At the close of the previous assignment, I had set out with two specific goals in mind for the final assignment: to improve my understanding of a particular subject and to further my ability to work in a particular medium, As for subject matter, particularly the human figure, it seemed a natural choice to pursue the figure drawing option for my final part of this module.
Goal 1: Improving Understanding of Anatomy
My first priority was to rectify the problem that seemed to plague me a bit during the previous unit: my difficulty with incorporating the entire figure into the sheet of paper. I wanted to take care of this before returning to creating more abstracted compositions — although I do enjoy cropping other features in the composition for interest, I had concerns that I was using this as a crutch to cover up some problem points. To resolve this, I did several pencil drawings of my husband (thanks again to him as always for being my patient model!!) .
While the drawing I did for submission ended up with a head that was slightly disproportionately large and with an elongated torso (why do I never notice these flaws until after I’ve put these drawings away for some time??) I am pleased that I have managed to render a figure in pencil without it looking too cramped or overly deliberate versus previous sketches, some of which felt belabored to me as I drew them. As always, there is room for improvement, but I’ve chosen to share this particular piece as it shows my progress in working towards the goals I had set.
For my tonal study, I decided to stick with my challenge of containing the whole figure in the paper, while using a more unconventional perspective (in this case, looking downwards) as per some of the artists I have been investigating, such as Lucian Freud. I was particularly struck by Girl In A Striped Nightshirt:
as I examined his portfolio, as I observe a sense of unease/anxiety and vulnerability here, and in many of his portraits. The sense of emotional isolation in portraiture is an avenue I wish to explore further in my own work, and is a theme thought about while carrying out my drawings of commuters. While I deeply value and need my own space and privacy when going to work, there is always something a bit unsettling but intriguing to me about my fellow commuters. What are their stories? What are their joys, their unspoken burdens? To, me, observing a portrait that conveys this loneliness is actually a comfort, as it reminds me that I am, ironically, NOT alone. It’s something I hope I can pass on to others.
I have not worked on tonal paper to a large extent, and so I think this unease with using the paper as the ‘middle’ tone rather than the highlight is evident here, as some of the shadowed areas are a little overworked. I was actually happier with an earlier phase of the piece as opposed to the final result. However, I think the composition is successful, especially when compared to the drawing above which has more of a feel of a technical exercise to me. I hoped to convey a sense of smallness/isolation using this point of view. Here is my progress with this piece:
I attempted to expand on this sense of vulnerability further by taking a photograph of a commuter I wanted to draw from a similar perspective, and used it to work on a more extended piece (with watercolor pencils), exploring how I utilize line to delineate anatomy.
Goal 2: Improving Skill with Ink
As stated in an earlier entry, I enjoyed working with ink for the final drawing of the previous assignment and hoped to further my use of it, but felt that my understanding of how it behaved was lacking. Luckily for me, at the start of October, a friend of mine altered me to INKtober, where you are challenged to do an ink drawing each day for each day of October (pencil underdrawings are permitted). This was an excellent idea for me, as it established regular working habits for me (something I have struggled with, particularly as I have been dealing with health problems, working overtime, and moving house parallel to attempting to complete this module!) that I have been able to retain. Here is a selection of what I produced, which I think illustrate my growing familiarity with the medium over the course of the month (these are all working from reference photos I found online or took myself):
Additionally, as INKtober had a corresponding hashtag for the event to encourage people participating in it to share their work, it was a good impetus for me to start sharing my work more publicly. I began posting them to my Instagram account (crossposting to other social media sites as well), which was difficult for me to to do at first, but a confidence builder that proved to be very worthwhile. Since participating in this event, I have actually received a few commissions and sold a few of my drawings from the project! This was helpful for me — as this is an introductory class, I had a self-imposed mental block that it wasn’t ‘time’ for me to participate in selling my work yet and I now realize this was a falsehood.
I should note that halfway through the month, I met with an occupational therapist regarding my motor/dexterity concerns, and now use special grips with my pens, pencils and brushes while I draw. I also have a special cushion that I sit on while drawing to give me better core support — and I do think these have made a real difference in terms of the quality of my work (the grips are great because they absorb some of the force from when my hands occasionally spasm). I continue to be astounded by just how physical an activity drawing is. I’m able to work so much faster, and I was so happy about it that I decided to take a photo of a quick hand sketch I did with it!
