Category Archives: Study Visits and Exhibitions

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. My work for Investigating Drawing is largely monochrome because I feel that it has a power and directness that colour does not, particularly in the context of my parallel project. All colours carry their own cultural significance and often, prettiness. In my increasingly non-iconographic work, I want to avoid these. I think that this exhibition made the point that monochrome work historically had a specific technical place, and even a cultural place in the Renaissance, but did not really drill down to the significance of the choice of monochrome in the work of contemporary artists.


The London Original Print Fair

The annual London Original Print Fair is held at the Royal Academy where the exhibition rooms are taken over by many galleries from all around the world which specialise in original prints.  This means that there is a huge breadth of work to see, spanning different ages and different artistic cultures, from Picassos and Bawdens to contemporary Chinese woodcuts and the latest Peter Bakes. I can’t imagine any other place where you could see works by such a wide range of excellent and emerging artists, all accessibly displayed and with knowledgeable people to tell you about the work. There is also every conceivable printmaking technique to examine, and it is even surprisingly affordable.

Here are just a few of the printmakers who caught my eye:

Anne-Marie James with her book pages sliced into slithers and interposed so that two images engaged in a dialogue. There is an image here (the second) and her other altered book art can be seen here.

Tom Hammick’s huge woodcuts are always interesting, especially how he layers colours.

Cornelia Parker’s polymer photogravure images of glass, particularly those of broken glasses.

Glenn Brown for his rather bizarre, affectionate but irreverent, take on art history

Victoria Burge brings together science, mapping and art. She used heavy embossing to create three-dimensionality in her prints.

Bill Jacklin creates monoprints in several layers with wiping and white spirit spattering, creating movement and atmosphere.

Alison Lambert was showing very large charcoal portraits where the surface had been torn and abraded to recapture highlights. She also makes some very strong monoprints.

Douglas Gordon’s offset lithographs of a solar eclipse juxtapositioned with Anish Kapoor’s etchings.

James Collyer’s Yamashiro Falls  married simplicity of design with technical complexity. This gallery picture is so poor that it hardly does it justice.

For inventiveness and originality, Thomas Gosebruch really stood out, and, wonderfully, he was there, happy to talk about how he made his work. I was intrigued by how he folded paper and then printed on each segment and how he got ink or paint to be 2 or 3mm deep.  The paper folding is an idea well worth stealing.

Basil Beattie’s prints were monoprinted using a silk screen, a process I have been experimenting with. The print studio representatives were really helpful with a discussion about papers, inks, mediums and screen mesh size. The prints were very tactile and heavily layered in oil paint, quite unlike run of the mill screen prints.

My very favourite prints were by Kate McCrickard. These were really complex, many layered monoprints using really bright luminous colours in the initial layers and muted colours on top, with an outline ultimately added to define the figures (I think). The gallery owner told me that she sketches in local cafes and then translates these sketches into monoprints. The whole process must be very drawn out, as each layer of ink dries, but I think she probably works on a group in parallel because the prints naturally formed sets with a rhythm of the same coloured layers between them. Another idea to steal.

I have to thank Rabley Drawing Centre for sending me a complimentary ticket for the Fair. How could I have missed Emma Stibbon’s Vent from my list of eye-catching prints? There was just so much wonderful stuff.

American Dream

The current American Dream exhibition at the British Museum is best exhibition of fine art printmaking I have ever seen. I have been to other exhibitions there, such as Picasso’s Vollard Suite  and the Japanese Shunga exhibition, both of which were really enjoyable and informative, but nothing matches the sweep of this exhibition. It looks at recent (since Pop art) and contemporary printmaking in America, with particular focus on how the artists are reflecting their contemporary culture. As you might expect, there are significant works by Rauschenberg and Warhol, but the scope of the works goes far beyond the obvious.

Some of the artists featured just happened to have made some prints and, because they are well known, their prints are included here, but I don’t think the prints inform their oeuvre or that they really exploited the unique possibilities of printmaking. Lichtenstein, for instance, does his usual stuff and it is indistinguishable from his paintings (though, of course, editioned). They could be giclee photographic prints. Other artists really pushed their work through the medium. For instance, Oldenberg’s etchings clearly relate to his more famous works but are uniquely themselves and Jasper John’s lithographs exploit the way oil based medium lies on the stone and can then be manipulated.

Rauschenberg was supremly inventive with printmaking, combining photographic imagery, lithography and screenprinting, all in the same monumental work. His life sized self-portrait ‘Booster’ (1967) is an object lesson in pushing an experimental approach and combining everything learnt into something new.

