Still Life Ex 2–Studies with different materials

Still Life Ex 2-5 Three studies white vase

Exercise 2 is subtitled “Still life in tone using colour” & that isn’t exactly what I’ve been doing here – there may be more to come. I have become distracted (usefully, I think) by an experiment with different materials. I have tended, until now, to end up frustrated when trying to use soft pastels – huge amounts of dust and unsatisfactory outcomes. I have suspected that this was partly down to the actual pastels that I had bought (Reeves & relatively inexpensive); though we all know about the workman who blames his tools etc. A few weeks ago I was gifted a set of Sennelier oil pastels, which I like very much. And a couple of weeks ago I picked up a tiny set of four Conté sketching crayons. The drawing of the white vase, top left, is made with those and it prompted me to purchase a larger set and to ‘bite the bullet’ on soft pastels by purchasing a Conté soft pastel set (on the basis that all reviews describe them as soft and creamy to work with; something that could never be said of my Reeves set). That has prompted the experiment – drawing the same white vase, on grey pastel paper, with these three different materials. Top right is with the Sennelier oil pastels and the bottom version is with Conté soft pastels. I see this as a relevant exercise at this stage because it has provided practice in building tone with colour – certainly in the two later drawings, where there are shades of blue but also warmer yellows in the white.

Let’s deal with the shape! Top right is closest to the actual shape; top left is not symmetrical (and was the first sketch); and the bottom one is a very first drawing with brand new materials. And, above all, I’m still a novice at all of it. Plus – these are experimental studies not assignment submissions. Enough said – time to move on.

More importantly, my conclusions are these:

  • It’s important to use quality materials if you want to get a quality outcome. The Conté pastels are much smoother and much less dusty than the Reeves.
  • In comparing the three materials, each has its merits. The Conté crayons (top left) are quick and clean to use, though with, perhaps, less blending/creative potential. The oil pastels (top right) have a vibrancy and presence about them – a surface character, like oil paints – but it is harder to get a smooth, even blend. The soft pastels (bottom) felt least easy to work with (though they were new and more practice will help) – still a dust issue – but can be worked to a smooth, soft blend that gives a good gradation of tone and colour. The highlights have worked less well with the soft pastels, too.
  • Fixing is particularly important with the soft pastels and I’m not sure I’ve fully got to grips with that yet. The oil pastels take some time to ‘dry’ and are harder to fix. So, again, the sketching crayons have a convenience and flexibility about them (I have bought a colour set, too, to add to the little sketching set).
  • Most of all, qualified by my own limitations on the shape etc, I am pleased that I have been able to use these materials to create some meaningful sense of form, shape, tone, colour etc. Six months ago I would have had no idea where or how to start!

Overall, I do quite like that vibrancy and presence in the oil pastel drawing But I suspect that it’s the soft pastels that have the greatest potential – with practice – and the crayons are very handy at a practical level. A worthwhile experiment.


Part Two–Intimacy–Progress 1 Addendum on Negative Space

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2

I forgot to discuss (here) one issue in connection with my Still Life with Line drawing – the question of negative space. In the ink drawing above, the negative space remains as, simply, the white of the paper. The actual background to the set up was formed from sheets of old packaging paper, as can be seen in the photograph, top right, below. I chose to make some representation of the background in the two preliminary sketches on the left below, but felt that it detracted from the emphasis on line. Hence the drawing above – some of the spaces between objects do feel significant (to me, anyway) e.g. that four-sided space in the very centre of the image. We’re looking through that large gap, across the surface of the table and I think the perspective element in the way the two side boxes are drawn helps to create a sense of some depth to the drawing; so one does look ‘through’ that space.


That was why I chose not to go a stage further and attempt to shade in any of the negative space. However, digital technology does give me the opportunity to experiment with a different approach. For example, a simple shading might have resulted in something like this …

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2 Grey Negative

Or I might have used colour, either in a quite neutral way such as this …

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2 Blue Negative

… or with a bit more vibrancy, such as here …

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2 Yellow Negative

Or, indeed, I could have allowed the negative space to take over completely …

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2 Green Negative

I’m still content with the original, where I do feel the negative space has some ‘presence’ even though it is not emphasised in any way. But the experimentation does bring home the importance of that space and the way that it can be used to significantly alter the likely response.

EDIT – see Doug’s comment below.

