Category Archives: Workshops

Workshop- Experimenting with Abstraction Through Drawing

This two day workshop was tutored by Jane Strother, an Oxford Adult Education tutor who offers thoughtful and interesting courses in personal development for experienced artists. I have been to one of her courses before at Oxford Summer School and found it really useful. The attraction is not just the content of the course, but the coming together with half a dozen like minded people, albeit with totally different art directions.

Jane started the day by reviewing the work of several artists and looking at their different approaches to organising mass and line within a space. We looked at William Scott, Ellsworth Kelly, David Tress, Simon Carter and Nicholas De Stael. Jane showed us their different methods for exploring composition; collage, drawing, tearing and rearranging, working via a grid, simplification via obliteration etc. We discussed how, in developing an abstract, or abstracted image, you might wish to completely loose any iconography, or choose to retain a few specific elements.

Jane had set up a towering stack of chairs and set us the challenge of drawing them in various ways, trying to loose the iconography. We drew quick drawings with our non dominant hand, with continuous line, unsighted, ‘sneaky look’, negative spaces joined up etc. The objective of this first day was to build up a body of drawings which we could work from the next day to create compositions for a future work.

A1, Pencil, wrong hand, unsighted, 3 mins

A1, unsighted, pencil, 5 mins

A2, pencil and charcoal, unsighted

A2, charcoal, neg spaces

A1, charcoal and white pastel, c 20 mins

These exercises show how difficult I find it to loose the representation, the longer I sketch.

In the afternoon, we sketched in the garden. Here the objective was to use the structural aspects of the garden with the organic shapes to find a variety of mark, shape and mass which could be selected and isolated or joined in different ways in a subsequent composition. Again, we were trying to loose the representation and just let the subject suggest marks or shapes. We all found this even more difficult in the garden. Jane suggested trying moving around and sketching the garden from different aspects in the same drawing.

A3, charcoal

A3, charcoal

A3, stick and ink

A3, stick and ink

A3, charcoal

A4, ink on stick

A4, ink on stick, charcoal

A4, ink on stick

A4, ink on stick

The next day, we thought about strategies for taking our drawings and making an abstract monochrome composition from them, either completely abstract or retaining some slight iconography of the original subject.

Strategies included:

  • tearing up and rearranging
  • painting over and obliterating in areas
  • adding paper to margins and extending
  • over drawing one drawing on another
  • redrawing and selecting
  • cropping
  • collaged papers
  • cutting up and weaving or rearranging in a grid (ref Kelly)
  • rotate some elements relative to others
  • joining shapes, neg or pos

I felt much more inspired by the organic shapes than the chair drawings, so I used the latter as practice for manipulation.

Adding charcoal and white paint, joining shapes

Uninspired and uninspiring. I went back to the garden sketches and drew from a couple of them, enlarging the shapes of the tulips, adding the loopy lines of plant supports and black shapes of clumps of perennials. I forgot to take a photo of this before I decided to tear it up and put the pieces together  another way, extending lines and shapes onto new paper.

Some shapes are still recognisable here, I then cropped into one bit, about a third, which I found the most interesting.

The drawing was added to, subtracted from with white paint and finally torn up again and the pieces rearranged.

Drawing was added to relate the shapes somewhat whilst trying to keep a balance of positive and negative space. I regretted that I had cut, rather than torn some shapes when cropping.

This has now completely lost any iconography of a garden. I can find a landscape within this, with an exciting sky, if rather literal land.

I like the idea of making very big marks for a very big sky.

Turning back to the garden, I made an even more gestural sketch.

Drawing on newspaper which I have previously used as worktop protection whilst painting, was really useful as a device for loosing representation. A stick with ink is great for creating a gestural, inexact mark. Once again, I tore this up, glued parts down onto new paper, and added some lines in ink, suggested by my earlier drawings of a tree and climbing rose. Watery, white paint was added to soften tones by making the ink run.

A3, collage, ink and white paint

With the day drawing to a close, I drew three marks on paper, suggested by the garden forms, and then tried to unite them in a composition.

A3, ink and paint

This sketch used carbon stick and white acrylic paint. Mixed on the paper with the paint, it forms a lovely bluish grey.

It felt decadent to spend days experimenting and I came away with an appetite to try painting again, beyond the representational watercolours I used to do years ago. I find workshops really useful for exchanging ideas, freshening up my own, putting into practice the stuff you might know but don’t give yourself time to do but should. It was lovely to meet new artists and look at their work and to be invited into Jane’s home and see her work. I was also grateful for being introduced to the work of Simon Carter and his excellent blog where he discusses the development of work from sketchbook to possibly finished painting with great honesty and humour. This was a very productive couple of days.

