Giacometti: Tate Modern

Alberto Giacometti (1901 – 1966)

I was introduced to Giacometti at a Morley College drawing class in September last year, just as I was starting this OCA course (see Blog posts 1st October and 12th October 2016).  I noted then that Giacometti drew and painted his brother Diego many times and that he took pains to scrutinise his subjects intensely – saying even of his brother “when he poses for me I don’t recognise him” such was his concentration on portraying what he actually saw, rather than what he was familiar with.  Yet this is at odds with the connection that Giacometti obviously felt for his sitter.  While he may not have recognised the physical elements of his brother he obviously saw deeper.  “It was not his aim to create likenesses but a reality in real space corresponding to the essence of a personality.” (Tate curator notes)

So it was exciting to be able to see this Tate collection of Giacometti’s works, with some paintings of his brother.  The exhibition also included examples of his sculptures, decorative objects (such as lamps and vases) and drawings.

Modelling space

The portrait paintings were even more complex in real life than I had imagined from looking at photographs.  While initially appearing random, the lines had a definite structure – veering towards the figure, linking the subject and his/her background in a flowing dance.  There wasn’t much variation in colour – just some hints of red here and there.  But the point wasn’t colour – it was about form and space.

Kaupelis (1992: 87) discusses “modeled space” and highlights the importance of drawing empty space around, and even in front of, a model.  He writes about “Masters” of art – “Everything is one to them and they don’t really think about first drawing this object and then that object.  They all flow together and become one thing, a totally integrated drawing.”  This is certainly true of the way that Giacommeti draws.


I admired Giacometti’s bronze sculpture  “Three Men Walking”  for the simplicity of the arrangement – three elongated figures seemingly the same yet facing different directions, on the point of passing each other by, looking towards where they are going rather than at each other.  We know they are walking by the purposeful bend of the body and the stretch of the limbs.

It reminded me of when I was attempting to sketch the commuters at Liverpool Station recently.  I marvelled at how they all managed to avoid bumping into each other, particularly the ones staring intently at their mobile phones.  It was as if they had a sixth sense – something like a murmuration of starlings who flock and billow in the air making fascinating shapes without ever crashing.  They are interesting individually but the instinctive, unacknowledged interactions add up to much more.  Perhaps “man’s spiritual alienation in tune.”?  (Honour, 2009:  841)

I was amused to overhear a mother explaining another sculpture “Walking Man” to her child by saying “his feet are stuck” – and indeed the overly-large feet of the figure do appear to be almost part of the ground beneath them.  Yet such is the forward angle of the body you have no doubt that he is striding forcefully forward with purpose, overcoming whatever may be trying to hold him back (the stuck-ness).


I think what I took away from this exhibition most of all was the importance of relationships.  The relationships between the:

  • artist and his materials[1];
  • artist and the subject;
  • subject and its surrounding and/or other subjects.

I am starting to learn that when I am more engaged with a subject that the outcomes are more interesting – and the process certainly more enjoyable.  Part of this is to try and move beyond recognisable representation towards capturing the essence of the subject, particularly in portraits.  How we see things has to be personal, not contrived or copied.  I am not sure how to arrive at this point as I am still overly-concerned about adhering to what things “should” look like.  But I know that in my more successful drawings I have either been engaged with the subject matter, or at times the process.  I don’t feel that I have yet identified a preferred medium to work in, but I do find mixing mediums exciting.

[1] “Giacommeti preferred to work with clay or in plaster, materials which he could form and shape with his hands.” Exhibition notes.

Sketchbook: National Portrait Gallery

The National Portrait Gallery has free drop-in drawing classes on Fridays.  There isn’t much tuition as it is normally quite crowded, but they provide free paper and drawing materials  if you need them.  You get a word or two comment from the tutor.  Of my pencil drawing she said “well he certainly has character”, which I am taking as a positive!  It’s a great experience and good practise.  It’s also interesting to see what other people draw as they have a gallery of all the drawings at the end.

National Portrait Gallery sketchbook
A3 Sketchbook: National Portrait Gallery drawings

I have made a few notes in my sketchbook about where I went wrong with the drawings, but I am basically happy with them.  But it demonstrates how much you have to concentrate on detail to get a likeness.  By the way, if you don’t know about the subject Samuel Romilly you should look him up.  He was a very great man with a sad ending to his life.

