What can scientists learn from artists?

January 26, 2014

In comparing approaches to art and science, I notice that certain shared skills tend to be better taught to artists while others are addressed more clearly in science lessons. Let’s look, today, at aspects of the artistic approach that some scientists may find helpful. My intention here is not to be unfairly critical, but to trigger positive discussion.

If you are an artist, then do read on because these ideas may set you thinking.

If you are a scientist, then you may or may not find this list helpful. Perhaps you are already using these techniques, see no practical place for them, or disagree with some of my assumptions? On the other hand, if you feel lacking in direction or otherwise “stuck”, then this article could perhaps be useful to you. Please read on and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments box at the end.



 Above: A page from the notebooks of Charles Darwin, 1837-8

Observing and recording all that is interesting

The ability to observe and consider everything around you…looking, listening (and smelling, tasting, or whatever is appropriate), is key to scientific enquiry. While techniques of methodical observation are taught in science classes, a delight in a general awareness of our surroundings is , in my experience, encouraged more in art than science departments.

Art students are sent out with sketchbooks and encouraged to make observations, drawings and notes. The same approach with portable blank book and pen could be just as practical for the curious scientist. As with an artist’s sketchbook:

  • you can take the book anywhere, from airport to park
  • anything can be included, whether words, numbers or simple sketches (even if you feel that you “can’t draw”, it is fine to record visual or conceptual ideas using directional lines and simple shapes).
  • an ideas book can be used to record what you see and what you think
  • many of the ideas will probably come to nothing, while the occasional page  may contain seeds of a new line of enquiry. Keep old completed books even if they seem to be full of hopeless scribble as, in years to come, you may look back through them with greater insight.



Above: Leonardo da Vinci. Notebook studies of both a seated figure and of turbulent flow. Note the association of flowing robes and turbulence images. The continuous format of a notebook or sketchbook encourages a sequence of interesting ideas. It is of course also possible to create an imaginative ideas book without being a master draughtsman.


Being ready to seek inspiration from anywhere

Young artists are encouraged to seek something interesting from the most mundane situations. They might be expected to look afresh at a single piece of drapery, the surface of a puddle or the corner of a room and then create an original image.

Should scientists take, at times, a similar approach?

The great physicist, Richard Feynman, said:

“I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough”.


 Above: Eugene Delacroix “A corner of the studio” 1830, oil on canvas



 Learning from your own emotional responses

Good art teachers remind students to be aware of their own emotional response to each object or situation. On the other hand, scientists are expected to be highly-objective in recording what they see and emotional involvement is therefore often discouraged.

Of course, objectivity is essential at certain times, e.g. when recording sets of values. However, there are occasions when an emotional response can help to direct you to initial observations that are surprising, and hence to those that may warrant further investigation.

For example, in studying canine movement recently, I came across this video of a galloping greyhound:


I set about looking at the video to record objective data for an assignment (limb step sequence, etc.)

However, the first thing that struck me about this was the rather alarming, even frightening appearance of the running dog. I asked myself what could be giving this dog such a “scary” look when running – he appears perfectly benign at the end of the video when resting on the grass. I concluded that the alarming appearance resulted from the dog’s dramatic up/down head movements with mouth gaping, teeth exposed and whites of eyes becoming visible at each head rise. (Indeed, if I cover his head, he no longer looks scary to me). What was initially an emotional response to the video could send me along several fresh lines of enquiry….”Why does the greyhound move his head up and down more than the cheetah?”; ” Is the mouth opening passively as he raises the head, or is this a sharp intake of breath” (“is breathing coordinated with running and, if so, how?”) “The downward roll of the eyes appears to be part of a set of known reflexes caused by changing neck position but I’d not noticed it before in a galloping animal…is eye movement always so extreme in running dogs…and other species?” And even, changing the subject somewhat, “do most people tend to see flashing whites of eyes as menacing?”

Don’t worry…I did also remember to record the objective data as originally planned.


A positive use of subjective language


When making sets of observations, scientists need to work systematically and objectively and record measurements in standard units.

However, additional subjective observation  can provide a wealth of extra information, and having a meaningful descriptive vocabulary at your fingertips can be useful. For example, you may observe something as “lurching”, “bulging”, “swinging” or “sagging”, or hear it go “crunch”, “slosh” or “pop”. These are all unscientific words, but each may have a specific meaning to you. Use of such words can help both in understanding what is happening in a general sense, communicating with others (especially lay-people) and in directing future objective analysis.



Above: “Head of a Black Cockatoo” engraved by T.W.Wood. From The Malay Archipelago by Alfred Russel Wallace

The naturalist and explorer, A.R.Wallace, came to original conclusions about natural selection from his observations. His diaries and notes include much colourful description backed up with objective data. An example of his subjective writing describes the bird pictured above:

“This cockatoo is the first I have seen, and is a great prize. It has a rather small and weak body, long weak legs, large wings, and an enormously developed head, ornamented with a magnificent crest, and armed with a sharp-pointed hoofed bill of immense size and strength…”

The cockatoo’s remarkably strong head and beak and surprising plumage turn out to be specific evolutionary adaptations. Wallace’s subjective approach was key to his understanding of relationships between species and their environment. Of course, he recorded numerous measurements and other objective data along the way.


An artist’s approach to combining subjective and objective description:



Above: A sketch for the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo. This image includes clear rendering of muscles of the limbs and trunk. However, this drawing is primarily about the process of “reaching out forward”, and its gestural quality tells us more about the body than we can glean from dry anatomy texts.



Use of analogies and metaphors

Some phenomena are so strange or unexpected that it is difficult to understand their implications without relating them to what we already know well.

Analogies are used by good science teachers (click here for an online resource on teaching with analogies). A beautiful example enables us to “get our heads around” the massive scale of our solar system. Astronomical figures initially seem meaningless, but a model using familiar objects helps us to understand and engage with the huge distances. In the Thousand-Yard Model, familiar objects represent each planet, so the Earth is a peppercorn, Jupiter a chestnut, etc. The Sun is a bowling ball. These objects are taken outside and placed at specific distances from one another to represent their relative spacing in the solar system. The resulting model solar system is a thousand yards across and is quite awe-inspiring. Full instructions on pacing out the Thousand Yard Model are provided by Guy Ottewell and can be accessed by clicking here.

But are there other areas of science where analogies are under-used? Imaginative comparison is key to the visual arts and of course to poetry. But does an emphasis on objective reasoning leave some scientists without these useful tools?




The confidence to pursue whatever fascinates you



Above: The structure of a ribosome, an essential component of all living cells.



While artists are often encouraged to follow their interests and passions, young scientists perhaps more easily find themselves following lines of enquiry dictated by perceived need, available funding or, at a school level, by a specific syllabus. Is this a cause for concern?

When asked by the Observer, “What words of advice would you give to a teenager who wants to pursue a career in science?“, Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, who shared the 2009 Nobel prize for chemistry for studies of the structure and function of the ribosome said,

“Find out what really fascinates you and follow that. Almost anything in nature, if you follow it, you will find a scientific problem.”



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Art vs. science: a closer look

January 9, 2014

Following on from my previous article, let’s now look more closely at the approaches of scientists and artists. Can they really have much in common? I’ll start by outlining scientific procedure, and then see how the artistic process compares.


Scientific procedure

Oxford English Dictionary definition of “scientific”: “a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”



Above: Alexander Fleming in his lab, surrounded by petri dishes, etc.




Many lines of scientific enquiry (especially novel, ground-breaking ones) start with an interesting observation. This is a process of “noticing something curious” and does not necessarily occur under controlled laboratory conditions.

For example, in 1928, Alexander Fleming noticed something odd about an open petri dish in his lab. This was a petri dish known to contain bacteria. What struck Fleming as interesting was a mysterious ring without bacteria on this dish. And surrounded by this bacteria-free halo was a growth of mould.

Admittedly, not every single scientific investigation starts with an observation. Some may begin with a need to solve a problem. Consider the many scientific trials involved in producing a medical drug these days.  But even when using more of a problem-solving approach, the scientific process of observing and thinking at each stage of the development of the drug is essential.

Note that The “systematic observation” included in the OED definition usually comes later, at the testing stage of the process.

Coming up with a question: 

Every line of scientific investigation involves a question. E.g. “Why does this happen?”, “How does that work?”, “Does that treatment work?”, “Why was that set of results not as expected?”, etc., etc.

 Fleming’s question would have been something like, “why is bacteria not growing around the mould?” 

Curious, he sampled and cultured the mould and identified it as a species of Penicillium.



 Above: a species of Penicillium as seen through a microscope

Making a hypothesis:

Using any information to hand, the scientist comes up with a hypothesis, i.e. a suggested answer to their question. In many cases, the hypothesis is simply an educated guess.

