Humans. I’m one. You’re one (probably). We are all unique, and incredibly complex. As a result, we all differ in how we comprehend other human-beings; and we equally differ in how we are perceived and depicted by others. This is an instrumental fact that underpins all art: we all have different ways of seeing life, and, therefore, of seeing the art that is a product of that. In other blog posts, we have touched upon this concept of perception. Many of us view art in the same way that the 15th century, Italian philosopher, Leon Battista Alberti, viewed it: art should be a window into real life. This is the idea that a work of art should be photographically realistic; perfectly depicting a person (in this case), as we see them in front of us. However, in life, we rarely only comprehend people by staring at the anatomical components, that make up their superficial form. Instead, we perceive each other in an infinite number of ways – we focus on different features, different emotions, ideas, and memories, depending on who we are looking at.
Perception may begin in the eye, but it snowballs, shifts and culminates in all sorts of different places after that. So, an artist could, perhaps, be understood as a kind of translator. They may see a person – a life model, someone they know intimately, or maybe a stranger – and lay that complex perception down in paint (or any other medium) in a way that expresses what they experience, when looking at them. Whilst, sometimes they may paint a person’s likeness – other times, they may be painting something that bubbles under that immediate surface. Like we’ve said – we’re complicated! But it’s incredibly fascinating (we think) to delve into why different artists evoke humanity in such different ways.
Figure painting in art-history.
When did a image of humanity first appear? This is an impossibly difficult question, with a very, very vague answer. The reoccuring certainty throughout these blogs is that nothing is certain, especially in history, and even more especially, in art. With that in mind, one of the earliest recorded depictions of a human-being, was probably (how vague are we!) in the Upper Paleolithic cave painting (which was from about 50,000 years ago) Rhinoceros,
Wounded Man, and Bison, found in the Lascaux Cave in France. If you look this representation up, you’ll see that it would be difficult to call this ‘realistic’. The ‘wounded man’ has been depicted as a small series of geometric shapes. As a result, many cast it aside as simply a bad depiction of a human-being: ‘primitive’, ‘elementary’, and ‘crude’, are all ways it has been described. These assertions bring us back to the idea that representations in art, need to be realistic, photographic, Alberti-esque windows into life – in order to make them ‘good’ art (whatever that is). However, this perspective can be very limiting. If we limit our appreciation of art, simply to the things that meticulously copy from life, we write off huge expanses of history, geography, philosophy, theory, and medium! And so, whilst we may not like everything (or anything), it can be really interesting to try and unpick different modes of representation, to see all the different ways in which humans – whether it’s now, or 10,000 years ago – comprehend each other.
To do so, we want to start by looking at a handful of figure-focused paintings, from the canon of Western art history, to consider differing uses of, and approaches to, the human form.
For many centuries, the High Renaissance – a short period within the 15th and 16th centuries in Italy, that was particularly saturated with artistic ‘genius’ – was considered to be the pinnacle of figure painting. Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael (artists, not ninja turtles) had mastered the art (literally) of perfectly composing human forms, calculating perspective, and rendering flesh so visceral; that it seems impossible to match, even
five-hundred years on. In Renaissance Italy, Christianity was absolutely integral to everyday life: it was the foundation of daily routine, law, government, ethics, birth, and death – to name but a fraction of it. Yet, a vast percentage of the population were illiterate. How could the narratives, morals and laws of Christianity be understood by a person, who could not read the Bible; or even comprehend the preachings of the church, which were in Latin? So, religious painting had a profoundly important job. It needed to encapsulate and express complex religious narratives; it needed to be accessible to all people, regardless of age or education; and it needed to tantalise, and convince the viewer of its own reality, and significance. Thus, the human form needed to be rendered so life-like, that the viewer would be absolutely convinced of its legitimacy. Or would, at least, be tantalized by it. So, as an example, when Leonardo was commissioned to paint the Virgin Mary, Elizabeth, Christ, and John the Baptist, in his 1480s work The Virgin of The Rocks, he had to focus on Alberti’s idea of a window into life. These religious figures needed to be intensely tangible – clear and vivid – whilst still carrying an ethereal luste that marked them as sacred. To many, this so called ‘perfection’ is the ideal in art. When in reality, it is just one, subjective form of depiction, that served a very specific purpose.
