Category Archives: Assignments

Part 4 – response to tutor feedback

At the moment the following is subject to a video tutorial to take place later.

I will send a selection of my tondos with my Part 5 submission, or sooner, as it was difficult to judge the works’ quality from the blog.  I can also send my Part 3 Family Album artist book at the same time.

Response to general points

  1. The blog complements the work submitted, which is valuable for assessment; that is useful to know.  As a point of interest, a friend who bought one of my POP paintings found that reading my blog notes on the development of the painting enriched her appreciation of the work itself; maybe there could sometimes be a case for this ‘journal’ of the work’s development becoming part of the work.
  2. Using a viewfinder helped me find good subject matter, although I found a huge difference between what my eyes and brain saw and what the camera snapped.  Photos help too. but are dull on their own – mundane subject matter needs to be transformed by the eye and the brain working together (observation and imagination) to express feeling.
  3. Harvard referencing – recommendation noted and I will do for Part 5. I couldn’t find Pierre Bonnard’s tondo online either (my source was the course-recommended book The Artist and the Camera), and I’ve added a photo of it to my blog here
  4. Will continue to integrate contextual research into development of / reflection on my own work

Project work –

Need to discuss tutor’s comments on Teabags to understand fully lessons to be drawn from Matisse et al and Lisa Milroy (Geisha series?)

I feel my Scissors tondo was one of my best  because its composition, texture effects,  palette, augmentation with other media, all make it quite a rich painting – perhaps we can touch on this is our video tutorial.

The Drummer – I looked at Alexander Cozen’s blot technique in the link (, a liberating method of suspending critical judgement in order to paint an imaginative vision.  First and most importantly the subject must be clearly visualized in the mind.  I like the idea of then crumpling and flattening the surface of a large sheet of paper, and painting the major forms quickly with liquid medium.  The resulting image is then copied onto watercolour paper as a basic outline of a painting.

Also took a look at decalcomania, or pressing paint between two surfaces, for example paper and plastic wrap.  Both these techniques could contribute to my Part 5 work.

Coloured pencil tondi – I agree the brushes alone would make a stronger painting, I think I’d almost picked up on that in my blog by saying I’d make the paints recede more if I did it again – they distract and should either not be there or be pushed firmly into the background.

I’ve just found some fine coloured pencil tondi by Fernand Khnopff in The Artist and the Camera, page 146-8.  They show how coloured pencils and pastels can be used in a subtle & suggestive way, which I plan to try to adopt in some of my work for Part 5.


To be discussed (what work is best and has moved me on most)


I like the suggestion to transform the research on artists I look at to reflect my own themes.  Also for the mini-essay – focus on a contextual theme that supports my thoughts on media research – need to discuss further.

Assignment 4

Here are the two paintings I made for this assignment.


19cm – watercolour on toned Khadi rag and fibre paper


29cm – watercolour and gouache on blue tinted rough cotton Aquarelle Arches 300gsm paper

Reflection on outcomes 

Im happy with some aspects of my assignment tondos.  I achieved a sense of light and the play of light and reflections in the composition.  The final darkening of the curtains in the larger tondo brought the composition more alive suddenly, by creating stronger contrasts.  I like the window and my treatment of the window frames, which is soft and not intrusive.  I’d hoped for an outcome with a more ethereal atmosphere, I wanted to achieve Turner’s depiction of light rather than defined solid objects.

The two tondos are very different in atmosphere, the one dark with an almost thundery-day feeling, the other full of sunshine.  The second really says more about our domestic life.  Indoors we have hard, shiny surfaces, mirrors that reflect a vast, empty space, and chairs that are often empty while the outdoors beckons as a more comfortable place to spend our time.

Working within a circular shape seems to give me the opportunity to reflect and echo that circle within my composition, in this case the round edge of the table, the round bowl and the curved chair backs.  In itself the circular frame pulls the focus inwards to the centre, and sets up a feel of symmetry and intimacy.  Its limitation is perhaps that we can’t concentrate on either the horizontal or the vertical in creating a circular composition, it is a 360 degree view.


It would be interesting to experiment more with a wider range of ideas around composition within the circular format; I wonder whether the golden proportion, and the fibonacci spiral could be incorporated, to siucessfully shift the emphasis in the tondo from the centre.  The spiral is particularly intriguing; I could imagine a series of accents in a composition leading the eye around the support.

What I did

Having already painted an interior area of my home in the exercises, and feeling my work for Part 5 may concentrate on the outside, my painting for this assignment represents a transition – inside, looking out.  I looked to old sketchbooks and interpreting views from a window in new ways.  I wanted my assignment piece to be not just a picture of an area of my home, but to express something additional – for example a certain atmosphere, an emotion, a response to light and dark, a memory or a feeling.