Graphic Witness: Drawing Room: Nidhal Chamekh

Drawing Room, Bermondsey:  Graphic Witness:  18th May – 9th July 2017

I have only recently discovered Drawing Room in Bermondsey.  Apart from being a little tricky to find it is a great resource, with exhibitions, courses, talks and a comprehensive reference library on contemporary drawing.

I visited the Graphic Witness Exhibition in June and went back to a talk by the artist Nidhal Chamekh, who kindly also discussed his work Studying Circles, 2015 with me (through a translator) after the talk.  It was illuminating to discover the artist’s intent and working methods of a work I had seen and made notes about a week earlier.

My original notes on Studying Circles, 2015

I was permitted to take a photograph of the drawing (Fig. 1.) and I explained I would be using it on my public student blog.  Apologies that the photograph isn’t very good.  You can see a better image on his website.

Studying Circles 2015
Fig. 1. Nidhal Chamekh: Studying Circles. Graphite on wood-free paper. 240 x 300 cm.

I was drawn to this work initially because of its composition, and I wondered what it was trying to say.  The exhibition overall was about being a witness, and portraying this by drawing.  The drawings were political and many drew attention to issues of concern, injustice and suffering.

The person at the centre of the image seemed to a victim of some sort, he appeared to be the only black figure.  So I wondered if this was a record of  racial abuse.  I knew the artists was Tunisian, so perhaps this was a commentary on how Tunisian’s are treated as refugees.  This image is fractured, it looks like he is moving his arms about – to protect himself from attack.   He has his eyes closed or is looking down

Most of the people stood around were cut off at eye level – was this a commentary on “turning a blind eye” to abuses?  The right hand figure is holding a selfie-stick and phone like a golf club, and he has no trousers on.  Is he wondering if he will be vulnerable if he takes a photograph?  He also has an anklet on – it looks a bit like one that offenders wear when they are tagged.  The background figure with his head bowed is holding his arm.  Is he too a victim of abuse, or a perpetrator  dusting himself off?

There were also strange symbols in the drawing which looked like measuring devices but I didn’t know what their significance was.

The work was completed in graphite.  I did wonder about his technique as the drawing was very large:  240 x 300cm.  I couldn’t even begin to think how graphite could be used on this scale – it must be the powdered type I guess, which I have used a little but on a much smaller scale.

Post-viewing research revealed that the aim of Chamekh’s work was to highlight the plight of Tunisian protestors who set themselves on fire. I couldn’t find any information about the symbolism in the drawing.

Nidhal Chamekh:  Talk at Drawing Room:  19th June 2017

These are a summary of my notes, they capture an essence of the talk but I apologise if I have missed anything as they were delivered through a translator and at times a little difficult to follow.

Chamekh explained that he liked to use different perspectives and dimensions – images as if floating.  He wants things to be out of space and time and different levels.  He uses images, particularly those of the ancient world, as a way of thinking and questioning modernity.  He said that the Arabic world look at things differently.  He likes using sketchbooks, as they are less pressure (I can identify with that!).  His final drawings evolve – he doesn’t always know where he is going with an image.  He doesn’t want to adhere to a fixed style.  He mostly copies real images – his drawing is not expressive.  Drawing takes time – image crystalised within drawing.

His inspirations:  technical drawings; Middle Ages etchings; different periods combined;   different styles – as if more than one person drawing.

He is political and aims to install doubts with the way image perceived.  Images clash.  Viewer must form own opinion.  Images are as important as speech.  He talked about being inspired by art historian Aby Warburg and his work recorded in The Surviving Image[i], where he stopped writing and collected images as he believed he could say more with just images.

Another of Chamekh’s inspiration is Rauschenberg’s transfers (which I have written about in an earlier post).

Discussion with Chamekh on his drawing

On the symbolism:  the bare legs are an image from antiquity – contrasts with modern selfie-stick.  The anklet is not a tracking device but a traditional Tunisian anklet that women wear – the Kholkhal.  It is very heavy – can be restrictive so might be suggestive of power dynamic, though he said he hadn’t thought of it in that way.  The measuring devices are about space and time.  There are moons and planets in the drawing too (which I hadn’t noticed) which are also about space and time.

