Monthly Archives: January 2022

Still Life 4: Abstraction and Ben Nicholson

January 26, 2022

Vase and Saucer with Spoons and Oranges
Pencil drawing by Jo
This is Jo’s composition based on shapes from the photo below.
At next week’s class Jo will demonstrate a painting in colour using a similar starting point. The practical suggestions in this post will help you to make a composition including some of the cubist techniques used by Ben Nicholson.
Photo reference for the pencil drawing
Vase and Saucer with Spoons and Oranges

Ben Nicholson was born in 1894 to artists Sir William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde.  He attributed his interest in Still life to his father but trod a very different artistic journey, visiting the studios of Picasso, Braque, Hans Arp and Brancusi in the 1920’s and becoming intrigued with cubism.  Cubist techniques of overlapping shapes and seeing objects from more than one viewpoint simultaneously, became firmly established in Nicholson’s still life work to a greater or lesser degree for the rest of his life.

He started training at the Slade in 1910 but left after a year.  His contemporaries there included Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Mark Gertler and Edward Wadsworth.  However, after spending time in the studios of Picasso and Braque, cubism became the main focus of his output in the 30’s.  This was especially so during wartime when he and Barbara Hepworth moved to St. Ives.  Ben was asthmatic so unable to join the services and for a time he and Hepworth worked well together and Hepworth said they were each other’s best critics.  Nicholson’s compositions often took in other influences besides cubism as can be seen from either Googling his work or the Pinterest board, link below. Sometimes a cubist still life may have a backdrop of a Cornish landscape as viewed from a window

We are principally engaged with Nichoson’s still life work which gradually became more abstract.  In the 20’s he painted a wooden box with a rather flat depiction of a jug and mug where shape and colour and flat darker tones make up the compositions inside the lid and on top of the box.  In 1930 he painted a simple composition of a mug and a little bowl.  The forms overlap but the way in which the stag decorating the mug is painted tells us another story.  The stag is shown as a flat motif superimposed over the other objects and overlapping the bowl and background.  It gives us a different view of the decoration than would be seen if we were looking at it as seen on the curved surface of the mug.

This overlapping technique can be seen even more clearly in Nicholson’s drawings of three pears where he has drawn one pear over another as if we could see all those edges when viewing the set up.  Also look at his compositions of objects arranged on table tops. Then try one or more of the following;

Challenge 1. Overlapping

 Find a small group of overlapping objects (e.g. a couple of mugs, a bowl with some fruit) and draw as if you can actually see all the edges that you cannot see.  Fill the shapes with tone or colour to make an interesting composition.

Nicholson takes this idea a whole lot further towards more extreme abstraction.  He plays with shapes placing them at different scales and places in his picture than they are in reality or even could be in reality. Notice how in the table top still life studies the table top is up ended.  In other works, perhaps only half a bottle or vase is seen, or shapes are repeated, tilted or reversed, and elsewhere coloured rectangles of deep or pale tones are introduced.

Challenge 2.  Different Viewpoints in the same Composition

Make a composition using the cubist technique of being able to see works in the same picture as if seen from at least two directions, for example, a piece of fruit on a plate where the fruit is drawn as seen but the plate is seen as if you were looking down on it, or do something similar to what Nicholson does with the decorative stag motif.

Challenge 3. Rearranging Shapes and Repeating Shapes at different Scales

Make a cut out of a jug, goblet or egg cup at two sizes.  Cut two of each, one on pale and one on a coloured paper. Cut at least one shape in half and play with the shapes on your support till you find a pleasing composition. 

Remember you can;

tilt or reverse the shapes; use the negative shapes from which you made your cut outs; fit one shape inside another where the scales are very different; partly overlap shapes.

Glue to a support (this should be a heavier weight than your cut outs: multimedia paper or heavy watercolour paper should be OK). If any of your shapes  have been cut from white paper consider painting a background colour on your support before glueing the pieces down. When everything is stuck down and dry, assess whether more drawing or painting is required. This may mean altering the colour or tone or adding texture or pattern to some areas.

You may prefer to play with the shapes and then draw or paint a composition based on your preferred arrangement instead of making a collage. The important thing is to play with shape and scale, tone and colour.

Challenge 4.  Make your own composition

Either use some of Nicholson’s techniques for your own composition or paint your own version of one of his works.