Workshop – Foray into Abstraction

I signed up for a week at the excellent Oxford Summer School with Jane Strother for a course she called ‘Foray into Abstraction’.

We started by looking at lots of postcards of paintings with various degrees of abstraction, choosing one or two each and presenting them to the class, explaining why we had chosen them. Jane pointed out various ways in which the artists had abstracted their subject.

We spent quite a time doing simple still life drawings, just using blocks of three tones and concentrating on identifying and merging shapes in related tones.

foray (1 of 18)

foray (2 of 18)

As well as found objects around the room, we drew crumbled paper, which I found a really useful and interesting object to draw. We looked to join tone but also identify lines which could be emphasised or extended or even placed elsewhere in the frame. Similar exercises were attempted with monochrome paint or paper collage.

foray (3 of 18) foray (4 of 18)

Before doing any painting or moving into colour, we did exercises in colour mixing, taking a cool or warm primary colour, mixing a complementary colour from the other two corresponding primaries, and then mixing these to  to create all the tints between. I struggles a bit with this, since I am not a painter and don’t have a great range of acrylic paints. That made it all the more useful an exercise for me, since my understanding of colour is poor. I also tried this exercise in my sketchbook with a palette knife, bristle brush and eclipse brush to see the difference the tool made.

foray (5 of 18)foray (6 of 18)

This was followed by an exercise where we painted a small scene outside, in blocks of colours, as near as possible to the local colour. This was then repeated trying to identify the cool or warm primary colour which we would use as a starting point to make that local colour.

The next exercise was to take our earlier drawings and create an abstract piece using a limited palette based on  complementary colours.

foray (4 of 5)

Having painted this, I then cut it around a bit to try and improve the composition. Good exercise. We also did some small cloud pieces looking at different ways of painting these.

After the first couple of days, Jane let us loose on painting our own subjects. I used my Scotland holiday sketchbook, where rain clouds had been the most available subject.

isles (20 of 21)

A5 sketchbook, watercolour and collage

I set myself the objective of painting the clouds with the landscape being secondary and using a liited palette of Paynes Grey, Burnt Sienna, Phthalo Blue and transparent white. I am not sure that this is particularly abstract although nothing is described in detail. I am pleased to have got the sense of weighty mass of those Scottish clouds. I think that there should be less landscape and it should have softer edges.

foray (3 of 5)

26 x 60 cm, acrylic

As my parallel project, I want to explore my garden as an inspiration for abstract work. Jane was really helpful suggesting relevant artists to look at. She had brought along a  reference library of books on artists to refer to and it was very helpful to look, for instance, at the landscape works of Klimt, Virtue and Tress. Jane had also brought along some sketchbooks, showing how she collects ideas. I found it extremely interesting to see how she used acrylics to create small landscape sketches.

JStrother sketchbooks (1 of 2)

Details of A5 sketchbooks, Jane Strother, by kind permission

JStrother sketchbooks (2 of 2)

I had taken a number of photo references with me and used these as a basis for sketches where I was looking for massed shapes and tones. I found sketching in charcoal really helpful for this. I don’t normally use charcoal for sketching because of the problem of fixing, but will definitely do some more in future.

foray (7 of 18) foray (8 of 18) foray (10 of 18) foray (12 of 18)

 

foray (11 of 18)

I tried pushing this larger sketch of light through branches into colour, but I definitely prefer the monochrome sketch.

foray (14 of 18)

A4, acrylic

foray (9 of 18)

I used this lower sketch as a basis for a larger work just using charcoal and gesso. I was concentrating on massed shapes and how they worked with the edge of  the paper. The gesso creates texture which can be picked up and worked into with the charcoal. This produces a rich history of marks. The trunk of the tree would have been better rendered as a more characterful shape. The sense of light streaming in from above is successful. The building has almost disappeared apart from the angle of the roof and the reflection from a window.

foray (2 of 5)

34 x 45 cm, charcoal and gesso

The sketch below of the same red acer was almost an afterthought, squeezed into the bottom of a used page, but was one of the sketches I liked most. I tried developing it in gouache, a new medium for me, and one I have not got the hang of yet.

foray (15 of 18)

foray (16 of 18)

A3 sketchbook, gouache and coloured pencil

I like the textures but texture everywhere is a bit exhausting; the eye needs somewhere quiet to rest. I like the shapes and pushed this into a more formal painting in acrylic.

