Having studied Portraiture and depictions of Artist’s studios at AS, I wanted to explore a more figurative based approach. From visiting the National Gallery and the Tate, I was aware that depictions of the human anatomy had been central to Art for centuries. From Rembrandt’s etching ‘Jupiter and Antiope’ (1659) in which the god Jupiter lifts the bed sheets of the beautiful Princess Antiope, revealing her naked figure, to Picasso’s reinterpretation of the same piece in 1936 called ‘Faun Revealing a Sleeping Woman’ in which a faun (half man, half goat) lifts the sheets of the same Princess, I found there was a clear exploration of emotion through the figures warped and folded bodies. I wanted to investigate this bodily emotion. The challenge I face is whether I will successfully capture the overwhelming struggle that the figures portray.
I began by looking at Peter Paul Rubens’s piece ‘Samson and Delilah’. In this painting, Samson, the Jewish hero, is having his hair cut by the Philistines who wanted to capture him. Samson is in love with the woman, Delilah, who was bribed by this group. As the story goes, Delilah discovered that Samson’s power came from his hair. The cutting of Samson’s hair removes his strength which is portrayed through his slumped body. Rubens depicts the scene in a candlelit room, with the statue of Venus and Cupid in the background to reference the cause of Samson’s fate. The figures standing in the doorway represent the Philistines. What stood out for me in this piece was the slumped figure of Samson. The curvature of the figure’s back shows his lifelessness, his loss of strength. Perhaps Samson can never love again. The subtle references to Samson’s fate in the background, such as the statue of Venus and Cupid, also struck me. Ruben’s use of subtle allegory was significant as it gave his paintings an unreserved theme: love. The theme of love is furthermore played with by Rubens in his piece ‘The Entombment’ (1612). The painting depicts the scene after Christ’s crucifixion as he is being placed into his tomb. The man in the red robe, John the Evangelist, carries most of Christ’s weight whilst Mary the mother of Christ looks upwards towards Heaven, crying. The piece is eye-catching, not because of its focus - although this is significant - but because of its use of colour. Rubens’ pallet draws attention to the pain and sadness of the figures and the emotional attachment they have to Christ. The paleness of Christ’s skin, in juxtaposition to the bright red and blue colours on the clothing of John and Mary, adds a sense of drama and love to this piece. The crimson in Mary’s eyes presents the loving attachment she has towards Christ, whilst the paleness of her face, perhaps more pale than that of Christ, presents her lifelessness. ‘Entombment’ looks at the weight and emptiness of Christ’s body. The distorted, heavy figure of Christ can be compared to that of the slumped figure of Samson. I wished to explore this movement of the figure that Ruben’s employed. I wanted, however, to explore a deeper meaning behind this movement. Why is the figure curled up or distorted? In trying to understand this, I needed to understand how Rubens worked. He began many of his paintings with quick sketches, usually with pens, in order to capture the basic lines in an abstract and non-hesitant way. He would, next, complete a coloured oil sketch and present it to the buyer before having models pose for him. Working from life, Rubens captured the details of his models using chalks. In beginning the painting, Rubens lay down the composition with brush and dark brown oil paint on the canvas and would set about completing it himself, or leaving it for his assistants. In some cases, he would work from antique sculptures created by Italian renaissance masters, such as Raphael. The rich imagination that Rubens was able to create came from observations of statues, models and other general portraits. Like Ruben’s theme of love, I wanted to look at the human psyche and the effects this had on the emotion of the human figure. Moreover, I wanted to explore allegory as Ruben had, making subtle references using symbols as I felt this was clever.
