Over the last 12 months, my life has been turned upside down. Firstly, partner’s dad in the US became critically ill, then after that my partner had to have surgery to save his sight. This in itself was pretty stressful but after having some strange symptoms since January 2017, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS) in June. It has been a whirlwind of experience, which has run alongside my studies (suspending them for a short time to help me find my way out of the mire). Reviewing my work from the whole course has been cathartic but also a reminder of how much can happen in one year. It has however influenced my work – art always arises from hard times and suffering.
Part 5 gives me an opportunity to choose a project and work on something I really enjoy doing. Based on a masochistic personality, I decided to tackle something which would be a real challenge for me as it is not my natural aptitude to do it. Whereas “Outdoors” would have been fun, ‘The figure and the face” became my challenging option of choice. I reviewed my sketchbook work and though pleased in general with my landscape work, I was always less pleased with my portraiture. It eats away at me.
I wanted to take my love of charcoal and pastel, as well as my sense of humour and delight of horror and darkness to produce a self-portrait to show exactly how I feel about my illness. I wanted this to be fun (for me anyway) and provoke emotion and thought.
- My Artist’s Statement
My tutor asked me to write an artist statement (below) which I only slightly tweaked for my final assignment in terms of composition:
- I want to challenge myself to another self-portrait and provide a more convincingly proportioned and credible likeness than in Part 4.
- This work would be based on the face I show to the world and the progressive illness hidden away.
- The vision is of me looking cheerful and carefree, gesturing in some way (perhaps a chance to work with hand proportion more successfully), head and shoulders. However in a haze around my head, there are suggestions of areas of my brain, with evil creatures snipping and poking away causing nerve damage, bright light occurs (my lesions show as white light on MRI) and in the haze/cloud there are suggestions of faces floating away from me (parts of myself perhaps).
- Inspiration has come from revisiting Hieronymus Bosch paintings studied at school and also my research and joy at the dark humour of Odilon Redon.
- This assignment would give me an opportunity to work on my portraiture skills, as well as practising my figure drawing, using my imagination and utilising some existing and new techniques.
- My tendency is to jump quickly into my assignments but this will employ far more preparation and patience. I feel it is ambitious but I would really like to challenge myself for this last assignment.
Media and Processes
I plan to work on a large table easel and board to get the right angle and:
- use black charcoal (stick, powder and pencil) and white pastel for the portrait, with some gesso texturing as I did in Part 4 with brushes, sponge and other objects to make some different textural effects on the background before I start work.
- experiment with different papers and texturing at preparation stage.
- practice blending, brushing, adding layers and trying to loosen up my mark making, to help express emotion and energy.
In preparation, I will:
- undertake a full study of myself (revisiting the learning materials as suggested) to become more familiar with my likeness. I will do this in front of the mirror and produce a range of preparatory sketches, exploring different composition and lighting effects before I work on the final piece.
- draw out my little devilish figures in full size, revisiting figure drawing and proportion and learning materials to improve this aspect of my drawing.
- experiment to best consider how I might best represent faces in the haze.
- try different lighting approaches to get a dramatic effect.
- revisit influences like Bosch, and Redon, explore the research from feedback, reflect on and explain any resulting influences or links into my practice.
- practice communicating physical and emotional qualities through mark-making qualities.
For the final piece, I need to:
- carefully consider proportion and placement of figure and face as well as re-sizing my figures in the drawing.
- take time and utilise (and learn from) the preparatory drawings and experimentation undertaken to make the best final drawing (and not experiment too much at that late stage).
- Final piece title:
“Expressing the emotions of a ‘hidden’ neurological illness through the combination of a self-portrait and figurative drawing in monochrome, using charcoal and pastel.”
- Though I have outlined some of the influences to the style and techniques used in previous blog posts, I haven’t mentioned fairies, Hieronymous Bosch’s and other devils and weird medieval creatures or my love of the work of Alphonse Mucha (the Czech Art Nouveau painter and decorative artist who produced many iconic images and designs involving ladies of that era).
- All of these have fed into my vision in some weird way. I wanted my devilish figures to have the elegance of the fairies and I wanted the Mucha lady to have devils floating around her head instead of a lovely garland of flowers.
