Figures Seemingly Alive

The summer holidays may well be over, however, the National Portrait Gallery’s summer exhibition The Encounter is only half way through. Open until 22nd October 2017, a rare collection of drawings from several Renaissance and Baroque artists are on display at a fee of £10 (members free). Emphasis needs to be made on the word drawings or, to make it more transparent, the synonym sketches may be more appropriate.

Rather than showing the priceless paintings and famous works of European artists, the gallery has sourced from collections throughout Britain the initial drawings of the accomplished draughtsmen. Providing a fresh understanding as to how the artist begins a portrait and the materials used, these sketches bring forth a feeling of humanness – imperfect – and a sense of the private encounter between the artist and the sitter.

Due to their sensitivity to light and resulting fragileness, it is unlikely that viewers will recognise the drawings in the exhibition because they rarely get put on display. Since many are initial sketches rather than finished artwork, it is plausible to suggest that viewing The Encounter is a once in a lifetime opportunity.  The majority of people depicted in these portraits are unknown, being referred to as Seated Young Girl (Wenceslaus Hollar, 1635), Woman Wearing a Hood (Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485-90) and so forth.

Unfortunately, the exhibition’s strapline is a little deceptive. “Drawings from Leonardo to Rembrandt implies that one will see drawings by the famous Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669). To their credit, the National Portrait Gallery has located a study by each of these outstanding artists but, alas, that is all. Rather than misleading art lovers and tourists by enticing them with two well-known names, it could have been more appropriate to subtitle the exhibition “Drawings from the Masters 1430-1650” or something of that nature.

If the name of an artist needed to be used to advertise this exhibition, Hans Holbein the Younger would have been a far more appropriate choice. Not only is a Holbein the first portrait to be seen on display (John Godsalve c.1532), a whole section compiled of eight drawings has been devoted to the artist. In fact, Holbein the Younger is treated as though he were the most accomplished portraitist in Europe during the sixteenth century.

Hans Holbein (1497-1543) was a German painter and designer who was trained by his own father, Hans Holbein the Elder (1465-1534). By the age of 19, Holbein was being commissioned for portraits, notably the mayor of Basle and his wife. By the late 1520s, Holbein was the leading artist in Basle, producing murals, altarpieces and stained glass windows alongside his more intimate canvases.

Disturbances caused by the Protestant Reformation caused a decline in the amount of work offered, so Holbein moved to London. By 1536, Holbein was working for Henry VIII, painting his portraits and those of other notable people in the Tudor family. Whilst in the residence of the king, Holbein had the opportunity to mix with a whole range of people of different class. Over 100 of his preparatory studies survive today, evidencing his range of sitters from merchants to those of nobility.

“Stranger, do you want to see figures seemingly alive? Look at these, brought forth from Holbein’s hand.”

– Nicholas Bourbon, 1538

A contemporary of Holbein, Nicholas Bourbon, is noted for proclaiming that the artist’s drawings strikingly brought people to life, easily revealing the mood and personality of each sitter. From boredom to alertness, Holbein drew those both confident and unsure, capturing an accurate representation and varying atmosphere.

It is not the artists who are the main focus of The Encounter; it is the techniques and the evidence that the artist was working directly from life, that has the greater appeal. Some drawings may almost look complete, however, the majority were implemented at speed, thus preserving a momentary contact with the sitter.

All the artists featured in the exhibitions were working in various European countries between the 15th and 17th centuries. Art historians can divide the past into art movements due to evidence in changing style and themes, but with these swift sketches, it is possible to see the reasons for certain developments. The human race is constantly evolving, inventing new contraptions and utensils in an attempt to make life simpler. Between the years focused on by the National Portrait Gallery, new materials were becoming readily available for artists, such as paper, ink and chalk.

Previously, a limited quantity of material restricted the amount of practice and preparation an artist could undertake before commencing on the final product. With paper becoming more abundant, the opportunity to try out different methods and ideas was leapt upon by the masters and their apprentices. It also allowed students to copy other works as a way of learning and honing their skills – something which most likely attributed to the development of an art movement in which the majority of work resembled a certain style.

By being able to make preparatory studies for paintings, particularly portraits, the artist was allowed to scrutinize the human anatomy and understand the importance of proportion when drawing a body. Like today’s sketchbooks, sheets of paper were easily carried around meaning that an artist could sketch wherever he pleased, thus observe people unawares and in different positions from the traditional seated posture.

It was not only the production of paper that benefited artists, the availability of chalk became extremely beneficial. Looking at the portraits in the gallery, many have been produced with red chalk and some in black. This was a recommendation at the time because chalk was a lot easier to correct than the more permanent pen and ink, which was also popular. To erase a mistake in the proportion of their sitter, artists were instructed to rub a small piece of bread over the surface. This lifted the chalk from the paper, allowing new lines or shading to be redrawn correctly.

