The second assignment asked for a number of criteria to be met:
• an understanding of the use of colour in drawing
• an understanding of the most appropriate choice of medium for the subject and skill in using it
• the ability to set up an interesting composition
• variety in mark-making, depth, contrast, tone
• accuracy and a demonstrable understanding of form
The instructions also stated that we should combine both natural and made objects in the finished picture.
I began by going through a number of resources (student blogs, books – Drawing Projects by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern, in particular – and picture folders), making notes and collecting images that I thought might be useful. I gathered these notes together and stuck them in my sketchbook (see above) – several pages of them. I didn’t expect to make use of all of them, but they acted as helpful reminders as I worked. Spending this time in preparation helped a lot, not only providing me with reference material, but allowing me time to let my ideas brew.
For my subjects, I had chosen the last remaining flowers from my birthday bouquet (earlier in the month). They were just beginning to fade, drying slightly, with some browning at the edges. This gave me the idea of an ‘end of summer’ theme – encompassing thoughts of fading and mutability. This in turn helped me to choose the other objects for my picture – the 19th-century glass bottles, two of which (at least) had contained poison originally. Their original purpose, their age, and even the slight chip in the lip of the green bottle, all seemed to add to an air of melancholy. I wasn’t aiming for gloom so much as a slight wistful quality.
I made some initial pencil studies of individual elements (see above), experimenting with mark-making. At this stage, however, I had no idea which medium I would select for the finished drawing.
I then made a couple of colour studies. I used colour pencils to draw the sea holly, trying out loose spiky marks. Although the pencils allowed for considerable accuracy, I wasn’t sure the colours would be intense enough to create the feel I was after. Next, I used watercolour and a Rotring ArtPen with water-soluble ink to draw the chrysanthemum. When I did this, I had forgotten the ink was water-soluble, so the merging of colour and ink came as a surprise. I liked the effect though, and felt this had some potential. I knew that I would be working mainly with blues and greens, and felt the fluidity of these mediums might suit those choices.
The following day, I made a soft pastels sketch with partial charcoal outline. This had possibilities, but I wasn’t sure I would be able to achieve the spiky nature of the sea holly with this medium. As a sketch, I enjoyed its looseness, but given that the requirements for this assignment included a focus on accuracy, and an ability to choose the best medium for the subject, pastels didn’t seem to fit the bill.
The idea of combining pastel and charcoal had come to me after seeing a sketch by Pascal Dufournet (see above). The loose handling of both appealed to me, but I don’t think this was the right project to try it. Other artists I looked at when considering pastels included Anita Reynolds (a bold, angular approach), and Jenny Hainsworth (a loose, expressive style).
Another artist whose work interested me was Horst Janssen (see above). Initially, he gave me the idea of using a dark hatched background. However, I realised this would mean losing the shadows on the wall, which I didn’t want to do, so I continued with a fairly straightforward ink and watercolour wash approach. I had decided against using Indian ink, as it can have a very graphic quality, and I wanted something more fluid. I felt that the water-soluble ink might have a softening effect, which it did. I liked its unpredictability, the fact that it could create surprises (albeit within a controlled context). At this point though, I still felt unsure about how to make marks using this medium, given that they might quickly be washed away.
My next sketch was in oil pastels. However, this was swiftly abandoned as it was plain the medium did not suit the subject. One of the reasons I put these items together was for the combination of textures – smooth glass, spiky sea holly, fluid chrysanthemum petals and the dried rose. It seemed that oil pastels would make hard work of this, and I didn’t feel they would capture the essence of any of the subjects in particular.
I then moved on to compositional thumbnails, trying out a number of different arrangements (see above). My aim was to create a strong composition, with interesting shadows and good use of negative space. I also did a couple of colour tests, using colour pencils and Neocolor crayons (see below). I tried combining the two, but found that the pencils didn’t work very well over the crayons. It would have been hard to build intense tones.