Figures of Revolution.
Fast forward to the first half of the 19th century, in France, where socio-political instability tore through Paris; war and revolution caused catastrophic damage; and art was torn between serving the crown or the emerging republic. Eugene Delacroix needed his figures to play an entirely different role than those of Leonardo. In his 1830 work Liberty Leading the People, Delacroix brings together stark, torturous reality; hope for a liberated future; and classical allegory, to evoke the longed for ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’ – all of which he achieved in this painting, through the careful creation and arrangement of human figures. There was no need for these figures to be ‘perfect’, like the Virgin Mary. Rather, they were rendered as dark and painterly, flecked with the tricolour (red, white, and blue) of the French flag; with blood, brains and pubic hair spilling out onto the streets of the French capital (ew…) This raw rendering of humanity served to rally support for the revolution, and highlight the horrors inflicted upon the masses by the elite powers (which triggered its censorship by the French government) – a conviction that required the human form to be raw, rugged, and powerful. Far from the sacred and still beauty of Leonardo’s Christian cast.
The Musical Figure.
To discuss every single historical way in which humanity has been depicted in paint, would take about 10,000,000 years. So before we introduce you to a few of our own artists, we want to finish up our art history run-down, with a look at how the recognizably-human figure, was beginning to be rethought, at the end of the 19th century – which would eventually lead to the deconstruction of naturalism in the work of painters, such as Picasso and Matisse.
The work of James McNeill Whistler (of whom, Glasgow’s Hunterian Art Gallery have the largest permanent collection of paintings) is a brilliant example of jazzing up the representation of the human form. This is because, when he saw other humans, he did not simply paint the objective truth of what they actually looked like. He saw each human being as a musical composition. In 1885, he stated that when an artist is painting, they should look at ‘nature’ (whether this be human beings, contemporary life, events – anything!), but rather than copying it, they should select the best parts of it, and rearrange those ‘like a musician arranges his notes’, into painted symphonies, that represent rather than copy. So, in his 1862 work Symphony in White No. 1: The White Girl, he brings together an artificial arrangement of colour, texture, and form, to create a ‘symphony’ of beauty. The ‘Girl’ could just as well be a sunset, an arrangement of flowers, a landscape – she is medium through which to explore painting the concept of beauty.
The notion of representing concepts through depicting human beings, or more abstractly evoking the essence of a person, rather than copying their likeness, would drive 20th century abstraction (with Picasso or Matisse being famous examples of this). Which, in turn, further widened the plethora of different ways in which humans have depicted each other in art. This absolutely explains the vast breadth of ways that our artists represent humanity, in their works.
We hope this has given you some context to the art of figure painting. In Part II of ‘The Human Form’ we will be showcasing our very own Patrick Palmer, Eleanor Carlingford and Lily Macrae, to examine each of their approaches to painting humanity.
Very happy to have this interview with me published on Singulart:
Focus on: Patrick Palmer
Monday March 5th, 2018 Louisa BaumgärtelMeet the artist
How did you find your voice as an artist?
As a child I loved drawing and creating things so I have always had an artistic voice of sorts.
I left my job in media when I was 40, took a year off, did up my London flat and went to art college. After that I gradually built up a body of work, built a website and my work started to sell. Fortunately a few galleries started to notice me and my artistic voice grew louder.
Has your approach and process changed throughout your artistic career?
For years I worked purely in charcoal, now I work in oils. The process is quite similar – I still use my fingers to blend and smudge the paint just as I did with the charcoal. I often like to leave some of my accidental smudges in the final work.
Oil is far more forgiving than anything else as you can just paint over it again and again. You can take risks.
I used to work exclusively from life models but as my paintings can sometimes take a year or more to produce I now work from photos.
When I started out I just had an easel in the utility room but now I have a lovely studio in my flat. So things have changed considerably. I now make my own canvases too.
Is there a subject that you find difficult to capture with painting?
Fingers and toes – too fiddly – I try to avoid them unless they are important to the overall balance and composition. Too much detail in an unimportant area can distract attention away from the important areas/focal point
I don’t like painting objects and tend to keep them out of my work.
When did you start painting nudes and what do you find fascinating about them?