An initial hypothesis in the above example might have been, “This Penicillium mould inhibits bacterial growth”. (This turns out to be exciting, as the story eventually leads to the creation of the antibiotic, Penicillin).


Any hypothesis needs rigorous testing.

Following initial observations, it would be necessary to conduct an experiment using multiple agar plates seeded with a known type of bacteria. A pure growth of the Penicillium mould would be seeded onto just half of the plates. We’d predict that bacterial growth would be inhibited only on the plates containing the mould. Lids are kept on this time, as we need to know whether any inhibition of bacterial growth is due to the mould or instead merely due to some other environmental contaminant. Temperature and other conditions are strictly controlled, and careful, systematic observations made and recorded.

Results are then analysed,

and a decision is made as to whether the hypothesis is valid.

These days, each scientific discovery must be presented as a paper (there are close guidelines as to how this should be written), and this piece of writing must then go through peer-review (expert criticism) before publication.

A response to the results:

The results of the initial experiment may set the scientific community wondering about further possibilities…

E.g. “I wonder if the Penicillium inhibits all species of bacteria on agar plates” or, eventually, “I wonder if the Penicillium would work in the human body to cure bacterial disease”. Each new thought leads to a fresh hypothesis that then requires rigorous testing.



Above: The life-saving drug, Penicillin, was developed from Penicillium mould in 1939 by Dr Howard Florey and his colleagues at Oxford University.


I have chosen the well-known story of Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin because of its emphasis on “noticing something” and “coming up with a question”. On further reading I have just found that, coincidentally or not, Fleming was also an amateur artist, a member of the Chelsea art society and is even believed to have drawn with bacteria!


 How does artistic procedure compare with the above?


Observation/ Noticing things

Scientists may start their investigation by noticing curious phenomena in the real world or unexpected results from previous experiments.

But what do artists notice?

Anything in the real world that makes us “look twice” or leads us to think, “that’s interesting/ strange/ unexpected”, is a good starting-point for creating a piece of artwork. Artists are good at noticing something curious even in the most mundane situations (click here for further thoughts on this).

In figurative art, there is a particularly strong tradition of noticing:

Effects of the light

Human posture, how we move and how we spread our weight (think of all that closely-observed life-drawing)

Body language, facial expression and the minutiae of social interaction

But artists also notice their own emotional response to what they see and experience (including their response to news stories or even to fictional narrative), and this particular emotional response can be the basis of the resulting artwork.

Artists are great at noticing their own emotional response to colours, shapes, directional lines and movement, whether in the real world or within a picture, sculpture or film.

As an example, let’s take Edgar Degas and his creation of the painting, “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”. I’m choosing this because Degas is known to have gone through quite a struggle to create it, and several studies exist relating to different stages of the process.



 Above: Edgar Degas “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”, oil on canvas

Miss La La was an incredibly strong, agile and brave performer who worked at the Cirque Fernando close to where Degas lived. Why did Degas choose to paint this image? What struck him as “interesting” or “incredible” about this scene? He is not here to tell us, but we know that he was fascinated by human movement, the structure of the female form and unusual juxtapositions of figures against their surroundings. He appears to have noticed the following, and then set out to include them in his final image:

Miss La La’s unique pose, which is a unique combination of passive hanging plus strong arms ready to control the spin of the rope

The amazing height that she’s achieved, far above the crowd

The shape of her against the architecture


Above: Edgar Degas : One of many preparatory drawings for Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando, 1879, pastel and pencil on paper, 46x30cm

Coming up with a question

Admittedly, questioning is a subconscious process for many artists, though I believe that it is an important part of working creatively.

In response to noticing something (see above), the artist comes up with a question. For those who draw and paint, this question can be rephrased as a practical one. Here are some examples of specific questions that artists might ask themselves:

In embarking on a self-portrait: “What is it about me that makes me recognisable as “me”?”

and then: “how can I draw myself so that the resulting self-portrait looks like me?”

In drawing people at work: “How do these people move? How do they interact with each other?”

and then: “how can I capture the movement of these people in my drawing?”

In drawing a still life, the question might be: “Why does this vase of flowers make me feel joyful?”

and then: “how can I convey this sense of joy in my painting of the flowers?”

Note that the artist may need to ask and answer several questions before creating a complex image such as “Miss La La…”.


Degas made separate preparatory studies relating to the figure and the architecture for this image. It is said that he struggled to resolve the shapes of the architecture, possibly even hiring professional help to get this right (D.Sutton, “Edgar Degas, Life and Work, NY1986). But let’s look at the issue of the figure hanging from the rope. What question might Degas have asked himself?

“Hanging from the rope, why does Miss La La look both passive and strong?” or he might have asked , “How is she managing to hang from the rope without spinning out of control?”

For the painter, either of these questions leads onto a practical drawing/painting question:

“How can I paint Miss La La hanging from that rope so that she looks both passive and strong?” or perhaps, “How can I draw/paint Miss La La so that she appears to be hanging, and yet perfectly controlling the rope spin?”

Degas was experienced  at painting dancers and athletes on the ground, but this was a new problem for him…



A thought similar to a hypothesis

Unlike scientists, artists are not expected to write a formal hypothesis! But the thought process can nevertheless be similar.

Back to Degas and Miss La La:

Degas might have thought, “I reckon that if I draw Miss La La with her upright body position, relaxed bent knees, feet pressed against each other and strong, out-stretched arms, then she will look convincing as someone who is passively hanging but yet controlling the spin of the rope”



There are exceptions but, unlike scientists, artists do not tend to put their ideas through a rigorous, controlled test process. This is one big difference between the process of art and science.

Preparatory studies and sketches are, however, a form of testing.

Degas_study_of_Miss_La_La_at_the_Cirque_Fernando_1879_PastelAbove: Degas, an early study of Miss La La (drawn with upright body position, relaxed bent knees, feet pressed against each other and strong, out-stretched arms), Black crayon 45.6x24cm, 1879

An early study for the painting of Miss La La (shown above) has her facing the viewer. It is a powerful image but, in my opinion (and Degas’ too, as he rejected this viewpoint), it fails to show the spin-controlling power of the woman’s shoulders and arms. (Additionally, this viewpoint fails to show how high she is above the crowd).

What next?

Degas’ next “hypothesis” was that he could perhaps achieve the controlled dangling effect if he clarified the position of the woman’s arms. Those arms would have a big effect on her speed and direction of spin beneath the rope.

He proceeded to test this by drawing her with the raised arm thrust forward and the lowered arm behind her back. The arms are also rotated (look at the positions of the hands):

Degas_Miss_La_La_Preparatory_drawing_and_study_1879Above: Edgar Degas, two further preparatory studies for “Miss La La at the Cirque Fernando”, 1879



Analysing the results of the test

A good scientific study produces a set of objective results. Using statistical techniques, these results are analysed before the scientist can conclude anything from the study.

This varies tremendously from the artist’s approach. Artists do, however, evaluate their own work, even if just to say, “Yes, that produces the desired effect”. Though highly subjective, this evaluation process can be useful if applied to sketches or first drafts. Think of each sketch as testing something, and each evaluation process as assessing the result.

Degas_Miss_La_La_at _y=the_Cirque_Fernando_1879_Pastel_and_pencil_on_paper_46x30cm

Above: Yet another study by Degas for the painting of Miss La La. Pastel, 61×47.5cm, 1879. This is very similar in structure to the squared-up image higher up the page, but this drawing also tests out colour ideas and the positioning of the rope end in her mouth. Notice how Degas squared this image up for future use though the figure then underwent yet more slight changes. Developing a piece of work through a series of preparatory studies can be a lengthy business.


A response to the results

Like scientists, good artists look at their own work, and that of others, and come up with further ideas. This may be a personal response to a masterpiece seen in a gallery, or a response to their own work.

It is particularly your own “failed” pieces of work that can generate useful new ideas. Notice Degas’ useful response to his early drawing of Miss La La shown face-on. He wasn’t happy with it, but worked out what to change.



Noticing something interesting” is a key process for artists but is also important in making scientific discovery.

Both artists and scientists should be asking questions.

Coming up with a suggested answer to the question is useful for both artists and scientists. Scientists make a hypothesis. Some artists may find it helpful to think in a similar way.

Scientists test things in a very controlled, rigorous way. Artists also test things, but not necessarily in such a controlled manner.

Both scientists and artists respond to the outcome of their work in a positive way, and this may be a fresh starting-point for a new line of investigation or piece of work.

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Art and science: Is there any overlap?