I wanted my painting to look fluid and fresh.  As this is watercolour,  one way I troed to achieve this was by working through options in my sketchbook – composition, tones, colours, layers and washes.

A view from a window can focus on the inside or the outside.  There is usually a strong contrast in tonal value between the two areas, the window lighter and the interior relatively dark.  I built the darks gradually, but trying not to be afraid of using thicker intense, dark washes – retaining translucency and avoid muddying hues by layering too many different colours.  To start with I intended to create my lights by saving quite large areas of the white ground.

The view below is one I’ve sketched in the past.  It appeals to me because of the dramatic contrast between the light flooding in through the window and the comparatively dark interior.  I also like the reflections in the high gloss tabletop. My old sketch was successful on the level of looseness of execution and inventive colour; but the window looks like a picture on the wall; and there’s no depth to the scene, and not enough tonal contrast between inside and out.

D1 sketch

 I made some small sketches in round tondo format to start investigating composition and tone.

I drew a 19cm circle on a piece of unstretched 150gsm rag and fibre, light-neutral toned Indian Khadi paper and treated the paper to an initial water-soak and dry.  I experimentally made a few random light coloured washes with a size 18 round watercolour brush to see how the ground would react. Even though quite lightweight it didn’t buckle much and the paper seemed to have just the right amount of absorbency.  Encouraged, I drew my composition quickly in paint with the same brush, over the pale colour washes, using just indigo, and then continued developing and refining my indigo washes, applying and lifting paint as i observed and adjusted tones.  Interestingly the background colours – which I think were sap green, cerulean blue and carmine or magenta – stained the paper and remained even when I applied some fairly strenuous lifting techniques on the indigo, which by contrast came away relatively easily. The paper stood up quite well to the rough treatment too.  The gallery below shows the painting in early, mid and later stages. 


I prefer the painting at the early stage where there is more light and forms are more sketchy.  I like the dramatic contrasts of the final painting though, and I like the way the background colours appear as an impression of the outside garden through the window, and are then repeated as they peek through in reflections and undertones elsewhere.  The overall tone is darker than I would like; though I used white acrylic ink for highlights, I want more dazzling light in my painting, so maybe I should use a white ground for my next attempt (note to self – where is the reflection of the jug in the table?).

Next morning I looked again as the sun shone directly through the window:  the yellow sunlight creates interest on the left of the composition.  There is a nice pool of light reflected in the bowl; overall tones are lighter and colours warmer and more evident in this early morning light.


Turner painted many interiors of stately homes, cathedrals and churches in watercolour, as studies of the effect of interlocking areas of light and dark. His treatment is rough and sketchy, but masterfully describes interior structures in extremely subtly differentiated washes.  His 14x19cm, watercolour and gouache painting, At Petworth: Morning Light Through the Windows, 1827, appears flooded with soft, diffuse light despite the use of a blue ground; the tonal contrasts are less emphatic than mine, the forms just suggested as shimmering differences in light to medium tone, apart from the dramatic dark sepia sillouhette of the sketchy figure in the foreground.  Daylight seems to be streaming in from what appears to be a window on the far right of the composition.  The painting gives a wide view of the room, compared to my closeup, flattened composition.


At the Tate Britain exhibition I visited in 2015,  Late Turner – Paintings Set Free, there was a contemporaneous exhibition of paintings by Olafur Eliasson in which the artist replicated the palette in individual Turner paintings, in a circular format like a giant CD.  He tried to capture the ephemeral feel of Turner’s pallette, in order to understand how Turner captured atmosphere and de-materialised the elements of his compositions. 

Looking at the painting above, I studied Turner’s colours, though they’re faded and altered with time.  There are three main hues; yellow ochre (mixed with naples yellow for opacity?), mauve-grey (perhaps pale magenta watercolour washed over the blue ground) and sepia laid over the yellow.  Around the edges the blue paper appears.  I think the paler, opaque tints must be watercolour mixed with white gouache. Colours darker than the blue ground are done in translucent watercolour washes, modified by the colour of the ground.  Here’s my attempt at replicating Turner’s palette using Ellasson’s approach, and on tinted paper:

This research has encouraged me to try to create the sort of light-filled painting I want, using a tinted ground with gouache and watercolour.  Turner used a cool tinted ground (blue) for his warm hued painting (predominantly yellows).  I decided to follow his example and create a blue tinted ground for my painting, which would also have a warm colour spectrum.  I experimented with painting over an ink ground, but found the watercolour washes dried with hard outlines, where they’d recativated the ink. An acrylic ink ground didn’t reactivate, and retained the absorbency I wanted.  Sepia added to blue gave a greenish tint; black added to blue gave a warmer tonal blue.

I opted for the warmer colour and mixed plenty of diluted acrylic ink, testing on scrap paper till i was satisfied with colour intensity; dampened two pieces of (Aquarelle Arches rough cotton 300gsm) white paper all over to help get a smooth wash, and quickly, methodically with a large flat brush tinted the 29cm tondo, going beyond the edges.  When dry I Iightly pencilled in my composition on one, making some changes to improve its balance and interest.