foray (1 of 5)

28 x 42 cm, acrylic

The shapes and colours here are more considered. A bush on the right has been reduced to just a line connecting with the space beyond the frame. The shadow has become more intense emphasising the glow of the acer, but I think the shape has become less interesting. Texture has been retained but now is not dominating the large shapes. The outline of the acer is too complicated and would be better with less fiddly small bulges bottom right and left. I have echoed the yellow and orange highlights in the acer, which describe three dimensional form, in the background and in the bush in the right foreground, and I think that this helps unify the image. The textured, slightly dreamy, shapes of the two shrubs at the front are a good contrast to the bulk of the tree and the rather flat background, however, perhaps I could have reversed this and executed the background in transparent layers for a dreamy feel and the shrubs in opaque layers to push the background back and the shrubs forward. Or maybe that would have been less abstract.  I think I should return to this subject repeatedly.

The final day finished with a group critique with a wide range of work produced.  It was very useful to prop up my work amongst  others’ and try to view it objectively. I could see things which I would like to have done differently, like the tree shape, but also that it was coherent and convincing.

I really enjoyed taking a small sketch and developing the shapes, tones and textures without worrying about observational veracity. My confidence in using colour increased although painting still feels like an unknown country. Oxford Summer School is a wonderful annual resource, great value and with excellent professional tutors. Jane Strother was the best I have experienced yet. Her thoughtful, academic approach was very structured, and she was extremely supportive whilst rigorous in her analysis of our work.

Workshop – Expressive Drawing at West Dean

I chose this workshop because the tutor is Emily Ball, the author of ‘Drawing and Painting People: A fresh Approach’, which I have found very helpful in giving me new ways into life drawing, where I can easily get stuck in a rut. I find her approach to mark making and viewpoint very interesting and different. The course was offered by West Dean and its wonderful gardens were to be our inspiration.

trees (3 of 14)trees (1 of 14) trees (2 of 14)

trees (4 of 14)

Painted glass in the house, inspired by the gardens.

The workshop was over four days (an evening introduction, two and half days drawing in the West Dean Gardens and a critical review to wind up). The trees in the gardens were our subjects and, in addition to framing the class around mark making, composition etc., a lot of guidance was given around how you prepared yourself to draw, how to work outside and then develop work in the studio and into final pieces. This was an excellent and, for me, unexpected aspect to the course, not just technical or creative but also about personal or professional development and practice. All the drawing was monotone which was a disappointment to some, but I found concentrating on mark, mass and tone quite complex enough without considering colour, especially green.

Materials used included:

  • charcoal
  • black and white pastels
  • black and white acrylic paint
  • shellac based indian ink
  • white acrylic ink
  • white and black oils sticks
  • black and white paint markers
  • large round brushes
  • graphite pencils, sticks and dust
  • rags, hands, erasers
  • water
  • cartridge paper, Fabriano Artistico paper

Emily has devised a series of exercises which allow you to connect to yourself, your materials, your subject and the environment in which your subject exists. The course was packed with practical information and for my own use I have structured these into:

  • getting ready to work
  • feeling your subject
  • process
  • professional practice and study

Getting ready to work:

  • prepare physically, breathe, relax, stretch, rotate neck and shoulders
  • warm up/loosen up with the materials, doodle, make marks with your eyes shut
  • immerse yourself in the place, walk, look, listen, sit with closed eyes

Feeling the subject

  • talk ‘paintish’ – that is don’t think ‘tree’, ‘leaves’, ‘green’ but think ‘sparkling’, ‘thrusting’, ‘dripping’, ‘cool’, ‘pivot’, ‘press’ etc
  • feel the shape, feel how it goes around, over, bulges etc
  • use your hands or body to describe the shapes
  • look all around it
  • listen to it

Process

  • drawing from your drawing
  • editing, add, remove, paint over, built up
  • working over
  • cutting/tearing out a bit the works, sticking it onto a bigger paper and working out from it
  • small sketches
  • the difference between sketches and studies
  • consider the edge of the paper – do the marks go out of it, are they contained within it, avoid unwanted marks produced by tape or clips, use tape to constrain edge for mall sketches and remove, possibly then work out from the sketch, etc.
  • make marks in response to ideas not things (‘paintish’ again)
  • use stick, leaves, grass etc as collage tools to think around the design
  • draw something by drawing the space around it
  • if you have made regular marks , think how to make them irregular
  • consider the direction of marks, where are they going and why, maybe change direction
  • consider weight of line
  • consider black on black, grey on grey…
  • consider large shapes to lead the eye around
  • consider pushing space into shapes
  • find positive and negative spaces
  • push things back, pull things forward with tone, weight of mark
  • if you are struggling and getting dissatisfied, leve that drawing and start another, come back to it later
  • no ‘windscreen wiper’ marks
  • combine different viewpoints and scales
  • take previous days sketch and use as underpainting for today’s
  • borrow shapes from one drawing for the next
  • ‘white is your friend’

