Tag Archives: figurative painting

Looking at Faces 4 – Research Point – Portraits Conveying Mood and Atmosphere

Brief for this Research Point:

Go on the internet and find some portraits that convey a distinctive mood or atmosphere rather than simply a physical likeness. Look at Picasso’s blue paintings with their mood of surreal sadness or the dark earth colours of van Gogh’s early paintings of peasants seated around a fire in their poor, meager surroundings. Look at the strong tonal contrast in Rembrandt’s portraits and the formidably restricted palette with which he seemed to convey the very essence of a person’s mood and personality. By contrast, consider the gaiety or the disturbing, nightmarish quality of the portraits and figure paintings of the Fauve painters and the German Expressionists.

Felix Nussbaum

felix nussbaum | Felix Nussbaum, Fear (Self-Portrait with his Niece Marianne), 1941

Felix Nussbaum, Fear (Self-Portrait with his Niece Marianne), 1941

During Self Portrait Drawing 1 I discovered an artist called Felix Nussbaum a German artist whose works portrayed life in the Nazi death camps and life as Jew in Europe during WWII. In 1944 he was sent to Auschwitz where he was murdered by the Nazis age 39.

You don’t need to know the story of Felix’s life to understand the trauma that he and his family went through, he manages to portray this through his portraits and self portraits.

in Fear 1941, a painting of Felix with his Niece Marianna the very convincing facial expressions made more so by his hand cradling his nieces face but what really makes the painting is how he uses the strong contrast of blue and orange.

Felix Nussbaum - Prisoner 1940

Felix Nussbaum – Prisoner 1940

 

His painting of a Prisoner 1940 he uses a different way of creating mood, the models pose. He has clearly studied people in moments of sadness and despair. If this was a painting of a farmer on a tractor driving through a field using the same background and foreground the atmosphere would be hard to read with this palette.

 

 

 

Vincent van Gogh

Van Gogh Peasant Woman with Dark BonnetUsing similar earth colours but with a lot darker tones van Gogh has managed to depict real sadness in his peasant paintings.

It’s not the colours alone that has captured the mood in these paintings though. Looking at the woman’s face (left) you know that she led a hard life and she hasn’t and couldn’t hide this while posing for the artist who has captured everything. Here van Gogh uses heavy shadows on the face to capture her age and weathered look. I really like the way he has used the light dots on the yes to depict light reflecting off almost tearful eyes.

 

 

Vincent van Gogh - Head of a peasant

Vincent van Gogh – Head of a peasant

He uses the same heavy shadows in the ‘Head of a Peasant (right). Here he uses the dark earth tones to portray worn, unwashed clothes. This together with a scruffy unwashed face and helpless expression lets us know exactly what kind of life the sitter has. We wouldn’t need to know who the sitter was or the name of the painting to feel this.

 

 

 

 

Vincent van Gogh - The Potato Eaters

Vincent van Gogh – The Potato Eaters

Looking at ‘the Potato Eaters’ you wonder how long they sat there. He captures not just the mood and atmosphere but the moment.

The first impression I got when I saw this painting was a family sharing a moment of happiness in an otherwise miserable life. Highlighted by the glow coming from the dinner table sounded by the darker tones and tatty surroundings.

 

Pablo Picasso

Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903

Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903

When beginning this research point I wanted to avoid Picasso’s The Old Guitarist. It seemed like it was the first painting From his Blue Period that everyone flocked to but after examining other paintings of this period I kept coming back to this and for one good reason.

The reason I kept returning to this painting is that it is probably one of the best examples of how he has used other lighter colours to describe the old man’s skin colour and features. Looking on different screens and devices I saw different colours, maybe yellow, some pink as well as green. I presume these lighter colours were applied last over the top of the blue which still shows through keeping the melancholy atmosphere.