On the other I did some trial painting; Ray Smith talks about opaque watercolour methods in which white gouache provides highlights and pale tones.  Mixing opaque and transparent techniques ‘usually work best when they are dealt with in a balanced way’ he says (The Artist’s Handbook p127).  

Smith also talks about the beauty of overlaying thin washes instead of just using’s  one thickly applied wash (p134).  I need to remember to build up my dark areas by overlaying washes in thin mid-to-light tone, whether I’m superimposing two or three colours, or just one.

I started painting slowly, thinking carefully about each step, adding body colour to the window area but otherwise using very thin transparent washes, and thinking about how these would be modified by the ground colour.  Work in progress gallery is below.  





Assignment 3 – review


Family Album – an exercise in Not Knowing.

Early on in the project I knew I wanted to make a book and that it would contain paintings of my childhood family.  I was hoping to discover new things about myself and my feelings, at the same time as discovering new ways of painting and making.  But further than that I really didn’t know what I was doing or what I was going to do, and it was at this point I had to find a balance between planning and intuition.

What this work, my Family Album, will mean to others clearly will not be the same as it means to me – others can read into it their own interpretations, but when I step back from it and try to see what I’ve made, I can see quite a difference between what I intended at the outset and what the work eventually became.  Gary Hume says in discussing paintings of his mum which he recently made, that he made an unexpected discovery:   “I thought I was making paintings of my mum, but it turned out quite quickly that it’s all about me.  I haven’t really given her her own identity. It is absolutely my mum from my eyes, from my emotional standpoint.” (

I’ve made a book of paintings about my family that’s also about myself, a book with many layers both physical and of meaning and time.  The book is to be handled, the pages turned, the textures felt, to capture the relationship between sight and touch.

Here is the book I made.

I did a certain amount of planning; making a mock-up of a book, planning the supports and subject matter of each page, trying out staining and printing on various supports.  I had an idea I would layer paintings and incorporate script in a deliberate way.

I looked at other artists books.   Paul Gauguin made a journal incorporating his handwriting, watercolours (often using monotype processes) and woodblock.  I felt the watercolour medium was both bold and colourful and very delicately used in these paintings from his Noa Noa journal. Often his subjects were lightly drawn with line before adding colour wash.  I liked the way he incorporated script, sometimes surrounding, at other times topping and tailing his subject, or layered underneath.

I knew I’d been surprised in the earlier exercises as I worked with my materials and unexpected things happened, and this sense of surprise cropped up again and again as I worked on.  These things threw me and altered my course, into unforeseen directions. I layered paintings in unexpected ways – gluing and stitching supports, layering time – combining portraits and other materials from different eras. I incorporated stitch and collage; I linked portraits with a golden thread; script became unclear, present but confused and faded.  I thought of using papers which have a history.  Sian Bowen uses fragments cut from old wallpapers, letters and documents; I wanted to incorporate old household accounts, humdrum business printouts, poems and letters, but without  altering or destroying the originals.

My materials, processes and the book-form threw many challenges at me, giving rise to difficulties and doubts.  I was encountering the unknown.  Monotype printing and painting on silk, canvas, thin semi-transparent fabric-like papers, and highly absorbent surpports, all was unpredictable despite many sketchbook tryouts.  Processes were equally challenging.  Whether burnishing printed script onto fabrics and thin papers, or staining liquid pigment onto raw textiles, the results were never quite what I’d been aiming for.  The form of my project, a book, (size 25cm high and 17.5cm wide), presented criteria and limitations that I had to work with, each page being one half of a support, the reverse of which was as important as the front.

Selecting subject matter was another area of not knowing.  I had a plethora of material, and had to focus on those things that best expressed my memories and feelings. I also had to allow myself to be led by my materials; it was no good trying to paint a detailed portrait on raw textiles for instance.  Each day I left more sketches, tryouts, photos and old papers lying around in my studio to come back to, and continued working with them in sight.

I became engrossed in the process of printing, drawing and painting these portraits, handling, stitching, embellishing and layering the pages of my growing book, while becoming more deeply immersed in memories, imagination and feeling.  I was reluctant to bring the project to a close, knowing there wouldn’t be a final resolution.  As I advanced towards the final pages I found lost memories, forgotten dreams and new meanings, and a new awareness of the me I became ; and my paintings became less literal and more expressive.


