Artist research: Marlene Dumas

15/18 July 2017. I came across Marlene Dumas (*1953, South Africa) before in preparing for Assignment 5 of Drawing 1 (Lacher-Bryk, 2015). Her haunting portraits are based mostly on photographs. They are done quickly using dilute watercolour or oil and by selectively wiping off pigment, leaving ghostly sketches of her subjects. Most are not intended to portray a person truthfully, but rather an emotional state (Moran, 2015). Her technique reduces a facial expression to its absolute essentials. This lack of diversion by unconnected secondary messages I think makes the portraits so strong. When I compare them, a great many appear to radiate trauma in one way or another. Maybe it is my own experiences which make me (hope to) see a hint of something similar in the faces of other human beings, so that I may not alone, which leaves the hope of being able to share the emotions intact. It is horribly fascinating to see that a child’s face, without the everyday traces of having lived visibly engraved, can radiate as much trauma as that of an adult’s (see e.g. Dumas, n.d.). Since these shadows from the past are central to my own projects also, I will tackle exercise 2.2 of this course and very likely Assignment 2 with Marlene Dumas in mind.

References

Dumas, M. (n.d.) n.t. [online] [watercolour drawing]. n.k. Available from: postmedia.net/dumas/dumas5.htm [Accessed 17 July 2017]

Lacher-Bryk, A, (2015) Part 5: Personal project – more research [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA study blog, 5 December. Available from: https://andreabrykoca.wordpress.com/2015/12/05/part-5-personal-project-more-research/ [Accessed 17 July 2017]

Moran, F. (2015) Close up: Evil is Banal by Marlene Dumas [online]. Tate, London, 3 February. Available from: http://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/articles/close-up-evil-banal-marlene-dumas [Accessed 18 July 2017]

Assignment 1: Tutor feedback and reflection

27/28/29 June 2017. It feels like aeons since my last post. It was a crazy month with several downs and a few last-minute ups I had long thought lost. I feel I have also lost touch somewhat with my new course. The exercises and artist research require more focused attention over longer timespans than I can afford at the moment. So rather than messing up my start of Part 2 I decided to relax and allow time to do its work on my mind. Two days ago I had a very lively face-to-face skype tutorial talking over my work for Part 1 of the course and together with the written feedback I feel encouraged, instructed and quite confused.

The ‘encouraged’ part is summed up quickly:

I was very happy to hear that my tutor thinks one or two of my DIY techniques good enough to base my development of projects for this course on and to have produced, using these techniques, a number of good black and white pieces, both in exercises and as part of my assignment.

The ‘instructed’ part was, in the detail received in the feedback from my tutor, a lot more complex to understand:

To counteract confusion I speed-reread the written feedback and made an impulse bullet-point list, which resulted in:

  • Don’t limit yourself! (which I like in theory)
  • Don’t limit yourself! (which I fear in real life)

I set out to make a list with the intention to get in a position to see better and get myself oriented in my self-made jungle of pointers and did not at first expect this outcome. The funny thing is that re-reading the two points and comparing them to each other gives me a creepy feeling. By nature they are just off the extreme ends on the same scale and I have no idea how to approach either. My life as it has been for most of what I can remember requires me to be an organized, controlled person 24 hours a day and I am paying the bill, more so now than ever. I know that I will have to start approaching the issue somehow, but I know that this will not be easy. Every time I try and step over the limit with paint, I make a total mess of it.

28 June 2018. By saying ‘making a mess’ I don’t mean playful experimentation, but a confused and confusing muddle, which takes me nowhere. I still have no idea how to make myself experiment meaningfully. Sometimes I do succeed and it is a great experience, but it is totally unpredictable and crucially depends on the presence of peace and quiet of mind, which is rare nowadays.
While writing this I realize that I may need to accept the fact that I may not yet be able to push my limits in the way intended by my tutor. Since I love what I do in this course and I feel that forcing a change may destroy this feeling, eventually, I want make progress, if it happens, a more gentle thing. I have read a lot about the value of leaving comfort zones to make progress happen. It is also true that there are all sorts of comfort zones I inhabit simultaneously and I should be able to leave the painting one now and then. But as it is my zones overlap to a great extent and what happens in one greatly affects another. This makes following all the great advice an awkward process.