He was interested in some of my interpretations, and said they were as valid as his intensions and that he was glad I had taken time to think about the symbolism.

On the technical side, he said he uses large sponges on sticks to draw with the graphite.  Some areas are meticulously drawn, but others only indicated or sketched.

Reflection:  I am still thinking about this experience and digesting what it has taught me about the production of art and its appreciation and interpretation.  Some of my thoughts are:

  • Images don’t have to have a literal or metaphorical meaning, sometimes they are just there because the artist likes them or they fit his/her style or philosophy.
  • Is there any value of protest art if nobody sees it or understands it? Or if the only people who see it are those that go to the trouble to visit out-of-the-way galleries? I guess you can’t wait until you are famous or get publicity though.   Or do artists feel they have to do this to express their opinions even if it doesn’t have an audience?  Or is it sometimes done because it is fashionable or fits the remit for a commission, exhibition or trend?
  • How valid is the viewer’s interpretation of the art if it doesn’t fit with the artist’s intensions?  If it doesn’t fit has the artist failed?  Or the viewer?  Or is there no failure at all if both are honestly and thoughtfully expressed?

[i]The Surviving Image, originally published in French in 2002, is the result of Georges Didi-Huberman’s extensive research into the life and work of foundational art historian Aby Warburg. Warburg envisioned an art history that drew from anthropology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy in order to understand the “life” of images. Drawing on a wide range of Warburg’s unpublished letters and diaries, Didi-Huberman demonstrates unequivocally the complexity and importance of Warburg’s ideas and the ways in which his legacy was both distorted and diffused as art history became a “humanistic” discipline. The Surviving Image takes Warburg as its main subject, but also addresses broader questions regarding art historians’ conceptions of time, memory, symbols, and the relationship between art and the rational and irrational forces of the psyche.”  Amazon website.


Project 6: Exercise 3: Portrait from memory or imagination

I thought I would try one portrait from memory and one from my imagination.  I have done both in my A3 sketchbook.  I used gouache and pencil for both as I discovered that Graham Little uses gouache and pencil so I thought I would have a go.

The first drawing was a bit of a disaster (Fig.1.).

Head 1
Fig. 1: A3 sketchbook:  Disaster in gouache and pencil

I tried to remember the head of a life model I drew about six weeks ago.  I got the eye wrong so many times and couldn’t get it right.  I tried to remove some gouache and nearly went through the paper!  I actually had to cheat and Google a man’s profile so that I could see what was wrong.  And of course, if it’s a full sideways profile the eye has a totally different shape – and not one I had practices in my sketchbook previously.  At the bottom of the drawing is a rough attempt to get it right – or at least better.  I also got nowhere near depicting the likeness of the model – he had a much finer nose – and I have stuck the nose on the end of the face rather than embedding it.

This is the original drawing I did of the model (Fig. 2).

Head 3
Fig. 2. Original pencil drawing

Granted, I took about an hour to complete this as there was lots of measuring and changes.  But you would think that as I had concentrated on this lovely man for so long that I would be able to render something a bit better, even if it is 6 weeks later.  Sigh.  Still, I think this proves there is no substitute for careful observation.

Having said that …  my second drawing is one from imagination (Fig. 3.).

Head 2
Fig. 3. A3 sketchbook:  Alien wedding

I started off with diluted gouache to give main tone to the face, then added pencil lines.  I wanted to leave the right hand-side of the drawing untouched with additional lines (apart from the eye).  I may have gone too far with the “fascinator” effect on the head, but I do like the gouache and pencil effect.  Not at all like Graham Little but worth persisting with I think.  The figure looks a little androgynous too – not sure if its just the lack of hair, the mouth may be a little high (or the nose too long) so it looks like a moustache.

