Looking at Paintings: Egon Schiele Exhibition at the Courtauld

Egon Schiele exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery in London
Strategically placed words on the banner for at the Courtauld Gallery in London

What: Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude
Where: Courtauld Gallery in London
When: 23 Oct 2014 to 18 Jan 2015
Why: A rare opportunity to see Schiele’s work

Egon Schiele is an artist who comes with a warning label for those unfamiliar with his paintings, especially his life painting. Forget academic, chocolate-box treatment of the figure but think expressive and confrontational, raw and unidealised, then throw in an immorality scandal too. He created works that “focused on themes of sexuality and death, ugliness, masking, sickness and transformation”*, which? isn’t what many want from art today, nevermind 100 years ago.

What we don’t know is where Schiele would have gone as a mature artist; he died in 1918 flu epidemic aged 28. What we do know is he was a master of expressive line, which you can study in his landscapes if you don’t do figures (and in which case stop reading now).

Courtauld Schiele Nude with Crossed Arms
Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Erwin Dominik Osen, Nude with Crossed Arms”, 1910. Black chalk, watercolour and gouache. 44.7 x 31.5 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

I find his art compelling, his use of line mesmerizing, and his colours brooding. The harsh, unsympathetic looking, the angularity of limbs, the striking composition. But until the Courtauld Gallery‘s exhibition Egon Schiele: The Radical Nude I’d only seen reproductions.

The Courtauld’s exhibition features 38 Schiele’s? drawings and watercolours of male and female nudes. I feel visually enriched for having seen it.

“It brings together an outstanding selection of works that highlight Schiele?s technical virtuosity, highly original vision and uncompromising depiction of the naked figure …?? he pushed artistic conventions through his direct expression of human experience, fears and desires. The works are bound up with themes of self-expression, procreation, sexuality and eroticism. These were fertile concerns in the socially and psychologically charged atmosphere of pre-war Vienna.”**

The painting and drawings were mostly about A3 in size, on paper that’s a dark cream-brown. Whether it was this colour originally or has darkened with age I don’t know (note to self: remember to ask on an Ask a Curator day).

Courtauld Egon Schiele Male Lower Torso painting
Egon Schiele: “Male Lower Torso”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache. 44.8 x 28.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

The most significant thing for me about seeing the paintings in real life was that I could see how he’d worked the layers. Think: initial drawing, watercolour and/or gouache over the drawing, then drawing again with charcoal or pencil to enhance or emphasise lines. Where a line was over paint, and where paint was over a line. How rich yet subtle the colours are and his complex wet-into-wet mixes. How sculptural and directional his brushwork could be in the white gouache, with mere flecks of other colours to guide the eye.? Energetic pencil/charcoal/black crayon lines over the top finding the form and edges. The initial light pencil sketching finding the position of the figure in a composition.

A real surprise was the precise pencil drawing underpinning the subsequent expressive mark making. The expressive result belies Schiele’s careful observation and drawing. The level of detail in the pencil layer of the eyes, for instance. The careful positioning of individual hairs.? In a”Kneeling Nude with Raised Hand” I noticed pencil lines underneath the gouache depicting the sartorius muscle, which I recognized thanks to Alan McGowan’s anatomy for artists workshops.

Courtauld SchieleNude Self-Portrait in Grey
Egon Schiele (1890-1918). “Nude Self-Portrait in Gray with Open Mouth”, 1910. Black chalk and gouache, 44.8 x 32.1 cm. The Leopold Museum, Vienna

A few other things I learnt:

  • “Reclining Male Nude”, created in 1910, has Schiele’s initials in two places, which the gallery label said was “as if to suggest it could be viewed horizontally or vertically”.
  • Schiele’s drawings “were originally produced as independent works in their own right”, not as drawings to support paintings.
  • He rarely titled things, and when he did he “framed it within a rectangular cartouche … a carefully considered graphic component in its own right“.**

Quotes:? *page 51 **page 129 of exhibition catalogue: Egon Schiele The Radical Nude
**Courtauld press release

Here’s a video from the Courtauld in which Dr Barnaby Wright discusses the exhibition. It’s an exhibition I’m delighted I got to see. And yes, I did buy the catalogue and some postcards. No, I didn’t post any but am using them as bookmarks.

Monday Motivator: Cultivate a Eye

Art motivational quote“Develop deliberate strategies so that you become sensitive to the visual sensations erupting amid the everyday. For example, cultivate an eye for the wonderful. Hone sensory receptivity to the marvelous specificity of things. Give greater expression to the sense of play. Find ways to create a fleeting return to childlike excitement about life.”

