North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve been fortunate to be having some serious brain time with Ryan Daffurn and Scott Breton of late. We’ve been discussing, from our own viewpoints and languages, our common understanding of the role of the painter, which is to pull the visible world apart, inspect it, learn it, attempt to understand it, and then to reassemble our visual knowledge into constructed, tightly orchestrated images. Scott is perhaps most clear and persistent in his language, and I will adopt his term here: painting is about integration.

Life drawing

Ryan’s recent work is an ambitious amalgam of observation, collection, reinvention and imagination, in a manner I’ve found difficult to explain to others because they are not ready to hear such ideas. When people have seen his representational work, they have asked such questions as, ‘where is that?’ And I’ve realised that people are approaching realistic painting with a very limited perspective, thinking it can only be a rehashing of something once seen. In fact, the painting in question began with a fascination for a bizarre playground in Berlin, which lodged its oddity somewhere deep in the recesses of Ryan’s brain. It developed as he redrew it from memory, drawing little thumbnails and growing new exploratory configurations out of his brain, organically and freely. On transitioning to the canvas he referred to photos collected in Berlin, but these photos were always subordinated to his own design, and subjected to new physical constraints: the effect of an unnatural green light, like that accompanying a hail storm, completely imagined; the removal of black from his palette, to set hues off against each other more thoughtfully, to create a more meaningful colour contrast rather than an overbearing tonal one. In the end, ‘where’ is not really an inquiry relevant to this painting, which is ripe with fascinating things to talk about. But people are not primed to talk about these things, and it is to these things I hope we can redirect their attention.


We are drawing from the model regularly, and returning to my sketchbooks I see with satisfaction how much of a workspace they are. While people have dogged me to make more finished drawings, and to reconsider my ‘style,’ and to think about what my preferred audience might respond to, I am pleased to see that I have wholeheartedly claimed these drawings as a working zone. Each life drawing session presents a new opportunity to investigate something new, and it’s not always a piece of anatomy. Recently I’ve been attentive to the way I make a mark, and how to train myself to make such marks. There are the soft lines that tentatively feel out the forms, and then the brazen, dark sweeps that claim them. I love to use a tiny butt of a pencil that fits inside the palm of my hand so I can ruthlessly stab the page with decisive marks, and every single week I practice this decision-making to varying degrees of success. And having uncovered some older drawings, I’m pleased to note that there is a greater elegance to my lines, but also that this elegance is laid down with such confidence and certainty. It is not only the weight of curves set off against each other that I am practicing week after week, but the very manner in which I lay them on the page. Nothing but sheer repetition and practice cements such things. As Sir Joshua Reynolds (1997: 281) writes of Michelangelo:

‘The great Artist … was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than by great labour.’


Ryan and I talk about the student’s perpetual search for surprise and freshness in their own work, the constant chopping and changing of media in an effort to chance upon something that they simply have a knack for, or that reveals something new—the apparently overriding fear of staleness. While this exploration is not without merit, it seems to prevent giving any one problem due attention. We have both remained faithful to the humble pencil, and reverent of its unlimited potential. While other media open up new thoughts, our ultimate goal is a deep and intimate understanding of and facility with our chosen medium. What we’ve learned via pencil can be transferred to many other media, but other media won’t substitute for the ability to set new tasks and doggedly pursue them. Actually, in stripping every problem back, in setting stiff parameters, we give ourselves a chance to isolate each task, to puzzle over it with clarity, to observe every minute shift in our approach and thinking. We have complete control over our learning and exploration, because we are so finely tuned into our chosen tool. We trust that accidents will never approach the rewards of systematic understanding.


The pencil lets us isolate, struggle with, and hopefully resolve distinct problems. But those problems are never really discrete, and are actually far more intricately bound with problems of colour, texture, light and atmosphere. But the life drawing studies demonstrate an important part of being an artist—the determination to pull apart and investigate—the indispensable precursor to being able to reconstruct, to compose an image, to integrate our knowledge into a wholly new and meaningful design.


Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

For a more regular drawing fix, have a look at my Tumblr! x


The storyteller

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood, drawn from life

Dr Rhyl Hinwood is a part of the fabric of Brisbane. Her work wove through my life well before I heard her name; her social spirit created Brisbane institutions that have profoundly shaped my life. Eminently at home here, and deeply invested in our sprawling, sun-drenched city, her life’s work exists not just in the immovable sandstone she carves with her gnarled hands, but also in the people of Brisbane. For while Rhyl loves to shape stone, and her hands have formed memorable parts of the city’s surface, she cares just as deeply about shaping less tangible things.

Steele building, University of Queensland

Steele building, University of Queensland

I learned this when Rhyl and her husband Rob welcomed Ryan and me into the home they built with their own hands some fifty years hence, Ryan eager to paint her portrait. The house is full of personality, and full of Australia. The sloped wooden roof hangs high above the tiled terracotta floor, and the space in between is decked with gumnuts, dried leaves, wicker chairs, exuberantly patterned fabrics and rugs in earthy colours and, of course, endless bronzes. A carved wooden cabinet houses the radio which plays classical music as we work, and on top sit a glowing cluster of green-bronze busts—mostly the heads of Rhyl’s grandchildren, and one of her mother. Frog bronzes pipe at flutes and saxophones as though an Australian rainforest bacchanal procession were coursing through the house.

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Dr Rhyl Hinwood (from life); copy after her sculpture

Rhyl is possibly best known for her work at the University of Queensland, where I studied, where she got her break carving grotesques for the central quadrangle, the Great Court. This was the beginning of a continuing relationship with the university, with the various colleges commissioning large sandstone works from her to this day, and, of course, the Wordsmiths Café (where I served many a coffee) and its snaking literary tribute to Australian authors. Rhyl assumes her position on the couch for Ryan’s portrait and talks about her recent visit to St Leo’s college, whose gate she recently produced, and where she was subsequently invited to attend a formal dinner and see all the boys suited up for an opera performance. Her attendance is always welcome, and she always follows through—being present, she advises us, is always a good strategy. When you are out in the community, being seen, meeting people, things come up, work comes in. She brims with stories of concerts, Great Court races, bumping into the now fully-grown son of a man she met while carving at UQ decades ago; the governor taking a liking to her and wanting to chat endlessly; the lovely but reserved Canadian woman she met and introduced to university dignitaries with the ease of an equal; the English reverend who saw her working in the Great Court and who invited her to stay with him in England in the very town where she was coincidentally going to work on a church. Rhyl excels because she is endlessly open and interested in her fellow human beings.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Rhyl is a storyteller, and at heart, her art form, public sculpture, is about collecting, distilling and preserving stories. Her frankness and clarity are indispensable in this matter. One afternoon we tramp down into the backyard to see some of her works in progress, and her storytelling weaves effortlessly in and out of the imagery. A huge concrete semi-circle bounds her outdoor carving area, a moveable crane fixed to the top, and a starfish adorns it. Heavy power tools rest nearby. Rhyl is working on an arced piece with a little saint, and Ryan’s narrow face is her inspiration for the character—she would hate for her sculptures to be peopled with generic forms. We follow her down a little path through the rainforest garden to the studio. It is a multi-level affair, wooden, again with a dramatically sloping roof. She shows us some plates she is preparing for bronzes, an amalgam of wood and plastic. She traces the elements of each one with her hands, explaining the stories through simple yet eloquent symbols.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Over several weeks we sat by her fireplace (flanked in sandstone, decked in coral, shells and urns full of banksias and gumnuts), painted and drew, and shared meals. Her husband, Rob, once in the army, but also a builder and a leather worker and ceramicist, chimed in with jokes and stories, and as the weeks went by, their stories built up a tapestry of their rich and social lives, their children, their travels, their work, their Brisbane. Rhyl’s parents had a house by Yerongpilly, and Sunday afternoons when she was young they would open their doors to Asian students, and together they would spend the evening dining and dancing on the veranda. She and her parents fundraised to construct International House at the University of Queensland, a residential college that operated on the same welcoming principle (‘that brotherhood may prevail’), the residential college I myself called home for two years and through which I made many lasting friendships that span the globe.

