Part 2: Personal Practice: Artist research

4.5 hours

I am going to research the following five artists:

Gillian Ayres:

I found one of her paintings in my scrap book and it reminded me of my painting, Rose Cottage…

Antony and Cleopatra, 1982, Gillian Ayres


Rose Cottage, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 cm

In the cutting (Summer 2017 RA Magazine, page 41) it says, ‘… she makes marks herself, then ponders on what colour, texture or brushstroke these in turn suggest…’. This is the same process I used for Rose Cottage, and is one way into a painting, so I thought it would be useful to research her work.

B. 1930 – d. 2018

Wikipedia: Gillian Ayres CBE RA was an English painter. She is best known for abstract painting and printmaking using vibrant colours, which earned her a Turner Prize nomination.

Who was Gillian Ayres, Tate Kids… Tate (s.d.) Who is Gillian Ayres? – Who Are They?. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/kids/explore/who-is/who-gillian-ayres (Accessed 11/02/2021). Shapes… colours… emotions. Influenced by Jackson Pollock and also worked with canvas flat on the floor. Also influenced by Matisse’s bright paper collages. As an older artist (she taught till she was 51 then moved to Wales to be a full time painter) she moved from acrylic to oil – thicker… sometimes inches thick… her artwork became bolder and more joyful. Finished painting… then saw how it made her feel (and what it reminded her of) and came up with a title… sometimes her friends came up with titles for her. She used shapes a lot… and said… you don’t need to understand art to like it.

There are quite a few similarities with my practice:

  1. Saturated colours

  2. You don’t need to understand painting to enjoy it

  3. I paint joy

  4. Bold shapes

  5. Influenced by Matisse and Pollock.

However, there are also differences such as I don’t usually work on the floor and I don’t use shapes delineated by lines.

I’ll look at an early and a later work.

Distillation 1957 Gillian Ayres OBE born 1930 Purchased 1973 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T01714 (Support: 2134 × 1524 mm, oil paint and household paint on hardboard)

My notes taken from the display and cataloguer entry: Age 27, while she was a teacher… Paint applied by rags, brushes, pouring from the can, and squirting from the tube. Influenced by Jackson Pollock, worked flat on the floor, kept paint fluid with solvent (the canvas was wet with turps) allowing her to manipulate it rapidly and spontaneously…. She was more influenced by fellow English artists such as Roger Hilton and Tachisme. Her main concerns at this time were space, materials and colour, and balancing these ‘so that nothing is more important than anything else. One was into the idea of no composition…’ Ayres covered the ground rapidly then worked in more detail. Tate (s.d.) ‘Distillation’, Gillian Ayres OBE, 1957. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ayres-distillation-t01714 (Accessed 11/02/2021).

I have some house paint and solvent so as it might slide better on a smooth surface I could add varnish to a primed canvas. The house paint is water based and I would need to let this dry before I worked into it with my oils.

Although Ayres said she was not interested in composition this looks very painterly and ‘composed’ to me. There is a balance and harmony to it which is very pleasing.

The Tate have two later paintings:

I’ve chosen the former painting Antony and Cleopatra 1982, Tate, as the later painting, Phaëthon 1990, though undoubtedly joyful has discernable shapes and linearity, and is too decorative for me. Unlike Matisse where the surface remained aesthetically blinding, even when heavily patterned (for me) this is verging on decorative art.

The Tate has Antony and Cleopatra in its collection and says… ‘… It is relatively loosely painted, compared to other works of this period, and uses a variety of mark-making that is both expressive and decorative: skids, dabs and discs; long and short, straight or wavy strokes; zigzags or curved and dotted friezes. Colour is celebrated as part of the paint’s material.’ Ayres feels this work was untypical of her oeuvre, but important. It was painted on unstretched canvas attached to the wall. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/ayres-antony-and-cleopatra-t03458

Looking at this more closely, it was painted on an ochre ground and has a frieze round the edge, so the shapes and lines of her later painting are already emerging. The slurred colours are on the edge of becoming grey but hold on to their saturation sufficiently to be effective. It’s a tour de force of mark making which must have been done without revision (you have to get it right the first time or you muddy the colours) and would be interesting to attempt on a smaller scale. My painting Rose Cottage, although based on the same intuitive principle of looking and responding to marks, has very discrete patches of colour whereas Ayres colours are quickly (and gesturally) worked into each other.