So, in order not to feel overwhelmed I made more lists (scientist’s reaction :o)…) of those changes to work on, which I don’t feel confused about:

Materials and Methods:

  • keep working quickly, be more gestural and physical with your work, get out of your comfort zone
  • dilute more, work with fluid imprints and ghostly marks
  • use a viewfinder to identify working parts of paintings to use as starting point for further development
  • work with other disciplines, e.g. take photographs, invert them to negative and play with that
  • use acetate to paint negatives on, scratch the paint, experiment with layered acetate sheets
  • play with the size of paintings, see how the impression left by the same subject changes when painted small or large
  • concentrate on monochromatic paintings with the careful addition of a few selected colours for the moment (my coloured pieces apparently did not work – too basic, too little abstraction – I will have to ask how I might change this)
  • try not to create pictures, but depict the impression of what you see, sometimes the absence says more than what is present

Sketchbook:

  • create a ‘sketchbook’ using large size paper
  • use the sketchbook to develop work further (I think that study guide instructions were too restrictive to suggest that further development was expected)

Research:

  • compare exercises more to assignment work and analyse the progress made (but see the ‘confused’ section below)
  • analyse artworks by finding reports, one good, one bad, and compare the positions

Chosen course topic (shadows):

  • explore elongated shadows on long paper
  • go beyond the exercises so you can challenge yourself more with atmospheric work, use the subject of shadows as illusions, ‘traces, things left behind (footsteps), legacies’.
  • but: you are exploring paint so don’t be too concerned with a concept

All this is great advice and I am very much looking forward to working with it. And all would be well if it were not for the study guide. It appears to me that at least at this point of the course it seems to be ‘getting in the way’ more than helping me along. Which is the start to my ‘confused’ part of the post.

The ‘confused’ part:

Here come some examples of what causes the confusion:

  • The study guide instructs me to produce 3 quick overlapping drawings of five photographs each, using a thin paintbrush and not take longer than 30 seconds or so per photo. Full stop. End of exercise.
    My tutor sees the not great work and suggests I ‘work back into exercises so they look more substantial’, e.g. by having different types of brushmark in the paintings.
    What I think weird is that my tutor has to point out the options AFTER viewing my work. I would rather have the study guide inform me BEFORE I start an exercise because, of course, I expect it to be a primary source in guiding me in my studies.
    I have had this problem before once or twice, in Practice of Painting, but here it seems fundamental. Deviating from a guidebook without instructions is pure guesswork. How can I overcome this problem, in particular since my available time is strictly limited?
  • The study guide instructs me to make 15 small paintings of a particular size and of chosen photographs I like for their composition. It also instructs me to do something similar for the Assignment, 20 paintings 15 x 15 cm in size to also play with the arrangement of these to see which works best. My tutor is not happy with the many same size paintings I make. She expects me to deviate and of course I would gladly do so. But where, when and what from and will that affect assessment, especially if the study guide instructions are so specific?
  • The study guide instructs me to research from a list of given of artists and analyse their work not only in theory but also by trying to apply their techniques. When I do so (which I did consistently also in my Assignment pieces), my tutor advises me to research mostly in context with the goal I set for myself (shadows) and not to copy from the artists I research (as I attempted to do in part of my exercise work). I ask myself how I am supposed to learn from them if I am not to copy or explore other artists’ techniques in the first place. I would be very happy if, as my tutor tells me, I was to concentrate on the techniques I discover for myself, but then I do not understand what I am supposed to do with the instructions I find in the study guide. So far I find myself totally unable to combine the two without making a complete mess of any developing project. How I can fulfill the requirements of both study guide and tutor of analysing how other artists influence my development?
  • And in this context: According to my tutor I am to compare exercises to assignment work and analyse my progress. The problem here is that my exercise work often, due to the nature of the study guide instructions, has nothing or very little to do with the assignment, so progress is either coincidental or erratic.
    How can I combine the two?