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Forgan Smith building, University of Queensland

Paring a story back to the core elements requires much conversation, and asking many questions. Rhyl recalled seeing the austere slogan above the Forgan Smith building at UQ, home to my beloved philosophy department: ‘GREAT IS TRUTH AND MIGHTY ABOVE ALL THINGS,’ and resolving to work around this proclamation. She asked many professors, ‘Do you think that truth is the purpose of the university?’ and was met with a resounding no. After much conversation and deliberation, she determined that the university must, in fact, stand for knowledge: the uncovering of, collecting of, and preserving of. Her research efforts are admirable: she showed us a photograph of a large symbolic piece in the midst of being installed in a college in Sydney. She told us of an ineffectual meeting with all of the stakeholders, in which dominant personalities drove the discussion, and each party felt compelled to have their stamp. Earthy, pragmatic Rhyl simply decided to meet personally with every individual involved, and to give each their chance to speak with her one on one. Having collected every viewpoint, a plan for the piece evolved in her mind, and when she presented it to the group every party was satisfied. There is a profound lesson in this humble, attentive method of collecting stories and compiling them into something fitting and meaningful.

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Copies after Rhyl Hinwood

Societies and social events can be very demanding on your time, Rhyl admits, but she urges us to be present in our cities, in our communities. A chance meeting at a symposium, a fortunate conversation over morning tea at Customs House, can open up surprising opportunities. And one suspects that finding one’s place in one’s community and building it over a lifetime comes with rewards far deeper and richer than public commissions. Rhyl Hinwood lives and breathes Brisbane, and can take satisfaction in the knowledge that she and her work are an enduring part of its story.

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland

Wordsmiths Cafe, University of Queensland


Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x


Composing as emotional construction

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn

Wien funkelt © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve spent some time lately in the galleries trying to come to an understanding about composition. Not really knowing what I was looking for, I took my sketchbook and pencil and set about collecting some information, reducing it, simplifying it, hoping to see some sort of pattern emerge. In fact, many different patterns emerged from my little thumbnails.

Composition thumbnails 1

In Van Dyck’s Gefangennahme Samsons (1628/30) the heavy weave of the fabric of the painting showed a tightly constructed image, the whole picture electrified with energy and motion, though the frenzy offers no relief for the eye. His Mystische Verlobung des Heiligen Hermann Joseph mit Maria (1630) concentrates the action into a similarly dense knot, with figures and drapery tangling together, but the rhythms run three-dimensionally, not confined to the flat pictorial space. An oval slopes deep into the picture, running through the loop of arms at the centre. Similar retreating ovals swing through Rubens’ Heilige Ambrose und Kaiser Theodosius (1615/16) and Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum (1630/32), intersecting with the two-dimensional arrangement.

Titian’s Diana revealed complex braids of arcs through the dizzyingly busy picture. Actually each curve is a wonderfully simplified statement that seems to keep the picture in motion, a liquid in suspension, not snagged by unnecessary points of elbows or knees. And Degas blares out as the most unselfconsciously shape-loving painter, with his charmingly intimate square pastels, both Nach dem Bad, almost pieced together from strong, insistent shapes rather than representations of interiors. And yet, despite the prominence of these shapes, Degas never relinquishes the fullness of forms.

Composition thumbnails 2

While these investigations turned up some interesting ideas, the jumble of thoughts they produced in my mind left me no clearer of how I ought to approach composition. And despite the importance of concrete examples, I was looking for a more unifying, fundamental way to grasp the concept. It was at this point I returned to Robert Nelson.

The main point to hold in your mind when thinking about composition is that it is, at heart, about construction. You’ll forgive my constant sideways remarks about photography, but our aesthetic vision is currently somewhat obscured by the lens, and in the matter of composition, by the viewfinder. ‘Photography as a process, certainly in its documentary incarnations, might be described as a roving rectangle in search of a motif,’ writes Nelson (2010: 99), continuing sympathetically but firmly, ‘The nomadic and scavenging character of documentary photography makes for an art of great complexity; but it is essentially different from the constructed technologies of the past.’ As a painter, I know my own understanding of composition was clouded by this idea of finding and framing. Yet the painter suffers no such constraints: she is at complete liberty to compose, exactly as the musician may draw notes from his mind and not wait to capture them. Dewey (1934: 75) compares it to the ordering of thoughts of the writer: ‘As the painter places pigment upon the canvas, or imagines it placed there, his ideas and feeling are also ordered. As the writer composes in his medium of words what he wants to say, his idea takes on for himself perceptible form.’

