Musee des Beaux-Arts, Lyon: Nicolas de Staël

Starved of art that excites and inspires me I dragged my family 3 hours north to Lyon, to the Musée des Beaux-Arts and the Musée Art Contemporain.

A handful of paintings stood out for me, but this had most impact.


La Cathédral, 1955, Nicolas de Staël

This artist always catches my eye and I confess the reasons are partly romantic. He lived for some time in a village I know very well, in a peculiar isolated house hanging off a rocky outcrop. He had a short and tragic life, blighted by lost love. Plus, he wore high-waisted trousers and was quite dashing.

La Cathédral stood out in a room of brightly coloured works. The building almost glows, like lit mother-of-pearl against a dense night sky, devoid of stars.

I wrote this when I stood in front of it: sense of a glowing body at night. Contains something living, moving breathing. Vibrates. In way light does. Almost shimmering. Pockets – rooms-people? in the end it is light. Black line at bottom – rooted? crypt? pathway? calling? Light & dark  Blackness is comforting, enclosing, not menacing, rather enveloping.

There’s a strong sense of de Stael dealing with something here. I wrote this sentence and then flipped to Wiki to check the year he died. I already know it was suicide. Turns out it was 1955, the year of this painting.

My habit is to take in a painting before I research it. I’m glad I did that here, and I’ll continue to do that. I think we are at risk of seeing what we’ve read in a book into the painting, without stirring our own feelings up first. Everything I took from this painting makes a lot of sense now. Here is a place of shimmering light, in an enveloping darkness, and it beckons. There are people in this place, perhaps he feels them waiting for him.


At first glance, or from afar, the painting looks as though it’s been done in black and white, or maybe some added creams. Getting up close there is a whole palette of muted colours: green, lilac, beiges, pinks, deep reds and blues. I think it is these that gives the impression of shimmering light, a light refracted.

This from the museum’s guide:

La Cathédrale est une des œuvres ultimes de l’artiste. Son imposante silhouette se détache sur l’obscurité d’un fond bleu-nuit. La fluidité nouvelle de la pâte et l’allègement de la matière picturale caractérisent son traitement. Le ciel sombre semble avoir été peint d’un seul geste, alors que la masse claire est composée de rectangles et de carrés exécutés en camaïeu de gris et de blancs, séparés par quelques touches de rouge, d’or ou de bleu qui semblent illuminer le bâtiment de l’intérieur. Le plus grand des rectangles reprend en réduction la masse de l’édifice.

Comme de nombreuses peintures de cette époque, le tableau est peint dans une gamme limitée de couleurs, dans une harmonie de gris, noirs, bleus foncés et blancs. Ce chromatisme a pu faire songer à une influence de Vélasquez et de Manet, artistes dont de Staël étudia l’œuvre au cours d’un voyage en Espagne à l’automne 1954.

Selon le témoignage d’un proche de l’artiste, Pierre Lecuire, le tableau aurait été peint à Paris, probablement avant 1955. Il appartiendrait dans sa thématique même aux nombreuses vues de Paris réalisées au cours de l’été 1954. Françoise de Staël quant à elle n’exclut pas qu’après avoir fait un dessin de Notre-Dame de Paris pendant cette période, l’artiste “ait repensé le sujet à Antibes, au-delà des monuments connus, érigeant sa propre Cathédrale imaginaire”.

The last paragraph does question where and when the painting was completed. There are two opposing views – one that it was completed in Paris, before 1955, and using sketches he had made of Notre-Dame, and the other that it was completed in Antibes, from his imagination.



View of Notre-Dame, 1914, Henri Matisse

Several weeks after seeing this painting I came across this Matisse painting in a book and found it striking how both have abstracted Notre-Dame, capturing it as a place of light enclosed by a block of darker colour.