I Just hope we will be able to clarify these points, because at present, admittedly, I do not know how to properly start Part 2.

I was advised to research a number of additional artists to help me develop my methods and focus. This will be published in separate posts.

 

Assignment 1: Twenty 15×15 cm Shadows

4 May 2017. During the final weeks of Practice of Painting I had realised that I would want to continue working with shadows in this course as well. My assignment subjects will all be related to this area of interest.

For the first assignment we were required to choose the materials liked best so far to produce a series of twenty 15×15 cm square paintings on watercolour paper. When finished we were to arrange and rearrange them, to compare the relative effects before settling on an arrangement to submit (Open College of the Arts, 2015, p. 44).

Sequence of preparation:

  • selection of twenty of my found images, which I had already pre-selected to include a large number of shadow-related views
  • preparation of paper squares from 600 g watercolour paper
  • selection of attractive square views from found photos (was done using my square viewfinder)
  • cutting out photos to choice of view
  • selection of fitting materials and painting styles for each photo, intuitively restricting myself to 4 different painting styles overall, so 5 paintings per style

My grouping the 20 paintings into sets of five felt appropriate, because a typical arrangement into 4 rows of 5 would be possible in a believable way. Also, I have the intention of telling a story in my sequence of images, which this will depend on the overall impression achieved by each tested arrangement, overall it will be one of how light and dark influence and structure the life of human beings through the day.

The selection of painting style was a mix of what I discovered for myself during exercises and styles I came to like when doing my artist research:

  • 5 paintings in a negative space technique discovered when painting with dilute white gouache on black acrylic background
  • 5 blurred shadows of diverse origins requiring additional research for “eroding” technique
  • 5 paintings using white and black ink in Brian Alfred style
  • 5 coloured paintings in Cecily Brown style

8 May 2015. Over the last five days I spent a very long time preparing my paintings. They were great fun to make, but I am glad to have been able to muster the energy to more or less work through. The results are more homogenous, having in common a particular atmosphere and mood, which might have got lost if I had allowed myself to take breaks.

Here are the individual results, grouped into their 4 sets:

  1. Negative space technique (Fig. 1-6)

I had discovered the technique during Exercise 1.2, when working on my black and white found images (Lacher-Bryk, 2017). When painting on a dry acrylic background with dilute white gouache paint, the paint dries up leaving distinct highlights along the wet/dry boundaries and in dents developing in the wet paper. To me the effect is wonderfully mysterious and given the right amount of practice can be used to create intriguing patterns. I tried various degrees of dilution in my sketchbook first (Fig. 1 below). The heavy watercolour paper I used for my finished paintings did not quite have the same efficiency regarding the weird highlighting, but was attractive in its own way.

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Fig. 1. Sketchbook: Testing effects of various degrees of dilute gouache on black acrylic background
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Figure 2. Painting 1: Shadow of a bicycle on a tent
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Figure 3. Painting 2: Entering a cave on a sea shore in Curaçao
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Figure 4. Painting 3: Playing Frisbee
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Figure 5. Painting 4: Krampus run
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Figure 6. Painting 5: Family shadows (this painting is not as dark in reality, but was impossible for me to correct on the computer)