I joined a life-drawing class when I moved to London at the age of 23. I then had an office job for many years but would always get excited about going to the weekly life-drawing class in Notting Hill.
It was such a challenge, and so much harder to get right than if you are drawing an object – the viewer may not notice if a tree is drawn slightly inaccurately but they know immediately and instinctively if a head is too small.
And it amazed me how everyone’s drawing was so different. There are limitless permutations.
What have been the highlights of your artistic career?
– Exhibiting with Belgravia Gallery and Box Galleries in London.
– Nearly having one of my images in all the bedrooms of the Miami Hilton (they changed their minds at the last minute).
– Being included in Saatchi Online Catalogue 2016.
– Having one of my paintings on the front cover of a book called Musings in Yellow.
– Being accepted into the Discerning Eye 2017.
Which artists do you admire?
Lautrec, Klimt, Van Gogh, Picasso, Degas, Rodin and Michael Clark.
The artist’s website: https://patrickpalmer.co.uk/
Patrick Palmer on Singulart: https://www.singulart.com/en/artist/patrick-palmer-199
Art Aesthetics Magazine Published July 2017
I catch the artist in a liminal state: Patrick Palmer the Portraitist is moving house. Patrick himself has carved a career out of catching others in a state of emotional undress; I suspect he endeavours to give form to physical and psychological vulnerability in such a way that the beholder will find himself compulsively attracted to the curvaceous qualities of its shape and the enigmas of its tone. He also paints pretty women naked.
‘I am about to embark on a new body of work,’ he says, excitedly, and his enthusiasm is contagious. In this case, ‘body’ may well be a double entendre, as his work is swarming with them. His is a collection of bodies that are simultaneously inviting and inimical, lovely and loveless, rather purchasable (Palmer’s best paintings still go for only a few thousand) and thoroughly unobtainable.
So, where did his love-affair with the human body, and in particular the female one, begin? The young Palmer, living in Dublin, went to see Francis Bacon’s work and studio at the Hugh Lane Gallery. ”Bacon had just sold for more than any other artist in history and I was the only person there for an hour…there were around ten originals on the wall which I could have touched, and his actual studio is there too.“ Bacon’s studio had recently been relocated from London to Dublin with meticulous care. The team of conservators and curators captured, tagged and packed each of Bacon’s items, including the walls, doors, floor, ceiling and the dust that rested on the used paint tubes. In other words, the studio was in such a condition that one expected the artist to pop open the door and stride in at any given moment. To Palmer, this experience was both uncanny and inspirational. Moreover, in one of life’s funny turns and twists, he would later receive tuition from one of Bacon’s friends and portraitists, Michael Clark.
As Palmer ponders on the past, he reflects that ‘my strongest memory of childhood is being taken on a hovercraft to the Isle of Wight by my granddad when I was five. He never took my mum or her sister out anywhere, and they were naturally quite jealous.’ He explores this divide between the sexes further by remarking that ‘my dad was a successful businessman, an alpha male if ever there was one, whereas my mother was a perfectly girly stay-at-home mum. But she was a very talented artist and a great character. My dad was away an awful lot, so from a young age I and my two brothers were obliged to help my mum with all the household chores, and many tasks besides. I didn’t mind that much, because I enjoyed spending time with her.’
Palmer’s childhood appears to have been one unclouded by profound misery. ‘We lived in a big house in the West Country where we had free reign to do what we wanted. When I was around five or six I used to make these little books about cowboys and Indians,’ Palmer says. ‘They were even stapled,’ he adds with a wink. ‘My friend Simon Kernick did all the drawings and I wrote the text. Now Simon is one of Britain’s leading crime-thriller writers and I am an artist. Who would believe it?’ Not me, because Palmer also shows me a charming little watercolour drawing he made of an Indian on a white horse jumping off a cliff. The Indian and the horse appear to be equally surprised at crossing this sudden precipice. (A remarkable specimen, by the way, for the fact that the Indian’s face is pale as the moon, whilst the rest of his body is neatly suntanned, perhaps as a result of ceremonial face-painting? Or perhaps artistic license typical of children?)