Van Gogh, like Rubens, painted a variety of pieces which explored the effects of the human mind on the body, such as ‘Old Man in Sorrow (On the Threshold of Eternity)’ and ‘Portrait of Dr. Gachet’ (1890). Van Gogh, much like Rubens, used colour as a way of catching attention and presenting deeper meanings in his paintings. In ‘Portrait of Dr. Gachet’, Van Gogh explored heavy and oppressive colours, such as blue and yellow. The Doctor, as Van Gogh remarked, “certainly seems to be suffering [nervous trouble] as seriously as I”. The yellow and greens used in the face portray some form of illness. They stand out against the lighter blue background in order to portray the “tired, pale features.. of the melancholy man”. The hand-on-head position of the figure and his facial expression also present his depression. The figure appears deep in thought, perhaps considering what he has read in the two yellow books to his right elbow. The use of Foxglove references it’s uses as a drug to cure psychiatric problems, as some believe Van Gogh used. In ‘Old Man in Sorrow’, Van Gogh explored the idea of humanity living in uncertainty. The arched figure of the old man is on the verge of anguish and is supported by the fire, providing the warmth to his life. Van Gogh, in a similar way to Rubens, had an undertone of religion behind his paintings, such as the three types of wood in the painting. The wood has religious importance: the fire wood represents the sin of the figure; the wood of the chair represents the throne that man is working towards (hence the name ‘on the threshold to eternity’) and the wood on the floor represents Christ’s cross and salvation that God promises. The use of the ultramarine and cobalt blues is, like many of his pieces, prominent as it is used to explore depression and, wisdom. The fact that the wood panel above the fire is a deep ultramarine blue suggests that the fire represents, or is, a deep wisdom. Van Gogh’s pallet remains consistent and his use of allegory fascinating. Van Gogh, specifically in his later years when this piece was completed, started to copy Gauguin’s style of painting, painting from memory rather than from life. The result led to Van Gogh emotionally reacting to subjects through use of colour and brush work, much like the impressionists. He used colour to capture mood I wanted to explore colour even further so studied the work of Euan Uglow.
Uglow’s lines and shapes came to the fore in his depiction of the human form. In his piece ‘Summer Picture’, Uglow explored Mediterranean colours through the great expansive use of Sky blue in the background and the sand-toned table the figure sits on. The piece is effective because the curled body presents the figure’s melancholy attitude. The Verditer- Blue is more significant than just to represent the sky, it expresses depression. In ‘Curled Nude on a Stool’, the colour red (perhaps a scarlet red) is predominant, both in the background and in parts on the figure. Once again, the red represents a deeper meaning. Is the figure angry? The difficult and odd position of the figure suggests that there is definitely something bothering her. This figure shows some form of solidity which is both strange and interesting. I adore Uglow’s pallet and the positions he places his figures in. The use of the background gives the piece a sense of emotion, almost like that of Van Gogh. Uglow’s figures are formal and rigid, much like his painting set up. Uglow would set up the figures accurately, sometimes using a plumb-line to measure accuracy. In a pain- staking process, he would try his best to portray the figure as mathematically correct as possible. More like Rubens, Uglow’s pieces are solid in appearance; they do not present the edginess or oddness of Van Gogh, although they do make the viewer question the figure’s situation. Tim Wright explores this effect in his recent series ‘Still’.
Tim Wright, specifically in his piece ‘EW2’, explores the lifelessness of the human figure in a plain but beautiful scene. The figure in ‘EW2’ lies still on his back, looking up to the sky with hand on chest. The figure, completed mostly using graphite and charcoal, but with hints of a brown coloured pencil, appears to be considering something that the viewer is unaware of, like Uglow’s figures. Wright makes the viewer question the character’s intent: why is he lying down? Why is he emotionless and lifeless? The colour of the figure’s skin is the only indication that the audience is given as to whether the figure is actually alive or not. The figure appears warm, but his body position and the background suggests he is cold. He looks towards heaven in dismay, much like the Virgin Mary in ‘the Entombment’ by Rubens. Wright’s impressive technique leaves a variety of questions unanswered, perhaps mimicking the thoughts of the figure. His figures speak of the subtlety of human interactions and of the self-consciousness of social setting. I was fascinated by Wright’s subject notion and decided to complete a number of pieces in a similar style.
I found that Wright’s pieces explored this isolation, but in a closed environment, almost like solitary confinement. I decided to investigate the work of contemporary artist Christopher Thompson. Thompson explores the ideas of loneliness, solitude and lack of human communication in open, outdoor conditions. Even in Thompson’s more elaborate compositions where a number of figures are present, such as ‘The Garden III’, ‘Days go by’ and ‘One tree hill’, the characters remain essentially solitary, wrapped up in their own worlds, much like Wright. Thompson’s paintings repeated the darkness that seems to flow through the majority of his works. The thoughts of the characters that the viewer perceives are endless. Thompson’s palette consists of a variety of greens (Sap Green, Hookers Green) as well as Carbon blacks and browns (most notably Burnt Sienna). The darkness that Thompson aims for permeate through this consistent palette and make all his paintings unique in different ways.
