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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

https://www.pinterest.co.uk/jhall1282/still-life/nicholson-ben/

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
Pears
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

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