I’ll now go on to explain some of the sketchbook work I did to support this project, how I developed my ideas, and how I painted the portraits



On Not Knowing, by Rebecca Fortnum, 2009

Part 2 Response to tutor feedback

My tutor’s feedback report was again detailed, thoughtful and encouraging, with lots of leads for further thought and research.  Doing the assignment work I was very much caught up in the excitement and enjoyment of exploring metal as a support, and will develop this, but will keep experimenting with other materials too.  The lightness of the pigments in my ice painting was mentioned as possibly leading to an exploration of staining and bleeding paint, and this also connects to my paintings in coffee and in pomegranate juice on fabric.  I’ve picked up on this, looking at the paintings and woodcuts of Helen Frankenthaler (also Mali Morris and and doing some experiments of my own which I plan to incorporate into my work – I’ve written about this in a separate post here.

Response to tutor’s feedback on individual exercises:


2.1 – Unusual media – the paintings with frozen watercolour submitted as part of my looseleaf sketchbook were originally done as experimental paintings in response to exercise briefs, hence had no annotations to describe the process, as you might expect to see in a sketchbook.   I’ll add some handwritten notes to the sketchbook to describe their experimental history.

I looked at Goldsworthy and saw how he is controlling and exacting in his process of making art from nature (leaves); he collects items (stones, leaves, twigs) and lays them out in an orderly pattern, producing some striking pieces.  But less controlling, he also collaborates with nature – e.g. shows how a rain shadow can be made on stone during wet weather. He records his work as it disappears – as I did with my paintings on ice.  I found a wonderful drawing in snow and slate on watercolour paper – made with a snowball here

Oscar Munoz work also harnesses the ephemeral to express ideas – portraits that emerge momentarily as you breathe on a mirror; painting in water on a hot paving slab; drawing with charcoal dust and paper on water, the drawing changing as the water evaporates (this process later made into a video, speeding up the process so the viewer could witness the changes! (Narciso)).  They reflect on memory and mortality.

Textural explorations can be developed.  I visited Tate Britain and saw No Woman No Cry, 1998,  by Chris Ofili, incorporating all sorts of objects including printed paper, glitter, map pins and elephant dung.  This beautiful decorative approach, suggestive of a combination of paintings and embroidery,  has more appeal to me, visually and in a tactile sense than the harsh marble dust I experimented with. 

2.2 – large scale line painting – I like the concept of aligning text, script and pattern deliberately with layers of paint and can see potential for doing this in my next assignment.  I looked up Sian Bowen and was very intrigued by her ideas.  In Fragment No 1, 2005, it looks as though the artist has collaged on the original script, or a facsimile of it  I wonder about reproducing script on paper, tissue and fabric, through printing or burnishing, playing with the colour and tone of the script, laying it over or under thin washes of paint.

Bowen has a great interest in the quality of paper and paper objects, especially things meant to be handled like folding books, albums, maps, cut paper patterns, which recalls an early interest of mine in making origami forms and paper mosaics.

She uses laser cutting and burning to make marks, sprinkles precious metal dust into lacquer on paper, buries paper and incorporates the marks of decay and insect infestation into drawing, retrieves old layers of wallpaper to incorporate in her work.

2.3 painting on a 3d surface – I have read The Hare With Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, so was aware of netsuke, but my tutor’s reference printed me to look a little closer at these small, intimate objects, and their uses and meanings.  Since my Matchbox painting I’m drawn to making other painted objects that are meant to be handled, objects of many aspects and qualities (tactile, aural as well as visual) which can be explored by the viewer, and I’d like to pursue this in the next assignment.

2.4 painting on a painted surface – I can now see a connection between my painting of a bird, pan and coffee pot, and how I depicted them, and my part 1 paintings of Pacific NW ethnic masks and totem poles.  Indigenous and prehistoric cultures, their lives, art and objects fascinate me.  I wrote about a visit I made to look at the carved sculptures of Tlingit Alaskan Natives here, and my thoughts on their significance in the lives of those people.  

Some of my backgrounds my tutor mentioned, were interesting paintings in their own right.   No 6, a black and white under-painting of a collection of objects was one.  The gouache /ink resist technique I used gave an old, distressed look to the objects, which i can now see have an antique, ghostly feel to them.  The reference to Lascaux caves led me to look more closely at Gerry Davies‘ drawings, especially a couple of series relating to caves.  In Retreat to Caves and Deluges and Floods he plays with scenarios to do with 21st century disaster and his visions of life thereafter, in which modern everyday objects and living environments take on new meanings, and a future other significance (just as my scissors and socks have!).

In this exercise it was pointed out that my strongest backgrounds contributed to my two strongest paintings, so the underpainting is very significant to the outcome.  I like the parallel drawn between this, and Freud and the unconscious informing every aspect of our lives.


