Gaugin, Nevermore


Nevermore was painted two years after Gauguin had returned to Tahiti for the second and last time.  He already had late stage syphillis, was injecting morphine and his leg had been badly smashed up in a fight.  The ‘primitive’ was extremely important to Gauguin who viewed it as a route back to the centre of art.  Later that year he tried to commit suicide, many of the paintings from that period have death and sadness as central themes.

Nevermore has a particularly poignant sense to it.  A baby girl born to his ‘vahine’, Pau’ura, died immediately before he painted this picture.  Pau’ura was with Gauguin for 6 years and was his muse/model for many of his most important paintings. The sombre and melancholic flavour to Nevermore should not be a surprise.

The painting is of a young woman lying on a bed, behind her is a bed board and panels with arabesques on them.  A dark bird looks over the woman and through a window there is the sky, clouds and two figures talking.  The woman is naked and suffused with sadness and melancholy.  The picture is also clearly an extension of a previous painting, Mana’o tupapa’u.

Gauguin wanted painting to be seen in the same artistic light as literature and music, a creation of imagination, thought and process, rather than simply likeness.

The literary side of Nevermore is a commentary in sensuality, the role of women in society, sadness, loss,  primitive spirits and public judgement.  There is a strong set of contrasts in the content of the image, spirit v woman, sadness v sensual/sexual, dream v awakened, animal versus artistic.  It contains the juxtaposition of a girl, sad at recent loss and the spirit of the devil. The viewer is invited to take these in as a whole. He alludes to Edgar  Allan Poe’s poem The Raven, in the name Nevermore, the dark bird and the process behind the creation of the image.  However, Gauguin saw the bird as of the devil. The picture also seems to be influenced by Manet’s Olympia, which he carried a copy of.

The musical side of the painting is based around sensitive and rythmic use of colour and composition. The dream quality is created with colours that are largely harmoniously blueish and fluid drawing that extends across the whole image.  The main colour contrast is between an earthy green and a magenta, although both are relatively unsaturated.  There are warmer parts to these, almost orangeish.  Large areas of dull and harmonious colours, with limited tonal character contrast against much smaller areas of intense yellow, red and blue in a triangle pattern across the image.

Nevermore is relatively flat, especially for that time.  Gauguin outlined his figures in black, which was to become ‘modern’ , a flattening device. The window in the background is a cool blue, receding in the image.  The warmth of the colours in the figure and strong contrasts of tone and colour around the figure, bring it forward in the image and the front edge of the bed is a darker dark, bringing it even further forward.  Gauguin has also used tonal shifts to model the form of the body, which helps to place it in space.

The painting is strongly constructed but done in a way that remains alive and energetic.  The composition is laid out in a series of horizontals and verticals, connecting various parts of the image to create a whole.  The horizontals of the back and front of the bed support horizontals in the figure; the left leg shin, the top of the right leg calf, the bottom of the left arm forearm, the lower line of the torso/stomach.  The back of the bed also creates a strong horizontal that extends across the picture through the girl’s pubic cleft and a horizontal between her eyes.  The grid is completed with strong verticals in the back ground linking up with parts of the figure;  the bottom of both feet, the line of the pubic hair, the line of the knuckles on the hands and wrist beneath the face.

The grid structure is broken up by strong diagonals; the upper line of the torso extends from the line of the right calf, lower part.  The line from the top of the feet to the top of the hip continues up the head board, while the line from the top of the head, shoulders and hips extends across the top of two patterns in the back ground, far left.

Despite the constructed nature of the picture, it is not rigid, it has a great deal of life, partly because of the contrast between straight lines and curved ones.  The curves of the figure are echoed and even extended in strongly curving motifs in the back ground panels and bed board.  There is also a sense of ‘rightness’ and observation about much of the drawing in the figure, as well as the relative light between the interior and the exterior.  The panels in the picture echo those that we know he had in his studio.

I have ended up liking and appreciating this painting because it is a complex image that successfully balances many opposing elements in both the formal aspects of the image as well as the subject.

Posted in Inspiration, Personal Practise

Edouard Manet an inspiration

Edouard Manet an inspiration

Edouard Manet has always been an inspirational figure in my painting both in subject matter as well as composition and painting style. He was a pivotal figure in breaking down the stranglehold of the traditional Acedemic style of painting to give way to impressionism: Manet was one of the first to paint contemporary life and question the way that people live.

In many pictures his painting style was energetic, direct, authentic with value on the mark. His compositions are very strong, tonally and colourwise. Many pcitures are framed within the image using strong verticle and and horizontal boundaries. He incorporates a strong psychological narrative, creating real characters and engaging the viewer. He uses ambiguity to keep the viewer coming back and working at the question.