Jim Dine exploited the opportunities of printmaking by making a plate for the print ‘Five Paintbrushes’ (1972) and then developing the plate through subsequent ‘states’ to create a sequence of prints. The third state, fourth state and sixth state show how the plate was gradually enriched.

Two other stand-out works were Chuck Close’s colossal mezzotint ‘Keith’ (1972) both for its heroic endeavor (mezzotint is a very painstaking process, and most are, therefore, very small) and for the way he embraced the record of the process. Repeated trial printing reduced the tone around the mouth and exposed the grid system he used, and he chose to retain, rather than fight, this. The other work was Frank Stella’s ‘Cone’ (1987), a very large screenprint or a black shape, almost completely filling the canvas, with gently curved edges echoing his sculptures. The black shape is full of dense, raised, glutinous texture created by forcing oil paint stick through a silk screen; more inventiveness via the printmaking process.

In addition to the artists you would expect to be represented, there where many I was interested to be introduced to such as Kara Walker, Kiki Smith and the exquisite woodcuts of Veja Celmins. There were others whose work I love and was delighted to find represented here such as Louise Bourgeois and Julie Mehretu. Women are increasing represented in the exhibition as the time line progresses.

If, of the hundred’s of wonderful prints, I could take one home it might be Eric Fischl’s ‘Year of the Drowned Dog’ (1985). This series of etchings is full of the glittery light of the west coast and the sparkling colours familiar from a Hockney painting. There is mystery in the possible narrative around the body of the dog and the groups of people. From a technical point of view, the combination of techniques (aquatint, soft ground etching, scrapping and drypoint) to achieve the rich tones and then the outstanding inking make this a printmaking tour de force. The  six prints  can be combined in different ways to vary the narrative and I would never get bored of rearranging and enjoying this work.

This is undoubtedly the best exhibition of prints I have ever seen, and I think it may well be the best I will ever see.


Drawing Workshop at the British Museum

Yesterday, I was privileged to join a study day organised by OCA  in conjunction with the Bridget Riley Foundation. The Foundation’s Project Officer at the Museum had again selected an interesting group of about 12 drawings, on the theme of environment and landscape, for us to examine in detail and draw from. She gave an excellent introduction to the works and their relevance to their time and to each other.

The works we looked at are listed below, together with my quick sketches:

Artist: Barbara Hepworth
Subject: St Rèmy: Mountains and Trees I, 1933
Media: Graphite on paper

It was interesting to feel how her marks started much tighter and more controlled at on the left and became freer moving to the right. Some of the loopy contour lines are repeated for the right foreground and the hills in the background, and that feels almost like a signature, a line completely natural to her.

Artist: Frank Auerbach
Subject: Study for ‘Another Tree in Mornington Crescent’, 2007 
Media: Charcoal, coloured crayon, felt tip pen

I really wish that I had had coloured pencils with me to try and record how he used colour to record density of mass. Here, I have tried to use weight of line for the same purpose, but, of course, he used both. I really like the way both Auerbach and Kokoschka used coloured pencils; I explored this a bit in Drawing 1 and must revisit it.

Artist: Thomas Girtin
Subject: Eidometropolis (Blackfriars bridge and St Paul’s), 1800-1801
Media: Pen and brown ink, with watercolour; squared for enlargement



Artist: Henry Moore
Subject: Shelter sketchbook
Media: Pen and black ink and graphite, with wax crayon and watercolour

Artist: Paul Signac
Subject: Still life with bowl of fruit,1926
Media: Charcoal and watercolour


Artist: Jan Breughel the Elder
Subject: A tazza-shaped vase with flowers tumbling over the bowl, 1583-1625
Media: Pen and brown ink, with brown wash

In both the Breughel and Snyder drawings (Snyder being a pupil of Breugel’s) are, at first glance very detiled, controlled and representational, but close observation of details shows how gestural, free and assured their drawing was.

Artist: Gabriel de Saint-Aubin
Subject: The interior of the artist’s studio, 1780
Media: Black chalk

Artist: Frans Snyders
Subject: Game and fruit, 1594-1657
Media: Pen and brown ink, over black chalk

Artist: John Napper
Subject: Dried plants, 1958 (no image available)
Media: Black and pink chalk, touched with bodycolour and white

Artist: Eugène Louis Boudin
Subject: Groups of figures near Planches, Trouville, 1866
Media: Graphite, with watercolour

Artist: Vincent van Gogh
Subject: La Crau from Montmajour, France, May 1888
Media: Brown ink drawing over black chalk

This is an immense, unbelievably detailed drawing, in ink, using a variety of nibs. The foreground looks like a reed pen used very freely and the far distance is very fine, precise marks using, I imagine, a fine steel nib. Then chalk under-drawing can be seen. He has put, if possible, even more detail into the distance than the foreground. I find the drawing of the train naive compared to the rest with less well observed perspective and proportions. This may of been because he could only observe it briefly as it passed, or that he was consciously or unconsciously recording how discordant he found it in the environment. 