Assignment – 

The references to Cubism, Futurism and Orphism suggest different ways I might have considered approaching fragmentation, multiple viewpoints and time based depiction.  Another approach is found in an Ori Gersht series Blowups.  It recreated still life paintings in 3D in a series of photos and video in which the objects are shown in the process of violently exploding, bringing me round to time based considerations once more.  Another work by Gersht which seems relevant in this context is his series of photographs Reflections.  These photographs are of bouquets of artificial flowers arranged to carefully copy Jan Breughel’s 17th century flower paintings, and placed in front of a mirror.  The bouquets are impossibly exotic and perfect.  Gersht then caused the mirror to shatter, and at that precise moment took photos focussed on the mirror’s surface and on the reflection of flowers in it. To me there is a strong message of how memory and time distort and fragment the past.

Cornelia Parker is another artist using violent transformation of objects in the artistic process.  In Thirty Pieces of Silver she has a steamroller crush over a thousand pieces of silver and arranges them into thirty disc shaped groups, hung on copper wire from the ceiling.  She transforms and destroys the meaning and value of the objects, and gives them new meaning in her work.

I watched the BBC documentary on still life, Apples Pears and Paint, which I feel is closely based on Norman Bryson’s book ‘Overlooked:Four Essays on Still Life Painting.  Here’s a link to my earlier research on still life, for my future reference.  The significance of objects, especially everyday overlooked things, is the subject of still life painting, from the Xenia murals, through 17th century Dutch still life painting, to Cubism and every era in between. Significance is what changes from age to age; objects can carry religious significance, they can signify wealth, transience, decay and death, or simply intimate life and memories.

The Dutch Golden Age is rich in paintings of sumptuous displays of silver, glass and other reflective surfaces.  Willem ClaeszStill Life with Gilt Goblet is a good example, with reflected and refracted light from a window appearing in the green glass and the metal jug.

My thoughts also turn to narrative and significance, and I now refer back to my investigation of the totem pole and the vertical format which is used in Native American culture (in addition to practical purposes as supporting posts) to make the supernatural world visible and relate myths, to memorialise events in the history of an individual, and to draw on images owned by the clan.  They aren’t religious, but they express an underlying shamanic belief in the spiritual nature and interdependence of all living and inert things.  So, with a multi-part vertical format,  I tried to imbue my silver tea pieces with our story, reflections of us, and with a warmth of a reflected kaleidoscope of colour and a living spiritual significance acquired over the years. My intention was for the five pieces to stay together; although I can now see the first two are somewhat different in composition to the others, and could stand alone, I’m reluctant to separate them.


I love the comparison of my sketch on metal to Chardin! I was aware when making my assignment pieces that my approach was developing in a rather representational direction, not necessarily what I had intended, but see below my notes about Chardin’s The Ray.  The making of my pentaptych was done with careful research, planning and execution in that I wanted to make sure the process – painting on metal – which I’d never done before – would work, that the paint would adhere basically.  By doing some more adventurous background experimental work exploring metal and media, I might have learned some unexpected different approaches and effects that could have made my paintings more exciting.  If I have time I’ll have a play as suggested, and  In this connection I looked at the work of Katherine Rush, who paints in oil on aluminium, using dripping, smearing, destroying, gloss, leaving large areas of unpainted metal, creating an aura of mystery and ambiguity, and giving me lots of ideas to get started with.

I’ll definitely try to explore processes in a more experimental, risk-taking spirit in part 3.  I’ll also think more about linking my painting processes (media, support and execution) with my subject matter and the intentions and ideas informing my work; and look at using eastern papers and fabric as part of that.


Research and learning log

I note the thinking about the relative unimportance of distinctions between representational and abstract work.  Perhaps we can envisage a scale with hyper-realism at one end, and non-objectives art at the other.  I feel trying to work at either extreme of this scale can perhaps limit self-expression, the freedom to explore in my work what I think and feel about my subject.  As my tutor noted, making objects ‘strange’ can be a means to express what I think.

Meret Oppenheim‘s fur covered cup goads the viewer into reaction; we are puzzled, thrown out of our certainties, by the sight of this familiar drinking vessel and the disgusting thought of our lips touching the fur lining.  Man Ray’s spiked iron incites less powerfully but works in a similar way, presenting us with an everyday domestic tool deliberately altered and rendered ludicrous.

These are extreme interventions to make objects strange.  Chardin‘s The Ray presents a more subtle approach (brought to mind by Andrew Graham-Dixon’s excellent Art of France yesterday).  His composition is quite unsettling.  There is nothing attractive about the gory ray hanging there with its strange face and it’s glistening, visceral innards on display, in fact it’s quite repulsive.  The cat seems manic, as he pounces on some oysters lying there.  A knife lies half hidden, balanced precariously half off the edge of the shelf, inviting us to grasp the handle and do what with it?  The whole scene is strange, unfamiliar and disturbing, made so by the way the artist has chosen to compose the scene, and how he has painted the objects in it.  



