BREATHING LIFE INTO LIFE STUDIES:
A critical examination of the techniques used by various artists
Cherrill Sarah Everley
The object of this essay is to explain what I discovered during and through my independent research on artists and their methods of drawing from life. My findings are then examined in respect of the influence that they have exerted upon my own work.
The methodology I adopted in order to achieve this objective was to commence with an analysis and critical examination of the approach adopted by various artists, this being followed by an outline of the influence that they have exerted upon my own work. The essay concludes with the drawing together of the main findings. Wherever possible I have supported the points being made through the inclusion of copies of the relevant works of art.
The first time I looked at the life studies of Pierre Bonnard I was amazed at what seemed to me his bad basic drawing of the figures. Often the proportions seemed wrong and some of the faces appeared to have been “bashed in”.
However, on closer examination of “Nude In A Bathtub” I
became fascinated with his use of colours; a series of dots and dashes in
so many different colours gave the skin of the figures vibrant tones in varying
degrees of warmth to the coolest tonal values.
However, on closer examination of “Nude In A Bathtub” I became fascinated with his use of colours; a series of dots and dashes in so many different colours gave the skin of the figures vibrant tones in varying degrees of warmth to the coolest tonal values.
This is particularly the case in respect to one painting in which he has given the skin of the figure an almost translucent glow using varying tones of blue. When I tried to do the same, I merely succeeded in making the person I had painted appear dead!
I now believe that Pierre Bonnard’s purpose wasn’t to depict a person by the accuracy of his drawing, but rather to breathe life into the painting by his careful choice of colours for skin tones and that he wanted to describe form through colour and tone rather than line. According to Bonnard: “The painting is a series of dots that are linked together and end up forming the object, the piece over which the eye wanders without any snags”.
Edward Hopper loved to experiment with light and his painting “A Woman In The Sun 1961” reflects this. His subject looks both strong and vulnerable, placed as she is in a strip of bright sunlight. The thin shadows behind her legs make her appear to be fragile, yet she is standing confidently; totally at ease with her nakedness.
By contrast, however, the painting “Morning In The City 1944” depicts a woman seemingly defenceless. She is holding a towel in front of her and this adds to her vulnerability. She stands mostly in shadow as if cut off from the sun lit outdoors. Her room seems charmless, dark and unwelcoming in comparison to the sun-kissed snugness of the room depicted in “A Woman In The Sun 1961”.
I loved Edgar Degas’ pastel “Female Nude Reclining On A Bed” as it appears simultaneously to be both busy and relaxed. I feel he did it quickly, almost as if he would lose the effect he was striving for if he slowed down. He doesn’t appear to have any set order of colour; adding layer on layer as he chose to create in turn brightness and shadows with fast strokes of colour. It’s almost slapdash at times but achieves wonderful spontaneity.
Edgar Degas’ “Woman Drying Herself” is another example of Degas’ energy. This pastel is positively bursting with activity, almost as if his model was actually completing her toilette rather than posing. The textures and effects are a sheer joy to behold – a mass of slashing strokes saturated in vibrant and strong colours going in all directions and of different thickness. His tonal values travelling from heavy and dense to light and bright.
Despite the fact that Degas’ eyesight had begun to fail at the time he would have completed this painting, it is as lovely as anything he has ever done and a wonderful example of pastels in the hands of a master.
Frederick Carl Frieseke’s “Autumn 1914” is also one of my favourite paintings as it has an amazing natural “realness” about it.
The colours that Frieseke has chosen give the figure an
opalescence and, in parts, almost a transparent quality which is sea-shell
like and incredibly effective. The work on the figure is comparatively
smooth, almost loving, while the background and picture plane appear to be
more boldly applied.
The colours that Frieseke has chosen give the figure an opalescence and, in parts, almost a transparent quality which is sea-shell like and incredibly effective. The work on the figure is comparatively smooth, almost loving, while the background and picture plane appear to be more boldly applied.
I think this emphasises the softness of the figure. The relationship between the shapes, colours and sizes all work to persuade the viewer to “see” the painting in a different way. Pinks, turquoise and gold blend joyously to form the flesh, the whole being dappled with white patches almost as if sunbeams or spotlights are dancing over the skin.
Manet clearly had a sense of humour. He took Titian’s “Venus Of Urbino” and made what at the time would have been a modern version of it. The oil painting was entitled “Olympia” and it caused quite a furore when it was exhibited at the Salon of 1865.
The painting had minders appointed to guard it from
attack until it was finally decided that the only way it would be safe
would be to hang it higher on the wall! One of the main reasons for the
public’s offence being that “Olympia” plainly depicted a prostitute who
stared out of the canvas confidently and it was obvious that the subject
was no shrinking violet. Here a life study was being used to challenge
social morality and prejudice.
The painting had minders appointed to guard it from attack until it was finally decided that the only way it would be safe would be to hang it higher on the wall! One of the main reasons for the public’s offence being that “Olympia” plainly depicted a prostitute who stared out of the canvas confidently and it was obvious that the subject was no shrinking violet. Here a life study was being used to challenge social morality and prejudice.