A bit of a ‘crude’ version, Doug; I didn’t keep the working files I’d used yesterday. But it’s there, in principle.

Section Two–Intimacy–Progress 2


More cardboard boxes and packaging! This is an image of my final drawing for Project 1 Exercise 1 – Detail and tone. We’re required to use a range of pencils, making marks by hatching & cross-hatching, to draw a single object “… such as a shell or a piece of driftwood …”. The latter suggestion follows an earlier reference to collecting and drawing ‘found objects’; and I have chosen to explore various items of used packaging. I haven’t much enjoyed the hatching and cross-hatching approach, but this representation of a used Amazon box, on a small table, in a corner, by a window, works reasonably well (apart from the left rear edge of the table). I had practiced with a few preliminary drawings (below), concluding that I probable prefer to use shading and that the hatching approach might be best suited to ink drawing. However, there’s a liveliness about the one above, a kind of ‘madness’ about all the lines and angles that makes it interesting (shades of Van Gogh?). The broad diagonals for the window is a bit ‘left-field’ but it felt right.


I did also produce another box drawing, with shading (below). The smoothness of a shaded surface is better suited to the smooth texture of the cardboard, perhaps, and it was easier to deal with the detail of the lettering.


I have, as mentioned earlier, also done some drawings of other drawings of random packaging items – the small piece of plastic that always protects the plug on new electrical items, made glorious and grand by back-lighting …


… and a humble elastic band …


Actually, Project 1 in Section 2 is titled ‘Detailed observation of natural objects’, and I’ve wandered a little away from that. To redress the balance, let me add that I have also been sketching some natural objects, as illustrated below.





This has included some early experimentation with colour – using oil pastels – such as the beach leaf above. The next exercise is on still life using colour, so more to come.

Part Two–Intimacy–Progress 1

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2

The image above is of my ‘final’ drawing for Project 2, Exercise 1 – ‘Still life using line’. As will become clear in a later post, I have been using various discarded packaging objects for some of the still life work; and this is the most recent. I’m starting here because this exercise has taken me off down a bit of a detour – but an interesting one, I think. As the title suggests, this is “… principally an exercise about line.” I’m broadly content with this, drawn with Pigma Graphic 1 pen. There’s a bit of an error with the piece of packaging board leaning in the centre – too much of its upper surface appears to be visible – but broadly it’s OK.

The interesting detour begins with this page from my (second – progress indeed!) sketchbook.


On the left, are two preliminary sketches of the subject matter – the upper one in pencil and the lower in ink. On the right, top, is a photograph of the set-up, taken with a 35mm equivalent lens from the same position as the drawings, to closely represent the human-eye view; and below that is what amounts to a ‘digital tracing’ of the photograph. I have upgraded the piece of software I use for digital drawing (ArtRage 5, now) and have been ‘experimenting’. Loading the photograph as the first ‘layer’ in the ‘painting’ (everything in ArtRage is described as a painting), I have then used an ink-pen tool to ‘trace’ onto a new layer. Subsequently, hiding the photograph-layer, I have saved the drawn layer. So – cheat? good practice method? legitimate drawing tool? bit of fun? serious exploration of the relationship between drawing and photography? – frankly, I’m not especially bothered. I find it interesting. And I find it particularly current and contextually significant because I’ve just finished reading ‘A History of Pictures’ by David Hockney and Martin Gayford. Hockney has a long-standing interest in the relationship between photography and painting/drawing, of course. Also, as is discussed frequently in the book, he claims that, for certain, most traditional paintings were produced with the ‘aid’ of the camera obscura. So, like the old masters, I’m using the best available technology to get a ‘likeness’. (And have been experimenting with an old ‘self-portrait’, too, but I’ll save that for Section 4!)

What I have also found interesting is to compare the ink drawing ‘from life’ with the ‘digital tracing’ – see here … ‘from life’ appears first.