Artist: Margaret Stones
Subject: “Helianthus Annuus” drawn at Kew Gardens, 1973 (no image available)
Media: Graphite and watercolour

Meticulous, scientific record drawings.

Subjects which were touched on in the discussions included the different purposes which drawing and making studies can have, how sketching on location effects choice of size and media, the differences in ways of looking before and after the invention of photography, and how different artists approached the analysis and portrayal of mass.

I found it particularly useful to discuss how, as an artist, I might approach copying a work and the different things I might be trying to explore and understand by doing so. For instance, I might be trying to understand their choices about weight of line or how marks are used to build mass. Our guide advocated copying a work multiple times, copying details, copying lots of works by the same artist, copying, copying and copying to understand and appreciate.

It was a real privilege to see and examine these works close up, especially the Van Gogh.  My personal favourites were the Signac and the Auerbach but everyone enjoyed being introduced to the work of John Napper.

After the study visit, I decided to visit the current exhibition ‘The American Dream‘ looking at contemporary and modern printmaking in American, and which I have written about here.


Exhibition – Abstract Expressionists

The ‘Abstract Expressionism’ exhibition which has just closed at the RA was nicely timed to coincide with the research point on Jackson Pollock. I was curious to see his work in the flesh, having previously seen only reproductions, and to see it in the context of those working around him in America at the time. The current exhibition echoes  ‘The New American Painting’ exhibition of 1959 at the Tate after which Prunella Clough said ‘everything changed’ (Spalding, 2012).

The first room was dedicated to Arshile Gorky whose work reminded me of De Kooning with its curvaceous shapes in which you might recognise a form but then it melts away again. I found his watercolour and graphite sketches full of movement with easy lines and transparent washes. The oil paintings seemed, in comparison, heavy and laboured.

Then came the Pollocks. So many, in several rooms. The impact of the real paintings over a reproduction can’t be overstated. Size really does matter and a Pollock 6 metres long is an immersive experience. In reproductions, the texture of the paint and the way different paints have mixed on the canvas isn’t apparent. The paintings have absorbing details and massive overall impact. However, so many, placed together, detracted from each other and created an atmosphere of frenetic  anxiety. In contrast , the room hung with half a dozen or so Rothko’s was calm and subdued, reinforced by the lower lighting levels. Unfortunately, the angle of the lighting created reflections on the surface of the paintings, rather spoiling the effect of an opening up of space through the picture plain. Even in such a busy environment, I found the Rothko’s gave me a profound feeling of spiritual peace.

I was unprepared for the effect that Barnett Newman’s painting would have. In reproduction I had found these rather uninteresting but in their physical presence I found a subtlety and depth that is lost in photographs. The successive washes of paint that he used create a rich and luminous surface and the straight lines and edges between colours are less exact and more complex than a photograph can show. Standing in front of one of the large paintings was rather like standing in the light from a stained glass window; I felt I could bathe in the dense colours.

After Rothko and Newman, I found the De Koonings rather light-weight and lacking profundity. The pretty colours and plastic bodies suffered for being in the presence of such intensity. Not so the Kline’s huge calligraphic marks. These sizzled with energy. It is as though Rothko and Newman were thoughtful and deeply considered during the execution of their works but Pollock and Kline did all their deep consideration before starting work and then just let it all flow out in impulsive gestures, actions. Indeed, Kline had a discipline of drawing and his apparently completely abstract marks are based on selected, enlarged and distorted details of representational drawings (The painting techniques of Franz Kline, 2013).

The exhibition included a number of less well known abstract expressionists such as Clifford Still and Joan Mitchell, but the other stand-out artist, for me, was the photographer Aaron Siskind whose work I only recently discovered and greatly admire. This exhibition included some photographic prints of details of graffiti which echo the paintings of Kline.


Spalding, F. (2012) Prunella Clough: Regions Unmapped. United Kingdom: Lund Humphries Publishers.

The painting techniques of Franz Kline (2013) Available at:    (Accessed: 12 January 2017).