Hockney on BBC4


Two rather long quotes I took from the documentary Hockney, BBC Four (first shown March 2015) on i-player. Mainly biographical, with plenty of Hockney’s own footage. We see how from very early on he became interested in how we see and as continued to grapple with this throughout his career.

Hockney talks a great deal about the photograph in his recent book A Bigger Message so it was interesting to see that he was tackling the same subject in this footage way back in the 1970s:

“I’d become very very aware of this frozen moment that was very unreal to me. the photographs didn’t really have life in the way a drawing or painting did. And I realised it couldn’t because of what it is. Compared to Rembrandt looking at himself for hours and hours……a photograph is the other way round – it’s the fraction of a second, frozen. For the moment that you look at it for even four seconds, you’re looking at it for far more than the camera did and it dawned on me that this is visible and the more you become aware of it the more this is a terrible weakness, drawing and painting don’t have this”

I think the following was Philip Steadman:

“We see so many photographic images and film images and they are so mainstream. We’re so used to thinking of those as the way of representing the world but he knows you can do things with painting that one cannot do with photographic technologies, one can express visions of the world, ways of seeing, that invite you to look at things that you would only just glance at if it was a photograph or even if you were seeing it in reality. He’s introducing something much more personal, much more moving and he’s trying many tactics to show that painting can do this”

I want to keep this really front of mind, it’s so crucial. There is no point drawing just to represent or depict something. It should be saying something about the subject, or about us, or if not saying it, asking the questions.


reflection on feedback : end of part three

Version 3

photo: incredibly just a few weeks after I finished drawing an abandoned factory for Assignment Three it was demolished. These huge tanks were also on my wish list to draw but now they’ve been taken away. No doubt they will be replaced by a shopping centre.

I hadn’t felt that confident about my work in part three. I’m not sure if this is something to do with getting half way. At the beginning of the course I surprised myself with some of the drawings (in a good way). But this last part I found difficult and I was unsure of all the work I produced. Come half way am I expecting more? Have I become more critical? Or was the work simply not as good.

After postal problems last time around I agreed with my tutor not to post – which made it harder for her to assess – and I’m worried that my work looks better online than in the flesh. So we’ll battle it out with the post again next time.

things to revisit:

(assignment two I still need to tweak)

‘composition’ of gates – will really try to make time to have another crack at this, using the six square grid as suggested. Not sure what this is, so need to investigate. This drawing had frustrated me as I liked the subject but it was evading capture.

‘townscapes’ of statue – aspects of this I was pleased with though I could see that the whole hadn’t worked. Thankfully my tutor has given quite direct (constructive) criticism – “needs more work. It is a little bland overall and could have benefitted from some more colour”. So I know that I need to really push at it. I think I had wanted to make something really beautiful and mysterious – and in wanting that I lost my nerve – this is no place to be timid.

other feedback:

My tutor picked up, as I have done, on a ‘narrative’ throughout my work, and my pointer for the next assignment is “embrace the atmospheric/dystopian graphic novel style imagery as this appears to be your voice or style coming through.” I do seem to see things this way – though I’m hoping this is a romantic rather than a dark side coming though. I’ve always been drawn to old factories, cargo ships, wasteland and shadows more interesting than the object that has cast them. Also the question arises whether I have considered illustration, which I haven’t, though I can see it’s a direction I shouldn’t dismiss.

Overall my tutor had lots of positive encouragement which has left me absolutely fired up for part four and to produce some work that I feel more confident about.

Past feedback and focus points

Below I’ve cut and pasted things to focus on from part one and two – ruled out when I’ve covered it – just to keep me on track.

