Category Archives: Research & Reflection

R3 – loose paint and monotype

We understand and read faces from the background of our own culture and experience, and that is why it is confusing looking at the faces of people from different cultures – we see strangers, whose faces and identities we struggle to recall in any detail.  I believe this phenomena is also intimately connected with the disruption in communication which occurs between two people, one of whom understands the basics but not the subtleties of the others’ language; we lose the intimate link between face, expression, and the spoken word, that helps us define and learn individual identity.  Yuko Masu expresses this breakdown of understanding in her paintings with a sense of despair and frustration, obliterating, smearing and blurring the heads she cannot read or assimilate the details of.  It’s particularly telling that she exagerrates the differences between western and eastern features – western eyes become as big and round as saucers, the sockets exposed.  Henry Tonks’ portraits are different altogether; they were realistic detailed studies of faces actually disfigured by battle wounds.  I can see there are some superficial resemblances with the distortion of features; but Masu’s faces are disfigured by her inability to comprehend the person in front of her, Tonks’ by unflinching observation of the incomprehensible.


I was interested in Eleanor Moreton‘s watercolour ‘Sisters’ shown in FAD Magazine here (there are other similar ones in the artist’s own web site). The painting has a photographic quality, possibly due to its source, but also because of the monochrome treatment.  I love her metaphor for the process of painting as a ‘dance’ –  intuitive when it’s going well. She describes how she likes painting on a smooth surface, and how at the time she was using brown cardboard as a support for her thinly painted oils.  The series referred to in the course manual, Absent Friends, was of portraits of female writers and singers the artist admired, painted in oil and pastel on birch panels, seen here In all of them you can easily see the smeared brushwork in the thin oil paint, not done to obliterate as Nasu does, but simply as a way of applying the paint..

Kaye Donachie‘s atmospheric portraits of historical female figures appear as if veiled with other layers of light and shade and outline, dissolving into other forms.

I also like very much Laura Lancaster‘s messy portraits, usually whole or three quarter length groups of figures, which seem to have photographic sources as reference.

Kim Edwards‘ monotypes of the Suffolk coast ( )make no concessions to the beauty of that landscape.  Without being picturesque, I would want to express a very different experience from my days of living and sailing there.  Such unrelenting deep, forbidding grey is very rare.  Technically, it’s interesting that the course book says she uses thick oil for monotypes, as I had the impression so far that the paint will need to be quite thin to get a good print.


Annie Kevans‘ series of dictators as children show their sweet faces with a few delicate transparent washes of thinned oil on paper, and a very light touch.  They appear at first glance as monochrome sepia on old, yellowed paper, but looking more closely there are thin tints of pink, green, yellow, and of course black eyes on each one.  The series is provocative in its subject matter, and Kevans admits she made up some of the faces – it doesn’t really matter!  The works are portraits only in a loose sense, really being a composite of existing images, her research and her imagination.

42 more of Kevans’ portraits shown in – mainly female subjects – are similarly painted in thin sepia, but with colourful touches of bright blue and red her and there (I guess added later), like coloured photos.

She has created many more series, all with thought provoking concepts.


Kim Baker makes colourfully decorative, loose swirls of bright paint which seem abstract until you spot the shape of a bird amongst the brushmarks; in her latest (2017) series, Bird in Forest, they are composed in the shape of an oval, on a black background.  We can then interpret the swirls as leaves other forest.  They look as though made in a single brushstroke with a wide brush, loaded with several colours side by side (see also Manet below).  Alli Sharma uses dark backgrounds too, particularly in a series of cartoon-like animal portraits.  These cute furry animals have been made to show a grim and threatening persona by Sharma’s treatment; there is an air of menace which comes through in the human portraits too.


Looking at David Bomberg‘s work I found Circus (Abstract Composition) appealing for its light use of paint, ‘outlines and colour…creating a simple abract composition’ –

In this self portrait: oil paint is used by Bomberg’s in a very sketchy way to describe the subject.  I like the use of startling blue pigment among the gloomy tones to give the painting light, and differentiate the subject from its background.