Still Life Ex 1 Line-2Still Life Ex 1 Line-1

Both of these are on A3 drawing paper. The similarities are reasonably pleasing, let me say first – the ‘error’ previously mentioned still stands out, perhaps even more so because that drawing ‘from life’ has a slightly different view point, further to the right, making it even less likely that one would see so much of the upper surface of that board. As I say, the similarity is what stands out most, perhaps, but there is also a marked difference in the thickness of the horizontal piece of packaging board – much thicker in my ‘from life’ drawing. It is much thicker ‘in life’ but the camera’s foreshortening, because the object is further away, reduces that difference in the photograph. So, am I ‘right’ to see and draw it thicker? Well, therein lies Hockney’s point that the camera sees very differently from the human eye. The camera was certainly ‘truthful’ in recording and reproducing what its sensor picked up through the lens when I pressed the shutter. But my mind was apparently quite sure that the board at the the back was significantly thicker than the ones at the front – and it was (still is, in fact). Looking back at the sketchbook pages above, it was also convinced of that when I drew the preliminary sketches, too. And one of the reasons I’ve got that piece of cardboard at all is because I found it an interesting construction – a kind of giant piece of corrugated cardboard, probably from IKEA or somewhere, that I thought would be interesting to photograph but never had done … So, on the one hand, my line drawing isn’t an accurate representation; and, on the other, it is the more accurate, maybe. For my own part, I’m quite comfortable with these differences!

Royal Academy Life Class (Online!!)

RA Online Life Class-1

It seemed like an opportunity not to be missed! Last night, the Royal Academy of Arts streamed a live life class led by artist, Jonathan Yeo – Life Drawing Live. I’m a long way from Part Four and have been dreading the approach of the figurative work; so why not jump straight in at the deep end? So I did – and thoroughly enjoyed the 90 minute session that left me shattered, but which ‘broke the ice’ of figure drawing. The whole class is available via a link on the site linked above. The ‘deep end’ turned out to be four two minute warm-up exercises which, if you’re literally ‘cold’ to the whole figurative bit, is very daunting. At least it was in the privacy of my own home and the results are above. As a total, total novice, I feel I haven’t done too badly.

That was followed with a 10 minute drawing and a 15 minute drawing – below.

RA Online Life Class-2

I haven’t been very adventurous with the materials used – some charcoal in the first set and then it’s primarily pencil – but I’m quite pleased with the 15 minute drawing. I decided, in that one, to completely ignore the head and I think that worked. The pose is more or less right; the folded leg is perhaps a bit thin; and the shadow down the torso is perhaps overdone, but it was there (and Jonathan Yeo referred to it as something to focus on in this particular pose). Finally, we got a 25 minute pose – below.

RA Online Life Class-3

And, with more time, I’ve probably done a less good job – too much ‘faffing’ rather than getting the overall feel of it right. I did make a decision that I was going to work on the negative space in this one; and it does help with the curves of the body shape and that crooked left arm. But the proportions aren’t right overall – all a bit too slim and elongated (although the model was stretching himself out) & the legs, especially the right one, are too small. Once again, though, not too bad from a completely standing start.

So, really glad I did it & my appetite is whetted for Part Four.

Research & Reflection–Negative Space

Negative Space-1

A prompt to think about negative space was part of the feedback on my first assignment; and it comes up as a research point at this stage in the module. Beginning with two specific directions from the assignment feedback, I am summarising here the examples and annotation illustrated from my sketchbook. Bryan raised two examples, firstly the Caravaggio still life, ‘Basket of Fruit’, top left above. There is a considerable amount of negative space used in the composition, maybe 60-70% of the surface of the picture. It contrasts with and emphasises the overall shape of the main subject matter and, partly because of the choice of colour, particularly draws attention to the smaller spaces between and around the fruit and leaves. (I also note the unusually low angle from which this has been painted, which combines with the large negative space to produce, I think, a kind of flatness and neutrality about our view, which reduces the depth, like a photograph with long focal length – no sense of how far away that yellowish background might be, for example. Which, potentially opens up questions about painters’ use of camera obscura projections … perhaps more of that later.) The lower picture on that page is an Egon Schiele Self Portrait, which Bryan also mentioned. Schiele has positioned the figure’s arms in this odd, angular stance, which creates negative space that would not have been there in a more conventional pose. It seems to make something abstract and not typically ‘human’; emphasises the limbs and creates something ‘graphic’. There are more examples, on the right hand page, of the way he does this in figurative work.

