The aim for this project is to experiment ‘with colour, composition and detail’ to create a composition which considers the space around the subject, using the whole support. The background should be as carefully considered as the subject. The project begins by looking at the still life works of Elizabeth Blackadder. There is a video interview in her studio and another at the Glasgow Print Studio, both giving insights into her working process.
The video in her studio discusses her collecting instinct, love of decorative objects and the influence of Japan on her work. Surveying her still life works available via the internet, Bridgeman Library etc, they contrast with her botanical drawings and paintings. In the latter, she follows in the traditions of botanical drawing with close attention to detail. The examples of her works highlighted for her retrospective at the Scottish Galleries a couple of years ago, demonstrates the contrast. The plants are displayed on a plain white background with the specimens laid out, with suitable spacing to display their structure. It is a forensic examination. The still life paintings are much more free in their representation of the objects but still have that separation of the objects. However, the space around them is now richly populated with colour applied in layers. To some extent, I think that is is a result of the use of different mediums. The botanical drawings are largely watercolour whilst the the still lifes are oil paintings. Oil paint (I understand, I have never used it) lends itself to controlled glazes of colour whereas watercolour does not.
Thinking about how she presents her decorative items in the oil paintings, several things stand out. She flattens the objects, generally (but not always) ignoring shadow across an item which would describe form, and also ignores cast shadows, so that the items are not grounded but appear to float in space. Often she seems to develop the background around her painted objects by glazing up with successive darker layers but leaving a small margin around her objects. This gives them a slight, light halo which makes them appear to glow. Why does she choose to show us her collection in this way? Does it just follow on from that forensic study? Artists composing a still life will usually group objects so that they overlap to create a larger, more interesting and complex shape, or place them close together to create an interesting negative shape between them, so that the objects have a conversation or interaction. Blackadder’s subjects are seemly scattered randomly across a rich, complex surface (of course, it is not at all random). I think that she is like a jeweller displaying gems against a velvet cloth. To pile them up would be for one to distract from another. Her velvety backgrounds exhibit the gems laid upon them beautifully and whilst we don’t have every detail described (which again would distract) we are given the joy of decorative design, colour and light. She is showing us what she loves about these objects.
Armed with these ideas, I made the suggested set up of coloured fabric with colourful items set against it. I was quick to discard a number of the objects, editing the items down to contrasts in shape, texture and scale. Since I do not have a background in painting, thumbnail sketches in colour are a challenge.
I tried out a number of colour mediums in my sketchbook thumbnails; felt tips, watercolour/Inktense and coloured pencil. Working with colour at that scale is pretty crude but the Inktense washes were the most successful at building up background depth. Inktense has the advantage over watercolour that, once dry, the pigment is permanent, and therefore there is a better possibility of layering up. To further explore composition, I worked just in pencil and also used photography to cut out shapes and move them around on a background.
The concept of layering up to create depth and richness is very familiar to me as a printmaker and I decided that one approach to this project would be to monoprint my composition in successive layers of transparent ink. The technique chosen was to draw outlines of my composition on to white paper, place a piece of clear plastic sheet over the design and copy it on to the plastic with a permanent pen. This gives a reversed image on the back of the plastic (I write an R backwards in the image so that I can see clearly which is the right side when working). I photocopied the composition several times and marked up each copy with a colour in felt tip as a guide for each layer. The basic colours were yellow, red and blue, but, to produce a rich background, I proposed to use at least two different blues, French Blue and cyan with Viridian (blue green) and possibly Paynes Grey (blue black). Working in printing ink is more restrictive than watercolour as I only have about 8 colours to work with and must mix anything else. Working with transparent ink, the layers should give additional colours through optical mixing. In order to pick up thin, transparent layers, I used pre-damped paper which had been interleaved inside damp newspaper overnight.