I looked up Velazquez‘ techniques in the course-suggested book “Techniques of the Great Masters of Art”, p52.  It notes that his earlier paintings show attention to realistic detail, and talks about the care and detail with which many of his paintings were done, about his ‘smooth blended brushwork’ and how he ‘frequently made minor alterations’.  But then it notes that in the 1630s his handling of paint became somewhat freer and cites the light and sketchy gloved hand in the portrait of Phillip IV as an example.  This sort of brushwork was what impressed and influenced Manet.

In the same book, Manet‘s early work is said to have been made using slurred brushstrokes and a wet in wet technique, with colours mixed on the canvas.  In Déjeuner sur l’herbe, 1863 the figures are painted in thick oils, but the background by contrast was made sketchily, with thin, flat paint added later, around the figures (this approach does draw attention to the figures, which I will remember when I want to achieve that effect in my work).  Zooming into details, I can see the confident brushwork, which looks expressive of form in places, in others speedily executed with simple hatching.

The figures in Concert in the Tuileries, 1862 are also painted speedily, wet in wet, with rich, concise blocks of contrasting tone, and the background is done with thin greens, helping us again to separate background and foreground.

Much looser and unfocused is Manet’s handling of paint in Roadmenders in the Rue de Berne, 1878, in which you can see foreground details using distinct, vigorous brushstrokes, several colours to each stroke, and in the distance thin, opaque hazy blues and greens. According to the writer, ‘…loosely and broadly handled colour creates a sense of immediacy’ (p207).



This web page is about the history of mono printing and recounts various artists’ (Castiglione, Blake, Degas, Gaugin) practises

Many of Degas‘ pastels were done on top of his ghost monoprints.  Moma has some interesting insights into monotypes in general, and particularly compares those of Degas with Maurice Prendergast, Milton Avery and Elizabeth Peyton, here here

According to the book ‘The Artist and the Camera’, page Degas made use of monotypes to depict dramatic tonal contrasts, often mixing his materials.  He had a passion for keepsake photographs of friends and family as well as self portraits.


Gaugin made delicately coloured watercolour monotypes; there is an example in ‘The Artist and the Camera’, page 121.  : see  for an explanation of his process: placing damp paper over the watercolour or gouache design and pressing with the back of a spoon would loosen the water based medium, transferring the design in reverse on to the paper. See also

Gaugin was also a pioneer in the creation of traced monotype – see ‘The Artist and the Camera’, page 121, in which the lines are blurred and textures appear where the artist has applied pressure on the back of the paper.  I watched this video explaining trace monotype process, and demonstrating the addition of watercolour and pastel


I looked at the following contemporary artists who he monoprint techniques in their practice.

Therese Oulton makes monoprints combined with oil paint on paper. and

I like the jokey, cartoon-like work of Sam Messer. Although it looks unpolished and scrawly, there is very deep observation, as well as a lot of fun in his images.  I couldn’t find any of his work directly referred to as monotype, but many of his paintings feel as though they may have started life that way.  I added one of his works to my Pinterest board ‘Monotype’ – this painting was sent to me by a supplier when I was looking for Japanese paper.

Charles Amoldi makes abstract monotypes .  In the one I’ve saved on Pinterest here he seems to have carved out abstract shapes from a black background, then maybe added paint and texture in the spaces created.

Kathy Muehlemann makes monotypes depicting natural scenes.  some are here and another in my Monotype Pinterest board.  She achieves dark, mysterious textures, the landscape seeming to evolve out of the process.

I found this an excellent student blog for giving me insights and ideas for monoprinting techniques


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

Techniques of the Great Masters of Art, pub Chartwell Books Inc, 1989.

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

Colour – The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts

Visit to Fitzwilliam Museum


A display in two darkened rooms of 150 illuminated manuscripts from prayer books, an alchemical scroll, the Macclesfield Psalter, and the ABC of a 5 year old child.  The images have been sheltered in cherished volumes from medieval and renaissance times, while panel and wall paintings have often been destroyed.