- The subject for Part 5 is me (I am the Mucha lady). I considered a range of composition options (including portrait or landscape). I chose portrait A2 size paper for this work as felt it fitted the size and shape of the vision and after some experimentation, went for a cartridge paper. I decided to make the head positioned more to the right side to allow space for the tumultuous cloud behind and above. In addition to ‘ditching’ a happy face and gesture, I drew out a rough sketch with parts of the brain showing and it just didn’t look right. Instead I chose to draw cracks on the forehead in the final piece with the light emerging and was much happier with that.
- In this rough sketch I look like a child and way more ‘Mucha’ than I want to. The devils look like fairies. My brain also looks out of place; too obvious and a bit trite perhaps. I continued to draw my face on different paper and in different media, just to check I was on the right track with my charcoal and white pastel.
- Once I had drawn out the work, I applied masking fluid and gesso in specific areas. I needed to leave spaces of light on the paper and create texture in some areas. This time I avoided gesso on the face but kept it focussed on the hair, some key lines of movement in the background and on my bracelet. I masked out the devil creatures and removed this after I was happy with the portrait and had spraying a fixative on the drawing. I chose to do this to avoid smudging and mess in the light areas. The masking fluid removed a little of the surface of the paper, leaving it a little rough but I managed to work around this.
- From life drawing classes and online video poses, I was able to find some interesting devilish figure poses to add into my drawing, brandishing their weapons. I practised drawing these. Some were reminiscent of the Renaissance classical poses and I like the idea of that. The powerful ‘goodness’ of these clean, classical images set in their lovely bright blue skies (sometimes sitting on nice white fluffy clouds) jars against the hidden devils lurking in their swirling dark world.
Composition and lighting
- The only change to the original artist statement above was in terms of composition. After trying out various ways of holding my head, practising drawing my eyes and smiling and gesturing with my hands, I decided it was all too flippant and obvious. I took a photo of my eyes closed and my face resting and realised that less is actually more in this case and this would provide a good contrast to what was happening in the background.
- I worked again in the mirror and adjusted a lamp in the dusk to create the pose in the final piece with my eyes closed, keeping the emotions private and restrained (and to the imagination of the viewer). I kept my hand against my head and away from the forefront of the drawing. I did not want to distract from what was happening. I wanted to ensure that the face was more traditional and restrained and the background was more abstract, with lines and marks to show energy and chaos.
Mark-making, Mood and Medium
- It was important for this piece to be about line and tone and express mood and emotion. I didn’t want this to be a simple self-portrait. It has to have a purpose and inspire thought.
- I wanted to ensure that I demonstrated a contrast between the background of energy and chaos and the containment of the emotion in the face. The drawing of the face was handled with subtle and delicate markings and I also kept the drawing of the hand light and gentle. Contrary to my initial proposal written (with the hand in the foreground perhaps, gesturing), I needed to keep the hand as a subtle addition with the purpose of suggesting support to the head and also, to help contain emotion within.
- In order to help me develop the marks to create mood and emotion I signed up to a Udemy course online, specifically covering this. I found this very useful and used it as a practice before I started the final piece to help loosen up my mark-making, specifically for the background to the drawing. It was good to refer to the practice marks and also the initial exercises I did in Part 1 to consider how I demonstrated some of the emotions at play.
- I considered how best to make the faces in the gloom and stuck to simple open mouthed ‘faces’ – a bit like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ using ends of charcoal to gouge the faces into the gloom at various points and sizes to suggest distance and a sense of them being swept away.
- I made some marks which suggested the sweeping up the figure from the shoulders, trying to suck it into the chaos beyond (I had to be careful here not to get over enthusiastic with my marks and create another ‘screaming pope’).
- To create some of the sweeping effects and different tones, I used brushing techniques for blending as well as blending detail carefully with paper stumps.
- Lines and marks in white pastel on the face and background – left on surface – I like that they show up at certain lighted angles and disappear on others, giving it a different dimension when viewing. I contrasted these with a charcoal pencil in the background to demonstrate movement.
- I achieved what I wanted to do with the self-portrait. It looks like me (people also recognised it as me which was a relief!). The lines used are restrained and more subtle creating air of serenity, even though if you look closer, the eyelids are a little strained and the hand cupping on the side of the head is helping to contain or hold emotion inside. The eyes are not closed for rest; they are closed to keep the pain contained and hidden. I am glad I drew them closed as feel this creates a different sense to open eyes, with emotion clearly on display. My default is to have a calm, cheery face on, despite how tired or ill I might feel. I like the effects of light and the composition.