My tutor had four suggestions:

Helen Frankenthaler

B. 1928 d. 2011

Wikipedia: Helen Frankenthaler was an American abstract expressionist painter. She was a major contributor to the history of postwar American painting. Having exhibited her work for over six decades, she spanned several generations of abstract painters while continuing to produce vital and ever-changing new work.

… associated with fluid shapes, abstract masses, and lyrical gestures… Her style is notable in its emphasis on spontaneity, as Frankenthaler herself stated, “A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once.”…By the 1970s, she had done away with the soak stain technique entirely, preferring thicker paint that allowed her to employ bright colors almost reminiscent of Fauvism.

… Frankenthaler often painted onto unprimed canvas with oil paints that she heavily diluted with turpentine, a technique that she named “soak stain.” This allowed for the colors to soak directly into the canvas, creating a liquefied, translucent effect that strongly resembled watercolor.

(The only problem with soak/stain is that the oil paint eventually rots the canvas).

Her style altered markedly over the years from her early ‘stain’ work, through oil on canvas and onto her later acrylic paintings.

I took the first painting from each decade from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation: Helen Frankenthaler Foundation (s.d.) At: https://www.frankenthalerfoundation.org/ (Accessed 11/02/2021)..

Looking at her work in more detail I don’t connect with it as much as Gillian Ayres. Her early work feels very figurative and it’s as if she was constantly searching, but never found, her true voice. Her early stain painting Mountain and Sea with its graphic lines and mountain like stains looks like figurative abstraction. It also questions her statement about spontaneity as to get the stains so tight to the lines she must have drawn in the lines first then carefully painted in the stain with just the right amount of fluidity to stop it spreading… so, because of it’s figurative element, and the care taken with the staining, I can see the process and it it looks more worked than loose.

Frankenthaler’s conversion to acrylics in the 1970’s seems to be associated with a move away from abstract expressionism to colour field painting, and an obsession with texture/surface, which culminated in her 2000’s painting which look like pastel versions of a Rothko.

Given that I don’t connect to her voice I will focus on her stain work as a technique and make some small studies on raw canvas, and then paint into/over it.

Pier Kirkeby

B. 1938 – d. 2018

Wikipedia: Per Kirkeby was a Danish painter, poet, film maker and sculptor.

On the RA website it says: A prolific artist, Kirkeby used a range of different media. He was a member of the Fluxus group and was influenced by Pop art in the 1960s. Later he was influenced by Tachism and Abstract Expressionism. The vigorous brushwork and chromatic beauty of his, mostly untitled, paintings and the sensuous modelling of his rough black bronzes have earned him the title “lyric expressionist”. The paintings, which tend towards the abstract, bear veiled iconographic reference, largely to the Danish landscape and the female figure. Per Kirkeby (s.d.) At: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/name/per-kirkeby-hon-ra (Accessed 11/02/2021).

Looking at his paintings I particularly liked this one at the Tate:

The Siege of Constantinople: oil on canvas, 4016 × 3613 mm, 1995

This is a huge canvas of over 4 x 3.6 m that he completed in a week. Tate (s.d.) ‘The Siege of Constantinople’, Per Kirkeby, 1995. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/kirkeby-the-siege-of-constantinople-t07460 (Accessed 11/02/2021).

It is assembled from thin layers of oil paint (you can see the drips). This must have been with solvent rather than linseed oil as it wouldn’t have dried in a week and wet in wet would have produced a very different painting. Some of his paint is translucent with colours showing through. Partsarts of his canvas remind me of the Nabis and the area top right hand corner of Paul Klee. He also uses line, both etched and painted.

Although this was painted quickly it doesn’t look as fluid as most abstract expressionist paintings… for instance the edges and colour blocks are much harder than Willem de Kooning.

Willem de Kooning The Visit 1966–7 Tate

The Visit is much more reminiscent of Ayres Antony and Cleopatra.

Kirkeby lacks painterliness, there’s something hard and scientific about his work… like the beauty in a piece of granite more than the lyrical beauty of flowing forms.

The Tate article says: ‘The artist, who does not make preparatory drawings, worked on an unstretched canvas laid out on the floor of his studio.’ Tate (s.d.) ‘The Siege of Constantinople’, Per Kirkeby, 1995. At: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/kirkeby-the-siege-of-constantinople-t07460 (Accessed 11/02/2021). The article further reports that the painting can be read in an historically figurative way with the red areas standing in for the battles around Constantinople.