2. Blurred shadows (Fig. 7-14)

In our bedroom street lights and lights in the houses around us at times produce the most beautiful shadow images of the plants we have on our windowsills. I spent hunting  for the best photos for nearly a year, as conditions change and plants get moved, so I had to wait a while to come up with a good set suitable for this part of the assignment. I had never produced deliberately blurred paintings before and the artists to be researched in the study guide do not do this either, so I spent some time looking what I could come up with myself. There do not seem to be too many painters working with blurring, but I had a look at J.M.W. Turner and his “Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway” (Fig. 7). While I greatly admire his incredible skill at staying indistinct over most of the painting to emphasize a few selected spots, this was not what I had in mind. Gerhard Richter’s “Self-portrait” (Fig. 8) came much closer to the effect I was after. The descriptions of the techniques applied by him were however also different from my idea, so I did my own practical research here (Fig. 8 and 9). In the end what I came up with was a white acrylic background covered in a thin layer of gloss varnish, then in grey gouache when dry. Again, when all three layers were dry, I used a very old, word-down small flat brush, water and a piece of cloth to wash away the sections of the background I wanted to highlight. This worked beautifully, allowing both precision and blurring as required.

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Figure 7. Sketchbook: Investingating blurring effects (1/3)
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Figure 8. Sketchbook: Investigating blurring effetcs (2/3)
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Figure 9. Sketchbook: investigating blurring effects (3/3)
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Figure 10. Painting 1: Shadow of plant on windowsill no. 1
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Figure 11. Painting 2: Shadow of plant on windowsill, no. 2
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Figure 12. Painting 3: Shadow of plant on windowsill, no. 3
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Figure 13. Painting 4: Reflection of wooden candle holder on flatscreen TV
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Figure 14. Painting 5: Moon shadow


3. Clear ink paintings (Fig. 15-20)

When doing my Part 1 artist research I decided that Brian Alfred’s particular flat style does not correspond at all to my intentions, but the attempt at recreating one of his paintings with materials of my own choice produced a result (Lacher-Bryk, 2017b) I wanted to explore further in my third set of assignment paintings. Since the technique was straightforward to apply (grey acrylic background, ink line drawing, then water-soluble black ink and water-proof white ink), I placed the focus on testing the white highlights in my sketchbook before attempting the final paintings (Fig. 15).

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Figure 15. Sketchbook: Testing the placement of white in the paintings (thumbnails)
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Figure 16. Painting 1: Lense light in our bedroom and window
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Figure 17. Painting 2: Holocaust memorial in Berlin
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Figure 18. Painting 3: My workshop lights
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Figure 19. Painting 4: Fire station
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Figure 20. Painting 5: 24 hour video EEG

Coloured Cecily Brown style paintings (Fig. 21-27)

This was the most demanding of the four sets. Cecily Brown and her approach to integrating the figurative and abstract into one painting is a very attractive concept to me (Lacher-Bryk, 2017c) and while I know that I am not yet able to work in this way consistently I felt that this style was required to complement the three more figurative black and white sets. I had chosen five photos, which I needed as figurative starting points to what was to become abstractions (Fig. 21).

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Figure 21. The photos selected for the Cecily Brown set

I then prepared white acrylic backgrounds to paint on these with an intuitive selection of colours of acrylic paint. In my sketchbook I made thumbnails first, which helped me to find initial ideas for the abstraction process (Fig. 22). The rusty parts on the deck of a boat became a bathing scene, the wooden fence and shadow in our garden turned into attacking soldiers, the shadow of a tree on the street became a coral reef, some flamingos and their weird shadows turned colourful and the shadow of a tree on a building stayed what it was, but was painted upside down to result in a view I would not have been able to make up without turning it upside down in the first place – here I included some very valuable insight gained in exercise 1.4 (Lacher-Bryk, 2017d).