The exhibits on show range from the 6th to the 16th century, and include Byzantine, Armenian, Sanskrit and Persian manuscripts from all over Europe and the Middle East.

The technologies used to produce these beautiful miniature paintings, and the meanings and values ascribed to the paintings were explained in the exhibition.  I picked up a magnifying glass from a table by the entrance to the exhibition.

To view these finely detailed, postcard sized paintings, I had to position myself just inches from them.  The glass and my proximity revealed wonders I’d never expected – I felt as if I had crossed into the paintings, that I had crossed into another world, like Alice Through the Looking Glass, or Harry Potter on Platform 9 3/4.

The detail and colours in these paintings are exquisite, but more than that, they were made in an imaginative, expressive way.  Depending on the subject, colours were used to express moods such as melancholy, grief, joy etc.  Colours – often pinks juxtaposed with greens – were used inventively to describe atmosphere, such as the strange eerie light of dawn.  Colours – azurites and deep vermillions – were used to describe intricate folds of garments, with subtle gradations of dark to light tones. Varieties of gold abounded – gold leaf punched with a stylus, or powdered gold bestowing a textured gleam.

The subjects ranged from religious scenes, soft and sinuous compositions painted with moving realism; to depictions of the science and the wondrous discoveries of the day; to fantastical inventions – alchemists’ scrolls of dragons and amphibious men.  All were painted with feeling, engaging my mind through the intense visual stimulation, and stirring up my emotions.

This intricate, patient, disciplined art is a far cry from what we’re accustomed to think of as modern art today.  Viewing the illuminations, i did come to see that detailed, skilful, patient work and creative, imaginative outcomes aren’t mutually exclusive.  I looked at the work of Mark Fairnington in Part 1 of my course, and when I’m back at home I’m going to try to find some more examples of contemporary practise which combines fine, painstaking detail on a small scale, with a creative, imaginative interpretation of subject.



Fitzwilliam digital resource:

Museum visit – classical fragments

Visit to Antalya Archaeological Museum

This museum has collected together archaeological fragments from the surrounding ancient regions of Pamphylia, Lycia, Cilicia, Psidia – Classical Greek and Roman sites such as Xanthos, Aspendos, Perge, as well as other more ancient settlements.  Uninterrupted history from traces of earliest human settlements to the present is found in this coastal Mediterranean strip and the fertile lands inland.


Some fine Pergeian sarcophagi, elaborately decorated in high relief stone carving, are on display here.  The carvings depict human and mythical creatures, with scenes from myth, legend and life (the twelve labours of Hercules; the Killing of the Nemean Lion and the capture of other animals, Hercules again, this time in combat with the Cretan Bull)


There are more than one hundred 2nd century ad. marble figures from the Roman period of occupation of Asia Minor, mainly from the nearby ancient city of Perge.There is also a rich collection of busts, each a unique  work of art, at the same time being rooted in the distinctive Perge sculpture tradition of sharply delineated contours and details.

The most engaging and ‘human’ of these sculptures is that of a dancer, carved in a whirling motion, the folds of her clothes revealing the contours of her body. Her hands hold the folds of her skirt, and her neck is turned to lead her motion in the dance.  These are effective strategies to express movement in the human figure.  I liked how the clothes and hair were from a type of darker marble, and her body was carved from white marble. Whereas most of the marble statues are static poses, carved to depict power and prosperity, this one seems to be honouring beauty and vitality.


Artists through the ages have used Greek and Roman statuary as source material and inspiration.  I was struck with the similarity of style, pose and gesture between the statue of the dancer above and the work of Sandro Botticelli shown at Botticelli Reimagined, such as his Venus and Warhol’s reimagining of it.



I like the fragmented nature of these statues.  My eye was engaged in filling in the missing elements and constructing my own vision of the pieces I was looking at.  At the same time, the broken fragments speak of passing ages, and of the recurring disruptions and destructions that seem to go hand in hand with human society.  Nothing stays the same; things, whole societies are broken and destroyed; but vestiges, fragments, remain to bear witness to what was; and elements of what was endure, develop and métamorphose into new forms, new cultures.