  • practice elipses but keep at it!
  • do my preparatory work on bigger sheets before moving on to A1, rather than going straight from A4 to A1 – this makes so much sense and I can’t believe I needed someone to tell me…
  • make a clearer divide in my sketchbooks from one assignment to the next I’m using my sketchbooks more so they are filling up for each part now anyway.
  • consider your own style and strong points such as perspective, architecture, mood narrative, atmosphere
  • consider cinematic opportunities and developing them further when possible.  

and from my own reflection:

  • push myself to experiment more don’t lose sight of this
  • really try to get to grips with the different media (especially coloured pencils, pastels) and try out different papers – use contact SAA from tutor for trial papers
  • yet more messing about before committing to the drawing – don’t be frightened to make mistakes make mistakes!

and specifically:

  • fix the perspective  problems on my assignment two floor tiles and the area around the shadow
  • make time to have a go at a real fish, after my trying time with the fake ones – would love to have a go at Turner’s gurney. go back and have another go

and as a reminder I’m adding some of the part one key points in here too:

  • plan the drawings better with light pencil so they fit the space
  • avoid drawing outline of an object – investigate how the object meets the space
  • develop more experimental drawings before committing to the final – to get a better idea of how something may work (for example with my idea to block in random objects, which didn’t really work)
  • try out sketching white on black! have been doing quite a bit of this

reflection at end of part three

Version 2

Part three has been done in fits and starts. ‘Done’ rather than ‘completed’ because it doesn’t feel completed. I don’t feel I’ve got my teeth in to any one exercise, time has been chomping at my heels, pushing me on. Though as I’m now more than half way through, I wonder optimistically if this feeling comes from me seeing more potential in each subject. Rather than a little path to explore for each exercise, now I see an entire motorway network, spreading out in to A roads, B roads, gravel tracks – all waiting to be investigated.

I wouldn’t be English without a little moan about the weather and no, it hasn’t helped. I tend to do coursework in the evening, and of course it gets dark around 5pm. We’ve had the coldest weather for many years, some days struggling to get above 3c. And then there’s the Mistral – don’t get me started. Consequently I’ve done very little sketching outside, some from the car, some from a window but mostly from photographs and I don’t see as well like that.

I’ve also keenly felt my lack of exposure to art this winter – most galleries near me are closed until mid March when the tourists start to trickle in again. I’ve read about exhibitions taking place in the UK and feel I am missing a great deal. I’ve seen a couple of photographic exhibitions and Tony Cragg’s sculpture, but would love to get access to the artists that I’ve been researching. However I continue to listen to Tate and Royal Academy podcasts among others, read books and catalogues and catch relevant documentaries when I can. The more I consume, the more my appetite increases. Just like eating jelly babies.

Specifically thinking about the criteria for this course:

Demonstration of technical and Visual Skills Materials: techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills

Since I started with OCA’s Foundations course 18 months ago, some of my technical skills have improved no end, but some are still lacking. I do feel more confident of my observational skills and visual awareness now – I’m not daunted – I feel I can get something down OK. I’ve also developed a keener eye for tone and contrast, for shadow, for the ‘edges’ that aren’t actually edges at all.

I think I need to keep an eye on my compositional skills. I tend to leap straight to a composition and not let go. I don’t think I try enough things out. I see a composition almost immediately and am usually reluctant to let it go, when maybe I should.

My biggest failing here I think is technique – I am still grappling with this. I’m confident now with charcoal, and of course pencil. I have by no means mastered pastel or crayon, though I am getting more comfortable with pen and ink washes. I’ve begun using tinted and black paper but haven’t really go to grips with what paper works best for what.

Quality of Outcome: Content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, with discernment

If I’ve understood what this means, then ‘content and application of knowledge’ has perhaps been a little shaky here – because of my piece meal approach to part three – I haven’t truly answered some of the exercises, and working from photographs has not been ideal.

I’m confident however that I’m presenting my work coherently, and I hope explaining my reasons for any deviation from the exercise.

Demonstration of Creativity: Imagination, experimentation, invention, personal voice

In the Gallery section of my blog I put the drawings from each part up together – it’s useful to see my progress like that – on one page. And I can see here that things are happening. I’ve gone from straight forward representation of something to drawings that are showing something else – something about my own response to the subject.

