Monday, March 02, 2015

The Big Painting Challenge - Episode 2

This continues my commentary on The Big Painting Challenge and focuses on the second episode which was about drawing and painting people.

In fairness to the contestants, it also features some of my dodgy drawings of people while working from life!

The reason for including my drawings is because, first, I drew did the drawings in the lecture theatre in the bowels of the National Portrait Gallery on Friday night. I attended a sold out class on Life Drawing: Sargent Style given by artist Andy Pankhurst (the link is to his drawings of people from life)

My second reason for posting them is because I've been reflecting on what I thought about second episode since watching it.

I've really found myself wondering to what extent it's now revealing the differences between those who predominantly work from photos ( as a matter of habit) and those who have developed skills in working from life. I've known workshops where people who have been generally regarded as very good artists revealed that they were rather less accomplished when working from life.  It's often the case that people can present as quite skilled until you take them out of their comfort zone, away from their time lines, and generally "off piste" when it comes to painting.

I think the practice of working from life is a salient point to raise with those aspiring to improve as an artist. It's working from life which gives you the skills to work from a photo.  If you've only ever worked from a photo you're apt to be 'all at sea' when asked to work from life.

The best bit of advice I ever had was to make sure I went back home from my painting holiday and sign up for a life class. That was when I really started to learn how to use my eyes and coordinate what I saw with the marks my hand made. Which is not to say you can do it straight away - as my drawings below will illustrate!

Episode 2: The challenges


I thought the challenges were very fair:
  • painting a self portrait in oils
  • drawing a stranger in black and white chalks
  • painting a 'celebrity' actor
The artists had enough time to do something decent - and yet the time allowed was enough to cause problems for those not used to planning their work or who like painting fast - and then continue and overwork a decent painting.

I was really surprised at just how many demonstrated an inability to draw well from life. I'm thinking maybe it might have been fairer if they'd been given 10 minutes to warm up via some quickies whether we might have seen much better performance by the participating artists.  There again I guess they could have sat around with a sketchbook and drawn one another while waiting for that session to start!

In relation to painting, I was surprised that few also demonstrated an ability to think about the four lines around the portrait - and what the best crop might look like. Some were painting without actually making a decent picture.

The Judges' comments


I know some still think their comments are harsh. However they seem to be around the Paul Hollywood or Simon Cowell scale to me ie very direct and very accurate.

Personally I don't have a problem with them - and quite enjoyed watching on Sunday and mouthing quite a few of them before the judges got a chance to say exactly the same thing. I'm guessing there were quite a few other people doing the same thing.

The conclusion


Jan, the retired police sketch artist went home at the end of this week's episode. Which means the judges agreed with my prediction made last week after the first episode as to who would be next to go.

Oddly, I think the reason he was sent home was because in general he was failing to observe what he saw in front of himself - even when this was a self-portrait. I have no doubt he greatly enjoys painting and will continue to enjoy it in his own unique way.

My prediction for the next episode


Episode 3 is nominally about still life - but actually seems to be about perspective and scale given the diversity of the challenges (see my last blog post for more details - it's everything from personal objects through giant chess pieces to the facade of Blenheim Palace!).

I'm therefore expecting that those who have been having problems with scale and proportion might well struggle with this one. Looking back over the first two episodes, I'm thinking Anthea might be in the frame. She's produced some good paintings - but for me she has had the worst fail so far in terms of coping with subject matter which is unfamiliar to her in terms of sizing and poor design and placement within the format.  I thought Daphne's description of her last painting as being catastrophic got it about right. Anthea also doesn't seem to be able to stop and start again when she makes mistakes. "Soldier through" seems to be her motto"

This is what her comment is on her profile page
Criticism from the judges was sometimes harder to take than at others. Observe was the main lesson and I learned I was not always accurate. Making sure everything was in proper proportion stuck with me afterwards.

Who do I think will be in the Final


I think I now have two candidates for the final. Paul Bell continues to impress despite his wobble in drawing this week and making his colours muddy in the painting through over-working. (See website http://paulbellart.co.uk and his blog and his post about Episode 2)

However young Claire Parker has very definitely surged forward this week. Both her self-portrait and her painted portrait of an actor were absolutely splendid. (See website/blog of her year abroad - with added painting: http://claire-parker.weebly.com plus her Twitter account @clairesparker)

Top tip from this episode


The bit of advice that all seem to need to remember is know when you need to stop - and start again or walk away.  Some are better than others at this - and I know this is a perennial topic many struggle with! :)

Take a look at this clip from Episode 2 which neatly demonstrates this point.



