Exhibition – Monochrome

Visiting this exhibition at the National Gallery yesterday, I have to admit that I was disappointed. I left not quite sure what the purpose of the exhibition was. On one hand it seemed to be emphasising the technical and cultural place of painting in black and white within the history of art, and on another, considering the power of monochrome to deliver impact.

The first three rooms of the exhibition explained the use of monochrome in religious imaginary of the Renaissance to show the material world in comparison to the richly jewelled colours of the spiritual scenes. We were shown how monochrome paintings were used for studies to explore tonal balances and modelling, how monochrome paint was used to draft out a large work and to under-paint the tonal areas. Multicoloured paintings would also be copied in monochrome which was then used as the basis for creating an etching for the mass distribution of an image.

Some of the most striking paintings were those produced to refute the idea that sculpture offered more to the viewer than painting by allowing observation from all sides and enhanced and changing modelling with light. This debate had resulted in paintings which were so indistinguishable from carved relief that you really wanted to reach out and stroke them to break the illusion.

This was all fairly interesting but very dry and there were only a couple of paintings in this section of the exhibition which really made my heart beat faster, firstly a  Rembrandt, ‘Ecco Homo’ 1635, actually a grisaille study for an etching. Rembrandt’s blobs of clay faces are masterful in their minimal, effortless evocation of character and the resulting etching had smoothed them out to idealised blandness. The other work was an enormous painting by Giandomenico Tiepolo, almost 3m by 2m, painted on a gold ground, the fourth of the images here. The effect of the gold in the sky and the gold under-painting was to make the work glow with an inner warmth. To stand  before it felt like standing in sunlight pouring through a stained glass window. It had the most astonishing physical presence. I know that copper is used as a support for this kind of glowing effect, but I can’t imagine the cost of a gold ground applied over this areas of six panels, never mind the technical difficulties. I have used gold tissue in printmaking as chine colle under ink and that is very effective, if by it’s nature not very gold.  I must try gold ink or gouache as an under layer. I had little success with gold leaf when I tried it as it floats off the plate or doesn’t hold the ink.

The next three rooms really puzzled me. These showed modern (well, mostly 20th century) monochrome works but I felt that many of them had been chosen almost randomly just because they happened not to use colour, not because they were using monochrome as a statement or to achieve a particular effect. There were paintings by Richter and Close which were reproductions of monochrome photographs, but I didn’t feel that the fact that they were monochrome added particular significance. It felt more that the curators were saying, ‘Look, monochrome painting can be as worthy as painting in colour’. I think it would have been much more powerful to have included a monochrome painting by Rothko, say, where the colour, or lack of it, has an emotional charge. Similarly, the works  included by Twomby, Kelly and Johns felt like they had just pulled out any old thing in black and white. The one work which I felt really made a point through its monochrome palette was one of  Vija Celmin’s ‘Night Sky’  etchings (this illustration is actually a drawing in the series). The black background creates an emptiness that the tiny white stars emphasise rather than fill and although her works are quite small (A3ish) they generate a much greater space. This is not just dependant on the subject, she achieves this when drawing waves or deserts, all in monochrome. The lack of colour is another component in her act of paring an image down to create vastness within it. 

That was my problem with the modern works; they happened to be black and white, but did it matter that they were? For one or two, yes, for instance Malevich’s ‘Black Square’, but for the most part, no. I think that they could have chosen much better.

I also felt that the exhibition confined itself too narrowly. It is called ‘Monochrome: Painting in Black and White’ but included quite a few etchings and one light installation. Only a couple of works had been made within the last 50 years. I think that, with profit, they could have included some of the amazing monochrome works being created now, especially drawings such as those by Julie Mehrethu or Anita Taylor, after all, the curators had already strayed beyond painting. Given that they included a room filled with orange light, the definition of monochrome could have been pushed beyond black and white. I do see however, that a red on red painting would have pushed the predominantly grey works back, and the orange room was navigated as you left the exhibition.

It was a good exhibition, and I am glad I went, but I think it could have been so much better.


Parallel Project – Solar Bleaching

This post is out of chronological order wand I apologise if this is confusing.  Whilst writing it, Mother-In-Law fell and was hospitalised, and the post wasn’t finished and became forgotten. Having realised, I am publishing it now in its unfinished state.

Reviewing the results of the solar printing, I felt that I could do better using a stencil which completely stopped the light. However, I wanted any image to be relevant to my parallel project and not just some photo negative or the usual found objects of feathers or ferns. The falling man as a metaphor for loss of self or transition between states seemed particularly apt for the medium. Having had limited success with the solar dye, I decided to try sun bleaching some sugar paper. I have found that I have to be careful leaving some papers where the sun might get to them. Tissue paper dyes are ephemeral, as is sugar paper, and the B&Q lining paper goes yellow in the sun. Using coloured sugar paper for solar transfer seemed like a good idea although I had no idea how much time it would take.

sketchbook development, image blurred with movement, ambigous.