Having looked at - and completed - a number of Thompson’s pieces to get an understanding of the darkness, I interviewed him to understand why he aimed for this darkness. When asked about artists that influenced him, Thompson referenced Stephen Conroy who, he remarked, was able to create “strong, emotive figurative paintings”, going on to add that “You look for a painting that has mystery, a kind of atmosphere and emotion.” I feel that Thompson captures this in his piece ‘On a misty morning’ in which a balding man, who appears to be in his late 30s, looks out over a pond, hands behind his back. The painting is emotionally strong as the figure appears to be mourning the loss of something, although there is no evidence for this. The figure appears to, also, be wearing a formal coat whilst out on a walk in the countryside. Perhaps the stresses of the business world have affected the character to the extent that he has to be free; he has to be able to think freely. Thompson’s darkness overrides this painting in which the majority of the figure is concealed in darkness. The viewer is not given any knowledge of the figure, just that they are in this situation now. This is typical of Thompson. I asked him why he wished to portray lonely and detached figures and whether these figures were masks for his own emotions. He responded: “You’re looking for the concentration of that one person and you’re looking to evoke something with the mood of that painting that somebody looking at it can bring their own experience to.” ... “ There is no way of detaching yourself from your painting, you have to be completely involved in it. In a way, the figures do become a vessel for your own feelings and emotions, your own problems, whatever you’re trying to work out in your life. They’re all fed in there. However much you want to put [your feelings] on a wall and mask it by being a different person, it’s inevitable [that you will leave some form of emotion]. I can read my own life story from every picture that I’ve made, whoever is in it. Although you don’t want to make an issue of that, you want the painting to be open to interpretation for all people. You don’t want to pin it down to ‘this is this, this and this’.” Thompson wants to create pieces that are open to question, that do not simply say what is going on in one situation, perhaps as Rubens does.
My attention on the effects of the human mind increased in my pictures. I went further and looked at fanatical creatures and symbols associated with darkness. ‘The Sleep of Reason produces Monsters’ (1799) by Francisco de Goya, Plate 43 of a series of 80 etchings called ‘Los Caprichos’ , shows a man lying with his head buried in his work whilst animals surround him. The animals that are present are associated with darkness (Owls, bats and lynxes) and suggest something to do with “the irrational world of dreams”. The owl appears to be offering the character a crayon holder. The piece begins a new chapter for the etchings which are set in a nightmarish realm where “witches and demons conceal the social satire”. As Goya himself remarked “"When abandoned by Reason, Imagination produces impossible monsters: united with her, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of their wonders." This is central to his ideas surrounding this piece. The use of etchings adds to the darkness of the piece. Whilst there is little focus on details, the atmosphere is emphasised by the darkness that is created through etching. I was fascinated by this idea of monsters and fantasy. Whilst researching Rembrandt’s piece ‘Jupiter and Antiope’, I discovered that fauns are often associated with the human mind. Owls and horses can also be associated with the human mind. Whilst this was important, I also wanted to focus on the intimacy of the world and the backgrounds of images. I looked at Arnold Böcklin and the ways he was influenced by Romanticism and symbolism.
Böcklin creates a strange fantasy world in which mythological figures play in front of classic architectural constructions. Bocklin was heavily fascinated by death and his emotions towards it. I considered his piece ‘The Isle of the Dead’. The painting, in which a white figure is vividly lit by the setting sun, in contrast with the dark forms of trees in the background shows his attitude toward death. The piece investigates a number of contrasting emotions, including isolation and sorrow. I adored the situation this figure faced and the obscurity that Bocklin portrays. For me, the painting represents the emptiness of the human mind. The focus on stone gives way to the idea of a cold or entangled mind in which there is no clear, rational decision. I found this piece to be striking and wanted to explore this style of symbolism.