December 16, 2013


Above: Joseph Wright of Derby “An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump”, 1768, oil on canvas

I’m currently furthering my veterinary knowledge in order to specialise in small animal rehabilitation. In addition to fantastic practical sessions, this course has sent me back to the dissection lab, and to the library in search of scientific papers.

With a life split into distinct sections (drawing/painting, scientific study and on-going part-time veterinary work) I started to say, with a smile, “I’ll just put my art hat on” when about to start drawing or, “hang on, I’ll just put my learning hat on” before focusing on the veterinary course.

And then one day when I forgot to take off my “art hat”, I noticed something interesting: My grasp of new scientific ideas seemed more complete, and more satisfying, if I continued to think in an artistic frame of mind.

Why should this be?

Can something of the artistic approach be valuable to the scientist?

Indeed, can something of the scientific approach be of value to the artist?

With current interest in interdisciplinary thinking in the art world (click here, for example, to see details of the new MA in Art and Science run by the University of the Arts, London) these questions deserve more thought.

A very general comparison of the scientific method with the artistic approach


I’ll explain and illustrate these points more fully in my next article but, as an introduction, here is an overview:


What do scientists do?

Scientists notice things (they may note an interesting observation from the natural world, or else a point worthy of investigation resulting from a previous scientific study)

Scientists come up with a question and then a hypothesis.

Scientists perform an experiment or trial in order to test their hypothesis. This testing procedure is very methodical and can, in some cases, be time-consuming and repetitive. Results are recorded carefully.

Scientists analyse their results objectively and come to conclusions.

Scientists present their results and conclusions for others to share (there is a peer-review process prior to publication).



Above: Leonardo da Vinci: “The superficial muscles of the upper extremity from the lateral to the anterior aspect in turning through a right angle”, c. 1510. Leonardo was investigating superficial anatomy as required for artistic representation of the human shoulder. He wrote questions to himself in the text: “What are the muscles which are never hidden either by corpulence or by fleshiness? What are the muscles which are united in men of great strength? What are the muscles which are divided in lean men?”

 What about artists? What do artists do?

The artist’s way of going about things is less well-defined, but perhaps has more in common with true scientific methodology than we might have at first thought:

There are of course a great range of artists working in any kind of medium from pencil to video installation, and with approaches that vary tremendously from one another. What do all these people have in common?

Artists notice things (a view shared by Grayson Perry and others)

Artists question and, if necessary, rethink accepted ideas.

Artists present their thoughts for others to share.

The above three sentences sum up what artists do (if you’d like to change my wording, disagree or add to this, then please share your thoughts in the “comments” box, below). These three tasks (noticing, questioning and presentation), are also fundamental to good science.

Do artists perform tests or experiments? Yes, to some extent, but very informally and in a subjective manner. Many artists solve problems through a process of trial and error. This is a kind of valid but unsystematic testing. There are also ways of thinking through an artistic question or problem and working out a solution by making and evaluating a series of preliminary sketches.

Do artists analyse their results? Yes, but this is an extremely subjective evaluation. It may be a matter of self-evaluation, or involve the difficult business of presenting finished work for critique, competition or sale and noticing what other people say about it.



Above: Leonardo da Vinci “The foetus in utero”, c.1510-12. There are actually some errors here in the representation of the anatomical coverings of the human foetus and, in the text, there is the incorrect statement that the heart of this child does not beat. However, this image is remarkable in its empathy. Leonardo drew from (presumably rotting) corpses, yet he shows the foetus as a precious child huddled within its mother. This is entirely relevant to his accompanying text in which he writes about the shared soul of mother and child. Within this text he writes, “…the desires, fears and pains are common to this creature….and a sudden fright kills both mother and child”.

Some other comparisons between artists and scientists

In both art and science, there is a fantastic culture of learning from what others have previously achieved. Artists continually look at old paintings and contemporary work to see how both their peers and the “great masters” solved familiar problems of technique, composition and representation. Scientists read around their subjects of interest, learning from the previous work of others and keeping abreast of current thinking.

Artists and scientists both build upon the work of others. Scientists may repeat someone else’s experiment, or develop a new idea and experiment directly from theirs. In either case, they must explain their thought process and provide a clear reference to the previous scientist’s work when writing their paper. When artists are directly responding to a particular work of an old master, they might title their work, e.g. “…after Rembrandt”. Much more commonly, the influence of the old master on the new piece of work is more vague. Those “in the know” might recognise a similarity of e.g. brush-strokes or colours, but the old master in question need not be formally credited.

There is a horror of plagiarism in both art and science!

Here is a quotation from John Maeda (president of Rhode Island school of design) : “Artists and scientists tend to approach problems with a similar open-mindedness and inquisitiveness — they both do not fear the unknown, preferring leaps to incremental steps” (this is from Scientific American, July 11, 2013, but I have added the highlighting).

Scientists have a great understanding of what is subjective as opposed to objective. Do artists have a similar understanding? It is easy for artists to get caught up in myth and subjective opinion. The evaluation of the work of artists is also very subjective. However, artists have a great understanding of looking at something in the real world objectively. Those who have gone through rigorous life-drawing training know all about illusions caused by foreshortening, and can still understand the model’s structure without being misled by skin tan-lines or reflections.


Further thoughts

Following this introductory overview article, I plan to publish further thoughts on this subject. The next article will explain the scientific method more fully (e.g. what is a hypothesis?) and show how this compares to the artistic process.

Future articles are also planned, entitled “What can artists learn from scientists?”, “What can scientists learn from artists?”, and “Art and science: The sharing of knowledge”.

If you are longing to join in the discussion, then please do add your opinion in the “comments” box below (or alternatively write to me via the contact page if you’d prefer to express an opinion privately).





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Art and memory: Developing skills

November 7, 2013



Above: Leslie Moffat Ward “Trees near Holdenhurst”, 1913, etching


Some techniques used by artists to develop the application of memory

Approach these “exercises” in a playful, experimental way and in any order that you prefer. They are really mind games rather than true drawing exercises. These methods are primarily designed to change the way that you see and remember. Approach with an open mind, and with plenty of cheap paper at the ready…



1) “Seeing pictures”

This is a technique that you can use anywhere. It is a great boredom-buster at the bus-stop.

Simply look at the scene in front of you, and visualise all or part of it in your mind as a picture composition. To start with, just be aware of this scene as a potential picture while you are still looking at it. Then try looking away from the scene…can you still remember the essentials of the image?



Above: The camera records a view of trees in all its complexity. Simplify the image by considering it as a group of dark-toned shapes against a light sky. You may also want to remember the horizontal strip of light across the distant edge of the lawn.


What is the point of the “seeing pictures” mind game?

This really is just a mind game. It is primarily useful in increasing our conscious awareness of what we are seeing. By trying to commit the scene to memory, we initially have to select what has greatest importance to us (e.g. bold shapes and tones as opposed to fiddly details). Such a  selection process is key for many artists. In addition, attempting to remember visual images can, over time, improve memory skills.

“Seeing pictures” also helps us to make the mental switch from looking at the world around us, to portraying something of that world on a (usually rectangular) piece of paper.


Most pictures are rectangular, so you may wish to think of the image in a rectangular (landscape or portrait-style) format. You could hold up a cardboard viewfinder to view the scene within a rectangular frame, or without a viewfinder you may be able to mentally “crop” the image, so that you are just considering a rectangular section of it.

Good scenes to start with are simple ones with strong tonal contrasts, e.g. trees silhouetted against the sky.

Don’t try to be a camera! Remembering detail is not necessary. Attempt to remember some or all of the following “essentials”:

Simple tones (very dark, very light and somewhere in-between)- e.g. dark trees against  a light sky

Simple shapes – e,g. the shapes of trees massed together, and the shape of the sky around those trees.

Any movement– e.g. are the trees being blown one way or the other by wind?

and perhaps, broad areas of warm vs. cool colour

Though you are not trying to be a camera, you can effectively “zoom in” to the scene to visualise a rectangular image of just a small part of your view, if you wish. You could achieve this by holding the cardboard viewfinder further away from your eyes, if you are using one.


Above: Any part of the view could be considered as a potential picture. Here is a section of tree canopy selected from the previous image. How would you go about memorising this? Consider the  shapes of canopy “clumps” (rounded, perhaps like bunches of grapes), and of the negative shapes of sky between the leaves and branches.

There are different ways to remember a scene. Experiment and see what works best for you:

1) You may intuitively remember a bold shape in the scene by simply focusing on the shape and memorising it.


2) A shape may remind you of something else. For example, a complicated space between tree branches might look, to you, like a pair of frantically-running legs. Remembering the image of running legs may later help you to recall the shape of the gap between branches.