- It was interesting to reflect on how the piece was perceived by my family. My partner in particular was fairly horrified by it though he thought it was a good drawing – it reveals perhaps what he prefers not to see and think about (which I can understand). He asked me not to share with his mother (who would perhaps find it a bit too disturbing). I wonder if people like Jenny Saville enjoy the uncomfortable feelings they inspire from viewers of their work – I would guess so. I was quite amused at the reaction it created. I think most people I know prefer me drawing lovely pet portraits and I can see why!
- I enjoyed the mark making of the chaos and the drawing of the ‘devils’ very much. This was the most fun part of the drawing and it was a challenge to stop and walk away from it. I hope it isn’t too busy for the viewer – I like the energy and movement of the darker lines and lighter lines. I was also pleased with the faces screaming in the background, as bits of me are chipped away to disappear into the gloom. I also like the effect of the light behind the head, suggesting there may be more devilish creatures working behind the scenes.
- Proportion – The ‘devil’ figures are a little bigger than I planned – I didn’t like this at first but on reflection I think it may be better than the smaller figures I planned. You can see the detail of them and what they are doing. The danger in drawing them smaller might have been that they looked more like fairies than devils.
- It is vital to practice and I found that drawing my face over and over from life, really helped me develop my portraiture skills for this piece. I have more work to do on this but am optimistic that even though portraiture isn’t a natural aptitude for me, with practice I can hopefully improve these skills further
Reflections on my progress against the assessment criteria
Assessment criteria points
- Demonstration of technical and visual skills – materials, techniques, observational skills, visual awareness, design and compositional skills (40%).
I do feel that my observational and visual awareness skills have improved since I started the course and I draw more detail from life rather than assuming what is in front of me or working from photographs (if taken now they are used purely for reference as a reminder). I have always enjoyed taking photographs and feel I have a good eye for composition – particularly in terms of landscape and the outdoors. When I started Drawing 1 I had little experience of using or experimenting with drawing materials (I hadn’t drawn seriously for around 20 years). I have since developed my skills in charcoal, oil and soft pastels, pencils and ink. I feel happy with my progress to date in these areas.
- Quality of outcome – content, application of knowledge, presentation of work in a coherent manner, discernment, conceptualisation of thoughts, communication of ideas (20%).
I sometimes rush things but am learning to pace and enjoy the drawing more, taking more care with my work. I think that the last assignment is a good example of quality of drawing in the context of a difficult subject to present. This was a complex and challenging concept for me but I hope I have communicated it clearly but also given it enough vagueness in parts to be open to viewer interpretation. I made decisions about making aspects of the work less obvious than originally planned but with some harder hitting images as contrast.
- Demonstration of creativity – imagination, experimentation, invention, development of a personal voice (20%).
I have discovered that experimentation is both fun and also a necessity in order to push myself and develop my skills and thinking. I have experimented with dry media, blending with oils and water and also with inks and watercolour pencils. I don’t think my personal voice is there yet but believe I have come a long way to developing it over the course of the learning programme. I know this voice will contain humour, some darkness and some light. My main hope is it will be interesting. I have an active imagination and am able to think creatively on my feet if there is an issue e.g. in Part 2 I adapted my piece by extending the collage around areas of the interior view to ‘clean up’ the drawing after muddying and messing my pastel work up a little. Though I usually have a clear vision of what I want from my work at the start of the process I am comfortable with adapting and coming up with different ideas. I used to rely on doing a lot of this visually, working through options in my head, but now try to get these ideas on paper quickly and try them out before I commit to the final piece. It’s good for my sanity and sleep.
- Context reflection – research, critical thinking (learning logs and, at second and third level, critical reviews and essays) (20%).
This area always seems a bit more challenging as I enjoy it but it takes a lot of time for me to process and write up my research (and I have difficulty knowing when to stop). I have tried hard to be more concise and focussed on what I like and don’t like (and why), what I can learn from others and how I apply it to my work. My tutor has challenged me more on critical review of late and this has helped me develop my skills further. My blogs are still a bit ‘rambling’, often due to enthusiasm but hopefully there is more clarity as I have progressed. It is sometimes very isolating to be (I think) the only OCA drawing student in South Wales and due to my physical limitations now, I can’t often go to London or other areas for study meets, which is a bit frustrating as enjoy them. I joined a local life drawing group and the discussions and challenges in the meets are vital to me, to help me keep in touch with other artists, bounce ideas around and learn from them. I am trying to focus more energy on researching and studying artists and their work from online exhibitions as well as some local exhibitions. This is definitely an area for further growth.