Portraiture and Expressive Colour

Curiosity didn’t kill the cat, pigment, acrylic, gesso on canvas, 180 x 150cm, 2016

Based at our new campus at Vernon Square in Kings Cross, 18 young people from schools and colleges across London joined us for the Portraiture and Expressive Colour study day. Building on the colour day at The National Gallery last month, this workshop would look at colour from an emotive and expressive viewpoint, and focus on its relationship to watercolour. Art Historian Fran Herrick and Contemporary Artist Nadine Mahoney led the day with a series of talks and creative activities in our new institute seminar room.

After an initial introduction, students studied a series of modern and contemporary portraits. Working in pairs, this independent study led them to compare and contrast a collection of images, then present their findings to the room. We were all taken back by the insight and breadth of their responses. This icebreaker not only united the group but brought up many excellent BA level responses! Key themes that emerged were the symbolism of colour and impact of abstraction.

The next step was for the participants to make their own collage using colour as a mode of expression.

Artist Nadine Mahoney introduced elements of her practice to illustrate ways of abstracting the figure and intuitive use of colour.  The responses were bold, bright, and so good they deserved a mini salon hang in the seminar room!

Art Historian Francesca Herrick gave a presentation on historical use of watercolour. Starting with some of the oldest works in the Courtauld collection she discussed how it has been highly valued by artists throughout art history. Its speed of application, low cost, and luminosity sustained its relevance in the studio, despite it being overshadowed by oils in exhibitions and scholarly appreciation. Fran’s selection of works included both sketches and standalone works; highlights included Young Hare by Albrecht Dürer, and Cézanne’s portraits. Dürer’s works demonstrate the lifelike capabilities of watercolour through its technical triumphs. Cézanne’s portraits of card players evoke more emotive qualities, the brush-marks are as laboured as his oils. Cézanne treated watercolours as standalone works rather than just studies, with some works taking as many as 115 sittings. Vollard described having a portrait made as ‘slow and occasionally painful’.

The institute courtyard was the perfect spot for lunch as we all basked in this beautiful sun trap.

To kick off the afternoon, Nadine presented her artistic practice. Discussing her paintings and drawings made over a 10 year period she outlined her interest in portraiture, identity, self, and their relevance to the origins of painting. Working uniquely with handmade water and oil based paint, she explained the role of materiality in her practice.

Then the fun started as students got to select pigments to make their own watercolours. Initially it was a bit tricky, but everyone soon got the hang of delicately lifting pigment out of the pot, mixing it into the special watercolour binder, filling the pan with paint, and tapping out air bubbles. An hour later everyone had 6 pans of varying colours and could begin their own painting.

The rest of the afternoon was spent making a watercolour painting inspired by portraiture. As a medium it can be challenging, so Nadine demonstrated some simple yet effective contemporary techniques. The group responded with a fantastic energy and focus, finishing their paintings in time for a critique. Paintings were displayed around the room and each student had two minutes to discuss what challenged them and what they found successful.

We were all hugely impressed by the students’ creative work, and their reflections throughout the day. If they had this level of insight pre-university study, we can only imagine what their future could hold!