Visit a portrait gallery

For this exercise I went to the National Portrait Gallery in London. I think that this may have been the first time I had visited the NPG as previously if I had visited a gallery it would probably have been to the National Gallery next door.

I was pleased that I made the trip. It is really interesting to make the journey through portraiture from medieval times to the present day – from a portrayal of Henry VII to Patrick Heron’s portrait of A S Byatt!!

If I’m in Trafalgar Square in the future, it won’t be an automatic trip to the National Gallery – I will definitely be wanting to go back to the NPG sometimes.

My views on some of the paintings that I saw (with photos removed for copyright reasons) are here: Portrait gallery No Pics

Annotate a portrait

I went to Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery to look for a suitable painting which I could annotate for this exercise. I came across this work by Peter Tillemans, an artist I had not heard of before, so in just doing this exercise I have already broadened my artistic knowledge and added to the body of artists whose work I am familiar with.

I’m pleased I chose this work, there was not too much information I could find out about the artist or the painting, just a short section on the VADS website. This was good as it forced me to study the painting on my own terms and make up my own mind about it rather than be influenced by what others had written about it.

My annotation can be found here, photos of the original work having been removed for copyright reasons.

Research Point: Portrait Sculpture

I used a couple of examples of portrait sculpture for this exercise; the sculpture of Sir Thomas Browne in Norwich City Centre and of Sir John Betjeman at St Pancras Station, London.

I visited both sites to study the sculptures and learnt quite a lot from it. Prior to this course if I looked at sculptures then I would perhaps simply thought “that is what they looked like” or “that is an interesting pose” without necessarily thinking any more deeply about what the sculptor was portraying. Doing this exercise and actively looking for the techniques a sculptor has used to comment on the subjects status and achievements has helped me to look more carefully at sculptures and get more from them.

My comment on this exercise can be found here – Research Point Portrait Sculpture

Exercise: Looking at cartoons

This was quite an interesting exercise that took me in  a direction I hadn’t anticipated at the beginning – starting with Steve Bell and ending with Roy Lichtenstein.

I began by assembling the cartoons outlined in the course guide, including several by Steve Bell, and started the exercise. As I was in London one day I decided to go to the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury. This was a really useful trip, as well as seeing original cartoons from the 18th century by James Gillray, I also saw works by David Law (including one of Churchill with his cigar ‘tab of identity’) as described in the course book. I also saw a couple of profiles drawn by Nicola Jennings which helped me to appreciate what these small cartoons are.

Finally in one of the exhibition rooms was a cartoon by Dave Gibbons which, from a distance, I thought might have been a Lichtenstein painting. It was a cartoonists take on a painter making lots of money practising in a style used by cartoonists and was entitled “I presses the irony control …. and around me …. half tone dots filled the sky”, it was a response to Liechtenstein’s ‘Whaam’.

So there it is – Steve Bell to Roy Lichtenstein via Bloomsbury.

This exercise has made me appreciate the cartoonist’s art a bit more than I had previously.

The exercise is here, the original cartoons have been removed for copyright reasons. Exercise Looking at Cartoons No Pics

Exercise: make a copy of a painting

The final part of this module of the course is to make a copy of a painting. I chose to copy a still life of flowers by Christopher Wood. The original painting can be seen at

Having not lifted a paintbrush since I left school more than 40 years ago (and not being particularly good then) I was really worried about doing this exercise and seriously considered doing the analysis option instead. However I did want to try to make the copy and then hit on the idea of using the ArtRage painting programme that I obtained when I bought my graphics tablet. I bought the tablet for Photoshop work and had only really had a quick look at the ArtRage programme that came with it. I was so pleased that I tried this out, copying the shapes of the flowers was relatively easy, but matching the tones, shades and colours was very difficult. It was well worth it though as I learned a lot more about the painting than if I had simply just studied it. I also tried to create a photographic copy of the painting, this didn’t really work out (my version of it wasn’t very good) but I learnt from from the process of having at least tried to do it. I’m so glad I didn’t opt out of this and do the analysis option instead!

This is my copy of the painting together with my photographic version.

m_Wood copy jpg m_wood flowers

Attached are my comments and learning points from the process.