While my main goal for Inktober was to master use of tone with the medium, I also began to generate more expressive pieces using my colored inks, and have found myself exploring patterned motifs, In a way this harkens back to some of the earliest exercises for the course with markmaking — I have returned to putting music on and seeing what results from my markmaking, albeit in a more structured way. I create a ‘coloring book’ for myself of sorts by laying down black ink and then filling the remaining space with pattern. This was a fun exercise for me, as it made me think about how to render different tones in methods other than traditional hatching. I have also been considering Kandinsky and synesthesia while creating these pieces, and find myself itching to do a side project involving sound, to analyze the songs that produce certain patterns or colors for me (I have some musical training as I played piano for ten years).
Here are some examples:
Development of Final Assignment:
With all of this in mind, I set to thinking about how I would approach my final assignment for this course. I addressed Freud earlier in terms of compositional work, but also the way in which he renders different tones in distinct shapes that still have a sense of movement to them, as seen in The Painter’s Mother IV:
This portrait by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye exhibits a similar quality, although the ‘sections’ of color are a little less distinct and it is overall more gestural:
When I am drawing a portrait, I find myself delineating out each shadow as a preliminary step; this helps me to see how each shadow relates to the whole. Here is an example of a portrait of my husband from one of this section’s exercises, before I colored it:
Throughout this part of the module, I have felt that some sort of essential quality about these preliminary sketches has been lost when I work them further. I decided to do a self-portrait for this assignment simply because of the sheer amount of preliminary work I felt needed to go into achieving this end, and it would be easiest to ‘find’ this quality using myself as a model for logistical reasons.
I attempted to explore what it was I liked about these initial pencil drawings in a more abstracted way at first, though I wasn’t particularly happy with the results. Somewhere along the line, this one went a bit too cartoonish than I aimed for–perhaps this was due to color choice (I couldn’t unsee some sort of horrible mixup of Kandinsky and Ronald McDonald!) even though I was happy with the initial sketch.
I also did some studies where I challenged myself to use solely the paper tone for highlights, a mid tone and black, but the end result felt too…choppy for what I wanted.
Since to be quite reliant on line when drawing (this is evident in my sketchbooks, in how I use strong black outlines to almost ‘trace’ the sections I draw) I decided to think about how I could retain the distictness of these ‘shapes’ without having the drawing look quite so much like a tangle of wires (which is an interesting look, but doesn’t really convey much in terms of sense of space, volume etc). I decided to do a study that was more focused on tone, using more naturalistic color, in gouache.
Here is my process and result for this study:
Overall I was quite happy with the result. Some of the ‘patches’ were a bit too strongly colored and dark, but the sometimes unforgiving nature of working with inks and gouache meant I had to accept it and move on. I found myself wanting to fall back into hatching in a few spots however, by force of habit, which kept the portrait from having the sense of ‘fleshiness’ I was striving for. Still, I was happy with how I ‘colored in’ many of the ‘sections’ (particularly parts of the forehead and eye socket), and realized that particular technique was what I wanted to focus on doing exclusively for the assessed piece. I debated whether to use color or black and white for the final piece, but ultimately went with black and white as I have had more practice with it for this module. I admire Maxi Quy’s haunting black and white watercolor potraiture (and he’s still a student himself!!) as it also possesses that same sort of unsettling nature I get from Freud’s work,, though I personally prefer more strongly defined areas of tone to washes:
Another theme that I have been drawn to while working on this final drawing is portraiture where the viewer is challenged, either subtly or explicitly, to examine their preconceptions of gender, such as in Bella in Her Pluto T-Shirt by Freud and Passage by Jenny Saville:
I also admire both of these works stylistically, as both Freud and Savile are able to produce work that encapsulates the sense of controlled movement I appreciate–to me a good balance of gesture and realism.
My tutor had also pointed out Rembrandt’s body of portraiture to me, in which he assumed the identity of individuals from different circumstances than his own. This idea resonated with me, as one of my other hobbies (as I think I’ve mentioned here) is playing World of Warcraft, where I have characters who are wildly different from me in appearance (yet, as I learn to inhabit them and think about their backstories, I inevitably end up learning more about myself). I even have a few quick sketches of these imagined characters. Below is one of my favorites, by Avali:
Therefore, the challenge of taking an aspect of the characters that I inhabit and layering them onto a naturalistic representation of myself appealed, as it is the inverse of what I am accustomed to doing (self-insertion into another character). I found myself wondering what Rembrandt learned about himself–or even about his fellow man-during the process of creating these works. I find Self Portrait as a Beggar to be particularly emotive for the same reason I enjoy Freud’s portraiture; there is pain there that is universal to the human condition.