His main early paintings Le déjeuner sur l’herbe and Olympia, created great controversy and rallied the young painters who created Impressionism. Art history counts these paintings as marking the beginning of modern art. Manet was born in Paris in 1832. His family was wealthy with his father being a judge and his mother a socialite. He was expected to go into the law, but his uncle encouraged his interest in art. In 1845 he enrolled in a drawing course where he met and grew close to Antonin Proust. After failing to enter the navy his father let him pursue an art career. Between 1850 and 1856 he studied under Thomas Couture and travelled sidely to look at and copy art. Particular influences on his were Frans Hals, Velazquez and Goya. Manet opened a studio in 1856.

Even from this early time he painted loosely with simplification of detail and strong tonal contrasts. His primary subject was contemporary characters. He had 2 paintings accepted to the Salon in 1861, a portrait of his parents and The Spanish Singer. At the time critics did not like his work, calling it slapdash. However, young artists and the Salon goers were inspired by the work and he was a rallying point for a more modern way of painting. Manet became friends with the Impressionist painters Morisot, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Monet, Sisley and Pissarro and was seen as an icon of modern painting. However, he always maintained that painters should show at the Salon and refused to put his work into the now famous Impressionist exhibitions.

Manet married Suzanne Leenhoff in 1863. Leenhoff was a piano teacher of Manet’s age who he had been seeing for 10 years. Leenhoff had been employed by Manet’s father, and may have been his mistress. In 1852, Leenhoff gave birth, to Leon Koella Leenhoff, but the father could have been either of the Manets. Leon posed often for Manet and is the subject of The Boy Carrying A Sword. Manet died in 1883, at 51, of syphilis and rheumatism. The key paintings that are central to me are:

those that dig into the role of people in society, particularly women:Olympia, Dejeuner sur l’herbe, The Cafe Concert, A Bar at the Folies-Bergère Plum

Beautiful authentic and loose paintings Many of the late still life and flower paintings, eg: flowers in a crystal vase, carnations and clematis in a crystal vase.

and intense portraits Berthe Morisot The Railway The Balcony Breakfast in the Studio.

Posted in Inspiration, Personal Practise

Allan Ramsay project

A Study in Black

This was the last portrait project of the Heatherley’s Diploma. Allan Ramsay is an outstanding painter and teacher, previous winner of the BP portrait prize, you can see some of his work at You can see an example of his painting here, bottom right. His main mantra is to focus on the major elements of the image, and not too many of them. The key points of drama, the darkest darks, lightest lights, which are warm and which are cold. Even if using photos, to support the painting, make your own decisions about how you want it to look and do let the photos take that away, again the key points.

For me this was an exercise in the use of black and a very helpful and necessary one. Jennifer was wearing black clothes and was sitting in front of an essentially black piece of fabric. I certainly ended up mixing many different black to make the painting. Using Raw Umber and ultramarine as the base (cool), warming it up with Venitian red ( can use Burnt umber instead of the raw umber to get a warm black), also shading it off to green with yellow ochre. Alternatively, for the clothing I based it on Alizarin Crimson and Viridian that gives a more grey/metallic feel to differentiate the clothing from the background.

Three interesting areas to work on are: 1) using small marks/drawing to make the turning points in the form. 2) Using Small marks to create points of emphasis, drama, bringing the nearest things forward. 3) How to keep the image open and not locked in.

Although this is far from my usual stye and, as a result, I will not use it in the final exhibition, I like this picture, in a way its a modern form of a very traditional type of portrait, with Jennifer emerging from darkness.

A Study in Black 1

Posted in Heatherly

Life Diptych

Life 1 and 2 diptych

This double portrait project is one that I devised in my studio. Fiona is very generous with her time and I enjoy painting her. There are several artists that have painted clothed and unclothed portraits of the same person or couples in essentially the same pose. They appeal to me as much for the psychological impact as well as the challenge. The one that I remember most clearly was by Tai-Shan Schierenberg.

Since the paintings stand side by side and are of the same person in essentially the same pose, the challenge of representation is increased because it becomes very easy to see if there is an error in one of them.

I really enjoyed this pose because of the crossed angles, foreshortening and elegance. The composition is a very simple one so that there is no distraction from the figure.

The question that I hope it poses is this…. Which is real life? dressed as we usually are (psychologically defended by layers of pretence), or naked, not pretending, open to what comes next with nothing to hide. If the later, then why do we let most of lives be defined by the former?

Posted in Heatherly

Minna Stevens – Faces

Head on Portraits

We focused on reconnecting with the head and facial expression in this portrait project. Minna Stevens was an excellent project leader, inspiring and devoted, you can see her work at One of the main points of focus was to maintain direct eye contact with the model, and capture the sense of connection that creates in the image. Interestingly, even when painting a side view, while the model has eye contact with someone else also, substantially changes the portrait from what it would have been if they did not have that eye contact.