I can see that it’s still tentative, but as I get the technical skills under my belt, I feel more freedom to respond more intuitively. I suppose from this will come personal voice.

The weak area here is experimentation. Still. This has been my weakness since part one. I keep putting this down to shortness of time, the need to move on. I’m not sure how long I can use that as an excuse. There is a period of warming to a new subject, and my frustration is that just as I get warmed up and I start to let things wander towards experimentation the alarm goes off, stirs me out of that zone and reminds me to ‘crack on!’

I’m also aware of tightening up considerably, once I start to work on a drawing that I want to ‘finish’. I can see two routes to getting past this tendency:

  • having the time to say each piece is an experiment, so it doesn’t matter if I make ‘mistakes’
  • stop worrying about not having the time to say each piece is an experiment, and just living with the mistake. Mistakes are how we learn, if I don’t make them I won’t learn.

Context: Reflection, research (learning logs)

I enjoy the research enormously. I love the links I find, the connections I make between artists, works of art, art movements and my own discoveries. The links I find often give me confidence, inspiration, the push to carry on and do better.

There are themes that keep popping up, or that I am unconsciously steering towards. That is interesting in itself. I wonder if they might influence future images. The what’s here and what’s not,  what’s real and what’s not, our connection to place. In the drawings themselves there’s no denying the frequency of doorways, or a ‘looking through’ from one place to another. This hasn’t been conscious, and it’s taken me to this stage to see that pattern.

My big frustration here (mentioned above) is my lack of access to exhibited work. I see whatever is available locally (when it is open!), and catch what I can online but I miss seeing the real thing, because I know that time spent with art is when I perhaps learn the most.

I find reflecting on my own progress quite straight forward though as I progress through the course I feel more keenly the lack of fellow students in the same room, that lack of connection to other busy minds. The OCA forums and Facebook help a great deal to fill the vacuum but only to an extent.


I’ve just noticed from looking at the Gallery entries for the past three parts of this course that I have never used the colour green. What’s that about!?

Things I want to focus on:

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
  • Experiment and explore around my subject much much more
  • Composition – don’t get stuck on my first choice
  • Pastels – really have a go at conquering soft and oil pastels
  • Inks – experiment more with coloured inks
  • Marks – think about mark-making
  • Use green!

research point: john virtue

Try to find some information on the work he produced while associate artist in residence at the National Gallery. You’ll also find works he has made on site on the moors and at sea.

I was tempted to avoid this research point altogether. I looked at Virtue’s works on line, I bookmarked the page, I came back to them, I did a new search. There was nothing pulling me in , nothing led me to peer closer at the screen, to maximise the image.

I’m ready to accept that I might feel very differently should I see them in the flesh. I’ve had the same change of heart (in both directions) before, once I’ve seen something up close.


No 8, John Virtue, 2011-2013

Out of all the works I’ve seen online, Virtue’s series of the sea at Blakeney Point in Norfolk are the ones I think I might respond best to in person. For this series he walked and sketched the same stretch of coast each week. But I’m not convinced.


(c) DACS; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

I’m wondering if I’m being unfair. Looking again at his works (online), I think I object to those with St Paul’s Cathedral in them. And those done with acrylics where the brushwork is more apparent (as with the sea pictures).

They just don’t feel very authentic to me. Though is it possible to draw these landmarks and remain convincing?


This work (right) I find slightly more intriguing but there is still something about all these works that pushes me away rather than pulls me in.

I’m trying to understand why. The place isn’t a problem. I spent most of my life in London, I love the city. Black and white isn’t an issue. I’m wondering if it’s the lack of tone that stops me ‘seeing’ and pushes back?


It’s not easy tracking down Virtue’s work online, much of it is on Pinterest without title or date.
This last image is via, but I can’t find more information on it.