In other halls there are gold, silver, bronze and ivory aretefacts from the Phyrigian and other much more ancient cultures  – fine statuettes, silver plaques, belts, cauldrons.  Some of the most beautiful are the statuettes and talismans with pure, simple lines.  I took photos of a few objects which appealed to me, but there were many many more.

I was struck by the huge differences between these earlier statuettes and the later grand Pergeian sculptures of the human figure.  What simplicity and eloquence of line in the earlier works.  They express a very fine sense of the imaginary world, achieved through simplification, exagerration and distortion of line and form.  They communicate an appreciation of simple beautiful lines, and express an empathy with the human condition.  Barbara Hepworth had a collection of ancient objects which served as inspiration for her own work, in which she echoes the simplicity of form of the ancient objects.

I saw these and hew work in The Hepworth Wakefield recently.


The later Greek and Roman monumental statues displayed in Antalya express power, wealth, authority, and achieve a fine realism; embedded in the culture of the time,  the mythological subjects are expressions of the human imagination too.  But the sculptures portray them in a realistic human form, their attributes identifying their story and their powers.

I’m looking forward to seeing Marc Quinn’s take on this in the spring. In an exhibition of his new works ‘Drawn from Life’ at the V&A, where he will show a series of fragmentary sculptures based on antique sculptures in the museum, to reveal resonances between historical artefact and contemporary life.  The fragments are said to be  ‘ integrally ambiguous, demonstrating both destruction and the passage of time, whilst showing the potential for completeness.’ (  These works will continue his long conversation with the art of the classical world, which I first came across at Arter Art Space in Istanbul in 2014, where he exhibited The Complete Marbles and Self among other works (see my log here).




Walter Benjamin Archive

Various aspects of Walter Benjamin’s personal archive are examined by the editors of this book.  It’s not an orderly, objective archive, its very personal and it reveals the passions and interests of the man, who was evidently a keen collector.  There are chapters on the photos he took, his collections of Russian toys and postcards, the sayings of his son as a child, games and riddles, scraps of paper he wrote on, notes he took, the graphic appearance of his writing on the page of his notebooks.

Benjamin’s purpose in creating his archives was to record the present moments and physical surroundings in which he lived.  Saying this seems self evident.  But most of us do live as though the everyday will always be the same; we take our surroundings so much for granted and don’t notice or take an interest in much of it.  Reflecting on, recording and collecting the everyday things around him was an important part of his life and work.

He looked back to the past nostalgically as well.  The toys he was interested in weren’t the factory mass-produced ones of his times, but the beautifully hand crafted ones made by people living a way of life that was remote from his and that was disappearing – that of the rural peasantry.  The ancient past also appears in his archives, for example in a collection of postcards of mosaics of the Sybil’s from Siena cathedral.

Benjamin’s archives, whether recording past or present, are, to us, from a lost past world, both in content and form.  The act of hand-writing these days is quite unusual to see.  While traveling the other day I saw a fellow passenger across the aisle writing – putting physical pen to physical paper – in what looked like a journal, and then later marking up a book with her notes.  I was taken aback by how unusual the sight seemed to be nowadays.  Like the pages of Benjamin’s archives, her writing had a graphic, personal appearance on the page, which expressed her decisions and interests, that made a physical, enduring mark, in a way that electronic media doesn’t.

Benjamin’s archiving techniques – collecting excerpts and cuttings, montaging and sticking them in his journals – can equally be used in the work of the visual artist. They can inform the work and / or become a physically integrated part of it.  Collage comes to mind.  Mona Hatoum’s video, Measures of Distance, herecombines in layers a reading out loud of her mothers letters, with facsimiles of those letters interwoven with Hatoum’s video of herself.  In my work, I layered the sung words and the dance of flamenco in part one work.  In part 2 I layered collages of newspaper consumerism with a painting of household collections to express the modern frenzy of accumulating ‘stuff’.

As I continue through this course I’m hoping myself to become more aware of the visual qualities of everyday objects and events around me.  Apart from providing a source of visual inspiration I think this habit developed may ground one more in the present.