My drawings from life class

Three x 10 minute drawings


Oddly the class on Friday started with three 10 minute drawings. I'm more used to these coming after the very fast quickies.  I need my quickies to loosen up!


I wasn't at all pleased with my first drawing but knew if I persevered the drawing ought to improve with subsequent efforts.

#1 The proportions are wrong in places
- torso is too long,
plus folding her fingers in makes her hands look odd

#2 Tried to adjust for the too long torso - and now she's too wide!
She now looks like a man!
However I did get it all on the page and didn't chop off her head or her feet!
#3 Getting my eye in now and this one is looking better
I think I'm most pleased with the fact that the weight
(ie which leg she is using as her main support) looks about right

Four quickie drawings


It's very odd - but sometimes very fast drawings look better! The first three were all done in 3 minutes. We were given five minutes for the last one. I've always thought that fast drawings is where you really learn about drawing people. Unpicking what you did wrong makes you look again at how that part of the body is constructed.

There is of course no time for detail with quickies - maybe a quick dash for an eye and a shape of the hand and thumb but no fingers.




Two 20 minute poses

I much prefer to move if I don't like my position for a longer pose - but there was no chance of that while sat in a very full lecture theatre! It's quite a challenge not to bash the person in front of me with my cardboard drawing board!

This is my way of saying I really didn't like the last pose because the contrast in lighting was far too harsh from where I was sitting. However I got on with it! ;)

This was the section of the class where the tutor was emphasising the need to use the background when drawing individuals. This was something I learned many years ago. It's much easier to draw shape and volume if you use the background and make it work for you.

Can you see how my drawing has improved? It's not just because I've got more time. It's mainly because of all the loosening up associated with the first sketches. They help to "get your eye in".

In the next episode see if you can spot who uses their sketchbook properly in The Big Painting Challenge - and thinks about where to crop and how to place a person on the page - BEFORE they start!

4 comments:

Philip Tyler said...

If you haven't done so already, reading a copy of Betty Edwards "Drawing on the right side of the brain" can teach you that anyone can draw and everyone can be taught to draw.
The problem is not about skill, technique or talent, but central to the problem is perception. It may seem deceptively simple, but draw what you see not what you know.
However the brain is a complex thing and constantly feeds us lies which is why drawing the figure provides us with the most challenges, as we all know what figures look like don't we?
Edwards provides us with some great ideas to alter our perception, to draw the figure in such a way that we yet this avert our attention away from the object and focus on shapes and their relationship to each other, whether that be linear, tonal or colour.
Ruskin in his "elements of drawing" said something similar. If we could only draw the coloured patterns we saw on the back of our retina.
Drawing from life presents an enormous set of challenges. We have to try to convert our knowledge of the three-dimensional form into a two-dimensional shape. We have to ignore the fact that we see with two eyes two different viewpoints of the same thing. We have to work to a scale to fit the paper and both ourselves and the model and move subtly changing everything.
There are some tools to help: measurement (sight sized, proportional, relational ) a plumb line, a gridded viewfinder, but all of these still present new challenges.
When you work from a two dimensional image the challenges have significantly reduced. Your image is flat and unmoving. Your image can be gridded and transcribed square by square or projected onto a support to be drawn out. You can turn the image upside down or trace it.
So with all of these benefits what are the pitfalls?
If you only ever draw from photos you only ever see what is in the photos but you never know what information is missing from the photos.
Photos deceive, form can be lost highlights bleached out, shadows can become a black mass. Without an understanding of form and structure (knowledge gained from the three-dimensional experience) the results can be flat and lifeless, at worse colouring in.
In the hands of artists who have drawn from life the photograph becomes a jumping off point, and experience plays its hand. Sickert and Degas both used photography, Vuillard too, but did more than slavishly copy the photographic image.
I work from photographs, I have to given the limitation of my family and teaching commitments, but I have made over 24,000 drawings from life. A daily drawing (at least one) on the train of a sleepy commuter or drawings made alongside my students from the life model. The challenge from life is an infinitely fascinating one and one that compels me to do more.
My book on painting the nude should be out later in the year and may provide some further insight in the the problems and pitfalls of this completely all consuming and engaging task.