Professional Practice and Study

  • “always work outside your comfort zone”, David Bowie
  • develop a body of work  through sketching, studies, final pieces
  • studies are different to sketches. Making many sketches prepares you for studies and studies should so thoroughly acquaint you with the subject that you have enough material to take back to the studio to use to produce a painting
  • draw from a drawing without copying it, develop the idea
  • don’t preconceive what the outcome will be, allow yourself to be surprised by final result
  • decide what you want to achieve out of your studies (or in my case, my parallel project), what you want your studies to give you

Emily brought along a drawing which she has done of a relative’s garden and the painting which she  is in the process of developing from it.

trees (7 of 14)

Emily Ball, apologies for bluish reflections on gals

Emily Ball, work in progress, oils, 6' by 4' approx

Emily Ball, work in progress, oils, 6′ by 4′ approx

You can see the history of the drawing in the painting, but the painting isn’t ‘of’ the drawing.

I have noted some of the exercises which I want to use again as preparation for work.

Exercise:

Draw on A1 paper on the wall with charcoal on stick, rag bundle on end of stick with paint or ink, make marks with closed eyes

Draw on A4 sheet with eyes closed listening to the different drawing materials, feel the physicality of your muscles making the mark.

Draw on A4 sheet listening with eyes closed, listening and responding to the sounds around you.

Exercise:

We took a stick, a  leaf and a bean pod and arranged them on an A4 sheet with the only constraint being that they should all touch in some way. We then made six drawings very quickly using a different media for each with just a few strokes, paying particular attention to how the objects touched each other and to the space between the objects. We then arranged these in order of most to least favourite and analysed our choice. We the took the least favourite and redrew our three objects on top, editing the original marks in response to the new ones.

trees (6 of 14)trees (9 of 14)

I extended this to large scale works outside, working on three A1 pieces in rotation adding just a few marks at a time.

Here is a selection of the many pieces I produced during the workshop:

trees and bods (8 of 26) trees and bods (9 of 26) trees and bods (12 of 26) trees and bods (11 of 26)trees and bods (4 of 26)trees and bods (10 of 26)trees and bods (15 of 26)  trees and bods (1 of 26)  trees and bods (3 of 26)

Emily got me to turn this drawing by 90 degrees and use it as a starting point for the next, but I ended up very, very dark.

trees (10 of 14)trees and bods (5 of 26)

Towards the end of the workshop, Emily challenged me to work with space, and to realise my subject in terms of its space by using a few marks and large shapes. These two works turned out to be my favourites.

trees and bods (6 of 26) trees and bods (2 of 26)

At the end of the course, we all set up a selection of out work on the studio walls and talked briefly about what we had got from the course, how we had progressed and what we could take away for our future practice. Emily had considered all of our work and progress carefully and offered each of us advice on future directions. She asked me to keep working on using a few, big marks and getting large shapes and space into my work.

My favourite pieces by other artists, with their kind permission.

Liz ?surname?

Liz Shard

Artists who we looked at during the course:

  • Jim Dine
  • John Virtue
  • Per Kirkeby
  • John Skinner
  • Hughie O’Donoghue
  • Modrian

In the context of trees, consider also:

  • Kurt Jackson
  • David Hockney

This was a wonderful course, full of practical tools and insight into the creative process. I have written up as much detail as I can remember because I know I will return to this again and again.

Ideas to take forward:

  • few, significant marks – consider working on translucent Japanese paper and layer the marks, using both sides of the paper and layering up the sheets – artist’s book?
  • drawing space and air
  • consider doing layers of drawings, tearing through to the drawings beneath – mark selection
  • take this into monoprinting
  • consider my garden as a subject for my parallel project
  • think about format in relation to subject
  • apply these mark making ideas to life drawing
  • experiment making expressive marks with etching/relief ink for printmaking, in addition to negative marks, removing ink
  • experiment with carborundum and pva for mark making for printing, expressive line and mass tone
  • maintain excitement, get stuck in, graft.