Negative Space-2

The module notes on this topic suggest looking at Gary Hume – there are three examples of his work on the left page above. In the first, top left, a piece of black perspex placed over a very simple line drawing creates the outline of the woman’s body. The second, top right, titled ‘Funny Girl’, is almost entirely negative space, with the pale, fluid shape on the right (hair, or a hand to the side of the face?) creating the profile. There are actually some pale hair-like marks at the top of the frame and the odd green ‘eye’ shapes have something almost bird-like about them. The third Hume picture is titled ‘Yellow Hair’, which gives a clue that the apparently negative space that makes up most of the image is, perhaps, the positive space, the subject of the drawing, with the blank, black ‘face’ becoming the negative. So he seems to play with the idea of positive and negative – but it also seems to me that this is moving towards graphic design. Ed Ruscha’s ‘Study for Standard’, top right, uses the vast blue sky in all of the upper right portion of the picture and between elements of the main subject matter. Once again, it seems to have an abstract quality but is also contributing to the exaggerated sense of perspective. In the ‘Standard Station’ picture below it, the colour has been partially changed, adding to the drama, but the huge amount of negative space has the same graphic effect. In some senses, Colin Self’s ‘Guard Dog on a Missile Base No 1’, below the Ruscha, has a similar composition to the ‘Standard’ pictures, with a sense of perspective in the receding missiles and the foregrounded dog; but the huge white negative space is also the space into which these missiles would be fired – a kind of implied line of movement.

Negative Space-3

Jim Dine’s drawing of a wrench (above, top left, from a series ‘Ten Winter Tools’) contrasts with the previous graphic images but also uses negative space in a significant manner. The very dark shading around the subject not only emphasises shape but also seems to lift the form of the wrench off the background. The Jordy van den Nieuwendijk picture, bottom left, titled ‘Sunset Cigar’ is also from a series – oil pastel drawings on wood – and is a very recent piece. The dominant black space is emphasising shape again, but is also contributing significantly – black = night – to the context. And two more recent pieces, on the right hand page, from Israeli artist/designer, Noma Bar, playfully pare down everything to a very minimal, graphic representation. Particularly in the lower picture, entitled ‘Hunger’; the simplicity/humour is combined with a more serious point, as the fork is converted to a hand, reaching out.

Summarising on ‘negative space’:

  • Be aware of it and its significance/usefulness.
  • It is particularly effective in emphasising shape in the subject matter and spaces within/between subjects.
  • It can create strong design elements in the picture – abstract shapes; perspective; implied lines/direction, for example.
  • Beyond shape, it can even emphasise form.
  • And it can have signification properties e.g. choice of colour.

And finally, a little something of my own, from pre-Christmas, inspired by the research of negative space.


‘Still Life’ Research

Still Life with mandoline, pewter vase and electrical tape

Still life (Cezanne) with mandolin, pewter vase and electrical tape (Photograph, collage and digital manipulation – Stan Dickinson 2014)

It’s fair to say that ‘still life’ (leaving aside any precise definition of what that might mean, for now) has already played a significant part in my own practice development and in my BA Photography studies. Early and Modernist photographic fine art protagonists made extensive use of “… anything that does not move or is dead …” (the Tate’s essential definition of the art term still life, from their website) as suitable subject matter, both because it did not move and was, therefore, ideal for the long exposure times required, in low light, by early photographic technology, and, maybe, because it was one of the accepted art genres through which their output might gain recognition and acceptance, as “Art”. Contemporary artists working with photographic methods continue to experiment within the genre – for example Laura Letinsky, Daniel Gordon and Lucas Blalock – and it also has substantial presence within commercial photography, notably in advertising. Researching the background to still life took me to the ‘traditions’ of Spanish and Dutch artists, the French still lifes of 18th & 19th century and the genres importance for the Cubists; all of which directly informs and influences what the photographic artists did and continue to do. Rather as the Cubist and Surrealist artists of the 20th century experimented in the studio with their new ways of looking, thinking and making, many experimental photographers/artists of the 21st century take to their studio – often including the use of digital space – to explore the boundaries of picture-making in a post-internet, post-digital context.

In the context of this module and the still life Research Point I have, as well as revisiting my previous studies, been reading Norman Bryson’s Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting  (Reaktion Books, London 1990), which I have found to be an interesting, readable and, at times, thought-provoking approach. Bryson acknowledges, as have many others, that still life has tended to rank low in the perceived hierarchy of art genres; and that, as cause, consequence, or both, it has received relatively little attention within critical discourse. His collection of essays sets out to redress some of that balance. Still life exists, he says, and is almost as old as painting itself. Whilst it might be perceived as the genre furthest removed from narrative (particularly, perhaps, historical narrative – though Bryson disputes this later), it has meaning in terms of its signification and in the painters’ intentions. The latter, he sees as forming a ‘series’, as Chardin adapts the conventions of the 17th century Dutch still life painters, as Matisse refashioned de Heem’s designs for his own purposes, and so on. He finds coherence for this notion of a ‘series’, a still life category, in “… three cultural zones …” – the life of the table (using, perhaps, the ‘table’ as representative of the day-to-day activities of ordinary consumption) and the associated acts/artefacts; the domain of sign systems, codes associated with the life of the table which relate to cultural concerns in other domains; and the technology of painting, a material practice with its specificities of method and development.