‘I was always drawing and painting and making things. This will sound like I am copying Picasso, but it is true: I never drew like a child. Perhaps this is partly due to my mum, who was my main influence. She would draw, make ornate duvet covers, embroider, etch, and make jewellery from scratch.’
Later, Palmer enlisted to the class of Bobby Gill, an honorary fellow at the RCA. ‘Bobby taught me for years, a lovely little class in Notting Hill which I went to whilst I was doing my office job, it was always a happy oasis there. She is a wonderful artist, teacher and person. Truly one of life’s special people.’
‘Patrick was always very serious about his drawing and started at the beginning like everyone else,’ Bobby tells me. ‘All the basic exercises like line, tone, measuring, scale, you name it. When he came to my drawing classes it was just basic drawing, no attempt to develop a style. That comes later.’
There would be Jazz playing and tea and custard creams going at half time. Sometimes classes would go on in the pub down the street. ‘Often friendships are made through the classes which keep going way beyond the classes. I know Patrick has kept in touch with some of the friends he made here,’ Bobby says. As he developed his artistic skills and befriended people of a similar disposition, it became increasingly clear to Palmer that he wanted to prioritise his passion for painting over his office job. He now considered going down the path he had signalled many years before, but which had been out of bounds to him then.
‘Even though my mother was artistically gifted, I was nevertheless completely discouraged from doing art as a career as I was good academically. But, hey! I finally got round to it.’ At forty, Palmer finally left his job in media and decided to dedicate his time and efforts to art instead. ‘Losing my office job,’ was not much of a sacrifice for him, as he ‘hated having a boss, and realised that art was what I was best at.’ He enrolled at Heatherley’s in Chelsea and later at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin. ‘Going to art college as a mature student and being happier than ever,’ proved it was the right thing for him to do.
‘The best advice I can give to an artist who is just starting out, as I was then, is quite simply: be brave, be prepared to fail. Don’t try to come out of a class with a masterpiece, God no. You are there to learn. Ironically, you will get better quicker if you do not care about the quality of the work you take home. Also, enjoy yourself.’
Bobby tells me ‘he was always very critical of his work, and quite hard on himself, but also very committed to it, and over time it became clear that he wanted to make changes in his life which meant that painting and drawing would become foremost. Quite a decision! You see, it’s not an easy path.“ She thinks that over time ”his work began to evolve and change into his own particular style.’
Michael Clark, one of Palmer’s friends and mentors, seems to deserve some credit for the emergence of Palmer’s recognisable style. ‘He took my work apart,’ Palmer says. ‘And told me to focus on tone first, before embarking on colour. It took me in a different direction’.
Does he keep developing his own style? ‘You know, the art world is tricky. Firstly, it is actually very commercial – I thought I’d escaped that, but have I? – and a great deal of it is about building your brand. Of course I want to sell my art, but I also keep experimenting. I am expecting progress, but only because I keep experimenting. By the way, did I tell you I have a drunk canvas? When I come home late I can attack it, and do with it whatever I want.’
I want to ask him to have a go at it right now, to ambush and assault the unsuspecting blank canvas in his most vicious and merciless manner, smashing it to pieces in a perfectly aesthetic rage, and to run circles around the remains (for which there probably is a market, considering the sheer madness of contemporary fashionable taste), whilst all the time whipping out war whoops like some crazy pale-faced Indian. Tempting though this is, I resist the irresistible, and inquire instead after his usual practice and technique.
‘Originally I worked from live models, but as I now work in oils I have to eventually work from photos as they can take months to produce. These days I book models I like for a photoshoot and bring along images of paintings or photos I have gathered over the previous months. I talk about these with the model and then let them do their thing. I snap away, usually taking around four-hundred photos. Later, I pick the ones I like (normally only around 10) and play around with them in photoshop until I have some I am happy to work with. I usually make them black and white and get high-quality prints made. Then I start to paint.’
Is he aware some people have accused his paintings of being merely pornographic? Yes. I ask him what he thinks of those comments.
‘Not an awful lot. I don’t see my work as erotic or pornographic. It has nothing to do with sex, it’s all about beauty, not necessarily of the subject but making something that appeals to the eye and to evoke some kind of emotion, some feeling. We are programmed to find certain designs, shapes and colour combinations attractive. The golden section, for example.’