Flowers No Photo

Annotation: Cubist Still Life

My final annotation for this part of the course is by Pablo Picasso, Violin and Grapes.

In the past I had always been a bit confused with cubist paintings. Now, having read more about the movement, I am starting to appreciate what people like Braque and Picasso were trying to achieve. It is interesting to reflect on how to represent a three dimensional scene in two dimensions. The introduction of linear perspective into paintings was an attempt to overcome this issue. The cubists adopted a radically different approach, abandoning the idea of perspective and breaking apart a scene and reassembling it on the canvas.

I can appreciate the earlier forms of cubism as practiced by Braque and Picasso, but personally I’m not too taken with later developments as practiced by others such as Delaunay.

Attached is my annotation of Violin and Grapes, as always photos were removed because of copyright restrictions.

Violin and Grapes by Pablo Picasso

Annotate a still life painting by Cezanne or Van Gogh

I chose to annotate a still life by Paul Cezanne for this exercise.

Here is a copy of the annotation, with the photos removed for copyright purposes

Still Life with Fruit Basket by Paul Cezanne – No Photo

I have always liked Cezanne’s paintings, but until starting this course I haven’t really studied them in great detail – I’ve simply looked at them.

I was something of a revelation to study this painting in more detail and to research it. I learnt how Cezanne used multiple perspectives in one picture and that no matter how random the composition of his still lifes looked, they were meticulously arranged.

I think that I am starting to look at paintings in a lot more depth now.

One of the difficulties I had with this annotation is that I could not see the original – this is a drawback. Certain of the exercises require annotation of a particular style of work and sometimes it simply isn’t possible to see the original, such as with this Cezanne still life. I am getting better at annotations from photographs of paintings, but I still like to see an original whenever possible.

Research point: Van Gogh’s Letters

This was an interesting exercise. I had heard that Van Gogh was a regular correspondent with his brother, but the sheer volume of correspondence took me by surprise, well over 900 so far as I could see.

I found the following site the best repository of the letters

Reading through the letters gives a real sense of period and Van Gogh’s powers of observation are remarkable.

Attached is a sheet of a few extracts from letters and my comments and learning points from them.

Whilst researching this subject I also came across this fascinating account of how Van Gogh’s use of colour was influenced by the time he spent in Paris and his exposure to other artists there.

This was a good exercise, without it I would not have the same insight that I now have to Van Gogh’s approach to painting.


Annotation: a still life image

For this exercise I chose to annotate an image by Willem Kalf. I’m really pleased that I chose to do this for two reasons

  • I had not heard of Kalf before so it was good to learn more about his work. I looked a several of his paintings before I chose this one to annotate.
  • Not only had I not come across the paintings of Kalf before, but I had certainly not heard of ‘Pronkstilleven’

One of the aspects of this course that I like so much is how I am learning new things all the time. I’m probably not a huge fan of ‘ostentatious still life’ but it is great to learn about it and increase my general knowledge.

A copy of the annotation is attached, as usual the photos have been removed for copyright purposes.

Kalf annotation

Research point: Iconography of still life paintings

These are a few of the symbols that have been included in still life paintings, they have been taken from Hall, J. (2008) Dictionary of Subjects and Symbols in Art (Revised 2nd edition) Colorado: Westview Press

  • Bird – Symbol of the soul in ancient Egypt, features in this sense in still life
  • Hour glass, Clock or Candle – allude to the passing of time
  • Skull – Momento mori reminding us that we must die
  • Cup, Pitcher or Bowl – emptiness
  • Crown, Sceptre, Jewels, Purse or Coins – power and possessions of the world

There is a much longer list  (4 pages) in a paper by Ellen Siegel on the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth website. The paper is called “Symbols of Change in Dutch Golden Age Still Life Paintings:Teachers’ Guide and Lesson Plan” and the list of icons is on page 12.

It is very interesting to consider the use of symbols within still lifes. I was aware of how symbols had been used from my research earlier in this course into the St Jerome painting by Durer. However the list in the University of Massachusetts paper above is considerable and I wasn’t aware of the very wide nature of symbols that can be used. I now have a reference list to check!