I think the work is lovely. The dark density of the background pushes the nude figure forward into the light, almost as if the painter is bringing the subject of prostitution out of the shadows and thrusting into the social limelight. The dark tones used by Manet, on the calf, heel and between the fingers for example, emphasise the smoothness of the flesh and the pose of the model suggests a woman confident, at ease with herself and the world.
Vincent Van Gogh, I’ve noticed, used a lot of red when he was painting skin.
His “Old Peasant”, for example, is clothed in a deep
green smock and yellow straw hat. The skin of the subject’s face and hands
look as sun-kissed and vibrant as they do, however, because they are
depicted with many strokes of reds and yellows. One feels on viewing it
that the subject is peaceful and happy – content with the way in which his
life is. Perhaps Van Gogh was feeling the same way at the time, or maybe he
was painting an idea of how he would like his life to be?
His “Old Peasant”, for example, is clothed in a deep green smock and yellow straw hat. The skin of the subject’s face and hands look as sun-kissed and vibrant as they do, however, because they are depicted with many strokes of reds and yellows. One feels on viewing it that the subject is peaceful and happy – content with the way in which his life is. Perhaps Van Gogh was feeling the same way at the time, or maybe he was painting an idea of how he would like his life to be?
Henri Matisse’ work is always striking. His pen and ink studies, such as “Nude In The Studio”, are striking in their simplicity. He uses line with no tone whatsoever, yet every time I look at it, I notice something previously missed. The subject’s legs go off the paper and this works well, but there is plenty of room for him to have drawn the left hand in, yet he has simply made a series of marks which look more like wavy lines than fingers – yet it works as a whole.
Matisse’ “Pink Nude” gives the impression of being a depiction of a giantess. The limbs go off the edge of the canvas and the head seems very small when compared proportionally. The shape of the body is very clearly defined by strong, cold lines and curves, while the skin is warmed and given a glow by the use of various shades of red.
I have always been fascinated by Gauguin’s painting “The Spirit Of The Dead Keeps Watch”. He uses colour to convey emotions – in this case fear. The background is dark, mainly mauves and blues, but a green-gold sheet serves to emphasis the shape of the subject. Finally, rich dark tones give the skin life which is warmed by glowing orange “patches”.
At the beginning I was very comfortable with the simple use of line as this seemed safe in that anything I didn’t like could easily be removed or altered until I was satisfied. There was, and still is, a certain satisfaction in being able to create a reasonable likeness of a subject by making a few simple marks with a pencil on a white sheet of cartridge paper. However, just as science has gone beyond recording what the senses tell us and started to investigate the hidden structures that lie beneath, so artists need to go beyond the mere recording of a subject’s physical features and to start exploring the psychology which lies beneath.
Charcoal is a joy to work with. There is the childhood excitement of getting one’s hands, and face usually, mucky. I love creating the dark areas with strong thick line, emphasising the darkest tonal areas, then using lighter softer tones to suggest shadow and muscle until finally the figure is established and a few marks using white pastel are all that is required to light up the whole and complete the picture.
For me, the best experience of all was using pastel on coloured ingres paper. Firstly roughly blocking in areas in dark tones with sweeping strokes of pastel then forming the shape of the figure in various colours until the desired effect is achieved.
One important thing that I have learned is the need for really looking at the subject and “seeing” clearly what is there rather than what you expect to be there. This discipline has led me to wonder why I had never noticed before how many colours there actually are in human skin. Laying purple, mauve and blue pastel marks next to
Each other and then being both excited and amazed at the vibrancy happening when just a touch of red is added led to the discovery of how colour as well as form can breathe life into the subject.
I just wish that I could find an effective way to preserve charcoal and pastel works. I think that the sprays are inefficient and often ruin the colours rather than setting the work. I wonder how masters of the medium, such as Degas, managed to keep their work on the surface and their colours fresh – as yet I haven’t managed this technique.
In this essay I have attempted to analyse and critically examine the way in which other artists have approached the problem of breathing life into life studies subjects through the use of colour, line, tone, form and shadow etc. In addition I have outlined my own approach, experiences and development with regard to the same issue.
I would conclude by briefly outlining what I have learned from the work of the authors mentioned and the aspects which I have attempted to introduce into my own work:
Finally, it is worth bearing in mind the words of Pierre Bonnard to the effect that “the object is not to paint life. The object is to make painting come alive”. Achievement of this aim is something towards which all artists must strive.
1. Gauguin. Linda Bolton. Great Masters series. Eagle Editions 2002.
2. The Life and Work of Vincent Van Gogh. Janice Anderson. Parragon. 1994.
3. The Life and Work of Manet. Nathaniel Harris. Parragon. 1994.
4. Matisse. Volkmar Essers. Taschen. 2002.
5. The Life and Work of Degas. Douglas Mannering. Parragon. 1994.
6. Hopper. Rolf G. Renner. Midpoint Press. 2001.
7. Reclining Nude. Lidia Guibert Ferrara. Thames and Hudson. 2002.
8. Art of the 20th Century. Under the direction of Jean-Louis Ferrier. Chene-Hachette. 1999.