Arnold Bocklin painted a number of emotionally significant pieces, such as ‘Self portrait (With death playing the Fiddle)’ in which the artist is tormented by death playing a fiddle behind him. Bocklin appears to be considering the song of the skeleton whilst being in shock. The tune that the skeleton plays could be Bocklin’s death song, almost as a warning that his life may be coming to an end. The fact that Bocklin does not turn away from the skeleton suggests to the viewer that we must consider death; we must not turn a blind eye. The painting is significant because everyone can relate to it because everyone will experience death. Bocklin’s subtle use of chiaroscuro in this piece shows the loss of his body to death. I was fascinated by this notion of death and the way ideas can play tricks on the human mind. Moreover, I was captivated by this use of Chiaroscuro and wanted my final composition to focus on this mood created through this technique.
I decided to use a composition set at night in order to emphasise the darkness of the figure’s mind, but also to highlight the extent to which the figure has been emotionally scarred, as in Rubens, Van Gogh and Thompson’s pieces. The lying horse represents the loss of resilience and strength in the intellect of the figure. It portrays the end of a struggle; the once majestic animal now struggles to stand. It depicts a past hope that is unknown to the viewer. The figure stands with head-in-hands to lay stress on this emotional weakness. The untouched and eery forest represent an odd calmness; an escape for the protagonist, a place to break away. The figure and horse are completed using a thicker impasto technique in comparison with the rest of the painting to bring them out against the rest of the piece.
When an artist attempts to depict a particular feeling in a painting, he/she will consider aspects such as light, composition, subject matter, technique, colour and so on. Artists that successfully capture a specific mood in a painting will have taken the majority, if not all, of these details into account. For example, one can study Van Gogh's 'Old Man in Sorrow' and come to the conclusion that there was clear consideration in regard to colour, painting technique, subject matter and light. One can also note that Van Gogh sought to explore a deeper meaning in this painting; behind what appears to be, at first, very simple and meaningless is a profound, darker meaning. He asks the viewer to question the very position the protagonist finds himself, something that one may consider odd - what is interesting about the way the figure sits? The arched-backed man, the centre piece of the painting, portrays the over-riding theme of depression and psychological instability that emanates throughout the painting. These themes were very much a part of Van Gogh's life, but the way in which he uses colour, light and technique to present these concepts is worthy of great admiration.
Another example of this can be found in Peter Paul Rubens's beautiful depiction of the story of Samson and Delilah from The Old Testament. In the story, Samson, a Jewish Hero, falls in love with Delilah but mistakenly tells her the secret of his great strength: his uncut hair. Ruben captures the moment when a Philistine soldier cuts Samson's hair, draining his strength, allowing for his capture. The scene is not only compositionally complex, but it is extremely clever in its portrayal of the mood of the story. The slouched figure of Samson is painted in such a way as to show his ever-growing weakness. He slouches over Delilah completely lifeless. What's more, in the background the viewer is drawn to the statue of the goddess of love, Venus and Cupid - a reference to the cause of Samson's fate. It is clear here, like in Van Gogh's piece, that Rubens paid close attention to light, composition, technique and colour in trying to capture the overall mood of the piece.
Throughout my second year of A levels, my subject focus centred on the expression of figures, the inner-workings of the mind and the ways in which the psychological agony of a character can influence their body language and the ways in which they express themselves. I drew inspiration from Christopher Thompson, a contemporary artist who's work is primarily displayed in the Albemarle Gallery in London. Thompson's pieces typically depict a single character in some sort of psychological despair. The images fascinatingly incorporate dark and light spaces so as to highlight the figure amongst the darkness of the surroundings. 'On a Misty Morning' (Left), for example, portrays a figure contemplating something whilst gazing out over a lake. The viewer is given no indication as to what the figure is thinking about or why he is in the situation we find him. He is the centre of the painting, standing out against the blurred background of greenery. We can consequently identify the man as the most important feature of the painting, as Samson is in Ruben's piece and as the old man is in Van Gogh's piece. Thompson has purposefully drawn attention to the man because he wants the viewer to create their own story for him. This idea, which carefully and fascinatingly reappears in Thompson's other paintings, was something that accompanied me through my A2 studies. Even in Thompson's more elaborate compositions in which more than one character appears, each person is self-contained, cut off from the other members of the story. In each of these paintings, the figures emerge from the darkness or stand out against it. I sought to create pieces that followed this idea, but that also incorporated the anguish of psychological despair.