3) Or you could take more of a logical approach. For the example of trees against the sky within an imagined rectangular “frame”, consider the most important proportions within the image. Would the trees reach the top of the image, or come perhaps just halfway up, or three-quarters of the way up the picture? How far do the trees reach across the image sideways? Is the mass of trees taller than it is wide, or vice-versa? Are the main trunks of the trees vertical? If not then how much do they tip and in which direction?

Developing this idea further:

 a) Remembering moving images.

Once you get confident with this visualisation trick, then try it when the scene is moving past you, e.g. as seen from the window of the bus or perhaps, out in the countryside, from the back of a horse. Camera analogies are unavoidable here… Can you remember a “snapshot” image of a simple scene? How much is the human mind capable of in this regard?

A note about cameras:

I advise against taking a camera snapshot to back up your visual memory unless you really know what you are doing. Most photos capture super-human detail, but subtly distort the essentials of the image, i.e. the tonal gradation and the field of view. For capturing essentials, your eyes and brain are generally better than the camera.

On the other hand, we can learn from the great photographers who are truly aware of what they see. In the words of Henri Cartier-Bresson, “…one has to feel oneself involved in what he frames through the viewfinder. This attitude requires concentration, a discipline of mind, sensitivity, and a sense of geometry. It is by great economy that one arrives at simplicity of expression.”

b) Thumbnail sketch of a remembered image

For a simple scene that is not moving, try visualising as a picture format as described above, and then turning around and making an immediate thumbnail sketch of the remembered image. For a thumbnail sketch, start by using pen or pencil to draw a rectangle in your sketchbook. The rectangle should be of similar proportions to your imagined picture. Draw in what you can remember of the scene starting with the boldest shapes. You could hatch or block in areas of tone with a soft pencil or broad pen.


Above: From my position in a car park, I could see interesting shapes in the tops of hedges and trees. I attempted to memorise a section, then turned around and made a thumbnail sketch. Here are three rather scribbly thumbnail sketches resulting from repeating the process with different parts of the view. This is just a learning process. I do not plan to develop the images further.

c) Sketching after visualising

Or, after visualising the image in your head, try making an immediate very quick drawing in your sketchbook while still looking at the scene. Include only the essential broad shapes, directional lines, tones or colours.


Above: I happened to have a few coloured pencils to hand when I drove past this group of sheep late on an autumn day. What struck me from the car was the appearance of the sheep as rounded masses, with yellowish sun slanting over their backs. In stopping the car and making a scribbly sketch, this was all that I attempted to convey on paper.

d) Sketching moving images

Have a go at drawing views from the window when you are on a moving train. Again, just focus on the very basics. There may be a bold shape of land beneath a block of sky, perhaps with a shape suggesting a line of trees or buildings.



Above: In a pocket-size sketchbook, here is one of many views from a moving train

2) Sketchbook experiments




Above: Edouard Manet pen and ink sketch of La Rue Mosnet, c.1878

Like Toulouse-Lautrec or the young Matisse, take a sketchbook and draw people out and about. Avoid including much detail. Basic silhouetted shapes are a good start. Important things to note with figures include:

  • Is the torso upright or tipped?
  • In which direction is the figure looking?
  • Considering the person in their clothes as a single “mass”, what basic shape are you looking at?
  • Are the legs and feet out at an angle, or are they directly under the head?
  • The simple silhouetted shape of the head, neck and shoulders tells us plenty about character and identity, as described further here.


Above: A sketch of a man waiting to be served at a café. This was simply an attempt to capture his posture on the page.

Using a sketchbook in this way makes us look and then record what we see in the most direct way possible. It also allows us to experiment with that curious natural ability that humans have of being able to look at something, perhaps from a distance and in poor light, and “knowing” immediately what it is.

For example, you might see a child with their head turned away from you. Even from a distance, you would recognise this figure as a child. You may have a good idea as to whether it is a boy or girl,  their age and even some idea of how they are feeling. But can you sketch the child’s figure in this position in any meaningful way? If not then why not? What is it that you are seeing, and how can that be transferred to the paper? Experiment with different drawing approaches to discover what is most useful, e.g. flat tone, hatched lines, simple outlines.

 There is a current vogue for beautifully-finished artist’s “sketchbooks”, completed as publishable journals. My suggestion is to use a working sketchbook in a more experimental way, and not to mind if many of the drawings are scribbly, “sketchy!” or even incomprehensible.


 3) Drawing a dream



Above: Charles Hazelwood Shannon “Shepherd in a Mist”, 1892, lithograph



For those who wish to link art in with emotion and memory, dreams have great potential.

The memory of a dream may be curiously incomplete and fleeting. We are sometimes left with a strong emotional memory on awaking, as if we have actually lived through a new experience.

Do you ever remember your dreams? If so, is this a visual memory? Like a fascinating piece of art, the initial visual memory of a dream may seem to be shadowy, incomplete, perhaps comprised merely of odd glimpses, while still representing a strong emotion.

Try this:

  • You can only do this “exercise” on waking from a dream. Try keeping a notebook or sketchbook by the bed, as any visual memory of the dream will alter within minutes.
  • As soon as you wake, note down anything that you remember from the dream. Use a combination of simple drawings and words.
  • Be honest with yourself as to what you remember seeing in the dream. For example, the dream might have centred on a friend of yours, but perhaps you only remember seeing them as a shadowy shape. In your notebook, draw the shadowy shape rather than “making up” a drawing of the friend. Your notebook drawing may appear rather abstract. That is still interesting and valuable.
  • If you don’t have the time, skill or media to convey the image fully as an immediate sketch in the notebook, then add words to further describe what you remember. For example: Which way was the friend looking? Were they moving?
  • If the dream involved a sequence of events, then is it best conveyed as a series of drawings like a storyboard, or do you just remember odd glimpses here and there? Again, be honest with yourself as to what you remember.

Taking the idea further:

A collection of visual and written notes about dreams is fascinating in itself. In recording dreams, you can learn something of how emotion ties in with visual experience and visual memory. That is what art is all about.

It is not essential to develop any of the notebook images into finished pieces of art, but there is plenty of potential to do so if you wish. Whether you work towards producing an abstract or representational image, take care to include your genuine visual memories of the dream rather than constructing new images based on the dream’s story. The remembered images may well be shadowy, incomplete and ambiguous.



 Above: An example of an image developed directly from a dream. Having dreamt about my old dog having a conversation with me (!), the resulting visual memory was of the front part of my old dog’s face.  In my immediate sketchbook image, the animal’s mouth was closed and still as I remembered it from the dream. Without that initial sketch, I would have assumed that a talking dog would have a moving mouth. The dark areas with no form or detail were also remembered, and struck me as curious when I woke up. This charcoal drawing was later drawn using the sketchbook image and notes..



4) Drawing something that gives you an emotional reaction


What, in your life, gives you an emotional reaction when you look at it? Perhaps it is the face of someone dear to you? Perhaps your  pet or favourite possession? If that feeling is important to you then play with “banking it” within your memory (i.e. deliberately remembering it).


When you look at this person or thing, then what exactly do you see that triggers the emotional reaction?

For example, if it was a person, then consider whether it was the shape of their face (as is so often involved in recognising someone from across a room) or perhaps the texture of their hair or skin, the shape of the top of their head (a common emotion-trigger when a parent looks at a tiny child) or something about their posture or gaze.

Now…can you “visualise” something essential that you have remembered of that person or object in your mind?

If so, then that is an excellent start.


NPG 6653; David Bomberg ('Self-Portrait with Pipe') by David Garshen Bomberg

 Above: David Bomberg “Self portrait with a pipe”, 1932, oils. Under many lighting conditions, we see a series of characteristic light and dark shapes when we look at someone’s face. The shapes of the eye sockets , forehead and shoulders tell us plenty about the person’s identity and character.

You could then develop the eyes-brain-emotion-memory skill by exploring your surroundings further. There may be far more mundane objects that induce some kind of fleeting emotional reaction in you, whether positive or negative.

You might, for example, look at a section of peeling wallpaper and feel anger or frustration. Again, store the exact emotion in your “memory bank” (that does not mean that you need to be left feeling angry or frustrated for the rest of the day). What did you see of the object that brought on that emotional response? In the case of the peeling wallpaper, it might be the shape of the exposed wall, or the texture of the wallpaper edge, or perhaps something of the colour of the paper.


Taking this idea further:

Try drawing the person or object, taking care to include whatever factor triggered your emotional response. So, for example, you may feel happy when you spot your dear friend across the room, and perhaps you have decided that it is the exact shape of their face that triggers your emotion. Try drawing them, paying careful attention to that shape. A blocky tonal approach in soft pencil or charcoal may be good in this case.