Erythraean Sybil – Floor mosaic, Siena Cathedral
Erythraean Sybil – Michaelangelo

Assignment 2 and reflection


Here is my final painting for this assignment


Pentaptych – Acrylic on aluminium, 50 x 130 cm

The individual panels of aluminium can be viewed in finer detail by clicking on the individual images in the gallery below

Some close-up details showing brushwork and texture can be seen by clicking on individual circles below.


Reflection on the outcome

How successful is it and why? If you were to develop this work, how would you do it? Which artists have influenced you and how? Reflect on the ways you’d like to develop your work and the essence of what you hope to communicate.


I’ve achieved some aspects of my original vision (fragmentation of my objects, abstract composition, zooming in and out, glowing colours).  There is some great brushwork and involvement in the medium and in colour.  I feel I did sacrifice some imagination and creativity in the execution for more ‘accomplished’ rendering, forgetting slightly about the panache, magic and imagination of Klee and Gorky (and of some of the work that I made in the exercises) that I’d intended to impart.  This may have happened as I concentrated on the new experience of painting on metal, on five separate but connected panels, and the technical novelties and challenges of this.

If I were to develop this work I might do it by zooming in even further, relying more on imagination and a little less on ‘realistic’ representation, using my sketchbook to find new compositions based on the shapes of the subject, and playing more with mark-making.  The fifth and last panel may point the way here.  The contour of the spout is repeated by brush marks (reminding me of Munch’s Madonna variations, the outline of her head and shoulders repeated in a similar way), and other interesting marks start to populate my background.

The format was experimental, influenced by my part one work with grid arrangements, also by Gary Hume’s Bird Point, and by some research I did in response to my tutor’s feedback into the installations of Craig Donald and Juliette Blightman, who both hang works of varying sizes together. I think it successfully draws the viewer in, as, reading the five panels from left to right we zoom further and further in, until we feel we are there in the picture.  As I am in fact…you may spot a self portrait of my head and shoulders in the teaspoon, and of my red-trousered legs in the teapot!

I’d like to develop my use of metal as a support, in particular with oils and enamels as media.  I’m thinking I may have the opportunity to do this with monoprinting in part 3 – though I don’t know how or whether that might be done yet.  In general, I want to express my personal response to the subjects I paint – the ‘spirit’ I see in them, whether animate or inanimate – and the connections between them.


I love painting subjects that have a personal meaning for me, and paint better if inspired by them.  Also I draw and paint with more character and expression from observation than purely from photos.

My subject for this assignment is a collection of small silver objects.  I’ve taken them for granted up till now, but they are part of our intimate family life, having been on display in every home we’ve had, lovingly cleaned and polished (by my husband!) over the years, and reflecting the warmth of home and passing years

I experimented with setting and backdrop, and finally set them on the dark-green, rough canvas apron I use when painting, with a fine, dark, gorgeously-patterned scarf as backdrop, in a black box with an open front, with two angled lamps through the left side to create dramatic lighting, then took several photos.  The scarf is a beautiful silk one given to me by my husband as a gift from a trip to Edinburgh some thirty years ago.


Contextual studies:

The paintings of Arshile Gorky have been a recurrent theme in my contextual research in part 2, and particularly influenced my large scale line painting and my scissors piece in the Painting on a Painted Surface exercise. Gorky’s pieces such as Garden In Sachi Motif and Dark Green Painting also came to mind when considering this assignment.  Firstly they are on dark backgrounds, which is how we are asked to arrange our collection; secondly,  they seem to me to be composed of a collection of (heavily disguised) objects, presented to the viewer in Gorky’s own special language.

The works of Paul Klee also seemed to point me in a certain direction.  His paintings on very dark backgrounds, Bird Garden and Fish Magic shine like jewels;  there is little chiaroscuro in the forms, they glow like randomly arranged treasures, and they have a beautifully imaginary presence for me.

I am strongly drawn to all three works;  the Klee has the charm of an imaginary world; the forms and composition of the Gorky pieces are heavy with meaning and attachment.  The palette in all of them, dark green, black and bright reds and yellows).

