R4 – Research, tondo painting and the domestic interior

Michaelangelo’s Doni Tondo is a portrayal in a round composition of the Holy Family, and it demonstrates how this circular format seems to create a sense of intimacy, unity and harmony.  The subject, the family, stand out as almost the only content of the painting.  They take up most of the surface area; around them,  the background is reduced to a monochrome frieze of figures, and the foreground is a dull, tonal area of nondescript grass.  The family themselves by contrast are brightly coloured and sharply in focus.  Similar in composition is a tondo by Ford Maddox-Brown which I saw in the Fitzwilliam Museum, The Last of England, a portrait of a couple looking back from the deck of their passenger ship as they start a new life. The focus is all on the couple, but there is plenty of nautical activity and rolling seas going on in the background in a very toned down way.

I saw Philip Guston’s tondo, Bombardment at the recent RA exhibition, ‘America After the Fall’.  It depicts the aerial bombardment of a civilian population.  Using a tondo format, associated with the Renaissance, Guston has made his painting into a general commentary,  creating a universal rather than a specific image.  The painting seems to me to resemble Michaelangelo’s work in the way the figures are painted flying through the air, as in the Sistine Chapel, their limbs dramatically foreshortened, and in the colours and the way in which the drapery is painted.

I looked at Mark Fairnington‘s work in Part 1.  His series of animal eyes are extremely finely painted but the detail is secondary to the overall effect.  Viewing them again I feel an empathy with each animal.  Each one seems alive, delicate.  The eye is the most vulnerable, sensitive part of any creature, the only organ unprotected.  There seems to be sympathy from the artist for the animal equivalent of the ‘human condition’ .  The small (35cm) tondo format seems to concentrate the viewer’s focus on the central subject, the eye.  Such intense concentration on one element of a painting  is perhaps particularly suited to the tondo format.  I don’t feel I could aspire to such painstaking work, which surely must necessitate physically demanding hours on end poring over each canvas.

Contrast his work with the eyes of Marc Quinn.  They are painted photo realistically in oil, each one depicting an enlarged 1.5m diameter) human İris, with its black central pupil.  But like Fairnington’s eyes, there is a lot more conveyed by the artist than in a photograph; we find a world of depth and richness in these stunningly beautiful irises,  “a kind of microscopic map of an individual’s identity” (marcquinn.com).  In some of the works, for example Map of Where You Can’t See the Stars’, a world map is superimposed on the iris.

Both artists are painting hyper-realistically; Fairnington describes the eye of his subjects in closely studied detail, and in doing so portrays the spirit of the animal; Quinn takes description in a different direction, superimposing his artificial concept of the eye as identity, as mirror of the soul etc, and its connection to and impact on the world.


I didn’t find any tondi by Roxy Walsh, but I enjoyed looking at her series Lady Watercolourist at Home and Lady Watercolourist Abroad.  These are watercolour on paper (A4-A5) and the immediate thing that I notice is the intensity of pigment. These are no wishy-washy watercolours.  But she retains translucence, presumably by limiting the mixing of too many layers and pigments.  Contrast to these the series Felix Culpa, watercolour on linen, which have very beautiful stain like tints with accents of sharp, bright pigment.

Iain Andrews says his paintings begin with a folk tale or an image from art history, which he then plays with, retelling and embellishing.  In the past he would work from photocopies of an image, cutting, rearranging into a collage to form the starting point for a new painting.  This is a technique I may try in my Part 4. More recently, he pours paint thickly and allows it to dry into wrinkled, crusty surfaces, then teases out forms by adding shadows, until the painting just begins to suggest some thing – becoming both abstract and figurative at the same time.  I like the possibilities of using similar techniques in my own practise.

Henny Acloque – her web site helpfully reveals the development of her work since 2010.  In her 2011 oval format paintings the artist superimposes flat abstract areas of colour onto landscapes after Breughel, Durer and Cranach.  Later, 2013, these develop form, described by contours painted in bright harlequin shapes.  The forms suggest strange other-worldly animals.  The harlequin forms break up and  develop into fairy-story spear-throwers and flying monsters.  Then more recently the paintings are cut into strips and rearranged until all appears fragmented.  Her web site talks about layers of paint and reflective varnish; they would have to be seen to be fully appreciated.