Sankt Marx composition

Nelson (2010: 95-6) argues that, despite the popularity of the idea, there are no ‘design principles,’ no rules to be taught, no natural laws to transform aesthetics into a science. Conventions of the past were simply that—conventions, not eternal ideals. Golden means and overlaid geometry reek of ‘numerological witchcraft’ to him. Yet composition remains vital to painting because of the deliberateness it entails. The painter actively arranges not only elements, but space and even, he (2010: 98) argues, ‘the way that you encounter the motif.’ The whole is a carefully contrived experience, deliberately built up from nothing.

Rather than groping fruitlessly after scientific justifications for the success of compositions, Nelson (2010: 96) suggests turning to the poetic. Composition, far from submitting to rules, is rather a matter of expression, and perhaps even, as Dewey suggests, of emotion. Dewey (1934: 70) writes of the deliberate arrangement of the whole: ‘The determination of the mot juste, of the right incident in the right place, of exquisiteness of proportion, of the precise tone, hue, and shade that helps unify the whole while it defines a part, is accomplished by emotion.’ The painter has complete control over how the stage is to be set, over how the experience is to unfold. The balance or imbalance is completely at her disposal; the weight of the tones may set the mood she desires, the space may be moulded or the shapes emphasised or the rhythms interlaced as best suits her own expressive purpose. Dewey (1934: 62) is quick to clarify, however, that this expression, however emotional, remains calculated and controlled:

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

In order to express something clearly, to honestly transcribe emotive experiences, the painter must keep the whole before her, and work in a flexible way. Her medium needs to be pliant enough to push around, to adjust, to exaggerate, to search out (Gombrich 1996: 214). Drawing is the most obvious starting place, offering a reductive description, a non-committal, experimental visualisation of the unborn painting. Without labouring details, the painter can think through the unity of the whole and observe the interaction of the ill-defined parts. She can crop and re-crop. She can design, she can grow the image organically. In keeping the whole at the fore, she can keep the emotional experience tight and true. Da Vinci (in Gombrich 1996: 213) confirms this fluid mode of working and the connection between emotion and composition in both his hairy drawings and his writings:

‘Now have you never thought about how poets compose their verse? They do not trouble to trace beautiful letters nor do they mind crossing out several lines so as to make them better. So, painter, rough out the arrangement of the limbs of your figures and first attend to the movements appropriate to the mental state of the creatures that make up your pictures rather than to the beauty and perfection of their parts.’

I expect I’ll continue to collect thumbnails at the gallery, but with renewed purpose: There are no codes to decipher and assimilate, no universal truths to unearth. There is only the deliberate hanging-together of the whole—directed by the emotional impulse of the author—to unravel and to admire. And my own emotional intent to orchestrate in my own paintings, beginning with my ever-pliable pencil.

Sankt Marx

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.

Gombrich, E. H. 1996. The essential Gombrich: Selected writings on art and culture. Ed. Richard Woodfield. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


In pursuit of control

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Alexandra © Samantha Groenestyn

Our happily proactive gang of painters in Vienna recently got together for a longer session with the model—eleven hours over four evenings. It was a great opportunity to bash away at a few things I have been trying to improve in my drawing. It has been a long time since I’ve troubled myself overly much with rendering, and I have instead been making crude visual notes about planes more than anything. I decided, therefore, that rendering would be my project. I want controlled lines, delicacy, and pure intent—no lazy, unthinking scribbles. And a little bonus anatomy and memory training never goes astray.


We seem to have a never-ending supply of lovely Russian models in Vienna, and Alexandra graced us with a beautiful and complex knot of a pose. From every angle, a gentle sweep ran over the arch of her back and down her raised leg, her head tucked away. As I began to draw her, I kept this sloping mass in mind, as well as the slope at the bottom of the picture—her foot extending forward. Rather than strictly observing the jutting shapes, I pushed the unity of the drawing, clinging to big C-curves and using their rhythms to drive the composition. I loved the shocking right-angle through her head and left shoulder, but tried to subordinate it to the broader flow over the back. And what became quickly apparent as I drew was the importance of her right arm—it seemed to beg for all the attention. This was very fortuitous, since I had been studying arms, and here was a very clear and prominent arm to investigate, pronated and everything, with the radius pulling the extensor muscles over the forearm.