 

Pablo Picasso The Old Beggar

Pablo Picasso The Old Beggar

This technique can also be seen here in ‘The Old Beggar’. Here the lighter colours on the face, hands and feet are more prominent allowing us to see the pale complexions of the subjects over the top of the blue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Otto Dix

Otto Dix the Nun

Otto Dix the Nun

In ‘The Nun’ Otto Dix as used long brushstrokes of lighter paint over darker colours to depict the creases in the nuns forehead and heavy patches of red over the top of its complimentary colour green helps to accentuate the bags under her eyes giving her a tortured and extremely sad expression.

 

 

 

 

Rembrandt

Rembrandt van Rijn Apostle Peter in Prison 1631

Rembrandt van Rijn Apostle Peter in Prison 1631

While looking through Rembrandt’s paintings I came across the following painting. ‘Apostle Peter in Prison’ 1631 is a brilliant example of how the artist uses strong contrast to create mood and atmosphere in his paintings. The artist has used lighter colours in the centre of the painting to highlight the apostles face and front depicting sunlight shining through a window in a dark prison cell. The mood here is a very lonely one.

 

 

 

 

Fauvism and Matisse

For me it was very hard to look at most Fauve painters; figurative or portrait paintings and feel something from them, yes the colours are bright nut often enough I feel that the artist is painting a pretty serious pose in gay colours experimenting for themselves rather than for the viewer.

Matisse Gypsy

Matisse Gypsy

In the painting ‘The Gypsy’  though, the colours are doing their job or at least the job that we expect that strong contrast of colours to do, although the expression on the gypsy’s face adds to the happy mood.

Looking at Faces 2 – Self Portrait

 

Existing Studies

I have spent the last few months drawing a self portrait every chance I got using my phone’s camera as a mirror and sometimes working from a photo. I even started one project where I got the students to draw a self portrait and I would draw one next to it to give me a little push, unfortunately I lost the sketch book but did manage to take some photos.

I’m lucky to still have some sketches in other sketch books, all of which are very quick sketches using different mediums. Although they do not all look like me there is a reoccurring resemblance.

This exercise

The brief for this exercise: Make a self portrait of just your head and shoulders. You can choose to work with either natural light but natural light is best. Set up your equipment so that you can see yourself and your work surface clearly. Make sure that your face is lit from one side with the other side in shadow. Any additional light that you need should not shine into your face.

Choose a light, dark or mid-toned fabric background if you can fasten it behind you. Try out the effects of each and assess which of them gives the greatest interest in terms of tonal contrast or visual impact.

I set up a backdrop of an orange monk cloth that I draped over my largest drawing board and propped it up behind me on the sofa with a small round mirror. They only portable mirror I have out in front of me on a small coffee table. I closed the bathroom door and closed the curtain on the Juliet balcony so the only light that was entering the room was coming through the kitchen door.

1st Drawing Charcoal

1st Drawing Charcoal

2nd Drawing OilPastel

2nd Drawing OilPastel

3rd Drawing Oil Pastel in the Bathroom

3rd Drawing Oil Pastel in the Bathroom

I completed the first drawing in charcoal with my glasses on. I was trying to smile while drawing it and I think I managed to capture some of that. Unfortunately I didn’t capture any likeness of me whatsoever apart from maybe an ear, the shape of the head and maybe an eyebrow. All the studies I had done were so far not paying off.

 

In the second drawing in oil pastel I managed to capture a bit more likeness and some of the smile I was cracking was even there although the eyes didn’t show this. Focusing on the mouth I could draw a smirk but when I drew the eyes my expression went serious again.

The orange backdrop was working though, it created a nice effect and I though I could continue with this but I needed a larger mirror. I was just too far away from the subject to be able to focus. I’ve been wearing my glasses so often lately that even tho I’m longsighted my eyes aren’t focusing right without them and I didn’t want to paint myself with them on.

I put a blue polo shirt on which gave a bit of contrast to the orange backdrop which I now taped to the bathroom door behind me. This drawing was a lot better than the first two but t did take a lot longer to complete and by the time I had finished my eyes were very blur. I wasn’t sure how I would cope painting myself in the bathroom or for any length of time without my glasses on for that matter but I was going to have a go.