I can also see (retrospectively, having recently visited Hepworth Wakefield) some similarities between my work and that of the artist Clare Woods, who paints in enamel on aluminium. Her paintings are made in a rich, sombre palette, and express her subject in abstract terms. She is said to be ‘concerned with sculpting an image in paint, and expressing the strangeness of an object’ , ‘twisting foreground and background to create nuanced and surreal imagery’ (, which were also my concerns in my assignment piece.


Choice of media and support 

To try and achieve glowing, gem-like colours against a very dark ground, I decided to make my collection painting on metal, having bought some pieces of aluminium, stainless steel and copper from an industrial metal work shop earlier in part 2.  I chose aluminium; as it is lighter than steel, so easier to post; and not so easily damaged as the copper leaf, which would need mounting on board, and therefore also be heavy to send.

My tryouts here, had shown me that watercolour, gouache and ink brush on well but lift very easily with subsequent layers.  Oils and oil based enamels take weeks to cure thoroughly, although I love the smooth, high-gloss of enamel and would like to try it at a later date.  Acrylics dry quickly, to a hard, sound coating, and aren’t lifted with subsequent wet layers.  It’s also a medium I like, so i chose acrylics for the assignment painting (addendum – i subsequently discovered acrylic enamel paints, and am ordering some to try).


Format and composition ideas

I experimented with zooming in and creating multiples.  I like the extreme zooming, leaving just the curve of a silver handle, part of an ellipse, forms and lines that identify the loved features of the objects.

I like the idea of creating a series of paintings for display together as one unit; the long vertical format appeals to me too, giving the possibility to incorporate the patterned scarf as an important part of the composition, not just background (Gary Hume’s Bird Point III, 1998, is a model for this format; it’s painted on four long vertical format panels, displayed side by side).  I experimented with piecing extracts from my images together (using iPad and Pic Jointer app) :


Photos composite

My next step was to make a sketch of my setup (from direct observation), for which I used black and green inks, and coloured pencils on paper.  I selected a composition of objects, flattening the picture plane somewhat and emphasising the shapes, forms and patterns made by the objects and the scarf.  As the objects are highly reflective, all sorts of colours can be seen in them, and they also show off the dramatic raking light well, too.  I particularly love the freshness and spontanaiety of this sketch, which was drawn in response to the objects themselves rather than photos of the objects.  It’s expressed in the angularity of the ellipses, the slight distortion and asymmetry of some of the objects;  they seem to be leaning in, having a conversation with the teapot!

Sketch on paper

I can see ways in which my sketch can be zoomed into and broken down into vertical elements: the one below has equal sized components:

Sketch composite 1

The next one’s individual elements reduce in width from right to left.

Sketch composite 2 


Sketches on aluminium

Now I wanted to try my hand at a quick painting in acrylics on aluminium to see how it felt and looked in practice, what technical issues arose, and whether and if so how and where I could capitalise on the gleaming metal support in the finished painting, so I prepared two small (15x24cm) pieces of sheet aluminium.  I washed them with alcohol before sanding (recommended by Ray Smith in The Artist’s Handbook).  Ray Smith also recommends priming the panel before painting.  I want the metal surface to shine through my painting, so after etching (with vinegar solution) I left one sheet raw and, for comparison, primed the other with thinned pva, followed by a coat of thinned acrylic medium.

The main difference between the two sheets is that the raw aluminium changes appearance much more than the primed sheet, with changes in the light and viewpoint.  The primed sheet with its reduced reflective quality is much more fixed in appearance (in the photos below the raw sheet is on the right; the first photo is in full sun, the second in shadow).  So an unprimed sheet might be good if I want the changing appearance of the metal to be part of my painting – as long as the paint is secure.


First I pencilled in a simple composition on the raw sheet.  As I painted I noticed how much longer the acrylics remained workable, it felt like painting wet on wet in oils.  I had to be very gentle, using the flat of the brush, applying colour on top of wet paint, so as not to lift the first layer completely.  It felt quite lovely, and very different, painting on such a smooth, rigid surface.