The concept of painting thin layers of diluted paint is appealing and I would like to see what I do with this. I live near a nature reserve so maybe I should attempt this after a days sketching where I can soak soaking up the landscape.

Elizabeth Magill

(Glazing/building up layers)

B. 1959

Wikipedia… Elizabeth Magill is an Irish painter. She studied at the Belfast College of Art and the Slade School of Fine Art, and now lives and works in London.

It was difficult to find much information about her techniques and background, though there was some mention of her use of technology, photographs and video.

So I found her website and have picked the first four paintings from her ‘Paintings 2020/2021’ entry. Paintings 2020/21 (s.d.) At: https://elizabethmagill.com/paintings/2020-21 (Accessed 11/02/2021).

Although these paintings are on the figurative side of figurative abstraction, so not something I’m currently drawn to, I like the technique.

I see the technique as multiple layering creating visual ambiguity which reminds me of Turner in the mist paintings, but they may also offer a solution to painting something like my reflections of Rose Cottage that I captured (and then digitally processed) in my scratched coffee pot.

Reflected and digitally processed coffee pot reflections.

Magill’s canvases are quite small, slightly smaller than my 60 x 60 cm canvases. This may be because she is painting landscapes rather than abstract expressionist paintings so doesn’t need the size of a large Matisse canvas to cause aesthetic blindness, or the giant slabs of colour used in the colour field painting by Rothko. The convention is to ‘see’ landscapes in a much smaller ‘window’ like canvas. However, I have seen smaller abstract canvases that are effective and this is something to explore in my Personal Practice.

Hurvin Anderson

B. 1965

On ArtNet is says: Hurvin Anderson is a British painter known for exploring his Jamaican heritage through depictions of verdant Caribbean landscapes, tangled into abstractions rich with cultural references. His work sheds light on the complexity of growing up in England while desiring to reconnect with familial roots, which he accomplishes through a dedication to the medium of painting itself. Hurvin Anderson (s.d.) At: http://www.artnet.com/artists/hurvin-anderson/ (Accessed 11/02/2021).

Interestingly one of his art college tutors was Peter Doig, and Anderson also often works from photographs. His paintings range from the almost mimetic to the almost abstract, but most are figurative.

Cloning, Acrylic, oil on canvas, 543.6 x 403.9 cm, 2016

At over 5 x 4 m this is a very large painting so will have a physical presence and the eye will struggle to take in the whole of the painting.

It has obvious layering, so is using very thin paint in places. It has the feel of a misty day with the saturation and definition increasing closer to the viewer and a white glaze laid down over the background.

The blank canvas behind the tree is literal because it reads as mist, but at the base of the tree it is painterly. I think the mixing of styles (abstract at the bottom and figurative in the middle and top) works. The gridding at the bottom/front is a distraction.

The tree is a definite figure in the centre of the painting, unlike the Pollock or an Ayres which are all over abstract expressionist paintings.

It’s not something I would want to paint but I find the technique interesting.

Rachel Lumsden

B. 1968

There is little information on the internet about Lumsden but I found but I found a book about the artist’s work where it said… ‘…Lumsden’s paintings are too open-ended and ambiguous to be clearly read as narratives; instead they depict charged atmospheric environments, bristling with energy. Her compositions are inspired by a variety of visual sources, from newspaper photos, art historical images and dream pictures to circuit diagrams and advertising material.Rachel Lumsden – Cornerhouse Publications (s.d.) At: https://www.cornerhousepublications.org/publications/rachel-lumsden/ (Accessed 11/02/2021).

I found one of her paintings on Mutual Art, but there weren’t any details such as size, title or medium… I would guess this is oil on canvas. And as her paintings are person size it may be about 2 x 3 m.

Again this is a figurative painting… but very loose and with interest in the textured background. The two central figures crossing the canvas gives it a focal point and a figurative composition.

However, there is almost a dark abstract frame to the painting (with a rich textured surface) that I find very engaging. And the dripping of loose paint is effective in labelling it ‘painting’ and not ‘photograph’.

In a strange way it looks like a stage backdrop with actors crossing.

Personally, I think there is a much more interesting painting inside this one trying to escape. If you ripped out the people, street, lamppost and trees… and used the abstract background, including the gridded white area, as the basis for an abstract there are some really interesting shapes/colours/forms and textures.

The layering is too figurative for me as it represents solid foreground objects ‘over’ an abstract background, and the two styles clash… I see two paintings not one.

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