Approach this drawing “exercise” in a very experimental way. You may find that your initial drawings are rather meaningless. Why do these early drawings not trigger the same emotional response as you experience when looking at the person “in the flesh”? Try different drawing approaches in various media and see what works best.

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The essence of an object: the role of memory

October 19, 2013

How does memory tie in with the creation of art?


A quick internet search for “memory & art” directs me to websites in which events or people are commemorated in painting, sculpture and other media. Further searching leads me to information on those who use childhood memories to create highly imaginative and unusual work. Drawing from life can also be used to record fleeting memories, and it is interesting how many sketchbook addicts (myself included) claim to use drawing to back up an insufficient memory.



 Above: Odille Redon “Pegasus Captive”, 1889, lithograph


What about the artist who sets about painting a still life or portrait? Is memory required for such a process?

To go through the mechanics of drawing a portrait does not require human memory. For example, take a look at the drawing robot. But artists are generally after something more than that.  In order to create interesting work that can truly be described as art, perhaps the ability to process memory is essential …


…I’ll let you read on and come to your own conclusions.


“Drawing is remembering”


Once again, I am turning to Henri Matisse for ideas, mainly because he left a wealth of written and spoken information on the subject.  Here I am referring to the excellent text of John Elderfield’s “The Drawings of Henri Matisse”.

Elderfield described how the young Matisse would go out with his fellow student Marquet to sketch in the streets of Paris. They attempted to draw silhouettes of people moving in the street. In Matisse’s words: “We were trying…to discipline our line. We were forcing ourselves to discover quickly what was characteristic in a gesture, an attitude.”



Toulouse-Lautrec sketches of people and dogs

Above: Sketches of people and dogs drawn from life, this time by Toulouse-Lautrec. There is plenty of information here about posture and character. In particular, look at the shapes between and around the two dogs.



Attempting to draw moving figures is a real challenge, especially if the subject moves before the artist’s pen touches the paper. Elderfield writes, “sketching in the street…made it evident to Matisse that drawing was indeed not only a matter of observation but of memory: of recording, in fact, not what was seen “out there”…rather, what had been stamped in the mind. The act of drawing was that of remembering.”


Have you tried to draw people or animals who are continuously moving? When I have forced myself to draw, for example, equestrian vaulters on a cantering horse, I have struggled to come up with a meaningful image. To produce a drawing that is representative of the moving subject is a mental challenge that involves looking and thinking and a keen short-term memory for the essentials. A prior knowledge of the subject and a longer term memory is of course also helpful here.



 Above: Some of my sketchbook attempts to capture poses of equestrian vaulters in action.



“My painting is finished when I rejoin the first emotion that sparked it”¹

So said Matisse. And he also gave great importance to remembering the initial spark of emotion that came at the beginning of the painting. Matisse wrote of looking at the subject (e.g. still life or figure) with an open mind and really observing the subject in a concentrated way. “..The subject is experienced, and drawing is the record of that experience, of the unconscious sensations which sprang from the model.”



 Above: Henri Matisse “The Green Stripe”, a portrait in oils of his wife, Amélie Noellie Matisse-Parayre, 1905


There is no point in trying to record the ever-changing present while it is taking place, as life goes on and the subject alters, as does the artist’s response to it. Even when drawing a “static” professional model or a pot plant, there are tiny changes over time. Consider changes in the lighting, the mood, and your (the artist’s) response to the subject.

Matisse believed that, instead, the artist must preserve the memory of the first concentrated observation. Elderfield interpreted Matisses’s outlook as follows: “To remember the first unconscious sensations which sprang from the model is to make a drawing”.



Rediscovering reality

In creating a drawing or painting, the artist may work up to a point at which their image starts to coincide with a recent or much more distant memory. They may think back to the initial “spark” of emotion of that day’s work. Alternatively, something about the image may start to resemble some other memory, recent or distant, within the artist’s mind.


Pierre_Bonnard_1897 the-lunch-of-the-little-ones

 Above: Pierre Bonnard “The Lunch of the Little Ones”, 1897


Proust wrote of “the grandeur of real art” involving the rediscovering of a reality that is “a certain relationship between  sensations and memories which surround us at the same time”.

Is this fanciful?

No…. In going about our daily business (making breakfast, walking through the street, etc.) we are surrounded by all kinds of sensations and memories, both conscious and subconscious. As we walk through the street, we are not only aware of the pavement ahead , but also of surrounding buildings and people. Even if we are paying no direct attention to architecture, we are still certainly aware of being surrounded by, say, looming skyscrapers as opposed to neat residential houses. There may also be noise, perhaps traffic, birdsong or chattering people.

In addition, our head and eyes are continuously moving as we walk. Unlike a smoothly-gliding video tracking system, our eyes glance about all over the place, catching a glimpse of this here and of that there. We need some kind of very short-term memory system just to make sense of this. There might be a glimpse of the kerb, a flash of a car going by, a recognised face in the crowd, the brief sight of a cake in a shop window and also of our own feet as we step on the pavement. Much of this is mundane and quickly-forgotten. The occasional image (a girl in the street, a hat in a shop window) or combination of images may trigger a new emotion or distant memory. That is part of the human experience.




 Above: Edouard Manet “At the café”, 1874, gillotage on beige wove paper. This complex image of a crowded room is simplified into rhythmic lines and strong shapes. Angles of heads are essential here, as are shapes of spaces between people. With a minimum of detail, Manet shares with us (across the centuries) the atmosphere of this noisy café.



Painting from memory

Henri Matisse said that he painted “from memory”. Numerous drawings made prior to a painting were created, not as first draughts, but to gain a deeper understanding of his subject.  He wanted to know objects thoroughly before attempting to paint them: “Deep within himself…[the artist] must have a real memory of the object and of the reactions it produces in his mind”.

Matisse certainly did not transpose his drawings to a canvas in order to make a painting. He claimed not to be satisfied with a mere enlargement. Whether he used his drawings for close reference, or just put them to one side and truly painted “from memory”, I am not sure.


How can we use these ideas in practice?

The techniques and craft of painting can be learned, but what about the artistic, intuitive aspects?  Is it possible, for example, to learn to improve our awareness and application of memory in drawing and painting?

Yes, certainly, with some careful thought and application, though it is a gradual process.

In my next article, I shall share practical suggestions on how to go about this using a series of mind games and simple drawing exercises.




1) Quoted by Pierre Schneider within “The Bonheur de vivre: A Theme and its Variations” lecture at MOMA, New York, 30 Mar 1976

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The essence of an object (2): The thing-ness of a thing

September 16, 2013

branch-of-a-judas-tree-by-henri-matisse-1942_charocoal-on-paper_25.2x39.4cmAbove: Henri Matisse “Branch of a Judas Tree”, 1942, charcoal on paper, 25.2×39.4cm


Writing in 1947 about some fig leaves that he was drawing, Matisse described how he was searching for the qualities that made them “almost unmistakably fig leaves”. He did not want to record exact copies of particular leaves, complete with their idiosyncratic folds and imperfections. Instead, Matisse worked to find the “common quality” that united things despite their visible differences. He wrote of searching for an “inherent truth” about the fig leaves.

As we can see from Matisse’s drawing of another plant, the Judas Tree, above, the general shapes and spacing of the leaves, and the shapes of the gaps between them, give the plant an immediate identity.

As humans, we find it easy to identify objects by their general shape (either the shape of an outline, or by the shapes of dark or light tones):



Above: Various types of birds of prey, quickly identifiable by their general shape

Thing-ness, identity and emotion

Though each differs from the next, all of the above bird silhouettes have a recognizable bird-identity. What is it that makes all of these shapes so recognisably bird-like; what gives them all a quality of “bird-ness”? It is the general shape, and the relative proportions of head, out-stretched wings and tail.

If we so wished, we could create a new imaginary bird silhouette that was still recognisably bird-like, without having been copied from any existing bird species.

When playing around with new bird-like shapes, when do our drawings lose the quality of bird-ness, i.e. when can they no longer be “read” or “understood” as birds? Feel free to experiment with this yourself.

The quality of “thing-ness” can produce a strong emotional response. Imagine showing a drawing of a spider to someone who is terrified of spiders. You would expect them to be upset, whichever type of spider you had drawn. Now, what if the spider drawing was distorted. Would the arachnophobic person still be repulsed by your image? How much would you need to distort the image to make it acceptable to an arachnophobe? Would it be sufficient simply to make the legs of the spider extremely short, or to make its body very long, or to give it a different number of legs? To someone who has a great terror of spiders, you may need to distort the image considerably before it loses its quality of “spider-ness” for them.

