve applied very few to the shirt, leaving most of it as a line drawing and it’s enough. I did struggle with the bottom part of the jeans which already dark, were also in dense shade – I essentially had to make it up…


More fabric using graphite and white pastel on spare patches of sketchbook already coloured with ink.

I get better the more I do these (duh!), the challenge is to get the tone to shift gradually from deepest dark to bright highlight.

A very hypnotic exercise.



Alice Neel: Painter of Modern Life, Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, Arles


Hartley and Ginny, 1970, Alice Neel

I can’t quite remember where I first saw this Alice Neel painting but it stayed with me, taking up space in my mental art gallery.

My next exposure to her work was a documentary that recently became available via BBC i-player, and this was followed (as if delivered by fairy godmother) by a major retrospective of her work here,  in the south of France, a place that while it inspired so much, feels very much an artistic backwater today.

Sometimes the planets line up for us just so.

Amusingly the retrospective is held in the Fondation Vincent Van Gogh, a gallery that doesn’t actually hold any paintings by Van Gogh, but is dedicated to contemporary art and somehow found a rationale to use his name. To be fair the gallery’s strategy is to have one or two Van Gogh paintings on show alongside the headline act but headline will always be Van Gogh and the result will always be a great many confused tourists.

This exhibition is huge. It starts with her best and most well known work, and ends with her earliest, and often the most disturbing.


Mother and Child (Nancy and Olivia), 1967, Alice Neel

What comes into question when looking at the portraits (for almost all are portraits) is the relationship of Neel to the sitter, because there is clearly something going back and forth, this isn’t a one-way thing. Neel was a forceful character, and I wonder if this is it. The sitter feels the force of her, they are pinned to their place, watching her, waiting for her to finish.

Certain elements stand out: shoes, hands, eyes, noses, lips. Surrounded by all these paintings with large eyes, and curvy lips for a moment I wondered if she had a standard set of eyes, a standard nose. But every face is so uniquely its own. She has captured something behind the eyes, something in the corner of a mouth.

These are the notes I took standing in front of the works: blue lines as outlines. Feeling of unfinished and yet very finished, as if she has said “this is enough, why take it any further?” Many of the paintings are ‘unfinished’. Perhaps the background is bare canvas, or a hand has been left unpainted, a pattern on a dress roughly finished. But it doesn’t seem to matter one bit. It tells enough, it tells all we need to know. Any more would be like that extra blob of cream on top of  the ice cream, that we never asked for.

She has a tendency to paint an area of blue behind her sitters’ heads, rather like a halo, a frame, an aura. Her models don’t pose. They’ve just sat down – just for a second – and she’s captured them. They may as well have sat for a photograph, a quick snap.


Victoria and the Cat, 1980, Alice Neel

My notes: knock-kneed, awkward gasping of cat. Huge bushy tail! Defiance, determination of girl trying to hald on to cat. Awkwardly trying to fix face, trying to still the squirm of both cat and her own body and face. 

I’m fascinated by the way that Neel doesn’t feel the need to draw an accurate hand or arm. She’s clearly capable – it’s obvious in some of her other works – and yet here she just doesn’t bother, it’s not important. And it doesn’t matter, if anything it adds to the whole awkwardness of the moment.


Andy Warhol, 1970, Alice Neel

My notes: knee unfinished, hands half done. Face is so absolutely him. Again clearly outlined in blue. Looks as if he is rising up and towards us. Like he is dead and has come back Somehow quite angelic. Sickly green through hair and skin. Eyes closed. Suffering, indignant, proud.


I didn’t really know about the attempt made on Warhol’s life but it seems he did almost die from the shooting. Everything about this painting is extraordinary. Warhol’s expression is of pain, just trying to deal with it for this moment, waiting for it to pass. Hands together for comfort, he is pale, weak, brutalised. He perches on the bench, barely there. He could float away at any moment.


The Family, 1970, Alice Neel

“I had always loved Alice’s work, because it was a mixture of the sublime and the grotesque. The sublime and the grotesque to me were part of her esthetic, were part of what she was conveying to the world—that people are beautiful and grotesque, that people are poignant and tragic, that they had big interior lives. She gave them big interior lives. She saw the lives in them that even they did not recognize. What emerged was a kind of desperate beauty.” John Gruen (central figure in painting)

I watched the documentary on Neel (made by her son Andrew Neel) and a documentary on Hockney one after the other. What is striking about both artists is how absolutely single-minded they are. Nothing could keep them from painting. Their need to paint is akin to their need to breathe. Striking also that they each seem to have a question to answer. In Hockney’s case it is how we see, in Neel’s case it is to truly see someone.

At one point in the film Neel talks about the moment when she stops painting, when her sitter has left, and she feels empty. While she is painting it is as if she has entered her sitter. This is such an extraordinary thing to say and yet it also makes so much sense. And it’s similar to how writers describe the process of getting inside their character’s head.  It reminds me of the sketches of Giacometti I saw in our local gallery – how he seems to be drilling under the skin, feeling his way around the contours of the skull, searching for the soul.

“I do not know if the truth I have told will benefit the world in any way. I managed to do it at great cost to myself and perhaps to others…at least I tried to reflect innocently the twentieth century and my feelings and perceptions as a girl and as a woman. Not that I felt they were all that different than mens'” Alice Neel

ARTnews on the portrait of the Gruen family

Fondation Vincent Van Gogh

Alice Neel Film

Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 2010

very strict art class


I started these very classic art classes in November, moving gradually from HB pencil to charcoal and finally to charcoal AND white conté crayon. Hurrah!

What I learned:

  • the grey paper is the mid-tone – it’s quite hard to use it as mid-tone – to just let it be
  • work with charcoal and grey paper first. Add white last.
  • blending the charcoal and white makes a flat grey – avoid!
  • however it is possible to go over the charcoal with the crayon to some extent (with a sharp tip)
  • don’t be frightened to go in quite bold – laying down a lot of charcoal – it can always be taken away
  • don’t bother with a very detailed drawing – you are sculpting the drawing from the charcoal