Thinking that UV light was largely filtered out by double glazing, I taped the paper to the south facing window on the outside and left it for the day.

Checking progress…

Gently turning back the acetate at the hinge, I could check if the sun was having any effect. I was amazed that the paper had bleached significantly in just 6 hours of strong sunshine. The acetate cast a great shadow as I looked, doubling up and distorting the image.

The final image after only one day, is pleasingly soft. The base paper has warmed to a brownish tone compared to the original purple. The figure is melting away into the unknown. The sugar paper is hardly professional quality and the image is obviously not archival, so this would never be a technique which I could incorporate into ‘wall hang’ art. However, it could be used in an artist’s book as part of a large dialogue.

Parallel Project – Absent and Present Media

Along side considering meaningful media, I have been considering absent and present media.

I could consider cutting or perforating the support to project light through. This might be particularly effect if I pricked an image into a photograph of another image, overlaying two related ideas. However, this doesn’t fit with my current attempt to escape iconography.

Setting fire to supports always appeals. I could paint a design in negative on to a paper support and subject the support to a heat source which would preferentially burn the dry areas. A blow torch would probably be too hot but a decorating hot air gun would probably work well of I can physically support the paper. Kraft board would probably work for this because it is surprisingly heat resistant. It need carefully consideration of safety and certainly needs to be done outside in a non-flammable area. I like the idea of singeing a design into a support. The action of fire could add another layer of meaning to a design.

I have already experimented with adding and removing charcoal and graphite, but, with an interest in printmaking, adding and removing ink from a plate is another option. This is a standard method of making a monoprint but I want to think how I might use this in my parallel project.

Here I have rolled ink onto a plate and wiped areas into it using scrim and kitchen paper. I have repeated this with three colours, successively printed. White spirit has been spattered into the ink, to create holes in its coverage. This first attempt is too present, with the wiping and drawing not creating enough of a ‘hole’ in the ink. The design is too contrived. This second attempt is much more about the media, how it is applied and how it is removed, and, I think much more successful.

What interests me is that the negative areas are the more powerful. I would like to combine this with other media. It would need to be able to withstand the paper being damped for printing, so possibly Inktense, which is  waterproof pigment, waterproof ink, or acryl gouache. The transparency of the ink is important here and an important consideration when attempting to layer up media.


When I was considering ‘meaningful’ media, I used rust to create marks on paper. A way of having present and absent media would be to remove rust from a surface (now a support) as an act of drawing. Last summer, I collected some rusty sheet from Lyme Beach where the old town dump is being eroded out of the cliff. I have tried drawing on this by scratching and polishing the rust away.

Initial mark making


I think that this has an inherent beauty but it is not easy to present. Like most shiny, metallic or iridescent finishes, it can only be seen at and angle when light is reflected. But oh, rusty, eroded iron is so gorgeous!

I tried adding a more obviously drawn line to another piece, but feels too conscious and contrived.

These are more interesting experiments, if not ends in themselves.  I plan to continue picking up rusty bits of metal and to try layering wiped ink over other media.

Parallel Project – Video Experiments

Through the course, I have experimented with videoing my process as part of my learning log. This has developed into the video become a major part of the outcome of a project. I have videoed the process of drawing but wanted to consider whether it would be possible to animate a drawing in order to have media and marks appear and disappear. This is, of course, how William Kentridge presents his drawings. He talks about his process in this video. He is using ‘stop frame’ techniques to record the changes he makes to the drawing, and it is clear that this requires a very control and restrained working practice, to stop after each mark and take two frames. The fact that animation traditionally uses 2 frames of each drawing seems to be an historical hangover from hand cranked film. Research suggests that a frame rate of 24 a second would be reasonable meaning 12 drawings for a second of video or 2880 frames for 4 minute video. If each mark takes just half a minute, that’s 24 hours of drawing and photographing, and I think half a minute is optimistic. Hmm. Let’s call that 4 days solid work, plus actually creating the animation.

Another major consideration is how I can set up for constant exposure. This is a real issue since natural light is highly variable. I normally use natural light for all photography as the brightest source with the widest spectrum. I would plan to work in monochrome, removing one level of complexity, so light colour should not be an issue, but constant light will be difficult without sophisticated studio lighting.  I can’t use the automatic exposure adjustment within the camera software because this will try to render a scene a uniform exposure in spite of the tonal balance changing.

The set up also needs to be physically stable with the support and the camera never moving and each in the same plane.

My first idea is to use my light box as a uniform light source and draw on it using translucent paper and a camera photographing from above. This deals with the physical setup as the support can be taped to the flat top of the light box, although fixing the light box immovably would take some thought. My translucent paper did not withstand the reworking of marks. I tried more robust tracing paper and recorded 80 frames of fairly random drawing.

The drawings were imported to Microsoft Video Maker, the cheap and cheerful video editor on my pc. The results of blending the frames was poor. I tried various other freebie software (I might pay for something when I know what I want) and got the best results using VSDC at 12 frames per second.