Above: Odille Redon “The Smiling Spider”, 1891

The Platonic Ideal


This discussion of things and identity brings me to Plato’s ideas. He talked of the Ideal of a given form, which was the embodiment of all the particular examples of that form.

In order to see or imagine such an ideal form, one needs a reasoning mind. Here is an extract from The Journal of Speculative Philosophy” Volume 4 , by William Torrey Harris, 1870:


“When Plato spoke of the goblet-ness and table-ness, Diogenes the cynic said, “I see indeed the table and the goblet, but not the table-ness nor the goblet-ness”.

“Right” answered Plato; “For though you have eyes which serve to see the table and the goblet, yet the wherewith to see the table-ness and goblet-ness, i.e. Reason, you have not”.”




Above: Raphael “School of Athens” , fresco, Diogenes is lying on the steps, and Plato is standing in front of the central open archway, wearing red and purple robes.



The perfect Platonic Ideal Form might be something that no human has ever come across. For example,

“No one has ever seen a perfect circle, nor a perfectly straight line, yet everyone knows what a circle and a straight line are”. (based on Plato’s “Cratylus”, paragraph 389)



Above: Paul Klee “Error on Green”, 1930

 How might the Platonic Ideal be applied to drawing and painting?


Artists have long intended to create images representing the perfect example of an object, being or landscape. They might go out with sketching tools in order to record the many random quirks of nature, but the final picture tends to be a long-considered ideal image. The artist collates all his or her previous observations in order to make a final enduring image.

When I talk here about the “ideal” image, I do not necessarily mean one that is the most beautiful or pleasing. It may rather be the image that best sums up the appearance of a stormy sky, or the character of a complicated individual.



John Constable gave lectures on landscape painting at the Royal Institute in 1836, and this is what he had to say about condensing information into an ideal image:


“…the whole beauty and grandeur of Art consists…in being able to get above all singular forms, local customs, particularities of every kind…

[the painter] makes out an abstract idea of their forms more perfect than any one original”


 Above: John Constable “Cloud study, horizon of trees”, oil on board, 1821. Though he was a great observer of landscape detail and weather change, Constable strove to create a perfect final image that summarised and surpassed all of this.

How do we recognise objects?


The human brain performs an amazing feat when it identifies an object. We take the complexity of this task for granted. Take, for example, our ability to recognise a pencil as a pencil, at first glance and without thinking about it. The pencil could be under any type of lighting conditions, and could be in any position. It could be any type of pencil. The possibilities are endless. In addition to this, our heads tend to be moving all the time as we go about our daily lives, so our eyes’ view of the pencil would be moving and fleeting, rather than a fixed frame like a photographic image.



In his fascinating paper, “Art and The Brain”, published in Daedalus in 1998, the neurobiologist Semir Zeki  proposed that we have a kind of Platonic Ideal of each object in our mind “such that a single view of an object makes it possible for the brain to categorize that object”. He suggests that this Ideal image would be developed from the brain’s stored memory record of all the views of all the objects that it has seen. Considering the Platonic system, Zeki writes that “there can be no Ideals without the brain”. So the brain is of great importance here.

Which part of the brain is most involved in object recognition? According to Zeki, it is a region known as the inferior convolution of the temporal lobes that somehow processes stored memory records of all previously-seen objects.


The purpose of art and the “Ideal” or quintessential image


We look at real-life objects in many situations and remember numerous images of them. In addition, we can add to our brain’s stored memory record by looking at pictures. Art helps curious people to learn about the world, and pictures that portray a quintessential, or Ideal image have a special function here.


According to Zeki (Inner Vision 50-51), art, like the brain, seeks:

“to represent the constant, lasting, essential and
enduring features of objects, surfaces, faces, situations, and so on, and thus
allow us to acquire knowledge, not only about the particular object, or face,
or condition represented on the canvas but to generalise from that to many
other objects and thus acquire knowledge about a wide category of objects or faces”.

The art of simplification


Young_woman_sleeping_in_a_Rumanian_blouse_Matisse_1939Above: Henri Matisse “Young woman sleeping in a Rumanian blouse”, 1939, charcoal on paper, 37x47cm

Referring to the process of drawing a clothed figure, Matisse said:

“The fabric of the blouse has a unique character. I want to express, at one and the same time, what is typical and what is individual, a quintessence of all I see and feel before a subject.”

How should artists go about achieving this “quintessence”?

For many, simplification is key.


For example, many of Eugene Delacroix’s journal entries discuss the importance of suppressing detail. Here is an extract from 23 April 1854 in which he discusses the way in which an artist keeps the first pure expression throughout the execution of his work:


“can a mediocre artist, wholly occupied with questions of technique, ever achieve this result by means of a highly skilful handling of details which obscure the idea instead of bringing it to light.”


Matisse himself is known to have worked over many of his drawings repeatedly, not adding and over-working the image, but erasing and replacing marks until he was satisfied that he had placed each curve and line optimally.

Here Matisse describes his simplification process when drawing lace:


“You see here a whole series of drawings I did after a single detail: the lace collar around the young woman’s neck. The first ones are meticulously rendered, each network, almost each thread, then I simplified more and more; in this last one, where I so to speak know the lace off by heart, I use only a few rapid strokes to make it look like an ornament, an arabesque without losing its character of being lace and this particular lace. And at the same time it still is a Matisse, isn’t it?


I like Matisse’s emphasis on drawing studies until he “knows the lace off by heart”, i.e. has a deep understanding of it. In fact, once the stage of knowing the object off “by heart” is reached, the artist is capable of making a simple drawing from memory. In conveying the essence of an object, memory is of the utmost importance. But I shall come back to this point in a future article.

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The essence of an object

August 26, 2013


Above: Henri Matisse “Blue Nude”, gouache and collage, 1952



Here is a phrase that I often come across: “Convey the essence of the object (or figure, landscape, etc.)”. These words are repeated in books, art classes and demonstrations. Is this just meaningless “art-speak”? I have been wondering… What on earth is an object’s essence, and how can an artist set about conveying it?

With my background in both science and art, I have been happy to seek more information. I’ve been looking at writings of neuroscientists such as Semir Zeki as well as those of artists including Delacroix, Matisse and Hockney. Looked at from multiple viewpoints, the subject is fascinating, and I’ll share my ideas with you here in this and some future blog posts.



A response to the French Impressionists


Let’s start by remembering the French Impressionists of the late 19th century. They aimed to depict a fleeting visual impression of the scene before their eyes. Each Impressionist picture conveys the play of light across the scene as it was observed by the artist.



 Above: Claude Monet “Haystack, End of the Summer Morning”, oil on canvas, 1891. Monet was very aware of the fact that objects look completely different under natural light at different times of day and in different months of the year.

Though, more than a century later, Impressionism has an enduring appeal, the movement was not without its critics. The Impressionist painters were virtuosic at painting the effect of light on the surface of objects, landscapes and figures, but did their pictures convey much more than a superficial effect? Take, for example, what Henri Matisse had to say about Impressionist painting in “Notes of a Painter”(1908):

“A rapid rendering of a landscape represents only one moment of its existence. I prefer, by insisting on its essential character, to risk losing charm in order to obtain greater stability”.


“Under this succession of moments which constitutes the superficial existence of beings and things and which is constantly modifying and transforming them, one can search for a truer, more essential character, which the artist will seize so that he may give to reality a more lasting interpretation.


Can a painting robot convey the “essence” of something or someone?



Above: A drawing robot created at Robotlab at the Centre for Art and Media. Though this is technologically amazing, I doubt that robots could ever convey the artistic “essence” of an object or being.


A robot with a camera eye could convey a visual “snapshot” of a scene. While the robot may create a realistic image (perhaps with sophisticated paint-brush technology on canvas), that robot is not an artist. How can a human artist be better than a robot at conveying the essence of an object?

This is debatable as there is no single correct answer (do use the “comments” box below if you wish to add your knowledge or opinion).

Unlike the robot, the artist’s aim is to record the physical and emotional experience of looking at the object. All of us humans are capable of experience, emotion and thought, and this puts us ahead of any robot (however photo-realistic the work of that robot may be).



Above: Ostade van Adriaen “The Artist in his Studio”, 1663, oil on wood, 38x33cm. The artist looks, considers, remembers and paints.


Some factors to consider when attempting to convey the “essence” of an object or being


In responding to the object in paint, the artist is free to emphasise, exaggerate or omit elements of the scene.

When aiming to convey the essence of an object, the artist may wish to consider some or all of the following:

  • Their own emotional response to the object
  • The appearance of the object from different viewpoints
  • The physical relationship between the object and its surroundings
  • Shapes, angles, directions and proportions that make the object recognisable. (and that trigger the memory of its identity)
  • The effect of time passing (changing light, movement, etc.)
  • Past memories and cultural references relating to the object

(Would you add anything to the above list? If so, please join the discussion by writing in the comments box at the bottom of this page).