There is a cartoon quality in the harlequin forms – they can be seen as representing the irrational in a realistic setting.


Virginia Verran – the tondo features quite prolifically in her work.  She combines drawing and painting, using watercolour with pen and pencil to make strong marks and recurring motifs expressing her inner world.  Drawings such as Bonner-space (repetition), 2013 and PLINY, 2011-12 convey explosion, bullets, chaos, the hardware of war, as well as more organic motifs.



Other examples of tondo painting:

Pierre Bonnard, Bathers in a Park, 1908.  Oil on canvas 28 inches.

I found this oval painting in The Artist and the Camera, p244.  The oval format is used to contain a very intimate scene of the artist’s family children bathing.  It is a clever composition – an outer oval of dark foliage further encompasses and protects the bathers.  I like how the figures are lit by a warm light from above, and this light is reflected in the pool.  It was interesting in the book to see alongside the painting a collection of photos of the same subject.  In the photos adults are in evidence supervising the play; by omitting them from the painting Bonnard has given the scene an entirely different appeal.

Geraldine Swayne – Fake Ancestor # 5. 8cm diameter, enamel on copper portrait http://thefineartsociety.com/artists/112-geraldine-swayne/works/9448/  

Nalini Malani tondi in Vitamin P2, are reverse painted on acrylic sheet, in acrylic, ink and enamel.  I looked up reverse painting and it means applying paint to a transparent substrate ( eg glass, acrylic sheet), reversing the usual sequence of backdrop followed my middle ground and finally detail, so that you paint the detail first and the backdrop last; then viewing the painting from the reverse side.  Apparently the technique dates back to Byzantine times.   Malani’s paintings here have a warm and dreamy quality.  Traditional folk arts like glass painting, shadow play and kaleidoscope influence her work.  Her themes encompass oppression, war, violence and fundamentalism.

The domestic interior

As painted by Charlie Day the domestic interior is seen as a series of single objects painted in isolation, which taken together add up to a picture of his domestic world.  I can see the influence of Richard Diebenkorn who chose single objects in a field of interlocking colours as subject, and painted in an expressive, impasto style.  I had a look at Wayne Thiebaud‘s paintings of collections of everyday objects, arranged them in serried ranks.  His subjects are colourful, sweet and sugary.  Day and Thiebaud may have been influenced by Philip Guston’s late cartoon style work, and his rendering of personal objects.

Tori Day says her work “concerns the overlooked and mundane; things that might otherwise not be celebrated but which carry with them the marks of people’s lives”.  I can see this quite poignantly in her current series ‘Work’, a series of paintings of old carpentry tools painted on reclaimed Georgian floorboards.  She paints them in strong light, against a backdrop which she also includes in her composition, complete with masking tape and bulldog clips. The objects themselves are beautifully rendered with all the traces of their long history.  The strong cast shadows the lighting creates add importance and solidity to the humble objects,  Her palette is subtly colorful, restrained and elegant, which I admire and envy, with my tendency towards bright childish colour.

Tori Day also paints in watercolor;  her ‘CDs’ series, as the name suggests, portray cd cases, mimicking their designs in watercolor, each carefully placed centrally on a vellum surface.  Also on Day’s web site is a collection of watercolours again of everyday, mundane objects painted in isolation apart from their own cast shadows.

Jacquie Utley paints pastel coloured interiors peopled by elegant women in a recent series.   There are also rather pretty flower still lifes.  Despite the surface eye-appeal Utley depicts an intriguing, mysterious atmosphere in her work which Id like to achieve too.

The tondo painting project in Part 4 is concerned with the domestic interior, and my research has shown me that subjects need not be ornamental to be worth painting.  Tori Day in particular seemed to me to depict mundane objects in an extremely engaging way; maybe by looking so intensely almost any subject when painted can be endowed with an importance and can communicate the painter’s response and feelings about it.








Vitamin P2 Pub Phaidon 2011

The Artist and the Camera by Dorothy Kosinski, pub Yale University Press, 1999



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