Overnight, I still had the idea of pastels in my head, and wondered if I might be able to overcome the accuracy problems by using pastel pencils for the details (see below). However, even when using the pencils, I wasn’t satisfied with the degree of detail. In addition, colours seemed to blend immediately with the colours beneath, thus losing any sense of crispness or clarity. I might have been able to draw the bottles this way, but I felt the flowers would suffer in this medium.
Having discounted pastels for the assignment, I was left with two viable options – ink & watercolour or coloured pencils. The latter felt like the safe option, as I had done a few reasonably successful pieces in that medium during this part of the course. However, that was one of the reasons I didn’t want to use it for the assignment (even though I had thought that it was probably what I would end up using) – it seemed it might offer fewer opportunities to learn. It also seemed a waste to tackle the assignment with safety as my main objective.
The deciding factors in choosing ink and watercolour were a couple of sketches from Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger (see below). These appeared to have been done using water-soluble ink and, once again, I liked the way the ink merged with the colour in unpredictable ways. I was interested to note the following quote from Berger: ‘Any fixed contour is in nature arbitrary and impermanent […] What is on either side of it tries to shift it by pushing or pulling […] The challenge of drawing is to show this, to make visible on paper or on the drawing surface not only discrete, visible things, but also to show how the extensive is one substance. And being one substance, it harasses the act of drawing. If the lines of a drawing don’t convey this harassment, the drawing remains a mere sign’ (Berger, 2011). In a very literal sense, the water was ‘harassing’ the ink here, changing the nature of the original line or mark. It therefore created the possibility of chance occurrences. The ink had a darkening aspect that seem to fit the theme of disintegration and dissolution (flowers on the wane). It felt a bit scary, opting for a medium of which I felt less sure – but that’s what these early stages are about, surely… trying new things.
I did try Neocolor over watercolour in a quick sketch (see below), but this only served to confirm that I wanted to use ink. I did a couple of small studies of the rose and sea holly heads, and really liked the effect the ink had on the fluid colour, lending a grey-blue quality to certain areas. It wasn’t until after I had started my picture that I found two depictions of chrysanthemums by Piet Mondriaan. I wish I’d seen them sooner, as I feel they might have had a loosening effect on my manner of drawing (his coloured chrysanthemum drawing, particularly).
As it was, I began by making a light pencil drawing, mostly to establish the distribution of space. I then added a light watercolour background (see below). At this stage, the leaf shadow I’d included looked horribly dark. To my surprise, though, I ended up having to darken it further still. I’d lit the arrangement from the right by lamp, in order to create strong shadows.
The finished piece, on A3 paper, is a mixed affair, I think. I found it a difficult drawing to do, and kept wishing I had stuck with the relative safety of the coloured pencils! That said, I felt I was doing the right thing, to keep exploring my chosen course – even though I wasn’t entirely sure how to go about it. On reflection, it wasn’t as ‘loose’ as I had intended it to be. Possibly the ‘tightening’ influence of assignments (which I hope to overcome, eventually), but maybe also prompted by what the subjects seemed to require as I worked through the picture. I wish I had handled the shadow in the foreground a little more lightly, and I wonder whether the flowers are too ‘illustrative’? Whether or not they are, I do feel the picture is coherent. I like the bottles, and was surprised at how ‘glassy’ they felt. I think the dark blue one was the most successful, although I like all three (and was pleased at creating a feeling of transparency in the middle bottle). I think the colours work well, which was one of the main aims of this assignment. They have a harmonious quality. The most comparable piece I had done previously was the supermarket shopping drawing, in Part 1. I could see an improvement between the two – a better understanding of colour and space. I think the composition worked – having the subjects ‘disappearing’ off the edge of three sides of the paper added a more dynamic and intimate quality. There is a feeling of depth, too, as the distancing of the bottles worked well to describe the space they inhabited. I particularly like the negative spaces between both them and certain details of the flowers. In addition, I’m pleased with the combination of angles (glass, spiky flowers, table edge, table shadows) and curves (chrysanthemum and rose, bottles and leaves).