There were many interesting things about this project. 1) Focusing on, being clear about and representing body language in a way that suits the portrait. 2) Using sensitive edges and including points that make the drawing while not being too defined. 3) the grey palette that I use of Viridian and Alizarin Crimson makes for coolish greys and the effect can be enhanced with some passages warmed up with earth colours, for contrast. 4) Finding a balance between the unconscious tendency to straighten and my conscious exaggeration of difference.

While these two pictures are rather conventional I enjoyed them for the direct sense of presence that they have, alongside a vibrancy that is clear but perhaps not overly dramatic.

Posted in Heatherly

Danny – combinations

People and Places

Danny Cuming led this very interesting portrait project. The idea was to combine the figure, from in the studio with an outside scene to create a new image. in this way we could vastly expand what is possible in a portrait. The first step is to gather reference material from both the figure and the external site chosen, with drawings, colour sketches, written notes and, if need be, photographs. Secondly, to make up some small thumbnails until an overall composition is finalised. Thirdly, in my case I did a full combined drawing. Finally, to go ahead with the painting. There are several key elements to making the two work together, notably scale, eye line, reflections and lighting.

I really enjoyed this project and plan do more of this type of thing. In my case, I used the station at St Pancras international, but several different parts of it to create one image. Stations have strong and ambiguous ideas surrounding them, meetings, partings, and just going through. They are ideal for looking at the contrast between the organic human form and the manufactured and linear environment of the modern world.

Posted in Heatherly

Conte with Chris Moock

Earth Colour Portrait Drawing

he last week of the term was drawing using Conte, led by Chris Moock. In part this is driven by his interest in drawing and the bridge between drawing and painting. However, it also coincides with the Exhibtion of drawings by Watteau at the Royal Academy.

I like working on a coloured ground, just as I do when painting. It allows for both dark and light to be drawn directly into the ground. The red allows yet another dimension of hot and cold. As working on an Ochre grounds adds to the potential. In many respects it reminds me of the warm and cool paintings that I did a couple of years ago, some of which you can see in the Still Life tab of this website.

I love the medium itself, the conte sticks have a velvety texture about them, they spread of the end and side of the stick onto the paper in an extremely controllable and fluid way. Since this project I have used black conte stick in life drawing instead of charcoal. Its not easy to rub out, but leaving a trace of where you have been has its own character and enforces a certain discipline.

Posted in Heatherly

Atul’s Life painting

Life in a Blue chair

This was an enjoyable life portrait painting project with Atul Vohora ( who also teaches at the Slade school and is published in Artists and Illustrators magazine).The project was set up with a focus on a strong visual relationship with the back ground colours and interesting physical structure. Of the two set ups, I choose this one, which had more foreshortening, a very strong warm/cold contrast and a strong sense of the light flooding across the figure and chair.

I had to work quickly because I missed 3 days of the project, it is a bit more rushed than I would have liked, which the picture echoes. In the last few projects I have been working with more layers and under painting than I used to. In this painting I overcame the problem of the texture of the under layers adversely effecting the top layer by scraping the layers back. Traditionally the under layers would be thinned, which i do not do because of the toxicity of the thinners. However, it did work well for me and I will continue with this approach. I also worked with some more less saturated colour than I usually do, which was helpful. It makes the more saturated colours come out more strongly and helps with the sense of depth in the picture.

Overall, I like the picture, which seems to balance my usual love of bright and more differentiated marks with the need, in this case, of making a reasonably realistic image.

Posted in Heatherly

My self portrait

Working over a mirror 2

This is a reworking of a self portrait idea that I started with last year. I felt that there was more to be got by working with it again.

I like the idea and angle of perspective, as well as the resulting composition. I have always been attracted to breaking the conventional moulds of portrait composition. In our daily life we see people from all sorts of different angles that are not generally examined in the world of portraiture. I find that this one implies a solidity, an honest workman like approach which suits the way I see the world and perhaps myself.

The contrast between the solidity of the seat, legs and torso, with the etherial sense that surrounds the brush and canvas, almost as if the paint is floating off the brush appeals to me. It reminds me that the contrast between what can be achieved with pure earth colours and the Viridian/Alizarin axis is interesting and something that I would like to explore more.

It is also interesting to see how I have developed in the last 8 months by comparing this to the earlier entry ‘portrait over a mirror’.

Posted in Heatherly

Daniel Shadbolt – heads

Lying Down Head Portrait

This project was focused on painting head closeups, led by Daniel Shadbolt. Daniel was the winner of the Bulldog Bursary in 2008 and you can see examples of his work at His style of work and teaching approach is to focus on a searching, objective examination of the subject, with small and sometimes thin marks gradually building towards an image. The process of the search is up front in the work. To me his work brings to mind Cezanne, which is a great compliment.

I struggled in this project feeling less at ease with the style of approach than some others. On the other hand I can comfortably say it was a good learning experience, giving me a taste of an approach that is very different from my usual one. Others in the class thrived on it. In fact one of the works from this project, done by Mark Stevenson, was selected in open competition for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters annual exhibition.

Posted in Heatherly