Project 6: Research point: artists who work on faces

Research Point:  Artists who work on the face in different ways

Graham Little:  Technically accomplished, Little’s drawings are controlled, cool, and detached.  It’s difficult to see the “fine repeated lines and marks” with on-line images.  I am not sure whether these are drawings or paintings, he worked in coloured pencil and gouache.  They are too airbrushed to be photo-realist.  It’s difficult to see behind the polished surfaces of the women he draws.  Although a few do hint at a narrative, for example Untitled (2005) which shows a woman in evening dress with her shoes off and a mug of tea looking out of a window, and one wonders – has she just got home after a good evening and is reflecting before getting ready for bed; or has her evening been abandoned and she is wondering where it all went wrong?

Elizabeth Payton’s approach is more loose and stylised and fits well with the modern images she draws (friends, celebrities etc). She works variously in glazed oil, watercolour, pencil, and etching.  Peyton’s marks you can see, even in on-line images and I must admit that makes me look more closely at the work.  She is good at capturing a likeness but I am not sure how deep into the personality of a sitter she delves – but perhaps that is intended as a comment on the superficiality of celebrity.

I recently attended the BP Portrait Awards at the National Portrait Gallery, so I thought I would select an artists from that to comment on.  They didn’t appear to prohibit the taking of photos so I took one.

Sinead Davies: The Mayor of Woolahra. Oil on canvas

Sinead Davies’ portrait of Toni Zeltzer, The Mayor of Woolahra, Sydney NSW (Fig. 1.) caught my eye because of the unusual angle, the stylisation, the colour palette and the matte planes of colour.  It shows a serious, focused young woman who nevertheless is soft and feminine.  It reminded me of the problems that women have in the workplace (particularly high profile ones such as politicians) of being judged for what they look like more than men.  The shadows on the face are subtly painted, yet add dimension to the portrait.  The use of line to depict the features is sparing but effective.  The description said that “the palette was chosen to recall the Greek landscape” where Zeltzer was born, and where Davies had once worked (one of the links the two women had).

Her use of flat, matte planes of paint reminds me a little of some of Euan Uglow’s work.

On researching further after my visit I note that the painting doesn’t look much like Toni Zeltzer!  Perhaps the artist’s style doesn’t adapt well to characterisation.

Reflection:  What I take from this is that I do like to see the process in a drawing or painting:  the marks; the interpretation; a twist on realism.  I have never been a fan of hyper-realism, once you get over the “how on earth did they do that?” there often remains little else to say or wonder about.  I also like it when I can add a narrative to a piece, as I have said before with Peter Doig’s work.  This means I should work more on getting a narrative into my own work.

Project 6: The Head: Exercise 1: Facial features

Making a start on facial features.  Mostly from on-line images and magazines, but some artist inspired.  I have tried to use a range of drawing materials as well as different aspects  for the features.  I have started with eyes and mouths.  The rest to follow!

A4 Sketchbook: Eyes

As I sometimes wear glasses myself I am interested in how glasses change the shape of the eye and face beneath the lens.  I am very short-sighted so when I have glasses on they make my eyes look much smaller and also distort the shape of the face.  There is also the reflection in the glasses themselves to contend with.  Reading glasses have the effect of making the eyes look larger.  I have noted the different shaped eyes of different races, and some women emphasise their eyes with make-up and change the shape of their eye-brows.

I have noticed that I need to pay attention to shading on the “white” of the eye in order to make it look round.  The bottom eye on the above page I should acknowledge as an attempt to copy a Ambrose McEvoy self-portrait.  It is beautifully drawn and you really can see the orb of the eye in its socket.  The shading in the original is delicate yet definite.

A4 Sketchbook: Mouths

I particularly like my lipstick mono-print.  Not sure if I could complete a full self-portrait by pressing my full face of make-up on some paper though.  Or might it be worth a try?

Update 20th July:  Noses

A4 Sketchbook: Noses

Update:  23rd July:  Ears

Sketchbook ears

Now for an entire head.

African woman drawing
A3 Sketchbook African Woman

I started this portrait without any firm ideas as I wanted to see where my imagination took me.  Rather than start with a blank piece of paper I covered a page in my A3 sketchbook with soft graphite marks and drew two eyes.