As regards the outcome of the sketch as preparatory work for my larger painting, one particular concern jumps out at me; the red pattern on the background scarf needs toning down and the edges softening, to ease it back – right now it looks as if the red fruits are tumbling down in front of the silver objects.  To address this, from now on I’ll tone them down by painting the scarf patterns on top of the dark background, rather than painting the background around them.


Small sketch on aluminium

My next small sketch was made on the primed aluminium.  The new approach to painting the scarf pattern on top of dark paint worked well to tone it down and keep it in the background.

It’s a simpler design, and when I place the two side by side I begin to see what a multiple set might look like.  For the assignment piece, it would be a good idea to work on all the components of the set at the same time, keeping each at roughly the same stage, just as I would if I were painting one large image; this strategy should help with cohesion and a good overall composition.  I also realised that the panels should vary in complexity – be careful not to make them all busy or all minimal in design.  The palette will be common to all; but overall tone will darken from the light source on the left towards the panel furthest from the light.

Small sketch on aluminium diptych

Choosing the composition

I want to zoom in further than I did for these two sketches on aluminium (above), so played around digitally again with my photos and sketches until I had a set I liked (below), which is actually a combination of abstracts from all my sketches, with varying scales and levels of complexity.  As a whole, I like the repeating colours and shapes from panel to panel, and the rhythm they set up; the combination of abstract backdrop and figurative foreground; the negative shapes, the tonal contrasts.  The progression through the panels from left to right as the images zoom in further, width reduces, the contrast becomes greater, the tone becomes darker, the forms simpler and more abstract, hopefully draw the viewer in closer.  There is a cohesion to the whole, though the individual panels don’t ‘join up’ seamlessly.

Sketch composite 3


Making the paintings

I scored and cut out the five aluminium sheets (50cm high and reduce in width from left to right from 30 cm down to 16.5 cm), sanded them with a machine, and pencilled my compositions in.  All the backgrounds were painted first, in varying dark tonal colours, the final one being pure black, with some metal showing.  I experimented with different textures, using a stiff brush and a rag to lift paint.  Then I began painting the silver objects.  I found my preparatory work has paid off; with the materials and techniques pre-tested, and the composition and general colour palette tried out, I was enjoying my exploration in paint of the objects and the process of painting.

At the end of the second day’s sessions I’d almost completed my interpretation of the objects; I’ve always been fascinated by reflected coloured light and I’d searched for the reflected light in each object, pulling out and exaggerating the colours.  On close viewing some of the colours look improbable, but standing back they coalesce into high shine metal objects.  I’m aware the background painting of the scarf patterns is going to make a huge difference to the piece, so my plan is to roughly complete the final silver object, then start adding the background patterns one by one, assessing the effect carefully on the overall composition at each stage.

Day 2 – collection painting on 5 aluminium panels

On day three I painted in the background detail, standing back to assess impact, and modifying tones to keep the pattern in the background.


The Artist’s Handbook by Ray Smith, pub Dorling Kindersley 2003

Arshile Gorky by Matthew Gale, pub Tate Publishing 2010

Painting on metal

Contemporary artists working with metal

Clare Woods

I recently saw a painting of hers in enamel on aluminium at Hepworth Wakefield.  On further research I found she uses this combination of media and support a lot, often painting on a very large scale (e.g. 8 metres long).  Her subjects include the landscape and the human form, often painted in a rich palette with an overall sombre feel.  Brushmarks ar very much in evidence, adding to the sculptural feel of her work, which is often an abstraction from photographic source material.

Timothy Spillane

He discusses painting on copper.  Describes how he juxtaposes cool colours against the warmth of the bare copper in the finished work.  The exposed copper areas change as light travels across.  He paints landscape and abstract works in oil.  He incorporates verdigris, which he creates using a chemical process

Janet Cunniffe-Chieffo  paints on copper in a classical style.  She uses thinned oils, painting an imprimatur and then adding colour.  She leaves the copper showing through the thin paint, especially at the edges, integrating the painting with the surface.