Reflections on assessment criteria:
Demonstration of Technical and Visual Skills
Materials: I explored a number of different materials in the preparatory stages of this assignment, testing each to see how well they might work with my chosen subjects. I wanted to keep an open mind on what I might choose for the final picture, and let myself be guided by experimentation. I opted to use water-soluble ink and watercolour, in the end, and so chose to work on 300gsm watercolour paper, to avoid puddling and warping. As I’ve mentioned above, the somewhat unpredictable nature of the water-soluble ink was part of the attraction, although I worked on a basis of ‘controlled unpredictability’ (working on small areas at a time).
Techniques: It feels optimistic to describe my current use of any material as a ‘technique’, as that suggests a greater degree of experience than I have. However, I tried to work as lightly as possible, aware that both ink and watercolour can be hard to ‘undo’. I used a wet-in-wet approach, partly in order to control the spread of both mediums, and partly to achieve the beautiful (and sometimes) unexpected merging of colours. I kept the pen work relatively light, as I wanted the main focus to be on colour in this drawing. I used a combination of continuous and broken line, with small areas of stippling on the sea holly heads (in between the tiny individual flower heads on the egg-shaped umbels).
Observational skills: The greatest part of this assignment was about observation – observation of the individual subjects, obviously, but also noting the various negative shapes created by placing items in different positions. I wanted objects to be close enough together to create intimacy, yet leaving enough space for interesting shapes to be formed. I think this was successful. The very last thing I did to the picture was to darken the large leaf shadow on the wall, partly because it needed it, and partly because that dark shape created a more balanced ‘triangle’ with the two darker bottles. Another observational skill came in the form of measuring by sight – seeing that the green bottle came up to the halfway point of the overall length, and that the chrysanthemum was almost half the width of the picture, for example.
Visual awareness: This relates closely to the previous category, but also involves studying smaller details, such as how the flowers were formed, how the leaves attached to the stems, and the shapes that different flowers created. The glass bottles called for very close examination, too, especially noting the way they reflected both light and colour. The apparent displacement of stems caused by the transparent glass was another detail I observed.
Design and compositional skills: I think the composition was a success. As I said above, having cropped edges on three sides of the paper added a lively and immediate quality. There is a real sense of depth, too, I believe, which was achieved by carefully observing the effects of placement and distance on the apparent sizes of the bottles. Again, I arranged the subjects so as to find the most intriguing negative spaces I could, juxtaposing straight lines with curved as much as possible.
Quality of Outcome
Content: If ‘content’ is the finished picture, I think it’s a partial success with a number of flaws. As noted earlier, I’d like to have handled the shadows more lightly, and I do feel the rose was more successful in the preparatory studies. That said, I’m happy with a number of areas – the use of colour, the depictions of texture on the glass and sea holly, and the composition.
Application of knowledge: (aspects studied on the course so far are italicised): My original intention was to draw a loose and expressive picture, with an emphasis on mark-making. This was not the course the drawing took, however – I think the instruction to consider accuracy, as well as my choice of glass as a subject, led me along a smoother and more fluid path, for which line seemed appropriate (both continuous and broken), with additional texture added by stippling (on sea holly heads). Earlier work on reflected light proved invaluable in depicting the glass of the bottles – even the tiniest areas of light can make the difference between an object seeming three-dimensional or not. For me, the most successful part of the picture is the small blue bottle, both for its reflected light and use of tone to describe form. I’ve commented on the use of negative space above, and see it as one of the more effective aspects of this piece. One of the main aims of this assignment was to show an understanding of the use of colour in drawing, and I feel I did that. The colours here are harmonious, and create the mood I wanted (slightly melancholic). I feel the colours in the bottles were particularly successful, and that the background colours (while subtle) work well with those in the main areas of the drawing. I deliberately chose to use water-soluble ink, but this necessitated using a pen with a regular nib (as I only had non-water-soluble ink for the dip pen). Naturally, this influenced my line work, and was part of what created a smoother look, as opposed to the looser, expressive style I’d originally intended.