— Contemporary Impressionist Jerry Fresia, Why Are Questions About Color Use Problematic?, 7 October 2014

Look at the silvery track of where a snail wandered, not the destruction of the plant it chomped. Look at the way water in a puddle bounces as raindrops fall, rather than worrying about getting your shoes wet. Feel the movement of invisible air against your skin and watch how it ripples and runs through leaves, instead of complaining that it’s windy again.

Watch a rosebud develop and grow, bloom and fade, then leave it to become a rosehip instead of pruning. There’s a sequence of paintings in this waiting to be explored, if you pause to cultivate the eye to see it.

Pink & Purple Sky at Night, Painter’s Delight

Three days into 2015 and there’s a sunset I felt compelled to photograph. A reminder of the rich purples in the clouds, and evidence for when someone says “clouds aren’t that colour”. No photo editing, merely point and shoot through the window, it being too cold to hold a camera steady without a tripod outside.
Skye Sunset 3 January 2015 #3
Skye Sunset 3 January 2015 #1 Skye Sunset 3 January 2015 #2

Does This Painting Need “More Sunshine”?

This painting has been in “pondering mode” for a few weeks now as I’ve contemplated where to take it, whether to go further into shadow with backlit trees (more true to the location in autumn) or “add more sunshine”.? I know, artistic license and all that, but the shadows of low autumnal sunshine is one of the beautiful things about this location; then again it was the single, bright yellow tree with its autumnal leaves which caught my eye that day.

Only certainties are that the painting is not where I want it to be (yet) and that I’m inhibited by how much I like parts of it, such as the yellow tree, the river stones at the bottom. What I suspect I’m going to do:

  • Deepen the darks, using perylene green and Prussian blue
  • Add some white-rippled water in the stream, on the left-hand edges of the rocks in the water and at the edge of the bank
  • Glaze over the sky to make it feel less disjointed, wiping off the paint where it goes over the tree trunks
  • Add “sunshine” to the trunks, river bank and stones, as if sunshine is coming from the top right

But perhaps I’ll contemplate it a little more first, and rather continue on some of my other works-in-progress.

Painting In Progress: The Little Yellow Tree
Work in Progress.
Size 1x1m.

Giving Colours Names is the Artist’s Equivalent of Wine Tasting

One of the myriad of ways we can advance artistically is to increase our awareness of the colours in the world around us, to pick out individual aspects and, more importantly, to have a way of remembering them. The task is a little bit like that faced by wine tasters who have to be able to identify or critique a particular wine from the little indications they encounter in taste. They develop a special vocabulary that matches up particular flavours to names they not only can recall, but can use when talking to others.

Colour Chart Watercolour
An old colour chart of all the watercolour colours we had at the time.

The first step to gaining a vocabulary of colours is to get hold of as many Colour Charts as possible. Preferably those hand painted with the manufacturer’s actual colours rather than something printed, or worse, viewed on your computer (when last did you calibrate your screen, if ever?). Look at them regularly, and pay particular attention to where companies have used the same name for slightly different colours. The pigment information will enable you to compare like with like. You’ll need to decide for yourself which particular colour you are going to associate with what name.

Colour Chart Acrylics
A chart of Marion’s, done in the early 1990s for acrylic colours.

The next step is to use these colour names when you are looking at the world. Look at a bush and decide which colour greens. Look at the sea and the sky, and decide the particular colour blue, or grey, or green, you are seeing. The aim is to get to the stage where looking generates the names of specific paint colours in your mine e.g. “cerulean blue with a dark Prussian blue band on the horizon” rather than simply “blue sea”. (You can treat it like a game, and carry a suitable colour chart with you to check your accuracy. Holding your forefingers and thumbs together to create a tiny viewfinder will help you identify a colour in a small area.)

Finally, when you out sketching, rather than rely on colour matching with your watercolours, make a note of the particular colour you are seeing. Record how the changing light of the day causes the colours to vary; you can use this information to correct the time effects of plein air painting, or incorporate it into your choice of analogous colours when painting in with limited palette.
As you progress, you’ll find that you can differentiate between more and more shades of colour, developing a Nuanced Eye.

Know the name of the colour. Your name for that colour.

Monday Motivator: Add to the Spirit of the Landscape

Art motivational quote“Nature excites the imagination to representation. But one must add to this spirit of the landscape in order to help its pictorial quality. Your composition should indicate the more or less entire character of these trees, even though the exact number you have chosen would not accurately express the landscape.”
— Henri Matisse

Quoted in Sarah Stein’s Notes, 1908, in Matisse on Art by Jack D. Flam, page 45

Attempt to convey what interests you in that particular landscape, leave out what you haven’t paid attention to and emphasise what you respond to in it. Share the scene as seen through your eyes, your experience of it, not merely what it looks like. The latter has technical skill and information; the former has technical skill and poetry.