I don’t know what it was about this eyes but I immediately thought “this is a portrait of an African woman”.  So I continued shaping her features, and when it came to her hair I knew she had to have a head scarf/wrap.  I gave her looped earrings which echo the shape of her eyes.  I wanted the emphasis to be her eyes so I didn’t add too much detail to clothes and other features.  I took out some graphite with a putty rubber to indicate highlights and used a purple coloured pencil to pick out some details.

I can see now that it is complete that this is rather stylised.  The eyes and ears are at the right level (the ear was too small at first).  The eyes are probably too large for the face shape I have drawn as they appear too close to the side of the head.  A broader face would work better, and there appears to be no back to her head as she is turned slightly to face the viewer I now can see there probably should be some head shown behind her right ear.  It reminds me more of a mask than a real person, but it was an interesting exercise which didn’t take long to complete.


Project 5: The moving figure: Exercise 2: Groups of figures

For this exercise I decided to draw figures as they walked towards me rather than past me.  I thought this would allow me to capture more of the movement.  I also decided to try blind drawing, only moving my eye back to the paper after completing each figure.

Groups of figures 1
Sketchbook Group of figures

I think this is more successful as the more fluid lines capture the movement better.  Also, the different size of the figures give some depth to the image, and a sense of them moving towards the viewer.  Having some structure of the buildings also adds to the solidity of the sketch.

Desire lines transfers

As well as drawing figures I wanted to try out a techniques I had been introduced to at the Rauschenberg exhibition – transfers.  I looked this up on-line and there are a number of ways of doing this but I decided to try transferring using acetone.

I am interested in maps and how people use them to navigate.  Some people follow prescribed routes, others take short-cuts.  There is a term in town planning called a “desire path” or “desire line” where people deviate from the planned routes and pathways and over time new paths are created from the erosion by foot-fall.  The “desire line” is usually the shortest route between two points.  It can be seen as a metaphor for triumph of the common man/woman over authority.

Starting with two laser prints (open source material) of images of a local map and walking people.


I then combined them by transferring with acetone on to a new sheet of paper and added marks in graphite, fine-liner pen, and eraser.

Desire lines 3
Desire lines. A4. Ink, graphite, fine-liner pen.

I could have thought through the composition more on this, but I mainly wanted to see the effects.  Depending on how much or little acetone you apply, and how heavily you scratch the paper, the images transferred are more or less clear.  I wanted to give the impression of people randomly wandering along, perhaps heading home after work, and taking the shortest route possible through well-established desire lines.  I have contrasted the hard graphic of the map with the softer graphite marks, which I have erased in parts to indicate the eroded paths.

Project 5: The moving figure: Exercise 1: Single moving figure

My first attempt at sketching single moving figures was at Liverpool Street Station.  Perhaps not the easiest start.  I was on the same level, but sat down on a bench.  People were rushing everywhere, all I could aim to do for each figure was to catch a line of an arm or leg or tilt of a head.  I am not sure I have captured movement, I tried to get some striding legs, there weren’t many swinging arms as most people were carrying things, and a great number staring at mobile phone.  This is going to need a lot more practise.

My second attempts were on holidays.  This was much more relaxing as people were walking more slowly and in less of a rush to get places.

I feel here that I have achieved more of a sense of movement as I have captured more of the whole body.  The angles between the legs and the swinging of arms helps with this (though many people had their.

Smartphone zombies

Back to London again and I decided to try a few sketches of individuals walking along with their mobile phones.  I was reminded of this modern phenomenon when at the Giacometti exhibition (notes not blogged yet) and one of his sculptured in which three figures appear to be walking past each other in different directions, without noticing each other.

Single figures 5
Smartphone zombies

These aren’t particularly good drawings but the idea of people weaving around each other without looking could provide an interesting idea for a drawing.

I was reminded of some of Julian Opie’s paintings of people walking around in the rain.  The main subject of interest, apart from the figures, is the umbrellas but I note that some of his figures are also using mobile phones.  This image is from a flyer for a 2015 exhibition at the Alan Cristea Gallery and features Opie’s Walking in the Rain, London, 2015.  I admire the simplicity of line in Opie’s drawings, which make them graphic in quality, yet they clearly spell out people moving about in a busy, wet city.  It’s the gait of the legs mainly, but also how the figures are transitioning across the frame of the paintings.  You just know they are part of a long stream of people moving back and forth.