I looked at George Shaw’s work and his use of humbrol enamels on mdf board to make his meticulous, detailed landscapes.  His work is an example of how to make the familiar strange by painting in an ostensibly highly realistic way.  I immediately recognised his landscapes as those of my youth too  – and my reaction to them is one of acute nostalgia tinged with sadness, for those days and the person I was then. And yet they are strange; there are no people in them, they are manufactured from photos, memory and observation to be authentically 1970s scenes with all modern changes stripped away.

I found some paintings on metal (copper and aluminium) by Sean Scully here.  I like how the warmth of the copper shows through between the rough edges of his abstract shapes.  In Christies web site here, Scully talks about the experience of painting on metal; he compares painting on copper to ice skating instead of walking.  I was also taken by the way he talks about his paintings not being abstract, but being ‘associational’ or metaphorical – looking closely at them, the viewer starts to make associations with things she knows (such as water lapping against a wall), even though the artist didn’t necessarily have that association in mind when he made the painting.  Interestingly, despite eschewing abstraction, later in the article he states ‘that’s where abstraction dominates, I think.  It expresses what cannot be described anecdotally’  ( I also learned that Scully has done some paintings on metal to furnish the chapel of Saint Cecilia at Montserrat, Barcelona – must visit!


Finally I’ve bought Hannah Arendt’s Illuminations and am looking forward to reading that, particularly the essays mentioned.

References (Sian Bowen) Claesz

Assignment 3 – developing ideas


It was clear early on in part 3 that I wanted my old family photographs, rediscovered through a long lost relative, to form the starting point for my assignment series.  The exchange of our family history has grown in recent weeks.  From having next to nothing I now have a store of photos from the late 19th century up to the 1970s, an extensive family tree, a new family of relatives through my cousin, and now renewed contact with a childhood family friend who forms a strong unbroken link to my mother.

My interest in this family archive material has also been kindled by reading Walter Benjamin’s Archive, and seeing how he valued highly a wide range of material, some lofty, some quite prosaic, and how he carefully arranged the appearance of pages, as well as their content, to look ‘right’.

There are so many photos, but I want to focus on my parents and my brother and sisters.  As my thoughts continued down this path I remembered I had some documents tucked away for years; some handwritten poems by my father; some written on the back of his employer’s stock sheets; a book of family accounts, handwritten by my parents; and some handwritten letters of condolences on the death of my mother and my father’s replies .

I feel these photos, poems and letters define who I am more than anything else; they witness the catastrophe of my mother’s death in 1966, and my father’s response to it, leading to the disconnection of our family.  There is an insightful article in The Guardian here, describing the effects of traumatic loss on families.

So my portraits will be of Mum, Dad and the children.  In some way I’d like them to reflect the memories;  my mother’s light; the happy togetherness of the family before the death; the loneliness as we each grieved in our different ways – and how we all became different because of it.



There will therefore be many portraits in this project, and I want the fervent poems and letters, and the humdrum old household accounts and business papers to form part of the work.  As my tutor suggested in my part 2 report, why not have writing as background, aligned systematically and deliberately with the paintings.  All this might suggest a multi part work, maybe even 3d.  I toyed with the idea of a book – intended to be handled – or a cardboard box theatre stage with layers of moveable scenery and curtains; or a dolls house; or if a book, with pop-up elements, like a child’s storybook.  All of these are connected with elements of our early family life of reading and childhood play.

I could make one book documenting the family growing together and then later apart, or three separate books, representing mum, dad and the children, each made with materials that reflect them as individuals; so my mum’s love of fabrics and dressmaking would be reflected by using a dress fabric support; my dad’s love of sailing by using canvas.  I could explore how painting processes, including materials and supports, can work in tandem with subject matter.

On reflection i thought the theatre, dolls house and pop up book ideas, may prove too complex to develop in an assignment context, while a simple book – call it a Family Album – seemed to connect organically with the idea of documenting a period of life in a family history.


Supports and processes

As well as their connections with fabric, both my parents loved paper in its various uses; for reading the bible, poems and  literature; as a support for drawing and for writing poems, stories and notes of everyday observations.  My tutor suggested using cloth and different papers in my work.  I had some lengths of silk and Irish linen and other fabrics, left over from my days of dressmaking and embroidery, which I could try as painting support for pages of my book.  I found a supplier of Japanese papers and ordered some Kozo (Mulberry) and other handmade Japanese papers, which are fine, light and natural looking with lovely soft edges and slightly irregular but smooth surfaces, one delicate 10g Kozo reminiscent of dressmakers interfacing, light, gauzy and semi transparent.

Oil and watercolour will be used. The fabrics, and maybe the papers, will be very absorbent, and I could use this property to soak and stain the support, trying to work loosely and experimentally. I have to decide how to use the semi transparent supports, maybe layering them over another paintings on a more opaque support (I’d already played with this idea in the exercises) and think about how to compose the colours, tones and subjects of these.

See my post here to follow my experiments in soak-staining, monotype and other processes for painting with oil and watercolour on these fabrics and delicate papers.