The monoprint was produced by rolling my plastic plate with a colour of ink and drawing into this with a various implements; cotton buds, brush, bamboo pen and kitchen paper. The layers were applied working light to dark, allowing each layer a day to dry before re-damping for the next layer, a laborious process but to me a very exciting one. It is rather like working in a darkroom, gradually seeing an image emerge. By the nature of working negatively to remove sticky ink, objects are more suggested than described in detail, and I think this fits very well with the objectives of the project. I started out with five pieces of paper (knowing I would make printing errors such as printing one layer upside down), several light cartridge paper, some very light Japanese paper.
The layers were beige, yellow, red, viridian, french blue, paynes grey. The cyan layer was abandoned because my cyan is a Caligo water-washable ink (though oil based) and it lost all definition on damp paper. The other colours are Hawthorne inks and much more robust on damp paper.
Since the monoprinting was drawn out over days, I worked on another piece in parallel I experimented first on w/c paper using inktense washes, drawn into with pastel and felt tips.
I felt that a watercolour underpainting with pastel drawn on top would create a rich background, but the pastel over the watercolour was opaque and heavy. However, I persevered, on the basis that I needed to reacquaint myself with these media.
The result is pretty dreadful in many ways. The composition is contrived; all the objects are dead vertical. This arises from my inclusion of the shelf on which the tins and spatula are sitting, as a linear element. The colours have ended up heavy and muddy. I have tried not to over describe the items but they have just ended up crude. The soft pastel sits on the watercolour paper NOT texture in lumps.
By contrast, I think the final monoprint was a success. Out of five prints started, two made it through to the final layers.
The upper print is on delicate Japanese paper and some layers are ghosts of the heavier print. On the print on heavier paper, I added a little hand colouring for some of the linear marks I had not been able to make in ink, such as the flower stalks on the spatulas.
This composition is more successful with the T-shirt moving out of the frame. Here the implements are the major subjects and their hard curves contrast with the tin and with the soft folds of the fabric and the fluffy ball of wool. The dark background has made the other colours sing and given the objects a luminosity. The tin is too parallel to the edge of the support and would have been better at a slight angle. The objects are naive but I don’t find them crude, unlike the pastel version. I think I have managed to carry the interest right to the edge of the support in the textures, colours and variety of the background.
Considering the different approaches of Matisse and Blackadder, they both demonstrate a joy in celebrating decoration but whereas Blackadder is restrained and almost meditative in her approach to the context in which she places objects, Matisse glories in the complexities of decoration in his subjects and also in the environment in which he has placed them. The decorative qualities of the background are as important, almost more so, as the still life subjects.
This example, ‘Spanish Still Life’ (c1910) shows some fruit, jugs and a pot plant on a table. The fruits are almost lost in the riot of design of the table cloth and the upholstery fabrics have been given just as strong a treatment. Like Blackadder, he has flattened the forms and played with the perspective. However, his approach to drawing the decoration is more muscular and his use of colour less restrained. His shapes are more generous, more sinuously curvy. The whole composition writhes with life. In contrast, Blackadder’s still lifes are almost a zen-like contemplation. She pushes her objects away and creates distance; Matisse thrusts his subject towards us.
Wanting to make a drawing in Matisse’s style, I perched a small garden ornament on the arm of a curved armed seat and placed it against some patterned curtains. I tried to draw very quickly with continuous, strong curves. This is in my sketchbook, hence the notes.
I have tried to make the shape of the chair generous and flowing across the whole composition. The bird has been pushed right to the side and only stands out due to the tones. The curtain and tassel have become an important part of the composition rather than just a background, but, if I was to develop this as a ‘finished’ piece, I would crop off the top of the drawing , focused in on the chair. Normally, I would have understated the pattern on the fabric to push the curtain back in the composition but here I have pulled it forward and, if I had used colour rather than just line, it would move forward even more.
This has been a fascinating exercise looking at space and the description of background in a composition and I feel I have taken on some really useful ideas. In spite of the difficulties I experienced getting to grips with colour media, I feel that Elizabeth Blackadder’s treatment of still life will resonate into my own practice as a printmaker. Matisse, however, speaks to me of a fluid, less controlled approach to drawing and line. When I was trying to think like Matisse, I felt a freedom and lack of fear which allowed me to produce strong, simple continuous lines, especially in the chair.