Thinking about that idea of the developing ‘series’ and the way it might be applied to contemporary still life, I came across this – 10 best contemporary still lifes, selected for the Guardian by artist and curator Michael Petry. This is just a (hopefully well-informed) personal selection but the subject matter includes flowers, food, skulls, tableware, personal paraphernalia and a worn toy monkey. The media include photography, video, painting, installation, found objects, cast sculpture (in blood). The cultural signifiers are partly evident in the subject/media lists, but there are references to popular culture e.g. women’s magazines and to environmental issues. 21st century still life reflects backwards, of course, such as the representation of flower displays; but it it is very much of its time in both media and subject – such as Ori Gersht’s video of an exploding flower display (he has produced similar of a falling bird in the style of Dutch still life paintings). This selection seems to confirm the impression I gained when researching photographic still life, that the genre, series, category (or whatever label we choose to use) is a space for exploration and experimentation, for the pushing of boundaries. It also provides a controlled space within which to structure an artist’s contemporary signification whilst placing the resulting work within an identifiable artistic tradition (series). The choice of subjects, composition, lighting can all be carefully arranged to suit the artist’s intentions and methods (compared, say, with figure work or landscape).

Bryson’s four essays sweep the history of still life up to, broadly, the early 20th century. The first, Xenia, looks back to the earliest examples in classical Greek painting and the representation of gifts of hospitality. The second, Rhopography, I found more interesting and relevant. It refers to the representation of the ordinary, painting the day-to-day paraphernalia of life – such as food and utensils – rather than megalography, which represents the narrative and drama of ‘greatness’. In the Guardian list, this might particularly relate to, say, Darren Jones’ installation of a collection of personal objects acquired on journeys, or even the apparent triviality of the meals in Matt Collishaw’s photographs (until we understand that they are the last meals of Death Row prisoners). I am attracted by and interested in the idea of presenting the apparently trivial in a manner that appears to glorify its presence and significance whilst, in the end, offering no more meaning than that constructed in the viewers mind. The questions posed by such work encourage (I think) reflection on the values we impose on the superficial within the context of the capitalist spectacle. There are, one feels, some direct parallels between the hyper-real 21st century representations of objects that we see every day and the similarly hyper-real representations of ‘ordinary’ vegetables or fruit in Cotán’s 16th/17th century paintings.

The third essay is titled Abundance and looks at the manner in which still life, especially in 17th century Netherlands, relates to the economic successes of the country – the appearance of affluence in the pictures as the subjects include fruits/flowers from colonial sources and much more exotic tableware (often, of course, alongside reminders of mans mortality – the vanitas). Bryson does not seem to over-stress the notion of vanitas, of morte nature; not disregarding it, certainly, but seeing it alongside other signification within still life. And the fourth essay, Still Life and ‘Feminine’ Space explores the proposition that the rhopography/megalography distinction, the lower esteem of still life in relation to other genres, might be gender-related – the subject matter being ‘domestic’ space, associated with the feminine, as opposed to the external achievements of the masculine. It makes for an interesting and thought-provoking read, in line with a feminist view of art history. I wonder whether there might also be a parallel view that considers ‘class’ or ‘labour’ or ‘wealth’ (lack of) as much as gender.

In relation to this Drawing Skills module, still life offers an opportunity to learn from and copy/reproduce the compositions, subjects and methods of a long tradition of artists in a controlled manner. It is, one feels, another of the reasons why the genre has been less well-regarded within art hierarchy – because it is one of the first areas for artists to learn and develop their skills. The objects are chosen, arranged and lit – and then, on the whole, they stay where they are for us to draw at our leisure, unaffected by weather conditions or the tendency of the ‘animal’ to move around; ideal subject matter for the novice!

An Image Without Meaning

An image without meaning (Photograph, 2014, Stan Dickinson)