It is up to the individual artist as to how far they wish to go with such exaggerations or omissions. The freedom to experiment with emphasising or suppressing these elements is exciting, as it creates an array of possibilities, from visual realism to many forms of abstraction.




Above: Pablo Picasso “Bread and Fruit Dish on a Table”, 1909


Do these ideas necessarily lead to abstraction?


If we emphasise, exaggerate or omit beyond a certain point, then the picture may end up looking very different to the object. Is this a problem? Opinions differ, but many believe that is necessary to depart from visual realism in order to convey sufficient meaning. For example, Jacque Rivière, the cubist art critic, wrote in 1912 (Present tendencies in painting, Revue d’Europe et d’Amerique) of how the essence of an object should not resemble its appearance:

“The true purpose of a painting is to represent objects as they really are; that is to say, differently from the way we see them. It always tends to give us their sensible essence, their presence, this is why the image it forms does not resemble its appearance.”



On the other hand, artists such as Rembrandt have found ways to make their work meaningful while still retaining a great sense of realism. For example, in each of Rembrandt’s portraits and figure studies, the sitter is portrayed as a personality with a complex character. Rembrandt mastered the use of exaggeration, emphasis and omission but, instead of resorting to abstraction, he achieved these effects by the use of controlled composition, lighting and varied brush-strokes:



 Above: Rembrandt van Rijn “A Woman in Bed”, c.1645-6, oils




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Holiday Sketchbook: Rome and Santa Marinella

July 12, 2013

Cafe_stop_Ostiense (2)002

Above: Santa Marinella beach, near Rome

Our recent family holiday in Italy was a good mixture of sightseeing, exploration, eating out, beach time and relaxing together. I continued to draw and sketch, aiming to make the images as varied as the holiday itself. Here are some pages from these sketchbooks:

Santa Marinella

Santa_Marinella_terrace018 Above: Holiday roof terrace


Above: Santa Marinella beach seems to be a popular place to meet friends and family.


Above: Sitting inside the restaurant at Santa Marinella beach, there is a view of sand stretching into the distance.


Above: Just out of season, the beach is quite empty and perfect for family relaxation

Travelling to Rome


Above: Inside the train carriage, travelling from Santa Marinella to Rome. The journey takes about one hour.


Above: A puppy on the train


Above: The platform of a Rome Metro station. The system has a similar feel to the London Underground, with people going about their daily business and gazing past one another.

Days spent in Rome

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Lunch with my daughter at a street café

horse_Rome (1)005Above: A carriage horse waiting next to the Trevi fountains

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Above: The ancient Greek marble “Lion attacking a Horse” on display in the Capitoline museum, Rome


Above: People-watching in Rome

Villa Borghese gardens

Above: We strolled through an informal part of the gardens of the Villa Borghese

Centrale Montemartini museum

Above: Beautifully-lit statues on display at the Centrale Montemartini museum. This is my favourite museum so far, an old thermoelectric centre with ancient marble shown alongside the engines. It is away from the busy tourist route, a short walk from Garbatella Metro station.

Nature notes

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Above: “By-the-wind-sailors”, harmless jellyfish-type creatures found washed up on the beach at Santa Marinella


Above: Does this tree remind you of Mediterranean holidays? It is a stone pine, here seen close to the sea-front at Santa Marinella



Above: This pair of Etruscan winged horses really captured my imagination. They are on display on the top floor of the Vitelleschi palace in the beautiful old town of Tarquinia.

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Easel perfection

June 27, 2013

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Above: A David Potter portable easel with my own personalised storage attachments

Portable Easel

Do you love to paint outdoors, but hate the hassle of getting all the equipment organised? Perhaps, like me, you need the freedom to paint wherever you choose, and the ability to move to a fresh viewpoint whenever you feel like it? In the British summer, it is of course a good idea to be so mobile that you can get under cover quickly when rain gets too heavy.

With a standard wooden sketching easel, I have endured embarrassing situations in which the opening up of my easel has been the “main show” for passers-by, and I have then had to hold the structure steady with one hand while painting with the other. But this summer, I have a system that works at long last….

Pictured above is my new portable sketching easel from David Potter. I like it for its stability, and for the ease with which it can be opened up and folded away. Telescopic legs are secured with easy open-shut clips, and there is a neat single knob to secure the angles of the legs and of the canvas support. So far, I have not got too exasperated or needed pliers.

For further details about this easel, check out the David Potter website. Ordering seems to go most smoothly if you contact the company directly by phone. I’ll warn you that this easel is more expensive than many others on the market, though it does a far better job. Thank you, lovely family, for getting me this for my last birthday.

Brush holder

There are small and large wooden shelves available for this David Potter easel. However, I personally failed to get on with the design of these, finding them rather unwieldy. As I like to move frequently from one painting location to another, I really need accessories that can remain attached to the easel when it is folded and then opened up again.

I was very proud to discover this brush holder, which is in fact a drumstick holder designed for musicians:

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Above: Vater multiple drumstick holder, here shown clamped to my David Potter easel.

This is a good size for most brushes and palette knives, and it clamps on really securely to the leg of the easel. I can certainly leave this brush holder clamped in place when I pack away at the end of the session, and I even leave the brushes in there when I wheel my easel. Click on the product image below for further details:

Palette shelf

Yes, I know… I could get a beautiful wooden pochade box for oil painting outdoors. However, I’m very attached to my white plastic palette as it is easy to wipe clean, light to carry and because I can see the colours so clearly. Sometimes I hold my palette with my left hand while painting with my right, but I like to have the option of putting it down at times.

Too often, I used to find myself putting the loaded palette down on the ground while I worked, and then nearly standing in my own paint!

This week, my brilliant solution involves a metal clamp-on shelf and a set of small magnets. I have found a black, rectangular clamp-on metal “gig tray”:

Here is the same tray in use on the easel:

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Above: Kinsmore gig tray used as a shelf . Here it is shown clamped upside-down to my David Potter easel, supporting a palette and plastic box that have magnets glued to their undersides.

 The Kinsmore tray attaches very firmly to the leg of the easel. But I wanted to have my palette, etc., rest securely on the shelf even in high winds and even when the angle of the easel legs causes the shelf to slope. My solution was to superglue several tiny molybdenium magnetic discs to the underside of my palette. The magnets secure my palette to the shelf very reliably, but I can still pick the palette up with an easy flourish when I feel like painting with it in my left hand.

As part of the easel itself is also metallic, I can attach the palette securely like so when the easel is folded up:

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Above: Oil palette attached with magnetic fixings to my easel ready for transport.

It is safe to stow the palette like this even when wheeling the folded easel through the park, though I do wrap cling-film over exposed paint just in case of accident.

Multimedia use of easel

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Above: Black, metallic Kinsmore gig tray supporting boxes of art materials. These boxes have magnets super-glued to their undersides.

I tend to accumulate little plastic boxes and trays in the art room, often those that used to contain food. As shown above, these are perfect for carrying all kinds of art materials. I have attached little magnets to their bases to hold them secure on the metal tray. Notice how I’ve chosen to turn the metal Kinsmore tray the “right” way up this time.

For water-soluble media, I have ordered a cup-holder that should clamp onto the easel leg and hold a water jar. On other occasions, I could use this to hold a pot of pencils or pens (the brush-holder is a little too deep for most of these) or of course a cup of coffee. For further details, click on the picture link below:


The wheels were ordered from David Potter along with the easel. If you are not built for heavy lifting then I definitely recommend them. They were rather fiddly to attach onto the easel in the first place but are now a permanent fixture, folding back while the easel is in use.

I have been out with the accessorised easel a few times, and it seems okay to wheel it with all my personalised attachments clamped in place and with the palette attached magnetically to the vertical bars. Paint tubes, little screw-top containers of paint medium, a tiny folding tripod stool and boxes of other art materials come along in a separate rucksack.



magnetsAbove: Neodymium magnets. These were used to attach the palette and storage boxes to my metal shelf.

I recommend using neodymium magnets as they are particularly strong. Mine came, promptly and well-packaged, from an eBay store called Guy’s Magnets.

The next step was to glue the magnets to the underside of my palette and art storage boxes. I used Araldite superglue. It is a fiddly business. Plan exactly where each magnet should go before you start, indicating with marker pen if necessary. Before mixing up the glue, check which way up the magnets should go. You want the un-glued side to be attracted to the metal on the easel, not repelled by it!

Some precautions to take when using strong magnets:

Do take care with strong magnets. As far as I am aware, you should not get too close to them if you have a pace-maker. They could also damage some electronic equipment such as ipods if stored too close. And it is definitely a bad idea to swallow them.