After the first session, I went home and nerded out with Bammes and Goldfinger. Having noted down the bony protrusions and muscles that I thought I could see, observing the colour changes across the skin as the light hugged different forms in its predictable way, I did a bit of fact-checking. It helps to have battled with some real forms in front of you and only then to read all that involved text in your anatomy book, rather than trying to memorise everything first. You are already familiar with so much, and the explanation helps to make sense of the particular situation rather than a general one.


My drawing felt quite stiff, though, and I was sorry that I hadn’t really warmed up with some quicker drawings beforehand. Perhaps I should have made a smaller practice one to get the feel for it. But, undeterred, I hoped I could bring some new energy to what I already had the next day. With this in mind, I made a very fast copy in my sketchbook, letting lots of things slide in favour of a looser, livelier drawing. Then I used this little practice drawing to work through what I had learned about arm anatomy as it applied to this pose. I very forcefully (in a feverish excitement, one presumes) marked in the muscles as I understood them.

Arm study

Returning to the model, I adjusted the arms of my larger drawing with the new knowledge fresh in my mind and the real thing before my eyes. This time I was searching for what I knew, and trying to subdue it according to what I could see, rather than just putting down what I could see. Satisfied, I turned to concentrate on something I had neglected for a long time: shadows. Obsessed as I am with form drawing, I haven’t made tone do much work for me in a long time.


I marked in the terminators (the hazy, dark transitions between light and shadow as a body turns away from light—the form shadows) and the cast shadows (the neat-edged shadows that fall across the body because something else is blocking the light), paying attention to the masses and the way that light ought to work. Light obeys rules, because physics, and will always make certain shapes on spheres, cylinders, cones and prisms, which the human figure is more or less composed of. I wanted my shadows to help describe the form, not obscure or flatten the picture, and so I made sure to wrap them around the figure in clear, descriptive shapes. The shadow cast by the arm on the leg was a beautiful opportunity to show the gentle bulge of the thigh, meaning I didn’t need to do much to the lit area, but could keep it fleshy and soft. I tried to remember to vary the breadth of the terminator according to the curvature of the forms, and decided to keep the shadows quite light. This drives everyone mad, because they want to see me darken my shadows for maximum impact. But I potter away at my own little challenges, loving to experiment with how much I can say in a controlled and delicate manner.

shadow study

I did a bad job of this shadow business, I reflected when I got home. I made another copy in my sketchbook, enjoying the process of redrawing and my growing familiarity with this pose. I marked in the shadows again, and practiced rendering them, trying to keep the tone uniform and trying to do a better job of the terminators—expanding them appropriately, experimenting with how dark they should be. I played around a little with the transition into the light, practicing the strokes I wanted to use. I have been working so hard at hatching neatly and evenly, and I don’t know what the secret is except for probably hatching several million of those tiny lines. I’m never sure that they look any more controlled, but I live in hope that my untiring practice will reward me with superhuman dexterity.


I went back on the third evening determined to take charge of those shadows. I forced myself to neaten the tone, making it uniform, and only allowing myself to knock back some subtle reflected light (only according to the form!) with my eraser.


I realised that although the arm was the star of this drawing, I was presented with a very good opportunity to study knees. I couldn’t let this pass. A bent knee and a fully flexed knee! All manner of bony goodness to investigate. I returned to Bammes and his simplified conceptions of the knee—all blocks and planes and axes. I thought long and hard about how knees fit together. I copied out drawings of the widening gap between the femur and the tibia as the knee bends further and further. I made notes in my sketchbook so I wouldn’t forget: ‘Kneecap never slides upwards because anchored by the straight patellar ligament.’ ‘Skeleton accounts for greatest part by far of sculptural form of knee.’


Armed with these mantras, I spent some time on the final day trying to match my understanding with what I saw. Then all that remained were the light zones. Having worked out all the forms, the most prominent anatomy, and the direction of rendering, all that was left to do was exercise a controlled hand and make the nicest little lines I possibly could.