However, in this case the context of poverty applied to the piece by Rembrandt forces the viewer to acknowledge suffering on a grander scale than just the mutual understanding between artist and viewer that life can be terrifying. To me, the portrait is a vehicle for an important message, giving voice to those who do not have one, although we can never know for certain whether this was his conscious intent.
Keeping the idea of alternate identities in mind, along with the theme of gender ambiguity, I chose to do a close-cropped drawing of myself, eliminating any contextual/anatomical clues as to my own biological sex (I also prefer short haircuts, which in Western culture tends to read as masculine), focusing on tonal shading with ink and minimal use of line. I was pleased with the results, and also that my face seemed to be much more naturalistic than in previous attempts, even from the previous section of this module.
The background here is simply our living walls (the one to the right is a deep turquoise! sadly it’s a bit cropped in this photo). I felt adding too many elements would detract from my face as the focal point, and thought that the blankness of the walls/lack of items as compositional context clues also fit in with my aim to create a gender-neutral portrait. All items in art have some symbolism or iconographic code–even a blank room, even nothingness–and so I had concerns that putting something else in it would give a layer of meaning to the portrait that I did not intend. However, perhaps by doing this I did not push myself as much as I could have in terms of creating a technically challenging composition, and in future I believe I need to focus more on how figures relate to their surroundings (perhaps a month of drawing just ‘backgrounds’ each day is in order).
Final Module Reflections:
At the start of this module, I set up several initial goals for myself. To close out my reflections, I’m going to address each one individually. In truth, all of these are ambitious lifelong goals, but I do feel that I’ve made progress with them since the start of the module.
1. Become less precious about my work.
As a child, I used to draw two lines on a sheet of paper, only to crumple it up and throw it away as soon as I deemed it to be ‘wrong’. As I chose to work in indelible media while sketching for this module, particularly in public (and also because I was paying for my own art supplies), I gradually learned to live with offending ‘errors’ taking up space in my sketchbooks. Inktober was especially helpful in getting me to work towards this goal, as I had no choice but to accept what I had done once I had laid down my marks. Every ink drawing felt like a useful, if brutal assessment of my weak points with the medium.
2. Become more comfortable with vulnerability.
Again, this is one of those incredibly broad goals that could apply to all of life! However, I think that choosing to share my work regularly via social media represents a positive step in this direction, and one which has (quite literally) paid off. I had a hard time putting myself back into the headspace of ‘artist’ again after so much time away from it initially — I couldn’t help but think that I’d ‘lost my chance’ at art due to circumstances out of my control and had effectively given up on it, and thus myself. Allowing myself to have a degree of legitimacy over my process and my work is probably the most meaningful outcome I think I have had out of this module.
3. Improve my technical skills.
I wrote at the beginning of this module that I’d hoped to regain the skill I had when I was younger. There was a particular pencil drawing I used to point to and say ‘I could draw, once’. And as I expected, there was no ‘magic bullet’ towards regaining that skill. Just practice, practice, and more practice, but I am able to see myself achieve that degree of realism more easily, and more quickly. That sort of momentum is self-sustaining, and it’s a great feeling. I am really grateful for the structure and feedback I have gotten via this module, as it’s been invaluable for helping me achieve this goal.
4. Begin the process of developing my own voice.
This point is still in its infancy, but reflecting on themes that I am drawn to and the reasons for that is a solid start. This seems to be one of those goals that will happen accidentally, when you’re not looking. I understand this module is primarily centered around technical improvements, but I think the reflections I have made in terms of approaching this self portrait and thinking critically about my motivations are the beginning of achieving this end.
5. Build my portfolio.
Again, I think this is self explanatory. 😉 I’m very happy to be producing work again, simple as.
Overall, I’m very happy with how this module has gone, and achieved what I set out to do. It took a little longer than I anticipated (part of this dealt with my health and moving house) but I believe I have a ‘rhythm’ set for future modules and coursework.