Painting 1 The Practice of painting
PART 5 Personal Development
In the autumn of 1890, Monet wrote to his friend Gustave Geffroy: “I’m hard at it, working stubbornly on a series of different effects (grain stacks), but at this time of year the sun sets so fast it is hard to keep up with it….” (Kendall 12)
Monet practiced series in order to improve his ability to see, perhaps his most famous series are Haystacks and Rouen Cathedral, repetition of the same motive over and over in different lighting conditions in order to master the play of light over his subject in different lighting conditions. It has been suggested that Monet used photographs to influence the design of his compositions (Dunstan 13) and it was perhaps only because photography was in its infancy and Photoshop was a dream more advanced the walking on the moon, (no pun intended), that Monet did not make greater use of photography, it would have certainly made more sense than taking a wheelbarrow full of canvases into the field to alternate between as the light changed.
A plate glass window is a relatively modern invention in terms of art history and while I can remember the shop windows of Sickert, I can only remember The Laundry Shop Dieppe that gives the merest hint of the reflection of what lies on the opposite side of the street. Macke in his series of shop window paintings, Before the Hat Shop, Woman with a red jacket and child before the hat store, Modegeshaft and Graubes helles Schaufenster seems sometimes oblivious to the glass and at other times uses it in an almost cubist expressionistic effect. In Hopper the glass is invisible, except in Automat where it seems to reflect loneliness stretching into the night. There is also an early Kline, Chatham Square, where he seems to catch the reflections of the escalator in the window on the left hand edge of the painting
At the suggestion of my tutor I researched the paintings of the photorealist painter Richard Estes on the internet and in the book by Linda Chase and while I could appreciate the composition of his reflections in that they were mainly in the upper part of the shop front windows I was not too keen on the harshness of his reflections, all linear and painted in a similar tones, colours and style to the real objects behind the shop windows. I have found reflections to be much smokier, ephemeral and abstract, maybe that is the nature of the light in New York City.
I have spent half a year taking photographs of a farm on the way to and from work, in anticipation of a series exercise a la Monet, with sketches and colour studies had the subject almost nailed but I needed a lead in and it didn’t quite work so I abandoned it as my final piece, but carried on with the photographs because it is a marvellous record of the changing seasons. I was two paintings in with the shops when they mowed the hay at the farm, being a city boy I failed to anticipate this, but the hay bales gave the perfect lead in, well it was a good learning experience anyway.
My interest in plate glass windows and reflections began while sitting outside a coffee shop drinking double espresso I became fascinated with the reflections in the window of the shop opposite and decided on the theme for my series.
This, I think, is a crucial period in the history of the shop, the internet has cast off the shackles of infancy and has replaced the need for the shop as a physical domain for the selling of goods rather like the museum without walls. Shops are dying; the High Street is fast becoming the lingering death of shops with the only flourishing businesses being the charity shop, the specialist shop and the cafe or coffee shop.
Shops no longer need the plate glass window, many of the local shops near me have replaced the window with solid advertising panels to give more display space inside the shop. The shop, following the development of electric lighting, is no longer dependant on the light from the window.
I needed some impasto gel so I went to the art shop and reading the label and talking to the shop assistant I decided I needed what they were selling but £18.00 seemed a bit dear. No problem, I could get the same thing on line for £14.50, add Vat and postage and I waited 2 days for Amazon to put it through my letterbox for just £18.50.
Perhaps no brand of shop is in greater decline than the newsagent, with direct competition from the internet and the dwindling tobacco sales, most of the newsagents in my area have branched out as general stores.
For whatever reason shops are in decline and the plate glass window, apart from the examples in the Shopping Cities, seems destined to go the same way as the steam engine and the public house, but I like them and it seemed fitting to put down a record of their existence in the early part of the twenty first century before they start to disappear.
The series has to me a logical order even though it consisted of much experimentation in the course of its execution. The first painting was “London New York Paris”, which was a portrait of a boutique opposite a local coffee shop. The second painting grew out of the first painting in a way as I was painting late into the night and ran out of cigarettes and had to walk to the 24 hour shop. The third painting came from a photograph I took on my phone on the way to the Tate gallery “St Paul’s Pizza” was an exploration of the great Cathedral reflected in the windows. The fourth painting was of a view of a Costa Coffee shop from across the road, “For Coffee” kind of amused me as the title for the painting. It is the most photo real of the five paintings. The last painting is “Shop Chipping Ongar” in a village in Essex which was picturesque probably before I was born.
I have treated the five paintings separately so you can get some of the feeling I had while I was painting then and the way my techniques developed as I was working on them.
Initial related sketchbook work
Figure 1 (5A.01) Sharpie and graphite on double page A6 sketchbook
Figure 2 (5A.02) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 3 (5A.03) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 4 (5A.04) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 5 (5A.05) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 6 (5A.06) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 7 (5A.07) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 8 (5A.08) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 9 (5A.09) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 10 (5A.10) Sharpie on A6 sketchbook
Figure 11 (5A.11) Sharpie on double page A6 sketchbook
London New York Paris
Figure 12 (5A.12) Initial sketch; graphite on A4 cartridge
Figure 13 (5A.13) Reference photo
I had decided that probably the first way to go was to paint the interior of the shop ignoring the reflections and then somehow glaze the reflections in the window on top. It was a double first because it is the first painting I can ever remember doing with writing in it, writing and shops seem to go together.