Phil Tyler. Artist and educator

Philip Tyler said...

If you haven't done so already, reading a copy of Betty Edwards "Drawing on the right side of the brain" can teach you that anyone can draw and everyone can be taught to draw.
The problem is not about skill, technique or talent, but central to the problem is perception. It may seem deceptively simple, but draw what you see not what you know.
However the brain is a complex thing and constantly feeds us lies which is why drawing the figure provides us with the most challenges, as we all know what figures look like don't we?
Edwards provides us with some great ideas to alter our perception, to draw the figure in such a way that we yet this avert our attention away from the object and focus on shapes and their relationship to each other, whether that be linear, tonal or colour.
Ruskin in his "elements of drawing" said something similar. If we could only draw the coloured patterns we saw on the back of our retina.
Drawing from life presents an enormous set of challenges. We have to try to convert our knowledge of the three-dimensional form into a two-dimensional shape. We have to ignore the fact that we see with two eyes two different viewpoints of the same thing. We have to work to a scale to fit the paper and both ourselves and the model and move subtly changing everything.
There are some tools to help: measurement (sight sized, proportional, relational ) a plumb line, a gridded viewfinder, but all of these still present new challenges.
When you work from a two dimensional image the challenges have significantly reduced. Your image is flat and unmoving. Your image can be gridded and transcribed square by square or projected onto a support to be drawn out. You can turn the image upside down or trace it.
So with all of these benefits what are the pitfalls?
If you only ever draw from photos you only ever see what is in the photos but you never know what information is missing from the photos.
Photos deceive, form can be lost highlights bleached out, shadows can become a black mass. Without an understanding of form and structure (knowledge gained from the three-dimensional experience) the results can be flat and lifeless, at worse colouring in.
In the hands of artists who have drawn from life the photograph becomes a jumping off point, and experience plays its hand. Sickert and Degas both used photography, Vuillard too, but did more than slavishly copy the photographic image.
I work from photographs, I have to given the limitation of my family and teaching commitments, but I have made over 24,000 drawings from life. A daily drawing (at least one) on the train of a sleepy commuter or drawings made alongside my students from the life model. The challenge from life is an infinitely fascinating one and one that compels me to do more.
My book on painting the nude should be out later in the year and may provide some further insight in the the problems and pitfalls of this completely all consuming and engaging task.

Phil Tyler. Artist and educator

Coral Guest said...

To add to what Philip has described so well, its worth looking at drawings by Picasso, Monet, and Matisse, who all used the photographic image as inspiration and as an artistic spring board.

Perhaps not surprisingly, their drawings are not hyper realistic, rather they have an expressive and dynamic quality that is spontaneous in its nature.

This issue can be reduced down to the fact that these artists learnt to draw from observation at an early age, developing their ability to 'see', and thereby transcend, the attachment to realism.

Everyone knows that Picasso's father was a drawing tutor, and that his son could draw like Constable by the time he was 12 years old.

Because of this, Picasso's ability to utilize photography was superlative, as he could already think outside the camera box and was therefore not limited by, or tied to, copying the photographic image. Instead he took advantage of it because he was capable of doing so.

In the end, the natural fear of failure that an artist experiences when they draw direct from observation, is vastly diminished by copying a photograph.

This is perhaps why copying photos is so popular with the amateur artist, who maybe has not learnt yet to 'see' but is in love with the glamour of the photographic image and hyper realism.

When a realistic drawing or painting is the result of only copying a photograph, the result is, for better or for worse, something that the public absolutely love looking at.

Its is only the most able draughts person who is willing and able to discard copying in favour of notional expression through seeking a deeper meaning in their work.

Surely it is better that people learn to draw and paint by copying photographs, than not learn at all?

This is the kind of argument that was very prevalent in art colleges in the late 1950's, and it was resolved then in the Photo Realist movement came along in the 70's.

So lets accept the artists who simply want to copy photos. As to not accept them is probably making them feel bad about themselves. Copying photos is not harming anyone and there are far worse things to be preoccupied with.

The option to learn to draw and to 'see' from observation will always be there for those who value it and photography is no threat to its presence.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

Brilliant comment Coral!

Thank you - to both you and Philip - for your contributions

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