Presentation of work in a coherent manner: I kept notes as I went along, so as to make it easier to document the process in my learning log/blog. In addition, I recorded all tests and studies in my sketchbook.
Discernment: Hopefully, the choices I made for this piece, as described above, will be evident in the finished drawing – those relating to composition, colour, and medium, particularly. I think that my close observation of the subjects has informed the finished work, to a degree, although there is always room for improvement. Feel it was a wise decision to remove extraneous elements from the final arrangement – originally there were many other flowers and leaves, which didn’t allow for such clear negative space. I think the mood of the drawing would have been lost had I included a greater number of subjects.
Conceptualisation of thoughts: As mentioned above, I had in mind a concept of ‘end of summer’, fading, melancholy, which had occurred to me from looking at the remnants of a birthday bouquet. (I often feel summer starts to wind down after my birthday in mid-August!) I think that I managed to convey this via the methods of communication listed below.
Communication of ideas: I demonstrated the notion of fading/ending in a number of ways – the flowers beginning to brown at the edges, just on the brink of shrivelling, for example. The colour choices helped, as did simplifying the objects included in order to allow for a greater sense of space. Using the old bottles added an air of reflection, too, a kind of ‘looking back’, which I think ties in with the concept. Also, the fact that the bottles originally contained poison lends an additional tinge of darkness, perhaps.
Demonstration of Creativity
Imagination: I suppose that seeing the potential in things around me is evidence of imagination (in this case, the bouquet and the antique bottles), and perceiving a possible link between them (ageing, decaying, becoming things of the past).
Experimentation: Making open-ended studies… staying open-minded… seeing where tests led… noticing chance occurrences – I chose to be led by all of these, and this was how I arrived at my choice of medium.
Invention: Not entirely sure how this differs from experimentation, in this context. I suppose experimentation suggests an open outlook, with no particular results expected or sought, while invention seems to involve seeking a specific outcome, and endeavouring to discover ways of achieving that. If that’s true, then the ‘invention’ was in seeking colours and final subject choices to support the mood/concept I had in mind for this drawing – which I feel I did.
Development of a personal voice: This is a hard one to answer. It seems early days to me to be developing a ‘personal voice’. Saying that, though, I’ve had comments from other people that suggest they see a certain style or approach in what I do. Perhaps the development of that voice is something that happens through such interaction, as it would in a conversation – I say/draw one thing, someone responds, and that response then shapes my next statement/drawing, and so on. I feel that is happening, so perhaps that voice is developing, yes.
Reflection: Going into this assignment, whilst I had an open mind about what I would do/use, I had a feeling I might end up working in coloured pencil, purely because it’s probably been one of the more successful mediums for me so far. However, I also had a sense that that wasn’t the right attitude. Exploration and experimentation seem far more interesting than finding something I can do a bit better than other things, and then sticking to that. So I chose to use a medium/technique in which I felt less assured. That was quite a scary thing to do, especially for an assignment, as I’m wired to ‘get things right’ and ‘do things well’. However, placing an emphasis on getting things right leaves little room for trying things out, as it doesn’t allow one to make mistakes (and learn from them). So, whatever the quality of the finished drawing, I feel this assignment has been successful because I persisted on the (relatively) ‘unsafe’ path. That is a huge leap for me, giving myself permission to cock things up, and see what happens. Seeing pictures as part of a learning experience, rather than as separate entities within themselves , is the way forward for me, I believe.
Research: I did extensive research for this assignment (looking at other artists work in similar subjects, reading relevant sections of Drawing Projects, looking at other student blogs, etc) and included the most relevant examples in my sketchbook. This was a first for me (putting it in the sketchbook, that is), and I found that combining my own sketches with contextual research in this way was really helpful, and something I intend to pursue.
Critical thinking (learning log): This post answers this one, I think!
Berger, J. (2011) Bento’s Sketchbook by John Berger: review, SFGate 11 December 2011, Available at http://www.sfgate.com/books/article/Bento-s-Sketchbook-by-John-Berger-review-2393986.php, Accessed 2 September 2013.