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Figure 22. Sketchbook: Thinking about possible abstractions from original photos (thumbnails)

9 May 2017. Here are the results for this set:

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Figure 23. Painting 1: Bathers (derived from image showing rusty deck of boat)
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Figure 24. Painting 2: Flamingos with coloured shadows
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Figure 25. Painting 3: Coral reef (derived from image showing shadow of tree on street)
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Figure 26. Painting 4: Attacking (derived from image showing wooden fence)
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Figure 27. Painting 5: Tree on wall

Today I arranged the paintings in grids and, overall, given a nearly endless number of possible, plausible and attractive arrangements, I decided that I would need to place my focus on the most important aspects. These did not include, as I had first planned at the start of this assignment, a story. Any sequence would have allowed any number of stories to be told, which is a consequence of selecting images as instructed by “wanting to paint them”. So I tested black and white backgrounds (Fig. 28 and 29 below). Of these white was more neutral towards the placement of my coloured paintings, so I continued with white, although I liked the stabilising effect of the black. I might have included any number of possible grids like single rows, double rows, pyramids, diamonds, patterns including the background, whatever. It was overwhelming to even think of these, so I stayed with the rectangular, testing narrow, wide and no gaps (Fig. 28-34), landscape and portrait versions (Fig. 33-34) as well as “quiet” and “loud” impressions (Fig. 30-31 appear particularly “loud” to me). It took me a while to come up with a solution I liked, which was overall quiet enough to allow a viewing of the individual images. The rest produced interesting patterns when viewed from a distance (difficult to test in my workshop), but invariably made my head burst when trying to see each single painting. The – what I would call them – energy clashes running along the individual borders appear to determine the overall impression to a greater extent than the contents of each painting. Also, all grids are far easier and more pleasant to view on the computer. What looks nice and sorted in the photos below was mostly none of the two in real life.

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Figure 28. Testing on black background, paintings in sequence of production, narrow gaps
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Figure 29. Testing on white background, paintings in sequence of production, narrow gaps
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Figure 30. White background, no gaps, random order of paintings except for strategic placing of coloured images (horrible effect, gaps are very important obviously)
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Figure 31. White background, narrow gaps, placing “loud” images at strategic positions
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Figure 32. Creating a quiet centre and plaing directional images to make them point towards the centre. This alone is sufficiently stable to give the loud, coloured images the “rest” they require.
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Figure 33. Same sequence as above, but widening the gaps (less attractive on the computer than Fig. 32 above, but better in real life, optical illusion of black circles in gap intersections only present on the computer)
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Figure 34. Same sequence and gap width as in Fig. 30 above, but turning the paintings to make a portrait view (less attractive on the computer, nearly impossible to take a good photo, but my preferred version in real life)

The version from Fig. 34 above is the one I want to present as my Assignment 1 piece. I would not be able to tell which particular combination of factors works here, but I am pleased with the outcome. I could spend weeks rearranging my paintings, as there are so many interactions to learn to see, feel and consider. When assessment time comes up, I will prepare a set of preferred sequences and present them together.

Self-assessment for Assignment 1 to follow in a separate post.

References

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2017a) Part 1, exercise 1.2: Using found images – black and white [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA blog: Understanding Painting Media, 3 May. Available from: https://andreabrykocapainting1upm.wordpress.com/2017/05/03/part-1-exercise-1-2-using-found-images-black-and-white/ [Accessed 9 May 2017]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2017b) Research Point: Painting Style – historical and contemporary painting [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA blog: Understanding Painting Media, 3 May. Available from: https://andreabrykocapainting1upm.wordpress.com/2017/04/25/research-point-painting-style-historical-and-contemporary-painting/ [Accessed 9 May 2017]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2017c) Part 1: Own experimentation supplementing introductory research point [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA blog: Understanding Painting Media, 3 May. Available from: https://andreabrykocapainting1upm.wordpress.com/2017/05/02/part-1-own-experimentation-supplementing-introductory-research-point/ [Accessed 9 May 2017]

Lacher-Bryk, A. (2017d) Part 1, exercise 1.4: Look at what you see – not what you imagine [blog] [online]. Andrea’s OCA blog: Understanding Painting Media, 3 May. Available from: https://andreabrykocapainting1upm.wordpress.com/2017/05/04/part-1-exercise-1-4-look-at-what-you-see-not-what-you-imagine/ [Accessed 9 May 2017]

Open College of the Arts (2015) Painting 1: Understanding Painting Media. Open College of the Arts, Barnsley.