Category Archives: the figure and the head

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:

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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.

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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).

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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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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!

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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?

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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.

Problems:

  • 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.
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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.

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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’.

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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…

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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