The script of my fathers poems and letters will be a crucial part of the work.  I can’t use the documents themselves as artefacts; I have to find a way to transfer his handwriting to my painting supports without damaging the originals, and to use passages or extracts deliberately in the background or foreground or in the margins of paintings, in such a way that the script is integral to the portrait, so that the two are inter-connected.

See my post here to follow my experiments and development of a process for transferring script to fabric and paper supports using my inkjet printer.


Book making

The process of putting together a book is completely unknown to me at this stage – how to cut and fold the pages, how to make a cover, how to bind it, how to fasten it.  I have to consider the back of each page – paint will soak through the supports, more or less, and this may or may not be wanted as part of the book.  I made a mock-up based on a handmade notebook that caught my eye on a crafts stall last year.  This seemed to work, so i made a larger trial version with more pages.

The book is a good size for my Family Album, 25×35 cm.  Bound by stitch and string, the cover has a wrap around flap and is fastened simply by string.  I like the fragile, simple look of it, and the way the pages, alternate leaves of fine paper and fabric, turn.

I considered what support I’d use and the painting I’d make for each page, and made a rough list as a starting point, although I was feeling my way along and knew my ideas would change as the work progressed.  Then I started on the first portrait.

Soak stain experiments on fabric

I wanted to see if I could make progress with using fabric as a painting support, having done a little of this in part 2.    Connected with this, reviewing my part 2 paintings with melting ice, and commenting on the ‘lightness of the pigments and the way the unpredictable is invited’ my tutor recommended looking at Helen Frankenthaler’s work with staining and bleeding.

I looked at both her paintings and her woodcuts.  The paintings are made with very thin paint – oils thinned with turpentine, and later acrylics thinned with water – on unprimed canvas, producing luminous colour washes.  Her compositions are abstract, based almost entirely on colour, although titles she gives to individual paintings suggest an objective inspiration (often the landscape). Is good as an introduction to her work.

(  quotes  Frankenthaler as saying ‘you have to know how to use the accident, how to recognise it, how to control it, and ways to eliminate it so that the whole surface looks felt and born all at once’.  This is particularly true in the case of soak stain, where pigment flows and spreads unpredictably.

The same web site states that ‘Determination is an essential characteristic of the artist whose work evolves from experimentation.’  This seems particularly true in the case of Frankenthaler’s work in woodcuts, where she and her team collaborated to push her creative limits, and those of the technique, to produce painterly prints that look as fluid and spontaneous as any of her paintings.

‘A really good picture looks as if it’s happened at once. It’s an immediate image…one really beautiful wrist motion that is synchronised with your head and heart, and you have it, and therefore it looks as if it were born in a minute’  Helen Frankenthaler, quoted in


One of my ideas for assignment 3 submission is to use fabric as support for a portrait – whether it will work I’m not sure,but I started by experimenting with painting thinned watercolour washes onto swatches of various fabrics (cotton, linen, iron-on dressmaker’s interfacing), some raw, others coated with acrylic gel medium, pva glue, and gesso, and made notes in my sketchbook.  I found that the dilute washes spread and flow long after application, so that what looks like an interestingly loose, but readable portrait can disappear into paint which is still flowing and spreading as it dries. I admit to feeling disheartened, as though I were groping in the dark and getting nowhere. I didn’t even really know how I might be able to incorporate this approach in my assignment portraits.   Determination was definitely needed to continue down this avenue.   It seems painting in a loose and spontaneous way on unprimed fabric needs to be tempered by experience and careful control over the amount of pigmented water applied, if the outcome is to be at all defined (as opposed to completely blurred and merged).


I have a length of embroidery silk, a tightly woven, fine, semi-transparent fabric, which I could paint on and which might combine interestingly as a layer over another painting.  I tried monoprinting onto the fabric from a glass plate, using thinned oil paint, and produced an ethereal, ghost-like portrait which looked promising (bottom right).  I mounted a couple of the swatches into my sketchbook over handwritten text



In the exercises for Part 2 I had taken a ghost print of my uncle on semi-transparent tissue paper; I tried laying this over other portraits to see what would emerge.

This looks effective ; the colours – red on top, blue beneath – combine to make a rich shade of purple; the portraits are partly offset , so you can read each one separately and the two together (another way of achieving clarity while blending images could be to combine ahead and shoulders portrait with a figure, i.e. images on different scales); thereplentyof negative space in each of the compositions, so the blended image isn’t too busy.  

This experiment showed me that to mount a painting on a semi-transparent support over another painting and/or text, the top painting’s composition would need to incorporate unpainted, or flat, thinly-washed passages, to allow the lower layer to be at all readable.  The subjects of the two should be on a different scale so as not to confuse the eye.  Also the effect of different colours and tones on the physical layers blending optically would need to be considered.   How this could work for my Family Album isn’t clear to me yet, but im quite excited by the possibilities, and possible meanings – the example above combines the mother and the son, when they were each in their early twenties, so spans time and generations.