With these new techniques and methods in place, less pressure was placed upon the sitter to remain still for a considerable length of time. A quick chalk drawing allowed the artist to judge the proportions, note down colours and facial expressions, and determine the composition. It is from these initial sketches that many artists began their final painting. This was a particularly convenient way of working when drawing a child, especially one with very little patience and easily bored.

In order to appreciate how useful the new materials were, a video has been provided within the exhibition of a contemporary artist demonstrating a few of the utensils. The tools are also on display in a glass box for visitors to have a closer look. The short film illustrates the way to use these implements, including silverpoint and pen.

Silverpoint was a technique using paper that had been pre-prepared with coloured ground and a metal stylus with a silver tip. Scratches are gently made with the stylus then gradually built up to add strokes and shadow to the drawing. Unlike working with chalk, mistakes could not be erased, thus the instruction to start lightly and only increase the pressure when feeling confident.

Pen and ink were used in much the same way. This time, the paper did not need to be covered with any substances, but a quill needed to be cut to provide a suitable nib. Dipping the quill into ink, the artist then draws lightly on the paper, adding darker strokes later to create the shadows.

Although using medieval techniques, the demonstration is similar to how a student would be taught at school today. This goes to show that the master painters were just as human as everyone else. They needed to practice daily to achieve the skills evidenced in their celebrated artworks. Artists such as Leonardo and Rembrandt were not exempt from making mistakes; their fantastic paintings did not just occur over night.

“Do not fail, as you go on, to draw something every day, for no matter how little it is it will be well worth while, and will do you a world of good.”

-Cennino Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, c1400

The Encounter is an exhibition that will appeal to those with a greater interest in art than the average tourist. Students and artists alike may find regarding these drawings advantageous to their own studies or career. It will certainly boost the confidence of those aspiring to produce portraits as good as artists such as Holbein. Instead of focusing on the final artwork, it is important to create studies, whether quick or detailed, in order to determine exactly how the portrait is going to look. It is also natural to make mistakes.

Although not a traditional exhibition of famous artists and paintings, the National Portrait Gallery has given the public a deeper insight into past European techniques and allowed each artist to be appreciated as a hard-worker rather than someone who was naturally perfect from birth. It is certainly reassuring to discover that artists from 400 years ago faced the same set of challenges contemporary artists encounter today.

The Encounter has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper and Dr Charlotte Bolland.

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Picasso: Coloured In

 

Toward the end of 2016, the National Portrait Gallery in London held an exhibition on the works of the master of modern art, Pablo Picasso. Displaying a lifetime of artwork, the gallery provided a concise biography of Picasso’s life, providing the opportunity to learn about the artist as well as his paintings. The gift shop at the exit of the exhibition sold mementoes of the display, including a colouring book containing 20 black and white versions of some of the major works of Picasso during the 20th Century.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In was published in April 2016 with the intention of using the popular fad to educate readers/colouring book enthusiasts about the techniques and secrets of the great master. Each work included in the book has a brief paragraph explaining what it is (in case you cannot tell) and a few details about Picasso’s intentions or the events happening in his life at the time.

Although Pablo Ruiz Picasso was Spanish, he lived in France for the majority of his adult life. As a child, he lived in various areas of Spain beginning with Malaga where he was born on 25th October 1881. He lived here with his parents and two sisters, Dolores and Concepción. However, Concepción, or Conchita as she was known, died very young, a tragedy that had a great impact of Picasso.

Picasso’s father, a museum curator and teacher of fine art, encouraged his son to begin painting. Picasso received lessons in technique and academic style, completing his first painting, The Picador, in 1889, at a mere eight years old. Later, after moving to North-Western Spain, Picasso completed his initial training at La Lonja Academy in Barcelona.

Picasso attempted further education in Madrid at the San Fernando Royal Academy – a competitive college to get into – however, was forced to return to Barcelona after a severe bought of scarlet fever. This did not prevent Picasso from continuing his artistic journey and he was soon producing compositions that impressed local academies.

His surname, Picasso, evokes images of abstract art, however, there was a steady development of style and technique until he reached the more obscure results. Picasso’s colour palette was key in his varying phases, the first being predominately blue. What triggered this period was the sudden loss of a close friend to suicide in 1901. Devastated, Picasso painted a death portrait, which was spread through with blue tones. During this “blue period”, Picasso painted many melancholy subjects such as beggars and hospital patients. It was during this time that Picasso began to branch out into other forms of artistic expression, for example, sculpture.