Julian Opie
Julian Opie. Walking in the Rain, London, 2015. Alan Cristea Gallery flyer.

Project 4: Structure: Exercise 1: The structure of the human body

I have started a new sketchbook for this exercise.  I am hoping that Leonardo Da Vinci will inspire me.  I have found Life Drawing Class by Diana Constance invaluable for my learning on life drawing and many pages in this sketchbook draw on the book’s contents.

sketchbook cover

Most of my commentary is written in the sketchbook but I may add some further reflection in my blog as I add pages.

Body 1Body 2Body 3Body 4

More to add as I complete more drawings in sketchbook.

Additions 2nd July 2017.

Leg and arms bones.

Leg and arm bones
Leg and arms bones

My hand.

My hand
My hand

Quite a few discoveries looking at my hand.  First, I have so many lines and marks on my hand – the few scribbles I have added don’t do them justice.  Second – I have discovered a new bone in my thumb!  Daft I know, but I didn’t know how long the thumb really is if you count its length from the third joint which comes nearly to the wrist.  Knuckles are hard to draw.  Interesting exercise.  Who knows what I will discover when I draw my feet.

Update 19th July 2017:  My feet

I decided to try a different drawing approach for my feet.  I started by incising the outline of my feet (taken from a photograph) in my sketchbook and then drawing over with the broad edge of a graphite stick so that the incised outline could be seen (Fig. 1.)

Feet 1
Sketchbook Feet 1.

Then I worked into this with hard and soft graphite pencils and a putty and hard rubber, and added some Tombow pen for the stool (which was probably a mistake) (Fig. 2.)

Feet 2
Sketchbook Feet 2.

The graphite, smoothed out and left rough, allowed me to capture the different tones and textures of the feet.  I am not sure about the incised line though as it looks a little artificial – I could go over it with a fine pencil I guess, but I am going to leave it as it is for now as a reminder of my technique.

Research Point:  Look for historic and contemporary artists whose work involves the underlying structure of the body.

Leonardo da Vinci (1452 -1519) is an obvious place to start when looking at artists who strove to understand the structure of the human body.  Such was his passion to learn more about the structure of the human body he dissected corpses to make anatomical drawings which he used as a basis for his developed works.  (Honour, 2009:467).  His accurate drawings were unprecedented and he is said to have discovered things about human anatomy which were not independently researched until long after his death (Popham, 1973: 60).  He used this exploration to underpin many of his drawings and paintings, although he was also interested in proportions and composition (and many other things!).

An admirer of Michelangelo and Durer, William Blake’s drawings and illustrations often featured the “stripped” appearance of musculature and sinew.  Although, as Blake was most keen to portray meaning through his work, it seems to me that his attention to physiological accuracy was nowhere near to that of da Vinci, and that a great deal of “artistic license” was used.

Laura Ferguson says she aims to draw herself “from the inside out”.  She has visited medical schools to draw bodies from “life”, and her work shows how intricate and beautiful the internal structure of the body and its organs can be.  I must admit that I do wonder, however, about the ethics of letting an artist look (and even at one point dissect) cadavers if it isn’t for the furtherance of medical science.  I just hope that permission has been obtained from relatives of the deceased or those donating their bodies to science.  Source:  website:  Laura Ferguson:  The consciousness of the body.




Sketchbook: Backgrounds and portraits

Practising backgrounds, acrylic this time, and some techniques for portraits in A3 sketchbook.  I can’t spell acrylic.

Sketchbook portraits
A3 Sketchbook Black. Page 24.

The eyes are probably too close together on two of them (top left/bottom left).

In the Max Beckmann influenced drawing (top right) the eyes are probably too far apart, but I don’t think Beckman was a stickler for accuracy over expression.  I like the dry brush acrylic in burnt umber, it makes it look a little like it’s painted on a wood surface.

Bottom right was based on a Gluck (Hannah Gluckstein) Self-portrait 1942.  I haven’t quite caught her look which is more scary in the original.  Queer British Art 1861 – 1967, in which Gluck’s work appears, is an exhibition I want to visit at Tate Britain.