This is all very well, but to what height does Palmer’s wish for innovation soar? I submit that he continues on paper and canvas the art form Rodin arguably invented in sculpture – the fragment as a finished work, usually trunks and body parts in which Palmer’s wretches can bury their heads. Palmer is not the first draughtsman to leave parts of the body largely unfinished: Michelangelo, too, drew with great delicacy some body parts, whilst leaving others bits out. (This technique of leaving out accentuates the great delicacy and precision with which the body parts that are finished have been observed.) So many opportunities are opened up by this use of fragments, by omitting and distorting body parts, and Palmer’s considered and balanced use of this fairly ancient technique is certainly not without merit.
‘A filled in painting asks no questions of the viewer,’ he says. ‘Sure, the work can be technically good, but personally I find them boring. We can rely on our brains to fill in the gaps. By focusing on the important parts and by playing down, or even ignoring, the weaker parts, you improve the image. As an artist you have to create (or uncreate, if that is a word?), not simply recreate. This will sound simplistic but a good painting is all the good bits minus the bad bits but also the unnecessary bits. Also, as a painter you can lead the viewer wherever you want. This,’ Palmer says confidently, ‘is where the painter has the advantage over the photographer.’
There is also a tangible movement in Palmer’s figures, and yet hardly any of them seem to want to move: they are trying to hide themselves from the world, yet their bodies are there for all of us to see. His red chalk figures are often darkened figures in light spaces – and the viewer’s gaze inevitably intensifies in order to perceive of them. For example, just as when one tries to focus on an object situated between oneself and the sun, one can clearly distinguish the silhouettes, but filling them in is more visually challenging. Whereas, nowadays, the figurations on conventional drawings and paintings need not be deciphered as much as the conceptual quality they may contain, these chalk drawings present us with a (mild and pleasant) visual challenge from the very start. Palmer’s painted bodies – pockets of frigidity interjected into planes of radiant heat – are exposed to the beholder, but their faces are either entirely hidden or half-turned away, making us depend primarily on the colour in which they bath to construe their inmost emotions. The bodies are dialed back by shades of shadow almost as if the painter deems them disgraced and blasphemous (or is this merely a trick to tantalize?). Although the bodies are put centrally, what we really see are landscapes of the mind. There is no world we recognise; no platform of familiarity on which we can stand to survey the surroundings with a connoisseur’s binoculars. Instead we are forced to confront the naked truth of a stranger’s inner world and either trust them and take their raw feelings at face value or choose not to understand them at all. These faceless charcoal stumps are perhaps Palmer’s most powerful works to date.
Being prepared to show your incomplete and fragmentary work to the world certainly requires a certain baldness and self-confidence. History provides us with instances of unfinished artworks celebrated for their rough and sometimes metaphysical character. Rodin had not started working on his Eve with the intention of leaving it unfinished: the sculptor described how he was left with a work in progress after his sitter could no longer pose for him due to her pregnancy. He chose to retain the work and exhibit it for the first time in 1899, on the eve of the new century. In this sculpture the sensuality of the female body is juxtaposed with the modesty of the gesture she makes by lowering her head and crossing her arms. Her protective attitude expresses her shame and remorse after the Fall. Eve here represents the state of moral frailty – a capacity to be easily seduced and led astray – which successive generations of men and women would be born in. Are all of Palmer’s figures, beautiful but born in shame, daughters of this Eve? Edgar Degas is another inspiration to Palmer: Palmer’s drawing Girl with Hands in Her Hair is evidently based on Degas’ La Coiffure (‘Combing the Hair’, to be found in the National Gallery). In Rodin by Degas Palmer ventured into the world of hypothesis, asking ‘what if’. What if Edgar Degas, later in life a painter of brash colours and fragmentary compositions, had translated Rodin’s Kiss into paint? Here, finally, Palmer allows his figures not to withdraw in themselves, but to withdraw in each other.