I decided on the size of the paintings would be about 740 by 510 as this felt the maximum size that would look good in an A1 portfolio mount when they were ready for submission.
Figure 14 (5A.14) Some complicated sums working out the composition; graphite on double page A4 sketchbook
The first thing that struck me about the composition was the grid formed by the aluminium framing between the windows and doors The grid seemed to have a very Mondrian like importance to the composition of the piece and I spent a long time working out how it would fit compositionally on the painting size.
Figure 15 (5A.15) working out the overall composition, water mixable oils on 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Part of the solution was to shorten the length of the painting from my original intention and to make the painting more in your face with regard to the structure of the piece. I think the final composition works well in this regard and gives solidity to the piece.
I used masking tape to ensure that the lines of the frame were straight but realised as I took the tape off that Piet Mondrian, John Hoyland and Barnett Newman had considerably more patience than I when painting with masking tape, perhaps they all had the distinct advantage of not working to OCA deadlines.
I remembered that Degas paid special attention to the floors in his paintings and tried to follow his lead this gives a greater feeling of depth to the painted surface and a more 3 dimensional feel to the work.
I like the feel of the open door to the shop as you can move your way through the painting, this reminded me of the door in Velazquez’ Las Meninas and is perhaps something I should push a bit in this series as I am essentially painting a wall, if there is a back way out of the painting it encourages the eye to travel through the painting.
Figure 16 (5A.16) London New York Paris before the addition of the reflections 590 x 500 mm water mixable oils on 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Figure 17 (5A.17) London New York Paris 590 x 500 mm water mixable oils on 300lb Saunders watercolour not
This was the only painting painted on a white ground and the only painting painted completely in oils; the paint was applied in thin layers, almost on a watercolour basis, which has kept the colours pure. The reason I used this technique was in an effort to get a floating feeling to the reflections in the way that Mark Rothko used thin glazing in the Seagram Murals to achieve a floating effect to his colours.
The reflections seem to float on the surface of the window yet they are somewhere behind the window this adds further depth to the piece. I think some of the science of reflections is that the lower part of the window is very bright from the light bouncing up from the pavement and this has the effect of destroying the reflections in this part of the window.
I can understand now that Macke avoided the reflections to avoid dulling his pure fauvist colours.
Figure 18 (5A.18) Initial sketch Sharpie on A6 cartridge
Figure 19 (5A.18) Reference Photo
As I already said this painting came about as a result of a late night shopping trip to buy cigarettes while I was painting London New York Paris. I was in a very painterly frame of mind and the painting “Night shops” was right there in front of me.
Figure 20 (5A.20) resolving the composition Sharpie and graphite on A4 cartridge
Once I had resolved the composition I used ultramarine blue and white to paint a notan. I was so taken with this that I almost stopped right there and then. I turned the notan on its side and wanted to keep it as it was, I probably would have if I wasn’t doing this.
Figure 21 (5A.21) Notan acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
I turned the painting back around and carried on. It did, however, teach me a valuable lesson, I usually stop with the acrylic paint once I have toned down the gesso ground, but this time I carried on with the acrylics.
I can remember acrylics not being my favourite type of paint as they were always hard and brash, but, I think from doing this course particularly the colour theory bits, I can b(l)end them more to my will, even if you do have to be a bit quick with them.
The petrol station looks like something from another planet that has landed on the street corner, this is complimented by the brash neon signs of the 24 hour shop and the Kebab shop and the bright lights from the taxi offices above. It’s funny how it seems, (TM The Carpenters) that the night shops group together, almost like a circle of covered wagons against the evil that the night can bring, an oasis of light in the darkness. There is more than a nod to Hopper in this one, he was fond of exploring the oasis of light in the dark.
I could have licked the painting to death with small brushes and oils to give it an almost photographic look but, I reasoned that I didn’t need to do this, it had depth and rhythm and soul without the need for slick. (I‘m not sure who to credit with that one but I’ll never get it out of my head for a day or two)
Figure 22 (5A.22) Night Shops acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
St Pauls Pizza
I was on my way to the Tate Modern, I got off at St Pauls and walked through the church gardens and I was inspired by the reflections of the great cathedral in the windows of the Pizza Express opposite. I took a photo on my mobile phone and worked from it when I got home.
Figure 23 (5A.23) Reference Photo taken on mobile phone
I am of such an age that every time I go to St Pauls I always hum or sing “Feed the birds, tuppence a bag” by the time I had finished the painting I was thoroughly sick of the song. Something else happened too, maybe because I was painting the reflections of a church, I became extremely conscious of the crosses formed by the mullions of the shop front. It started to be a bit of an obsession cured somewhat I think by the cartoon I did in my sketchbook.