Your paintings;

Still Life with knives
by Pam
Still Life with Red Flowers
by Heather N
Still Life with Spoon
by Heather C
Still Life with Harbour
Gouache by Maricarmen
Still Life with Red Sails
Gouache by Ann
by Ann
Still Life with Three Ceramics
by Mali
Still Life after Ben Nicholson
by Anne
Mug, Jug and Lighthouse
by Sandra
Jug, Egg Cup and Lighthouse
by Sandra
Jugs with Stripes
by Sandra
Flowers and Vases
by Kate
Still Life
by Virginia
Still Life
by Virginia

Still Life 3: Rearranging Matisse

January 19, 2022

Fruit Bowl with Oranges: An Acrylic painting by Jo that relies more on colour than form for its impact

Rearranging Matisse sounds like heresy, but is in fact a useful exercise because it illuminates the possibilities that arranging and rearranging objects bring.  Matisse had a different interest in still life to Morandi.  Matisse consciously sought to communicate what he felt about objects, and as early as 1908 told his students, “To copy objects in a still life is nothing; one must render the emotion they awaken in him”, whereas Morandi writes “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, colour and forms.”  Morandi was far more interested in communicating what he saw with his eyes.

The illustrations in this post include my version of “Still Life with Sea Shell on Black Marble” 1940.  Matisse had some difficulty in finding a suitable composition for these objects and resorted to using cut outs of apples and string to mark the table edge before arriving at the final study.  Matisse only ever intended this as a study for a final work but it is a method you may like to try.  As you will see I have rearranged his objects after very rapidly noting the development of this work at the “Matisse in his Studio” exhibition at the Royal Academy several years ago.  I also took serious liberties with the colour of the background and table top.

Jo’s sketch from Matisse’s way of moving his objects around to arrive at a satisfying composition; included apples cut from green paper; shell drawn on brown paper; ceramics drawn on white paper and string to mark the table edges
Very hasty sketch of Matisse’s final version; note cropped coffee pot and cropped apple on the right. As you can se I had a lot of fun with this!
Jo cut and painted papers in the shapes of all the objects, and then moved them around on a board which was painted in gouache choosing very different colours to the Matisse still life.
Jo’s final composition inspired by the development of “Still Life with Sea Shell”, 1940, by Matisse: the objects are rearranged and the colours of the table top and background have been radically changed. After gluing down the objects more gouache was applied. Jo has sought to retain an idea of “conversation” between the objects.

“Still Life with Sea Shell on Black Marble” is included in my Still Life Pinterest Board: Section Matisse, link given below:

Both artists used their objects as “actors” arranging them on “the set” and often using the same actors in different works.  Both were interested in the relationships between objects but while Morandi searched for the nuances of light, shade and spatial relationships, Matisse also wished to bring objects and their associated memories into the equation.  This extended to bringing a unity to arrangements of objects he had collected on his journeys or that he had grown up with, and throwing their surroundings and sometimes fruit and flowers into the mix.  In Morandi’s still lives one never sees a still life before an open window or had any idea of how Morandi’s room was furnished whereas for Matisse the environment in which his objects existed often formed an integral part of the composition. 

Matisse used vibrant colours purposely to communicate emotion, something totally alien to Morandi’s simplified but more observation based still lives with their muted colours depicting simple vessels.  Curiously, Morandi’s work does give us emotion, as a sense of calm unity pervades his work without seeming boring in any way.  However for those seriously interested in colour Matisse offers continual inspiration. 

Matisse leads us through compositions that rely less on form as revealed by light than by shape and the juxtaposition of colour.  Objects become simplified and patterns exaggerated so that we see emotion celebrated through a more abstract way of seeing.

Here are a few photographs of objects chosen for their shape and colour with some rearrangements! which may give you a few ideas for setting up. My ‘photos don’t include glimpses from windows or interiors but you may have just such a setting for your composition.

This week the challenge is to arrange colourful objects that may be everyday and/or have have personal significance for you and then make a colourful still life composition, using colour and shape in the spirit of Matisse.  Alternatively you are invited to make your own version of a still life by Matisse.