Michael Craig Martin “Full Life”  This painting incorporates metal sculptural elements.

Gary Hume paints with gloss and enamel paint on aluminium panel, on a large scale, for example Bird Point III , one of the contextual references for my assignment piece

Geraldine Swayne 

Swayne paints mostly small enamels on copper and aluminium – include portraits, pornography, 1×1.5 inches up to A6 – miniatures, mémento mori, harking back to the 16th century, when copper was used as a support for (often) miniature portraits.  Her enamels have a luminous, jewel-like quality, and although her style can be characterised as ‘messy’, she achieves a great deal of expressive detail, rendering the characters of her sitters with huge insight.  Looking at her rendition of character and expression has made me want to explore the portrait more in my own practise, and to experiment with enamel on metal.

Geniève Figgis

Figgis loves to paint figures in pourings, drips and swirls, in a way that is ‘at the intersection between abstraction and portraiture, horror and humour….life and death’ (  She will often paint her own take on famous paintings of aristocrats and gentility from history, distorting and reinterpreting them (The Swing, after Fragonard), pointing out the absurd and macabre in her subjects.

In the following article she discusses her practise and influences:  

Nathan Holden Vit P2 p138  2 paintings in acrylic on aluminium: one a background of thin veil like colour-field layers, the other, precise, diagonal straight black lines on a flat pale green opaque ground.


Copper and other metals give a smooth, lustrous, satiny finish, and enhance colours, giving a luminosity as the light reflects through the painting from the metal beneath.  Great detail can be achieved more easily than on other supports because of the smooth surface.


Oil and water based paints (including watercolour, although this will reactivated with a subsequent layer, so to be avoided), graphite and coloured pencils, apply and adhere well to aluminium.  Oil is better than acrylic.  It provides a hard, smooth surface.  It’s long lasting and doesn’t warp.  Enamel paint can be applied directly to the raw aluminium (a slippery surface)  otherwise it should be etch primed for tooth, or anodised.  Or wash it with detergent & alcohol or meths ; sand (use a sanding block and either aluminium oxide white grit or silicon carbide wet or dry 100,400,1000 grades paper); acid wash – 1:1 vinegar & water;  prime with thin layer of self-etching primer (optional for oil painting); sand again with high grit number; add a coat of clear gesso if using acrylics.


Same, but Don’t use water based paints unless surface is primed and gessoed.

Nail polish for small areas / writing?  Try enamel paint too.


If the plate is thin and bendable first glue it to a solid substrate e.g. mdf cut to just under the size of the plate (or wrap a piece of plywood with the copper and nail it! – see  To glue, first roughen the back of the copper and clean it (alcohol).  See  Sand and clean the front side, etch with garlic juice.  Primer is optional.  Experiment – make hammer marks; piece the copper together on the substrate and incorporate the ridges; let the edges of the substrate show and be incorporated into the painting.   If areas of the copper are left uncovered seal with a final layer of varnish.


Aluminium Painting Panels

Shopping list

Metal self etching primer

Metal spray paint

Clear gesso

Enamel paint

Polyurethane glue

Mdf, plywood


Trials on prepared aluminium substrate

Orange Pastel pencil – left marks but no colour

Graphite pencil – applied & adhered very well

Charcoal (pencils, fire, willow) all good

Coloured pencil – good, although colour slightly dull compared to same colour on a paper substrate

Watercolour (phthalocyanine green, Naples yellow)) – applied well.  When dry, resistant to gentle rubbing but not to scratching with plastic.  As research suggested, very easily reactivated by brushing on water – so quite fragile as a painting, and would be impossible to layer.

Gouache (red, purple, white) – same properties as watercolour with respect to fragility of dry painted surface

Acrylic (indigo, white) – dries much harder – scratch resistant.  Still reactivated with water until properly dried and hardened, and then is secure.

Household enamel (process blue, dark green, bright red, white) – beautifully glossy, touch-dry within 24 hours.  

Oil paint – (ultramarine, burnt umber, with liquin) – after 24 hours not even tacky, still wet.



San Diego Museum of Art