Creative periods are often experienced during an artists' lifetime, be it a specific project or commissioned work, a series of paintings depicting a theme, or perhaps an experimental phase using different media or styles, just to name a few. A memorable creative period for me was between 1997 and 2000 when I attended weekly life study classes in Rosebery Avenue, Crouch End in north London. The opportunity to attend life classes was a welcome challenge - and an artistic diversion from my landscape painting - and it offered me the opportunity to develop my skill in capturing the human form whilst consolidating my established approach to painting.
American West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud believed that the ability to render the human figure is a fundamental standard of an artist’s ability: "I think that it’s the most important study there is and the most challenging and the most difficult.” (Karen Tsujimoto Wayne Thiebaud 1985)
His comment can be placed in context against the abstract art movement (that he was witness to) during the mid 20th century that shunned literal representation. Curiously, Thiebaud’s contemporary Richard Diebenkorn (who established his artistic name with abstraction) was once criticised by a member of public for his perceived lack of ability, to which he responded promptly by drawing a competent and realistic portrait. Both Thiebaud and Diebenkorn's work gave me a reference point when I started my life studies.
The classes in Rosebery Gardens were situated in a large residential living room that had been converted into a studio, complete with terraced sections to place students' easels and benches. An array of lights had also been assembled to create spot effects and strong illumination for the life subject. The classes usually started with five minute warm-up sketches followed by two half-hour poses with the model either standing or sitting, and a final one hour reclining pose. The atmosphere was relaxed and the tutor, an amiable man named Baz, was always on hand to aid the students.
I usually produced small sized paintings in a sketchpad and I often relocated to different parts of the room when selecting and assessing viewpoints to paint. The 30 minute sittings usually worked out the most productive because they allowed me to paint with some impunity. The short time limits forced me to make decisions in the painting process and avoid working in too much detail. I wanted to capture the human figure as a set of forms that reflected colour and light in painterly way. I was fascinated by the negative spaces that seemed to sit on an equal plane with the life model.
There were times when I would experiment by creating more abstracted compositions or accentuating a figure’s pose and attitude. For inspiration, I looked to Matisse, Bonnard and Picasso’s line work and colouring, usually with mixed results. The years I attended the classes allowed me to experience a prolific painting process, resulting in several sketchpads of painterly life studies and a keen appreciation for colour, composition and human forms.