Using script in painting


The genesis of the idea of using hand-written old family documents in my assignment 3 portraits is explained here.

In part 1 I introduced script into a painting, extracts from the words of flamenco song, written in my own hand.  My tutor then introduced me to the work of Mona Hatoum, who also incorporates script, layered with video photography and voice in her work, recalling her younger self and her relationship with her mother.

I collaged text into the background of one of my part 2 paintings, and my tutor wrote ‘There is scope with aligning script … systematically and deliberately with layers of paint’ – tutor feedback, Part 2. 

In Sian Bowen’s work Ream, the artist uses her paper support as a surface which she folds, stiffens and stains.  Some of her source material includes hand-written letters, and also brings together a range of images, some imagined, from various moments in time.  The viewer must try and piece together what is happening.  Part of her body of work, Nova Zembla, comprises script from found documents juxtaposed with her drawings, and made into a series of artist’s books as evidence of a story.  Again in After Hortus Malabaricus, Bowen incorporates script alongside images in her work.  One quality these works seem to me to gave in common is how the inclusion of script from bygone times endows a feeling of the passing of ages.  In my work for my assignment, by juxtaposing portraits of my subjects as they were decades ago, with script made by their own hand in that same long ago time, I might try to evoke fading memories of people, their story and their feelings.

My aim was therefore to find processes which would allow me to transfer script to various painting supports, including fabric.  I didn’t want to damage or directly use the the original pages in the process, so decided I’d have to photograph them and then print facsimiles on to the painting supports.Through much trial and error I found ways of achieving my aim, developing some useful processes as described below.  At the same time my ideas developed; from the concept of a poem or letter as a simple background layer in a portrait, to it maybe being a physically separate layer, veiled by a transparent painting; to using extracts, and deliberately blurring, jumbling and confusing script in a painting; to integrating the script through the face or figure, not just in the surrounding background.



My first experiment (below, top left) with printing on to fabric involved adhering a piece of calico to the shiny side of a piece of butchers paper, by applying heat with an iron, typing a bit of text into my computer, and then running the laminated support through my inkjet printer.  The process worked well, but I realised I’d be limited to A4 or smaller, and wouldn’t have the ability to play easily with how and where the text was printed on the support.

I wanted my dad’s actual handwriting, not typed text, so I took a photo of a page and loaded it into Photoshop Elements.  I hadn’t used the software before, but I managed to work out how to adjust contrast and flip the image so it would come out the right way round after burnishing.  More tricky was learning how to get rid of the background (crinkly paper shadows) and change the colour of the script, but I found this described on a photoshop forum.

I thought I’d try inkjet-printing onto the shiny side of the waxed paper, rather than directly onto the painting support, and then hand-burnishing the resulting print onto my support.  My first trial with a piece of calico (above, top right) was very encouraging.  I tried laying a watercolour wash over the printed script and that took well, with no smudging.  I had another go on a piece of Kozo paper, and that burnished very well too.  It blurred a little with a water wash, so maybe I’d consider laying script over a portrait rather than printing it as a lower layer.  I loved the look of the script combined with fabric and fabric-like paper, and watercolour wash, and I felt quite excited about the direction I was going in.  The burnishing process would allow me to print the script and parts of the script directly onto the painting support, where and how I wanted them, very easily.

A trial on more loosely woven linen (above, lower half of page) was very hard work to burnish so I tried dampening the fabric and this time more ink transferred, but then started to bleed into the dampness.  Also, as I hand burnished the fabric stretched and moved easily.  I though maybe I could stiffen the fabric with a soaking of acrylic medium before printing; also a couple of layers of tissue laid over the support before burnishing, together with slow, patient work, helps a lot to reduce movement.


My inkjet-printed hand-burnished trial on silk (below, bottom sample) had similar results.  Then I tried using the trace monotype technique to see what would happen.  I laid the silk over the inked plate, and a print on copy paper of the text over that.  Then with a biro I laboriously traced the script by hand.  The impression on the silk is quite strong; it’s difficult to control the quality of the line and background smudges and blips are inevitable.  The swatch is interesting though; a short, puzzling extract of script, more jumbled and confused script in the background, perhaps alluding to a state of mind, or befuddled communication.


Hand-burnishing inkjet script onto both dry and dampened linen, pre-coated with acrylic medium.  Adding quick watercolour stains in the form of simple portraits, below. I like how the script runs through the portrait, it seems integrated with it.


Inkjet script hand-burnished onto photocopy paper.  10g semi-transparent Kozo stained with a simple portrait, laid on top.  The layers partly glued together with a bic water-based glue stick where the script can be seen more clearly (top left). 

Fruit-wrapping tissue paper  (below right).