11 January 2013: dear London, on working in the studio … day 5

First, having made the permanent (at least for now!) decision not to post my paintings – it feels a little secretive and not ‘playing the game’ – I wasn’t entirely sure why.

Today’s theme was all about ‘beginnings’.

I returned, as part of my search for subject matter that seemed potent, electric and worth spending time on, to an Egyptian head in the British Museum and worked from two photographs I took earlier this week. Study from this head, and another Roman one, occupied a significant part of my time as a post-graduate on marvellous Norman Ackroyd’s famous etching course at Central St. Martins. While on this two-year, part-time course, I also worked at St Paul’s Girls’ School (twice the apostrophe count of CLC, or should that be CLs’C …) as an ineffectual technician in the Art Department for a mercurial and fabulous team of Art teachers, led by Jenny West.

So, without having cut the long story short, I found myself (25 years later) contemplating the same subject matter, this time in paint.


1988 etching


1988 etching

Here are two etchings from then:

and here, for the first time, are my paintings from today:

Day 5 revisited heads Jonathan Ellis

Day 5 revisited heads – no oil paintings?

My more usual approach will be more coy. I have already mentioned a sort of visual diary in the studio and it seems like a valid idea now and might be a more comfortable way fro me to share progress without exposing my early fumblings (see above):

Day 5 studio drawing Jonathan Ellis

detail of studio drawing

Day 5 studio diary drawing Jonathan Ellis

studio diary drawing – these are the two heads again …

Day 5 studio diary drawing Jonathan Ellis

After Degas on the left, After Rembrandt just visible on the floor and After Van Gogh hanging on the right

Day 5 studio diary drawing Jonathan Ellis

the two heads again – palette table to the right

Day 5 studio diary drawing Jonathan Ellis

After Degas

Day 5 studio diary drawing Jonathan Ellis

After Van Gogh

So, why don’t I feel comfortable showing (off) what I am doing?

The ‘why’ is from another return to a beginning – the catalyst for the CLC Art Department theme this year, ‘Coloured Earth’, was an oft-quoted poem by Howard Nemerov, called ‘The Painter Dreaming in the Scholar’s House’. This is a particularly resonant title …

“And hence the careless crown deludes itself

By likening his hieroglyphic signs

And secret alphabets to the drawing of a child.

That likeness is significant the other side

Of what they see, for his simplicities

Are not the first ones, but the furthest ones,

Final refinements of his thought made visible.”

In his perceptive words about Klee, Nemerov addresses that Picasso moment so well – when a painter strives for a direct, simple and accessible language that may then be dismissed as being child-like.

Anyhow the point is that, re-reading this passage, I realise of course that what I am doing in the studio (for now) is by no means the final refinements of my thought made visible.

So I feel able to write about process and occasionally about pictorial narrative without feeling the need to share the work …

Day 5 in the studio was about beginnings certainly, but also facing the use photography as source material for drawing and painting head on. I certainly have serious misconceptions, almost not up for discussion at all, about our art students using photography as source material. It seems to me to be a patently second-hand, secondary and second-best way of working to find an image. Much of the student’s motivation and opportunity for discoveries come from the frustrations and subsequent sense of achievement (and then understanding) about the components of a subject  – ownership in a word.

So, here I am looking at Degas, to help me to find a way into the head paintings and thinking hard about his (Richter-like?) painting of Princess Pauline de Metternich, painted in 1865. He used a black and white (obviously) photograph, removed the husband and

drew outlines

traced a wallpaper design

laid in the figure with a thin brown wash

developed LIGHT & SHADE in monochrome*

laid in local colour and returned later to elaborate on these decisions

he then adjusted the image:

by drawing in peach/rose, then in a mix of Naples Yellow, Earths and Black, ending up with Yellow over Pink (uneven in thickness) which became, magically, a Greenish Gold.

I am indebted to the authors of ‘Art in the making: Degas’, the brilliant National Gallery publication, which saved me so much time today.

I have (re)learnt some studio-craft today:Use a separate palette knife for each operation. So white paint, alkyd medium, stand oil and the current mix each deserve their own knife.


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