By 1904, Picasso had moved and settled in Montmartre, France, where he had a small studio of his own. After three years of excessively using the colour blue, Picasso entered a new phase now known as the “rose period”. Naturally, this incorporated a brighter colour palette and heralded more cheerful subjects. Inspired by a local circus, Picasso often depicted harlequin clowns in his paintings. This vivid period lasted until 1907 when Picasso produced his first major work The Young Ladies of Avignon (see above), which sparked the beginning of yet another period: cubism.

Picasso’s cubist paintings are different from the majority of artists involved with the movement. Initially, he was inspired by other artists, but eventually abandoned all traditional rules and focused on painting geometric still lifes, revealing an object from several directions, rather than the way the human eye would usually perceive it from one position.

Not wanting to be constrained to the stipulations of an art faction, Picasso flitted between several. After experimenting with Cubism, he stepped into the Surrealist movement, where he completed paintings and sculptures up until the beginning of the Second World War. Following the bombing of the town, Guernica, Picasso created his famously large painting of the same name. Despite its fame, Guernica has not been included in this colouring book.

Living through two wars, two marriages and many other life altering events, Picasso’s works can be used as a form of a diary. When viewed in chronological order, it is possible to tell what was going on for him personally at specific times. For example, his “blue period” was sparked off by the death of a friend and his work took on a more violent nature during the bleak wartimes. His marriages and divorce can be evidenced by the models used for many of his portraits, for instance, his female companions: Dora Maar and Marie-Thérèse (again, see above).

Despite failing health, Picasso was still painting in his 90s, producing 165 canvases during January 1969 and February 1970 alone. By the time he died on 8th April 1973, Picasso had produced over 50,000 works – an astonishing feat that still evokes veneration.

Naturally, it would be impossible to produce a book of all Picasso’s recorded works, but the editors of this particular colouring book have carefully selected examples that span the majority of his life, thus encompassing the different styles he experimented with.

The author of the text – presumably Frédérique Cassegrain, who also wrote the biography and information for each included artwork – gives helpful advice about how to colour in the outlined versions of Picasso’s paintings. The paper is thick enough to be suitable for paints, particular Gouache, which is water soluble and easily blended. Alternatively, coloured pencils may be used, preferably of artistic quality, which may be more suitable for those less confident in art and design. Another option, although not mentioned by the author, are felt-tip pens. Usually, these should be avoided due to ink bleeding through the page, however, the paper is single sided, so there is no chance of damaging the following colouring page in the book.

Purchasing Pablo Picasso: To Colour In and completing the book, provides not only hours of fun and relaxation, but an opportunity to discover and understand the artist. Unlike at a gallery where the brain may switch off, being able to go away and return to the book gives us time to absorb the information and concentrate more clearly on the details of each painting.

Opposite each colouring page is a copy of the original in full colour, meaning that, if one desired, one could replicate Picasso’s work as closely as possible. By doing, rather than just looking, we begin to understand the colour choices, piece together the geometric shapes to form an image and begin to understand the thought processes of the artist.

Interestingly, there are two paintings that stand out amongst all the others. These were produced during and after the First World War, a time when Picasso returned to a more classical style of artwork. These are The Pipes of Pan (1923) and The Bathers (1918). Both show a completely different side to Picasso and would not immediately be recognised as his own work. Despite not being entirely life-like, there are no elements of Cubism or Surrealism and the colour palette is altogether natural. Picasso has focused on shading and tone to create a realistic appearance, a contrast to the flattened portraits he is known for.

Having seen evidence at the National Portrait Gallery as well as in this colouring book, it is clear that Picasso was able to paint lifelike portraits and scenes, however, he generally chose not to. This may baffle those that wish they could draw accurately; why opt for abstract art when you have a natural flair for realism? Picasso was not concerned about the aesthetic appeal of his artworks but rather used them as a form of expression. He experienced two world wars and personal grievances which greatly impacted on his painting style. Sometimes it is too difficult to put feelings into words, so Picasso represented them visually instead.

Abstract, Cubist and Surrealist art is something that people either love or hate. Many may not appreciate artists such as Picasso, whereas others find them deeply meaningful. Having the opportunity to study the artist through a detailed colouring book creates a more comprehensive understanding of the artwork and ability to acknowledge the intention and story behind it.

Pablo Picasso: To Colour In will appeal to artists, art historians and other creatives with its contrast of light relief and in-depth knowledge. The book is available online at retailers such as Amazon and The Book Depository from approximately £6. If Picasso is not your thing, there are other artists available in the series of colouring books, including Klimt, Hokusai (Japanese Art), Monet, Van Gogh, Caillebotte and Manet (Impressionists), and Paul Klee. Whatever your preference, prepare to learn whilst you are relaxing and having fun.