However I do find it more intriguing than the others and I want to spend longer looking at it. It’s London again, probably St Paul’s at the right, possibly Nelson’s column to the left, maybe the gherkin centre? The bend in the river, wooden pier supports exposed at low tide? It looks like it may be a print? It has more range of tone than in his other works and a greater range of spontaneous marks.

I’ve been thinking about the black and white that Virtue uses, without much tonal range between the two. I wonder if it is this that stops me entering the scene? Faced with black and white, we make colour in our minds. But with Virtue I can’t do that.  His impenetrable  black shapes against flat empty whites leave me uninvolved and unengaged.

NB. This post has been bothering me, because I haven’t really tried to understand the painter or his work. And maybe if I give a bit more I will get more out. I’ve done some more reading to try and get into these works:

Virtue spends several years with each subject. Shortly before coming to London he was painting the Exe estuary. When he joined the National Gallery as associate artist, Virtue says he became mesmerised by the Thames – which led to the body of work he created during his time in London. He describes himself as having only a ‘tourist acquaintance’  with London before taking this position. I wonder if this is what I’m sensing. I’m interested in the connection we have to place, and how this affects our artistic response to a place. There is surely a huge difference in the response of the tourist or visitor to that of someone with the deep physical connection that comes from being born or growing up in a place?

This from Peter Kingston’s 2005 profile on John Virtue in The Guardian:

“The dynamism here is unique,” (Virtue) says of London. “There’s an energy and vitality – it almost has an organic feel to it. It grows and changes its form all the time.” Given this, Virtue’s rejection of the idea that the paintings record particular moments in a changing scene seems paradoxical.

“I want to move away from the notion of impression – a cold winter’s day in London, for instance. I work right across seasons, time and weather. I’m not interested in capturing a fleeting moment (Kingston, 2005)

This has really put my head in a twist. Virtue does not want to capture an impression of the city. Does this mean he is trying to capture its essence? the way it mesmerised him? its character through time? There is something timeless about these images, except the first shown above. Which truthfully reminds me of the paintings shown on the street along Piccadilly. Do I mean timeless, or do I mean traditional? River in the foreground, townscape behind? Am I looking at a ‘traditional’ landscape with some black smudges over it?

Oh dear, the more I think about these works, the less I like them. There is something mechanical about them. I go back to the black and whiteness of them. They feel like a ‘noir’ filter has been applied.

I think I have to conclude that I need to see these paintings in person for them to speak to me.


As a note to myself I’ve added this photograph of a Franz Kline’s Untitled, 1952, that I took last year. I was absolutely blown away by it. I could have looked at it all day. Kline has been mentioned as one of Virtue’s heroes – another who uses black and white alone.

Reference List

Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts

Kingston, P. (2005) John Virtue: Being a professor is the new black. Available at: (Accessed: 23 February 2017)

part three: expanse project five: townscapes

exercise four: statues

I went in search of angels. Our tiny village has three cemetaries: current, old and really old. I wept in the first, for dear children lost to friends, but in the second I spotted her, the only angel, indeed the only statue among the crosses. Crosses dominate, in stone and iron.

She was backed up against a wall, behind a large obelisk, only two viewpoints to draw her from, and no way to get up close without trampling another’s grave. I can’t tell how old she is, but lichen is taking over and the weather has all but worn away the features from her face.

I’ve made a couple of visits to the cemetery, the light has been different each time so I’ve used a photo to help me finish the final drawing. Over this time it has of course dawned on me that my angel is lacking wings, she is more likely Mary, holding a book and I think flowers, though so much definition has been lost.


I did go on to finish this sketch but  rather like this half-way point, so I think I might start sketching in reverse – subtracting to see where I get to.

I’m away and I’ve badly packed: a dark green and white pastel pencil, a grey black and red conte crayon and my tiny box of watercolours and a pad of tinted paper. That’s it! I forgot charcoal, black or soft pencils, which has slightly thrown me.

Here I’ve used black watercolour to get some depth of shadow, the green and white pastel pencils.