The psychological is, in my opinion, clearly prominent in the first two of my paintings shown above: 'Lying in the Woods' and 'Contemplation in the forest'. Chronologically, the latter ('Contemplation in the Forest') precedes the former ('Lying in the Woods'). In 'Contemplation in the Forest', we see a single figure sat up, but curled together in a ball. The painting is, colour-wise, extremely bright not only to show the time of day/year, but also to show that it is merely the character that is experiencing this psychological angst. The head-in-lap expression of the character reasserts this notion, but also suggests that he is truly struggling with whatever is bothering him. The viewer is forced to question why the character has no top or socks on. This painting is made up of two images: a photograph of me in my kitchen and my own photograph of Simon's Wood in Crowthorne. I cut myself out using photoshop and super-imposed my body into the image. I used this method instead of actually sitting topless in the wood because it was extremely cold at the time.
Whilst painting this piece, I had to overcome a number of barriers. Firstly, I had to ensure that the figure remained at the centre of the painting. To do this, I had to play close attention to what was in the foreground and what was in the background. I did not want any other feature to compete with the character. What was towards the back of the painting had to be blurred - this was done by feathering with a softer brush. Elements that were closer became stronger, but remained as mere shapes of light and dark. The only piece that is detailed, so to speak, is the tree that the character leans on. One area that I felt needed to be redone during the painting was the grass in the foreground. Initially, this was extremely detailed with carefully painted leaves and blades of grass. As the painting progressed, however, I found that this took focus away from the figure and consequently had to blur this area. One thing that I think worked extremely well was the way in which the trees to the left fade into the distance. This is my favourite aspect of the painting. If I were to change one thing, I would reconsider the colour of the figure; I would tone down the Burnt Sienna that was used for the skin so that it is not as strong. Ultimately, however, I feel the painting was/is largely successful - it depicts the mood that I desired.
As my studies came to a close, my work became darker. I became more focussed on the relationship between light and dark and started to make pieces that were similar to that of Thompson's. My final piece: 'Lying in the Woods' (above) was the end result of my coursework study. In the painting, we see a figure lying face up in a forest. The only light in the painting comes from the moon in the background which lights a path through the trees to the figure's body. Once again, like in the previous piece, I took a photograph of myself inside and superimposed the image onto a photograph of a woodland near my house. The original photograph was extremely bright, so I experimented with changing the colour with paint to darken it. The painting is my favourite of the three that are shown in the gallery above. The figure's mood can be directly compared to the darkness that surrounds him; he is clearly contemplating something, but like Thompson, I did not want to reveal what this was. I started this piece by painting the figure. I continued by painting the sky, the ferns, the grass and finally the leafless trees that sit in front of the Evergreens. I painted the canvas in this way so as to push the sky into the background and to bring the figure forward against the grass and trees. I used 'Hooker's green' together with 'Titanium White' and Black to paint the ferns and 'Raw umber' mixed with 'Titanium White' for the figure's skin. Overall, I feel that the painting was extremely successful as it accurately portrayed the mood that I intended and is, in my opinion, aesthetically beautiful.
For my exam piece, I studied the work and processes of the Pre-Raphaelites. The idea for this project was to 'Reinterpret the Past'. The Pre-Raphaelites's main idea was to reinterpret the ideas and stories of the bible, as well as to reinterpret notions from poetry and literature. This drew me to them. Throughout my exam work, I focussed on their idea of reinterpreting the beauty of nature. My final piece, which is my own interpretation of John Everett Millais's piece 'Ophelia', portrays a teenager who is lying in a bath. This figure, depicted by me, has not drowned, but lies staring upwards, contemplating something which is not immediately obvious. The piece incorporates a flower to the left of the figure, making reference to the beauty of nature that I studied earlier on in the topic. The piece is intended to be Romantic similarly to the original. This is emphasised by the warmth of the skin of the figure and the subject matter. I feel that this painting was largely successful, but if I were to do it again, I would make the figure appear more submerged in the water.