Alexandra memory

Bonus exercise! The next evening I put my drawing and sketchbook away, and began with a fresh sheet of paper. I redrew the same drawing entirely from memory (without the hours of refinement!). This part really feels like magic. Have I really internalised all this information? This extra test really consolidates all the new knowledge and all the particular decisions that you have made when working with the model. And you realise what power you have when you understand the human figure, and can summon one at will.


The Duchess’s bookshelf of becoming super excellent


I love books, and there is a small cluster of core books that accompany me on my journey to painterly enlightenment which I would heartily recommend to other painters. These are the books I turn to again and again: reference books, philosophical books, history books and diaries which have profoundly shaped my learning and my views on art. If you need to be your own teacher for the moment, there are some wise dudes you can depend on for guidance.


Gottfried Bammes: Complete guide to life drawing

This book has consumed me since I first met it, and travels the world with me. Herr Bammes, who taught in Dresden, has a clear way of describing the human body in simplified volumes and muscle groups that help one think structurally about the body. Rather than overwhelming yourself by starting out with hard-core anatomy, working through Bammes’s guide will help you ease into more complex anatomical study by giving you a broader understanding upon which to hang such knowledge. He begins with exercises on proportion and movement, setting a firm foundation of both accuracy and expressive liveliness. From here, he explains the parts of the body in greater detail, with many of his own examples reducing the forms to blocks in perspective. His diagrams on knees and feet in particular are works of teacherly genius. Bammes diagrammatically explains the mechanics of the bones and muscle groups, as well as reducing their construction to simple linear frames. Right from the beginning he gives the student a firm way of indicating a solid foot, which when rehearsed and developed only serves to cement the structural understanding.

Says Bammes (2010: 222), ‘If skull drawing is not practised as if it were architecture, with a perpetual ordering of primary and secondary aspects—if it is not done with awareness—it will degenerate into nothing more than clever copying and will not provide any gain in knowledge or vision.’ Yet he (2010: 10) never loses sight of why we demand so much of ourselves: ‘When we draw people, we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience.’

The margins of the book are peppered with a fine selection of master drawings, including those of many lesser-known German draughtsmen, while all examples are drawn by the elegant and controlled hand of Bammes himself. I cannot recommend this book enough. I’m still working slowly through it, using it as a companion to all further anatomy study, and revisiting earlier chapters again and again.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.


Eliot Goldfinger: Human anatomy for the artist

This book is an investment, but a good anatomy book is a necessary tool in your belt if you’ve any real interest in the figure. The delightfully named Goldfinger turns his Midas touch to one bone, one muscle at a time, displaying many angles and overlaps and cross-sections. The text explains function, origin and insertion and many other enlightening aspects of each part, but clear drawings illustrate most of the information. These drawings are accompanied by some photographs of an extremely ripped model, to help locate things under the often-obfuscatory surface of flesh. And several straight-lined diagrams explain difficult-to-conceptualise mechanics or simplifications to help remember the main features of a part.

Goldfinger (1991:. 64) encourages a deep understanding of the figure, not just a grasping after surface variations:

‘During complex actions, note the sequence of the contraction and relaxation of the numerous muscles that are functioning. Observe the action, visualise the skeleton deep in the body and what changes are taking place at its joints, then determine which muscles are working.’

This book is an artist’s dictionary. It will also make you sound clever at parties because you will learn a lot of scientific words.

Goldfinger, Eliot. 1991. Human anatomy for artists: The elements of form. Oxford University: Oxford.


Robert Nelson: The Visual Language of Painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique

This book has affected me deeply. It made me appreciate how genuinely scholarly painting and drawing could be, while never losing sight of how physical and sensual it is. Nelson’s (2010: 27-28) project is an admirable one of finding a way to unite the studio and academic practice:

‘I would like to see a philosophy of technique which positions technique as the necessary correlate of poetic vision and the basis of visual language, a philosophy which is non-instrumental and anti-mechanistic. I would like to cultivate a discourse which deals with the motivation, the aesthetic benefits, the almost physiological processes of perception, but also the wilful staging, the theatricality of expressing what happens in the mind, the eye and the hand. … The project, if it could be pursued as I hope to demonstrate, would bring studio technique into the heartland of scholarship in the humanities.’