Size:  A4


Above I used the conte crayon, which is ok in photograph but doesn’t really work next to the pastel – it’s greasy next to the soft pastel. There are some russet leaves behind the wall – the added red is interesting – just asking to be interpreted as a red glow. Size: A5



I think I prefer the slightly more developed drawing, but I feel a bit stuck with just my green and white pastels. To be put on hold until I get home.










On A4 black paper, still with my limited white pastel, green pastel and black crayon. Covered most  of the page with white pastel and erased out to the black paper underneath, adding a little black crayon for deepest shadows. I think the tree branches have worked out ok but I prefer the composition without.

With the tree the angel is enclosed within this small and crowded cemetery. Without the tree she is closer to the sky, she may just fly.




(Continuation of first sketch in this post, above) Using black watercolour for my missing charcoal or black pastel. The black watercolour is so strong next to the pastel, and the paper doesn’t really take water, so that both on this photograph and in real life it looks like paper damage – as if the paper has been burnt.

Paper moves when it is burning. I quite like this idea. The shadows creeping up towards the plinth and the wall are made to seem alive by comparison to the stone around them.

Cemeteries are all about life and death. What is stone, what is flesh. They can be peaceful places, but also charged, emotional, downright creepy.

I have a tiny slot of time on Sunday when I could get back to this cemetery. I would love to work on site some more, have another go at this. But I also have one more exercise to do before my already once-shifted deadline….


A revelation – I can brush water over pastels! Just messing about here, but I think this is how I will get my darker colours for ground and shadow.



Using pastels to block in basic areas of colours, washing over with a damp (decorator’s) brush.

Colours: dark and light mossy green, peachy yellow for stone, white.

Once dry going over with charcoal (and smudging), more white pastel

I like the sense of movement that the pastel makes – wind in the branches or something more ethereal…

Size: 24 x 32cm





I want to get back to the ‘unfinished’ version I did before I finished it. I’m interested in this subject, the composition, so am having a go on A2.

I’m after a contrast between the dank mossy darkness of the ground and the stone statue standing guard over the cemetery – merging with an ethereal sky! Sounds a bit grand, but I suppose I am intrigued by the contrast that cemeteries present: the living and the dead. Bodies may lie here, the living visit, spirits linger, ghosts?  These are dreadful places, but also peaceful, full of love and tears. Such a concentration of emotion in one small walled garden.

And in this ancient cemetery, Mary. Who knows what she gets up to after nightfall. Does she go visiting with words of comfort? I have no religion, but that doesn’t stop me feeling her gentle presence.


Final drawing: A2 in pastels

My beginner’s mistakes:

  • Asking at the shop for tinted paper that would be good for pastels, but not realising there were two sides to the paper – using the smooth side with the embossed paper name on it and finding pastel slides around on it.
  • Doing my ‘wetting the pastel’ practices on a different type of paper altogether
  • Buying just one sheet of paper from a shop a two hour drive away so now being terrified to messing up.

Online I discover that alcohol can be used with pastels – thinking that this would dry so fast that my paper wouldn’t have a chance to buckle I head to the chemist to have a difficult conversation. A small bottle is handed over to clean my wounds. I’m not sure we’ve fully understood each other but though I have to work very quickly and with little control the paper stays absolutely flat.

Other problems:

  • I had wanted the statue to merge with the sky, so there was a point where I had to swap the dark green of the shadows for the naked paper – I had to reverse my process of adding material to create shadow to taking it away. I don’t think that has been entirely successful. It simply looks unfinished. Looking at it on screen now, I think perhaps some added white rising up the body may help.
  • The walls around the statue. I had to invent these to some extent. They were there, but there was a lot of clutter everywhere – broken stones, marble plaques, stone crosses.  The far wall isn’t very convincing, and nor is the pillar on the corner. The perspective on the main wall to the left looks odd too.