Your Paintings;

Still Life in a Window Setting
by Heather C
Fruit and Flowers
Acrylic by Sandra
Flowers, Fruit and Wine
Pastel by Mali
Still Life in the Spirit of Matisse
Acrylic by Mali
Still Life with Window and Chair
Oil by Virginia
Yellow Interior
Acrylic by Heather N
Still Life with Cockerel
by Anne
Still Life after Matisse
by Ann
Still Life with Cat
by Pam
Still Life with Embroidered Textile
by Maricarmen
Still life with Flowers
by Kate

Still Life 2: Learning from Morandi

January 12, 2022

All photos are by Jo Hall from her everyday objects

From a medium sized sitting room in Bologna, overlooking a small courtyard with trees Giorgio Morandi (1890 -1964), lived and worked painting everyday objects. These objects inhabited his shelves and became arranged and rearranged for his drawings, oil paintings, watercolours and etchings.

He admired artists of the Renaissance, Giotto, Masaccio, Uccello and Piero della Francesca and also Cezanne, Chardin, described in Morandi’s words as “the greatest of all still life painters ” and Corot, who he though of as the master of stillness. This last seems of most relevance as Morandi’s paintings of simple things give a sense of timeless calm to the viewer.

Note hard and soft edges and where the handle of the small jug disappears into the shadows.

The author Horst Bienick wrote “Giorgio Morandi only painted jugs and bottles all his life but in these pictures he said more about life, about real life, than there is in all the colourful pictures around us.”

The quotes above are from ” Morandi” edited by Ernst-Gerhard Guse and Franz Armin Morat published by Prestel 2008. You will find a selection of Morandi’s works posted on the Morandi section of my Still Life Pinterest board, link below:

All Morandi’s works are based on intense observation simplifying forms and understanding how light reveals forms and how shadows can hide form and soften edges so that one form melts into another. The photos are all of my everyday objects and were taken to illustrate this.

In a letter of 6th January 1957 Morandi writes, “The only interest the visible world awakens in me concerns space, light, colour and forms.”

The way in which Morandi simplifies forms is most evident in his pencil drawings. The line is slow and deliberate, tracing the contours of what he sees. Areas of tone are added with diagonal hatching. In the watercolours, areas of tone are washed in as seen, immediately simplifying the forms and lending an abstract quality to these closely observed works. Morandi pays equal attention to the spaces between objects and the shadows the objects cast, as he does to the care he takes with the objects themselves.

Dark and light tones, hard and soft edges, muted colours.

Try arranging a few everyday objects in different ways. make simple line and tone drawings. Where edges between objects cannot be seen treat them as one form. Look at the images below and note the difference that changing their arrangement makes. You may like to draw from these but if you can, find your own subjects and draw from life.

Notice the appearance of the egg cup in the images below and also what happens to the edges where one dark ceramic is close to another.

The egg cup appears darkly subdued into the shadow. The three forms together with their shadow could be read as one shape.
The egg cup has been moved forward and by its contrast with the surrounding shadow demands our attention.

During the session we will make either several watercolours or an acrylic painting in the spirit of Morandi.

Your paintings:

Still life
Acrylic by Mali
Drawing by Mali
Drawing after an Etching by Giorgio Morandi
by Ann
Still Life
Pencil over acrylic background by Ann
Still Life
by Ann
Still Life with Jug
Gouache by Sandra
Graphite drawing by Sandra
Gouache sketch by Sandra
Vase and Jars
Acrylic by Maricarmen
Bowl and Beakers
by Kate
Watercolour by Heather C
Drawing in 2B pencil by Heather C
Drawing in Pen and Ink by Heather C
Still Life by Anne
Still Life with Bottle and Jugs
by Anne
Bottles Egg Cup and Pie Support
by Pam
Still Life by Heather N
Still Life with Green Bottle
Oil by Virginia

Still Life 1; Painting in the spirit of Sir William Nicholson

January 4, 2022

Over the next six weeks our challenge will be to paint still life paintings in the spirit of William Nicholson, Giorgio Morandi, Henri Matisse, Ben Nicholson, Mary Fedden and David Hockney.  These artists were chosen because of their very different approaches to still life subjects and also the different media and objects favoured by each.

Photograph: William Nicholson often selected metallic, lustrous or glass objects for his Still Life paintings.