Nelson writes knowledgeably and generously on delightfully mundane topics, validating painterly excitement at painterly preoccupations: on drawing, on composition, on edges, on shadow. Yet he is able to articulate better than most artists what it is that is so thrilling and relevant about these topics: that painting, not merely writing, may be ‘a vehicle for discourse’ (2010: 10); that ‘drawing, in short, is a deliberateness in seeing which declares itself and argues what it wants to define’ (2010: 55), that it ‘manifests your will to possess intellectually’ (2010: 54).

Every time I pick this book up I am filled afresh with new thoughts directly related to the practice of painting, and intellectually energised as well. We can speak clearly, intelligently and unashamedly about the physical and visual aspects of our work, not just about concepts and symbols and statements. For our work does make investigations by means other than words and symbols, and we would do well to argue for the standing of our visual language.


Salvador Dali: Diary of a genius, an autobiography

The diaries of artists are pure gold. Sometimes they divulge their painting secrets, or elaborate on what, specifically, drives them wild about Rubens, or, as in the case of Dali, bestow an entire philosophy upon you. ‘The uniform is essential in order to conquer,’ Dali (1966: 53) proclaims (Dali only makes proclamations. This is in itself a lesson). ‘Throughout my life, the occasions are very rare when I have abased myself to civilian clothes. I am always dressed in the uniform of Dali.’ And to a young man who is willing to accept the sort of despicable, filthy, poverty-stricken life an artist is expected to lead he admonishes with devilish wisdom (1966: 53-4):

‘If you want to eat beans and bread every day, it will be very expensive. You must earn it by working very hard. On the other hand, if you can get used to living on caviar and champagne, it doesn’t cost a thing.’

He smiles stupidly and thinks I am joking. …

‘Caviar and champagne are things that are offered you free by certain very distinguished ladies, wonderfully perfumed and surrounded by the most beautiful furniture in the world. But to get them, you must be quite different from the you who comes to see Dali with dirty fingernails, while I have received you in uniform.’

Dali, Salvador. 1966 [1964]. Diary of a genius, an autobiography. Trans. Michel Déon. Picador: London.


Ernst H. Gombrich: The story of art

When you find this ubiquitous book for a couple of quid in a charity shop, buy it immediately. The Viennese-born, Oxford-dwelling, self-professed non-art-historian wrote this book as honestly and clearly as he could, intending it to avoid the hormonal scorn of the teenage audience for whom it was written, and to whom the book intends to introduce art. The premise of this book is that ‘there really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists’ (1972: 4) and that a history of artists thus reveals a saga of cosmically different aims and forces. Gombrich trips lightly and eagerly over his words, ever able to see merit in the visual works of humankind. It’s impossible not to get caught up in his enthusiasm for and appreciation of our varied collective efforts. Everything has its place–and time, rather than linearly measuring our progress, merely greets us with different demands. Learn to truly appreciate art, to discover the joy of paintings and sculpture and architecture, and instantly become ten times smarter.

Gombrich, E. H. 1972 [1950]. The story of art. Twelfth ed. Phaidon: Oxford.


John Dewey: Art as experience

This surprising book throws heavy punches. It clearly expresses the things about art that make you angry and explains why they should go away. It could only hurt your foes more if you socked them in the face with it.

First of all, Dewey discusses the mysteriousness of art—its detachment from life, its artificial isolation in museums, its role of showcasing imperial conquests. Rather than being removed from our experience, he argues, art should be in the thick of it: it should be the very substance of our lives. ‘The times when select and distinguished objects are closely connected with the products of usual vocations,’ he argues (1934: 6), ‘are the times when appreciation of the former is most rife and most keen. When, because of their remoteness, the objects acknowledged by the cultivated to be works of fine art seem anemic to the mass of people, esthetic hunger is likely to seek the cheap and the vulgar.’ If we live in a world of cheap thrills and throwaway entertainment, it is because we have been told we can’t have nice things, locking them away as mysterious artefacts of Art.