How does Palmer compare to other artists of our age and day? By having his models avert their faces they are endowed with a certain anonymity, whereas the face is pivotal to the work of, say, Mark Demsteader. Does Palmer simply want to do away with those body parts that humanize rather than sexualize? Indeed, in his work there are a number of instances where the head simply disappears into thin air – but here our cerebral network of associations may be kind and guide us to the statues of the late Classical and Hellenistic period of antiquity as found in contemporary museums. There fragmented bodies, their protruding elements partly broken and sometimes restored, abound. The shapes of these statues allegedly contributed to the pop-inspired drawings of musician Daniel Johnston, which feature women that are static, frozen in posture and in form, and whose torsos are headless and limbless. One reason for an artist to leave out body parts is because their creation needs careful consideration and is therefore time-consuming. By not putting in all the details the artist can also lead the viewer’s eye to the body parts the artist judges to be important. Mark Demsteader tells us that he uses abstract forms of colour tone and line to describe and emphasise his paintings’ moods, and I have little doubt that this is what Palmer does too. And though the shapes and curves that Patrick reproduces on canvas and on paper are pleasant, it is this mood – which he expresses through contrasting colours, through disturbing absences, and through lines that make the misery of his subjects manifest – that is truly striking. His works may well be glimpses of some sort of purgatory, where Palmer’s wretches must suffer until all their earthly dirt has been burned off. And as their beautiful bodies evaporate and disappear, so too, perhaps, does love itself. Even if there is no case of cremation, the wretches have undeniably lost themselves in contemplation and perhaps also in the loneliness with which the envious damn those who betray a beauty that is not ordinary, but extraordinary.
‘The loneliness.’ Palmer says, suddenly. ‘Before, you asked me what I think of the art world. Well, that side of it does not suit me at all. I try to go out for coffee or ride my bike as often as time allows, and social media helps too. And let’s not forget my two small, mischievous but wonderful kids. Yeah, they can be fun,’ says Palmer, who is about to leave his house and neighbours (one of whom is Anna Friel, the actress – Palmer sketched her). I have the feeling Palmer, with his gentle smile and warm embrace of life, is hiding something from us. Whether this relates to his ‘undiscovered’ artist mother, his deceptively aesthetic approach to making portraits, or an unnoticed meaning in his art which he expects us to uncover ourselves, I do not yet know. However, he promises to keep me posted, and I expect I be will revisiting him and his art sooner rather than later.
On reflection, perhaps Palmer does just paint pretty women naked. Possibly, he undresses his subjects without regard to allegory or metaphysics. He could simply be a commercial craftsman with a trained technical ability to render female bodies well. If so, none the worse. For he invariably supplies us with an absence of form. We, the beholders, need to ascertain the meaning and the profundity of this absence. And in this freedom Palmer allows us, acknowledges us, to be mature observers of art, not afraid and willing to begin thinking where he stopped producing.
Last night I went to a very interesting talk by the acclaimed painter, John Wonnacott. It was held at my old art college, Heatherley’s in London. We also went out for a few pints afterwards with some of the teachers from the college. It was good to meet such a high-profile artist and see how grounded he was. An opinionated, talented and clever artist.
Very happy to have just finished this oil painting, it’s been 2 years in the making (!). I’ve decided to enter her into this year’s BP Portrait Award (my first attempt). It’s a bit of a long shot (as they usually go for hyper-realism) but I think it’s worth a go as apparently they do accept a ‘wildcard’ entry. I’ll find out whether it has been accepted on the 9th February so fingers crossed.
Day 3 on this black and white oil painting. I’m using 9 different tones from white to black. I am using Ivory black mixed with raw umber to get neutral greys. Without the umber the greys are far too blue. I am also using glazes.
I am working from a photo which I took a few years back. There is something I really like about the photo which I am trying to capture here. However I am a bit concerned that other people may not like it as much as me and it may not sell. There is a lot of work and time involved here and I need to get some work done for xmas.
At the start I was aiming for photo-realism but I am making mistakes and smudges are appearing on the way – some of which I like – so I am tempted to get a bit more ‘painterly’ with this. I am a bit torn. I am working on some other painting too which I can revert too if I start to lose my way here…
Right this is the first post in my new blog. I am a professional artist with 2 kids. I paint classical semi-nudes.
I have 5 oil paintings on the go and I really need to get them finished for the Christmas period as it’s a key selling time for artists. So really I need to get them done in the next couple of weeks.
However, it’s raining outside and the light in my studio is not great. So I’m going to do some admin and get the studio tidied for some painting this afternoon when I’m more in the mood…