Study Visit – Robert Rauschenberg

Raushenberg’s response to the post-war gloom and the self-absorption of the abstract expressionists who dominated American art in the early 1950s, was to revel in the stuff of real, contemporary life. This exhibition, a chronological survey,  shows him acquiring materials, techniques and ideas like a squirrel, hording them up and rearranging them in sculptures and works which defy common labels.

He pushed his interest in photography into painting via blueprint paper exposures. He combined and then recombined found objects and paint. The famous Angora goat migrated from one arrangement to another, over fours years, before settling permanently into ‘Monogram’ in 1959 (Craft,2013). Even his paintings, perhaps his most conventional works, explored the use of fabric, applied objects, mirror, newsprint, photographs, mould, mud, in fact pretty much anything that caught his eye and was to hand.’Painting’ seems far too small a term, not least because some were big, really big.

Central to Rauschenberg’s work was the found image, reflecting the moment in popular culture. Images of J F Kennedy and astronauts capture the essence of the era and its optimism, shaking off the post-war despondency. Printmaking, especially screen printing allowed him to scale up these images, juxtaposition them with paint and other iconic images of American life.

The transfer of found images found its most poignant expression in his illustrations for Dante’s Inferno, begun in 1958 (Robert Rauschenberg Foundation). These 34 drawings are necessarily small because he used a method of image transfer which did not allow scaling up. He soaked the images in turpentine or lighter fluid and offset their ink by laying them on the support and hatching over them with an empty ball point pen (Craft). This produced a ghostly, painterly image which fitted the subject well and allowed pencil and paint additions.


My experiment, offset image from colour supplement using white spirit

He continued to push printmaking in different directions, including using lithography, producing ‘Booster’ 1967, at the time, the biggest hand-pulled lithograph ever printed (Craft) and reflecting his continuing fascination with scientific developments and the space race. When he moved to Florida in 1970, the materials readily available changed, but, undeterred he turned to using cardboard boxes as his medium, but printmaking and image acquisition was never far away and both kept reemerging in his later work.

His work is a celebration of experimentation, invention, optimism and wit, and his influence still reverberates in contemporary art.


Craft, C. (2013) Robert Rauschenberg. London: Phaidon Press.
Robert Rauschenberg Foundation (2015) Dante drawing (1958–60). Available at: (Accessed: 1 January 2017).

Study Visit – Hilma af Klint

This week’s study visit offered the opportunity to see the work of this little known Swedish artist working in the early 1900s. I don’t think that I would have thought to go to this exhibition on my own, and I don’t think that I would have found it particularly accessible without the introductions provided by the gallery here, and by our tutor.

Af Klint went to art school and studied classic drawing and painting, portraiture and landscapes but her inner spiritual life came to dominate her work and she is now heralded as possibly the first abstractionist, predating Kadinsky. I am not sure that this is really valid. I think that she was trying to represent spiritual ideas which were, to her, completely real, and in this sense her work is absolutely representational, just not of the natural world as we see it.

Theosophy was spiritual and spiritualist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries which mashed together philosophises from a number of religions. Af Klint developed her own system of symbols, signs and word fragments which she wove together in images. She explored representing opposites, male, female, light and dark etc in terms of shapes, colours and decorative designs. These became more sophisticated and moved from small watercolours and drawings to huge oil paintings, intended for a ceremonial space, which she was directed to create by her ‘spirit guide’.

A number of her works can be seen here.

Her themes or investigations included evolution and cosmology and I found the paintings which considered the beginning of the universe from a point source the most interesting. These were painted before the big bang had been theorised and even before the existence of other galaxies had been discovered. She was certainly before her time in her scientific interests but also in the graphic nature of her art. Many of these works reminded me of 60s and 70s album covers for instance Pink Floyd’s ‘Dark Side of the Moon‘ or the more recent  ‘Resistance’ by Muse, whereas her earlier, more floral and sinuous works remind me of 1950’s curtain material.

Since she assigned complimentary colours to opposing meanings and used symmetry, spirals, and geometric shapes, her designs have a powerful graphic effect. The colours are often muted and the dictates of how she used the colours produced very visually pleasing results. However, very few people would have seen these in her lifetime. On the advice of Rudolf Steiner, she did not publically show her work, and one can only wonder at how and why he chose to control her in that way.

In the game of ‘which would you take home if you could choose one’, I would have chosen a small watercolour expressing the creation of the universe, like this one.

Her works have a very specific purpose of religious or philosophical enquiry. They, and the process by which she arrived at them was interesting but I felt I was looking at rather clinical illustrations or diagrams. I think this is why I did not find an emotional engagement with them. The exception was the small watercolours in which she was trying to represent the single moment when the universe exploded outwards from a point source.