A (Visual) Slice of Today

The ever-changing light and weather of Skye are far more interesting than day after day of relentless brightness and heat. Today’s was no exception, and changed apace. (Forecast: gusts up to 50mph.)

Stormy December Day on Skye

Monday Motivator: Not Have Intentions, But Possibly Regrets

Art motivational quote[The paintings] “deliberately invite viewers to slow their pace and to look closely …meaning is assembled from an unstable but fertile mixture of chance and memory”
— Ernst Vegelin van Claerbergen, Head of The Courtauld Gallery


“Johns seems open to unexpected encounter, and in turn his art often provokes us to unexpected ways of seeing, thinking and feeling. …? Johns has always tried not to have intentions that act as a driving force of his art. Instead he simply begins and carries on working until something happens.”
— Barnaby Wright, curator

Quotes source: Jasper Johns, Regrets catalogue, published by The Courtauld Gallery, pages 5, 7/8

Jasper Johns’ Regrets series developed from a chance encounter he had with a reproduction in a Christie’s auction catalogue of a photo of a young Lucian Freud sitting on a bed in the Francis Bacon’s studio. I chanced upon the exhibition when at the Courtauld Gallery in London to see the Egon Schiele exhibition (more on that later this week). Like most people, I initially merely glanced at the Regrets paintings as I walked through the room where they were, intent on getting to Schiele, but am glad I did come back for a closer, slower look.

There are layers of meaning and symbolism that can be unpacked, on “themes of creativity, memory, reflection and mortality”, which the Courtauld catalogue (and I presume the MoMA catalogue) explains. About how in his process of exploring and transforming the photo in numerous experiments using oil, watercolour, pencil and ink he mirrored and doubled the original image, and in doing so, the form of a skull emerged in the centre of his new composition. This ?apparition? creates a reminder of death or memento mori at the heart of the works.

But I only found that out afterwards when I read the catalogue. What fascinated me was how the photo guided my interpretation of abstract paintings which, without this reference or anchor in reality, I probably wouldn’t have spent as much time look at. My favourite was an ink painting on plastic paper, and impact of this on the mark making which has ‘dissolved’ lines, spread shapes with soft edges. It was mesmerizing, my eyes moving from one shape to another, feeling the hand of the artist and the happy accident of the paper, getting lost in the pattern while simultaneously overlaying the photo in my mind, engaging imagination and intellect in that special way that painting does.

Studio Cat Not Impressed by Painting-in-Progress

While I’ve been working on a new big painting, 1×1 metres, studio cat Rascal has been sleeping on the storage heater. He’s a rather vocal cat who generally has a lot to say about what I’m doing (about everything, really), so it’s been blissfully quiet. The painting is inspired by the way the river in Uig turns and disappears, with the banks patterned by trees and shadows, where I was sketching again last week.

Painting-in-Progress: Studio Cat Not Impressed by Stream Progress

I’d done a few thumbnails sketches and pondered it quite a bit before I started sketching the composition on the composition. I tweaked it a bit with pencil, then took a pen to mark my final choice. (Added advantage: it also shows up in a photo! Added disadvantage: shows through transparent layers.)

Painting-in-Progress: Stream Sketch
It’s a minimal composition sketch, to serve as a reminder of an intended destination, not intended to set out the journey in detail.

Next up, lots of texture paste. I’m using Golden’s Light Molding Paste, which I like because it doesn’t shrink too much when it’s dried, it gives a more absorbent working surface and, as the name suggests, doesn’t add significant weight to the painting.

Painting-in-Progress: Stream Texture Paste
I leave texture paste to dry overnight. That way I don’t keep poking at it with a finger to see if it’s dry yet and don’t encounter the problem of painting away then suddenly hitting a spot where it wasn’t fully dry.

First colour on once the paste had dried, Prussian blue. My plan was to be painting dark to light for the first few rounds with this painting. Where it is in the top photo is where I stopped to wait for it to dry completely before resuming. Still a long way to go, but I’m pleased with the sense of the water flowing past rocks in the stream. It’s perhaps a bit too turbulent a flow, but that could be calmed down with some glazing. Tomorrow’s job is to decide whether to or not.

Painting-in-Progress: Stream Texture First Paint Colour
The dark area was painted with from-the-tube paint. The lighter blue was thinned with water and glazing medium and allowed to run down a little into the dark blue.