Figure 24 (5A.24) Cartoon; Sharpie in A4 sketchbook
I changed the composition and changed the architecture of the shop front to fit the composition. This shop does not in fact exist but looks as though it should and I think that by widening the shop front it makes the whole reflection of the cathedral seem more imposing. Once again I used the open door of the shop as an exit from the back of the painting adding depth to what is in effect a fairly flat building front.
Figure 25 (5A.25) Under painting; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
As in Night Shops I carried on with the acrylics much longer than I normally would have, in fact I only did a glaze of Liquin with the tiniest touch of green over the glass areas in the painting. I blew the Pizza Express logo’s up on a printer and stuck them on, so it is a collage in a way, but it probably involves some horrific copyright infringements and issues that I would rather not think about.
Figure 26 (5A.26) St Pauls Pizza; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
I like the way that the reflection and the inside of the building and the logo fixed to the window intermingle on the central window, the three distinct planes seem to be weaving between each other and I am particularly pleased with the looseness of the figures in the doorway and the way the figures on the left inside the shop balances them.
It wasn’t always possible or practical to sit and sketch everything I see, I have a whole other life with a job, family and everything so I have developed the habit of taking photos on my mobile phone as I go about the town. When I was looking at some photos I took in Palmers Green, I realised I had captured a perfect figure group I blew the relevant section of the photograph up and then carried out a sketch of the main figures to establish the scale in the finished work.
Figure 27 (5A.27) Original reference photo
Figure 28 (5A.28) Enlargement of reference photo
Another sum appears in the top right corner of the sketch that I think was something to do with the proportions.
I scaled up the sketch and transferred it to the painting surface I have got a bit used to reflections now so I just drew them in. I stuck with the tried and tested open door effect to increase the depth in the painting.
Figure 29 (5A.29) Proportional check on figures; graphite in A4 sketchbook
Figure 30 (5A.30) Under drawing; graphite on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Figure 31 (5A.31) Tonal under painting in progress; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Figure 32 (5A.32) Under painting completed; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Figure 33 (5A.33) Acrylic painting completed; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
The method I used for this painting was a very traditional one first establishing a careful drawing then establishing the tones before finally applying the colours.
As I was painting it I invented scenarios for what was happening in the scene and I decided that the best fit was that the two main figures were in Emmaus waiting for someone to arrive but unsure of whom that someone was. I got to thinking that some of the old masters must have had a deep religious faith, or a deep fear of the religious authorities to put so much feeling into their work.
A shop front with a little bit of pavement in front of it is almost a theatre stage the character looking out of the picture at the viewer draws you in encouraging you to wonder why the women are paying him so much attention, and as your eye flits from character to character it accepts the reality of the reflections in the plate glass without skipping a beat. These reflections are much subtler than the ones in St Pauls Pizza but they are there none the less and are an essential part in setting the stage in this painting.
Figure 34 (5A.34) For coffee; water mixable oils on 740 x 510 300lb Saunders watercolour not
Shop Chipping Ongar
Figure 35 (5A.35) Reference photo
Figure 36 (5A.36) Resolving the composition 1; Sharpie on A4 Sketchbook
Figure 37 (5A.37) Resolving the composition 2; graphite on A4 Sketchbook
I was doing a small job in Chipping Ongar and took the reference photo on a cloudy afternoon. It was a newsagents, I have already bemoaned the fate of newsagents so I decided not to accentuate the fact. I played around with the composition a bit and came up with something that satisfied me and set to work on the under painting. I knew that it was going to need some figures but reasoned that I could pull a few figures out of my sketchbooks to do that trick.
Figure 38 (5A.38) Under painting; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Sanders watercolour not
Figure 39 (5A.39) Early colour; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Sanders watercolour not
I thought a long time about the figures, I knew that they couldn’t be looking out of the painting or they would be too strong in comparison to the whole effect. If they were looking into the shop window that would encourage the viewer to see what they were interested in and would get him to pay attention to the windows and their reflections, that dealt with two of the figures.
I used the third figure as a lead in, about to turn the corner and head up the steps to see what the other two are so interested in. This also makes the eye of the viewer head for the red patch in the open door before he is distracted by the red of the telephone box and the other two figures, still though he is intrigued as he is unable to find out what is so good that this shop is selling.
The different levels in the foreground makes it more interesting as does breaking up the foreground with the railings, while still leaving a way through them and the phone box.
Looking at the finished piece I think I might be going through a green period, I may have picked this up at a Giacometti exhibition I went to but I find it soothing and hope that you, the viewer, does too.
Figure 40 (5A.40) Completion of acrylics; acrylic on 740 x 510 300lb Sanders watercolour not
Figure 41 (5A.401 Shop Chipping Ongar; water mixable oils on 740 x 510 300lb Sanders watercolour not
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Dunstan. B. (1979) Painting methods of the Impressionists. New York: Watson Gupteil Publications
Kendall. R. Editor (1989) Monet by himself. London: Guild publishing.
Albers J.(2006) Interaction of colour revised and expanded edition. New Haven: Yale University Press
Gombrich E.(1989) The story of art.15th Edition. London: Phaidon Press Ltd.
Hatt M. and Klonk C.(2006) Art History a critical introduction to its methods. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
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