Tracing paper test video

This is pretty crude. The pace at which marks are made would have to be learnt and refined. I don’t like the tracing paper to draw on. To add and remove marks, I really need to use a sturdy support like a good cartridge paper.

Another alternative is to scan a drawing repeatedly. On my scanner, this would constrain the size of the drawing to A4. A quick test showed that this might work technically but isn’t mechanically practical.

This has all got rather techie and nerdy. The experience with editing video has been useful in the course work that I have been doing along side this exploration, but I am not sure where I am going, if anywhere, with this.

Assignment 5 – Reflection

This part of the course has required be to examine my own processes in a new way. Often drawing is about what we draw, why we choose that subject, what the media or technique is, or about the outcome but this part of the course has forced me to consider the depth of my process, both for me as the creator and for the viewer. Of course, the thought that goes into something, the density of idea or what one might call intellectual content, is something which is developed throughout this course but this penultimate part brings that into focus through the use of time. I know that I am prone to snatch at ideas. I enjoy quick, spontaneous working, but I see that that is not necessarily in conflict with allowing ideas to mature over an elapsed time. There is a seduction to plugging away at something, perhaps repeating over and again, possibly quickly, until a resolution of some sort is realised. Both my motorway drawings and subsequent artist’s book, and the endeavour of repeated self portraits, have taught me a lot about sticking with something. Exploring something simple, in both these cases just what was in front of me at the time, working at it over and over, creating layers of content, has resulted in some work which has more depth of interest for me and the viewer.

This is not to say that I think my self portraits are excellent; I clearly see that they are not. However, I think that they are interesting and that the process is interesting, especially seeing the ebb and flow of the tension between representation and the expressive mark. The video shows this well and I am told by fellow students who have seen it that they found it absorbing. The book of portraits allows the viewer to look into the details of the drawings in a way that a video cannot. He or she can turn back and forth comparing and considering.

The final long self portrait is not as powerful as I would like. The temptation is to use strong mark making as an end in itself. I very much liked some of the strong marks half way through drawing this, but wiped them out with my hand so that they almost disappeared, because the presence of the marks was stronger than the presence of the face. My first OCA tutor said that I should never be afraid to obliterate a lovely mark in the wrong place because the mark would always come back when needed, and I now understand this as excellent advice. In fact all the marks are still there but now whispering rather than shouting. I am pleased that I was brave enough to tear up the drawing and recompose it so that it really captures drawing from a mirror.

I have debated whether to present this as Assignment 5 since I think it reflects a culmination of work. One of the difficulties that I have had with Investigating Drawing is that the assignments often feel like a new project rather than the culmination of the previous project work. Obviously, you hope to draw on what you have learnt through the previous projects but all too often the final assignment seems a slight sideways step. I started thinking about and preparing my altered book quite early, as recommended, with the consequence that it feels completely tangential to the other work.

The altered book has been fun and I have enjoyed the act of curation. It has produced an artefact which can be held in the hand and explored over time as a personal pleasure, and I shall continue to add to it. I think the idea of layered memories of two people (myself and the original owner) overlapping in time and within the same object is a powerful one, but I think the execution is weak. Poor draughtsmanship is exposed in this format. Ultimately, I don’t think that it is sufficiently embedded in my own feelings or experience. Making artist’s books, on the other hand, has been a revelation and a deep pleasure, and I can see that they will continue to be part of my practice long after the current course.

Investigating Drawing continues to challenge me to be the best artist I can be. In these projects I have tried to be fearless (or at least ignore fear) and honest and to push my own boundaries. My outcomes are often not what I hope for, but the course has really helped me understand that search for ‘something deeper’ as Auerbach says, and the strategies I can employ to direct the search.

Assignment 5 – Developing the Altered Book

I continue to consider my altered book and whether this or the long self portrait will form my assignment work. I have been adding further sketches informed by looking at the pencil sketches of Indian figures by Sir William Rothenstein in the Tate. I was interested to see that he had chosen the sorts of characteristics I imagined a European would; exotic robs, headgear, etc. I have copied a few of his sketches into my book and added more of my own using period photographs from the internet.

Amongst all the saris etc I felt it was important to have some reflection of poverty

I have also enjoyed adding further effects inspired by India fabrics and block printing.

The section of the book which nods to WWI has been developed with family photographs of granddad in uniform etc and condolence envelopes with black edges (my granddad survived but lost all his cousins).

I have added lots of other family photos from that generation and over artefacts, like stamps. The family photos have just bee stuck in with a little glue across a corner. I could have embedded them, like some of the Indian illustrations, with acrylic medium etc, but I though that this was more true to how someone might slip a photo into a book as a keepsake, rather than some embedded memory.

Gilding this particular lily is fun. My work has got rather intense towards the end of this course, and it is a pleasant change to indulge myself in colour and decoration.