Our first artist, Sir William Nicholson(1872 to 1949), is perhaps the most traditional of these artists. Alongside painting in oil, Nicholson was a printmaker using woodcut, wood-engraving and lithographic techniques and produced many book illustrations, posters and set designs for the theatre. For more detail on this look at the Wikipedia article; link below

Encouraged by James McNiell Whistler, after about 1900 Nicholson ‘s efforts were concentrated on painting. By this time he had already become well known as a portrait artist but is probably more celebrated today because of his still life works and poetic landscapes.

William Nicholson’s landscape and still life paintings were also greatly admired by his son Ben Nicholson whose work we’ll be looking at in a few weeks’ time.

Photograph: a more complicated set up with a mirrored glass and two ceramic objects

My Still Life Pinterest Board samples a few of William Nicholson’s still life paintings and shows his enormous aptitude for painting lustrous, metallic and glass objects, depicting their highly reflective surfaces with deft brushstrokes that look fresh and convincing.

The challenge is to either paint your own version of one of Nicholson’s works or to set up a still life including similarly reflective objects to those depicted by Nicholson. The photographic illustrations in this post indicate some of the kinds of objects you may like to find for your own studies for which acrylic, pastel or gouache would all be suitable media.  I will demonstrate in acrylic but if we have any oil painters amongst us that would be the best!

Photograph: lustrous vase with spoon and fruit

If you have time, familiarise yourself with your chosen objects, drawing them from a few angles and then decide on the composition.  Nicholson often chose a very simple set up; just one or two main objects as in The Gilt Tankard which hangs in Clarence House or Still life with Glass and Spoon.

For a more contemporary composition try painting just part of the set up. If working from life use a viewfinder to select an interesting arrangement of forms and colour
or take the easy route and crop a photograph.

We’ll discuss starting and developing paintings at the beginning of the practical session. meanwhile you may like to think about the following;

If working in acrylic or gouache, I like to start by start by drawing in the main shapes with a brush, then  lay in the dark and mid tones.  Some may prefer a pencil line to indicate the composition but there is always the risk of becoming too detailed too soon, on the other hand there may be elements such as cutlery handles where some accurate drawing will be useful. Another way to start is to make an under-drawing in charcoal and fix this well before blocking in the main shapes.  With all media, work on the large shapes first making sure the tones are right before depicting the smaller shapes and details.

If painting a glass object, especially against a dark or any ground darker than the highlights try painting the dark backdrop first with thin paint or use a dark coloured paper(dark blue in this case) if working in pastel.
The same applies when the backdrop is far more subtle.
Note the slightly green colour of the glass.
Here again I would start by painting a neutral, lightish ground, pale and cool for the table top and warmer and darker for the wall, or a darker neutral paper for pastel.
When painting transparent vessels, note whether they are empty or contain liquid. Are there differences in how objects placed behind the vessel appear when seen through empty or water filled parts of the vessel? What do you notice about the water in the jar facing the light compared with the water in the jar on the same side as its shadow?

Starting with a background that is near the colour and tone of the reference setup results in very harmonious, peaceful works. You may at some stage like to paint the same picture over a much more vibrant ground. For the lemon and rosemary in a jar, a sienna or even bright red could be chosen.

Acrylic, pastel and gouache are all opaque media or can be used opaquely, so the sharp details of pale reflections and highlights can be added as the final touches.

Have a good look at each photograph observing not only the obvious reflections but also where colour is more subtly reflected onto the different surfaces. You may have already done this but right clicking on each image will give you the option to open a larger version in a separate tab.

Your Paintings;

Goblet with Lemon and Lime
Acrylic by Heather C
Goblet with Lemon and Lime
Acrylic by Heather C
Metal, Glass and Ceramic
Acrylic by Mali
Brass Bookend
Pastel by Mali
Still Life
Acrylic by Ann
Sweet Peas with Jug and Knife
Acrylic by Maricarmen
Golden Tankard after Sir William Nicholson
Coloured Pencil by Anne
Scandinavian Glass with Etched Decoration
painted on blue card by Heather N
Still Life
Acrylic by Heather N
Still Life with Tulips
Acrylic by Sandra
Silver Tankard with Lemon
by Pam
Still Life with Tankard
Acrylic by Virginia
Still Life
Acrylic by Kate
Metal, Glass and Apples
Acrylic by Maryon