1 Drawing with Paint on multi-Coloured was background

Drawing with Paint on multi-Coloured was background

I prepared the support with two different semi-transparent washes from opposite corners and let them bleed into each other. Once it was dry I painted the outline of my face head and shoulders in a dilute yellow ochre.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Building up Layers of Paint

2 Building up Layers of Paint

Then my idea was to paint the lightest tones and work darker. This is probably where I started to go wrong, thinking about it now it may have been better to start with the darkest colours and then build up the lightest colours on top rather than the other way round.

I had drawn the primary sketches during the daytime but for the painting I was painting at night with two light sources. The light in the shower as the one above the sink luckily was not working and a bendy lamp shining through the door on one half of my face.

 

 

3 Looking Old and Already Hating it

3 Looking Old and Already Hating it

I moved on to the background to build up the colour there to give me some idea to how the painting would look. It was at this stage that I started to get annoyed with myself. The painting started to look like me but it just wasn’t me, this wasn’t my style and I really did not want to continue with it. The orange background didn’t help.

The photo of the painting right, was about where I left it for the first day and I hated it. I wasn’t use to painting myself from that angle. I usually attempted self portraits from the front and not having a clear all round vision I found it difficult to get it right.

Giving up Point

Giving up Point

After painting, repainting and eventually messing up and painting a silly pair of glasses on it, I gave up, it was time to start a fresh.The painting right is now on the back of the new painting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fresh attempt at a Self Portrait

Remembering a self portrait that I had success with in the earlier drawing course I sat in  the bedroom looking at the mirror on the wardrobe door, switched on the light and pointed it at the side of my face. It was easy to imagine my face as a painting as the light highlighted some really nice shapes and it wasn’t too dark that I couldn’t see the right side of my face.

Preparation

I prepared the back of the existing self portrait with a layer of burnt umber mixed with black and then once that had dried went over it again with another layer of Payne’s grey, shaved my head and waited to start the painting the next night.

Second Attempt at Self Portrait

Second Attempt at Self Portrait

This time I decided to work with the board on my knee rather than on the easel as I didn’t want it to cast any unwanted shadows plus it was easier as I could move it around freely which was great for working on the details of the eyes. I’m not to worried about getting the details or shape of the face wrong but I’ve found that if you get the eyes wrong people automatically say it doesn’t look like you.

I worked in various mixes of white and Payne’s grey rather than colour and this low level light I would have probably only used one or two colours anyway but it was quite dark and the board was dark so I needed to be able to see what I was painting so these two mixed together where ideal.

I used one brush a small flat brush and painted as if I was drawing starting on the left side of my face painting in the darker tones and then slowly building up the lighter tones. Once the right hand side of the face was complete from the neck to the crown I started on the right hand side by painting in the background with Payne’s grey and just a tiny pit of white modelling the light around my head to for the shape of my face and head then painted in the subtle highlights to form the shadows on my face and ear.  The problem was the bedroom was too dark to see the slight difference in the shade of paint so I had to turn the big light on from time to time so that I could see what I was doing.

I managed to finish most of the painting in one sitting and with the main shapes and features painted I could work on some details in natural light the next day which allowed me to see any details that didn’t look right, these were easily be corrected by reshaping.

Overall thoughts on this exercise

I feel that I let myself down giving up on a painting which I had never done before but sometimes you have to start a fresh. I realise that the first painting may have had more character if completed with imperfections but I am really happy with the final painting and how I chose to complete it. I think impatience got the better of me here, being too impatient to mix paint and to deal with what seamed to be ever changing detail working at an awkward angle.

Thoughts on final piece

The length of the head is slightly long but this is from working with the board on my knee. The painting shows a real likeness but is let down by having little or no character. On a positive note this is the first time I have completed a painting with full brushstrokes rather than the scrumbling technique that I seem to keep reverting to in previous paintings.