Any other ideas?

If you are interested in personalising your own easel, then I suggest browsing online for accessories that clamp onto pushchairs, wheelchairs and music stands Do share any further ideas for personalising an easel by adding to “comments”, below. How about a light fixing? Or a parasol holder!?

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Perspective and emotion (3): Our place in the world

June 8, 2013



 Above: Samuel Palmer “Sheltering from the storm”, 1846, watercolour and gouache


Notice how often we use the term “perspective” in the English language when trying to convey our feelings. Take some examples:


“Try to see this problem from my perspective“, i.e. “from my point of view”

“A complete change of perspective“, meaning a change of opinion

“I know that things seem difficult, but let’s keep this in perspective“, i.e. let’s look at this rationally; let’s not be overwhelmed by its importance.


Just as we use the word “perspective” when talking about issues that are meaningful to us, so we can use techniques of perspective to add emotional meaning to pictures. As artists, we have the choice to emphasise or distort the vastness of a landscape, the nearness of a figure, the slope of a hill and so on.

Don’t be put off by the technical aspects of perspective…Read on and be inspired.


Our place in the world


 Above: John Minton “Young man asleep in a barn”, pen and ink wash, 1946

One of the greatest subjects in art is “Our place in the world”. As individuals or as a group, where do we “belong”? How do we relate to the landscape around us?

What do I mean be “where do we belong?” Taken most simply and literally, this could just refer to where we are on the planet in the physical sense. This in itself is a fascinating subject and can generate plenty of discussion… For example,  why do people congregate in great numbers in some places and not in others?

Thinking more laterally about the question, “our place in the world?”, could lead to further discussion. What is “home” to each one of us and to our communities? What is our importance in the world? Much of our natural environment is currently at risk of destruction – how do we relate to this, as carers or as passive onlookers?

We could also consider the effects of time. This place where we now stand – will it still exist long into the future? What was here many years ago?

A basic diagram can show where a figure stands on the planet. An interesting piece of artwork can go much further than this, perhaps leading us to think about other aspects of that person’s “place in the world”.

For example, take a look at John Minton’s pen and ink drawing, above. It is prosaically titled “Young man asleep in a barn”, but it has a thought-provoking, even spiritual feel. The man appears safe and comfortable in an intimate space. The barn doors are angled in such a way that we, the viewers, are visually led into the building. Looking at this picture, I feel as if I am being invited to imagine myself in the place of the resting figure.

Outside the barn, fields and sky stretch out into the distance. This drawing gives a clear sense of a “here” and a “there”. The figure should perhaps feel vulnerable sleeping “rough” with the doors wide open to that unending landscape, and yet this image has an atmosphere of peace and protection. Was Minton suggesting the presence of a kind, protective god in drawing that atmospheric landscape around the barn (notice how the shape and tone of the moon echo those of the man’s face, as if they are somehow in sympathy with one another here)?

From the technical point of view, notice how Minton has used linear perspective to give his image spatial depth. There is a path that narrows into the distance, and the barn is drawn at an angle so that its edges lead us into the picture. The simple device of drawing objects smaller in the distance is also used here to good effect, e.g. in the rendering of trees.

Scale and a sense of wonder

Think how tiny a person is compared with a vast landscape, whether a mountain range or a great plain. A great expanse of visible land compared with us, the little figures, can be awe-inspiring.

You do not need to explore distant lands to experience this. Just look up – the great dome of the sky physically dwarfs each one of us.



Above: Samuel Palmer (1805-1881) “Garden in Shoreham”, watercolour and gouache

The English artist, Samuel Palmer, imbued his landscapes with a sense of wonder and is often described as a “visionary” artist. He did travel to Italy and paint both towering trees and awe-inspiring views from mountain sides. To Palmer, the leafy countryside back home in Shoreham was also full of wonder and he shared this experience with us in his landscape paintings. He is perhaps best-known for his intense monochrome images of sheep, rolling countryside, villagers and churches in the dusk.

In his painting of a Shoreham garden, above, Palmer shares with us the joy of seeing a tree in full blossom. Whether a miracle of God or of nature, this is a precious sight to behold. Palmer has added an elegant figure to this painting, tiny because she is distant. Despite the beauty of the figure, our eyes are always drawn back to the incredible tree in front of her. We are used to seeing paintings of elegant women with a pretty garden backdrop but, in emphasising the size and exuberance of this tree, what is Palmer suggesting about the importance of the natural world?


The artist’s viewpoint



Above: Bob Dylan “Sidewalk Café”, 2007, mixed media on paper

Above and below are two images from a series by Bob Dylan in which he shares something of his experience of looking at the world about him. He developed these from his own sketchbook drawings. 

What is it like to be a great singer-songwriter, celebrated wherever you perform? In these images, Bob Dylan mostly shares rather mundane experiences of travel and of waiting, to which we can all relate.

From the use of perspective in these pictures, we can tell where Dylan was sitting as he drew in his sketchbook and now, we, the viewers, are invited to imagine ourselves in such a place. Notice how he uses any lines that he can see (pavement tiles, paths, wooden slats on a table, etc.) to emphasise the effect of linear perspective.

For the café image, above, Dylan must have been sitting at the round table facing the road, perhaps leaning back in his seat. It is a thought-provoking image. I can empathise with the experience of sitting contentedly at a table, gazing curiously at the world around me. But, with the empty chair and table, could this also be understood as a sad picture, a lonely stop at a café?

Bob Dylan’s use of linear perspective always makes perfect sense to me (I can understand where he was sitting or standing as he drew) but is not always mathematically correct or consistent. This is fine by me. In real life, we do not see the world from a completely fixed viewpoint like a camera on a tripod. We naturally move our eyes and head almost continuously, and see different parts of the image from slightly different viewpoints. For example, if sitting at a café table, it is difficult to focus our eyes simultaneously on the table top and on the shop across the street. We are aware of the existence of both the table and the shop, but would tend to move our gaze down to look at the table because it is so close by.

Another reason for allowing perspective to be distorted is to help give the impression of moving past the object. Below, for example, is an imposing house as seen from the road. Even if the artist has stopped for a while to draw this house, the resulting picture suggests a view from a moving car, perhaps a meaningful landmark on a well-travelled route.


 Above: Bob Dylan “House on Union Street”, 2007, mixed media on paper

Some practical ideas

Starting out with perspective:

If you are not yet familiar with basic perspective techniques, then I recommend  spending time learning these from a book, teacher or website before you go any further. A quick search online has brought up quite a few websites in which the techniques of perspective are explained, in some places more clearly than others.

For a clear, practical overview of one-point perspective, try this link: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Draw—Basic-Linear-Perspective/

If you are not afraid of long words, try clicking here for a more in-depth explanation. And if you can recommend a book or website that you have found to be a great resource in learning perspective techniques, then please do contact me so that I can add the link to this page.

Gaining an intuitive feel for perspective:

When drawing in your sketchbook, don’t just record objects surrounded by blank space (a face, your dog, a bowl of fruit, etc.), but add in a few background lines. If drawing a pet or a pair of shoes on the floor, do mark in the edge of that floor, and perhaps add in a few lines of floor tiles if they are present. If sketching people, a very few lines to suggest a table edge, door edge, floor edge, etc., can make sense of where those people are in relation to you.

If confused about which way to angle the background lines, always remember that horizontal lines that are at your own eye level will be horizontal on your page, and that lines below this will angle up towards a vanishing point, while lines above the eye level should tilt down. You can also check angles now and again by holding up a straight edge .

Linking perspective and emotion

As you get more confident at drawing things in three-dimensions, start to be bolder in what you include in your sketchbook. In daily life, do you come across situations in which size or scale surprise you? Have a go at drawing any of these. Some examples:

A fully-grown tree next to a house. You might position yourself at an angle to the building, so that its straight edges slope away from you in the drawing. Which is more massive, the tree or the building?

A railway platform with one or more people on it. How big is a person compared with the available space? Look along the platform for a clear view of receding tracks and edges.

A statue in a public space. How massive is the sculpture, life-size or bigger? Is it above or below your eye level? Mark in a few basic lines before you spend time drawing the statue itself, and do include something of its plinth. If people walk in and out of view, you might want to sketch a figure in lightly, at least to show how tall a person is compared with the statue itself.

A tiny child on a chair.

Gravestones within their setting. Are they positioned in regular rows, or is each memorial an individual?

Museum exhibits (anything from taxidermy to ancient relics) next to one another in their current setting. What is the reaction of other visitors to these objects? Is it possible to fit a figure or part of a figure into your drawing, perhaps gazing at your object of interest?




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