Dewey also addresses the strange introspective tendencies of contemporary artists. Not only has art been excluded from ordinary experience, but ‘because of changes in industrial conditions the artist has been pushed to one side from the main streams of active interest’ (1934: 9). The non-integrated modern artist is forced to turn to ‘a peculiar esthetic “individualism”’—relying on ever more obscure ‘self-expression’ (1934: 9). Art becomes even more foreign to ordinary experience. Seriously, is anyone reading this book?

And in case you were willing to defend art’s reincarnation as ‘self-expression,’ Dewey has a few sucker-punches lined up for thoughtless paint-spilling, which he considers little more than ‘discharge’ (1934: 62):

‘To discharge is to get rid of, to dismiss; to express is to stay by, to carry forward in development, to work out to completion. A gush of tears may bring relief, a spasm of destruction may give outlet to inward rage. But where there is no administration of objective conditions, no shaping of materials in the interest of embodying the excitement, there is no expression. What is sometimes called an act of self-expression might better be termed one of self-exposure; it discloses character—or lack of character—to others. In itself, it is only a spewing forth.’

Dewey demands serious and honest thought from artists, and sees their intellectual processes as differing only in emphasis from that of the scientist (1934: 15). The main difference between the intelligent artist and the scientist is her medium: rather than working in abstracted symbols, ‘the artist does his thinking in the very qualitative media he works in, and the terms lie so close to the object that he is producing that they merge directly into it’ (1934: 16).

The only question left to ask is, how did art fester into the hideous mess presently molesting our eyes while this book has been kicking around for eighty years?

Dewey, John. 1934. Art as experience. Minton, Malch & Company: New York.


David Galensen: Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity

If you are discouraged at not yet being famous, this soberly-written book ought to give you a good dose of optimism and dispel a lot of silly ideas about creativity and inspiration. Instead of resorting to wild speculation, Galenson has spent years doing research into the way artists work and describes two broad approaches. He calls them the ‘conceptual’ (or deductive) and the ‘experimental’ (inductive). In identifying whether you are good at quickly synthesising ideas and conceiving entirely new ones out of them, or whether you are consumed by a single idea which drives all your investigations, or rather somewhere along this spectrum, you will free yourself from expectations and judgements that don’t actually apply to you. And that means you can just get down to work instead of taping brazen Picasso quotes to your wall.

‘Aptitude and ambition are more important factors in allowing people to make contributions to a chosen discipline than the ability to think and work in any particular way, either deductively or inductively.’ (2006: 166).

Galensen, David W. 2006. Old masters and young geniuses: The two life cycles of artistic creativity. Princeton University Press: Princeton.


Kenneth Clark: The nude: A study of ideal art

I am steadily drawing my way through this book. Not all nudes were created alike, and as you progress through this book you will gain an appreciation for the subtleties of purpose that the bared human form has risen to meet. ‘The English language, with its elaborate generosity,’ Clark (1985: 1) gushes at the outset, ‘distinguishes between the naked and the nude.’ From the outset, he is at pains to emphasise that the nude, rather than being the very essence of art, is ‘an art form invented by the Greeks in the 5th century B.C., just as opera is an art form invented in 17th-century Italy’ (1985: 3).

Our artistic tradition is heavily shaped by the elegant foundation laid by the Greeks, and not just through their mythology. I have been amazed, however, at how the gods and goddesses effortlessly step from one role into another—with lion-skin-wearing Hercules transforming into the honey-eating-from-inside-the-lion Samson, with Apollo and David interchangeable youthful heroes in the mind of Michelangelo. But beneath the stories themselves lies the earthy Greek philosophy which embodies every idea and passion in human form (1985: 20; 21):

‘The Greeks attached great importance to their nakedness. … It implies the conquest of an inhibition which oppresses all but the most backward people; it is like a denial of original sin.’

Of course, the other half of our heritage is the Judeo-Christian tradition, and the nude suffers painfully under the Christian worldview, disrupted though never entirely abandoned (1985: 203): ‘While the Greek nude began with the heroic body proudly displaying itself on the palestra, the Christian nude began with the huddled body cowering in consciousness of sin.’ The awkwardness of our artistic tradition seems to rest on this unhappy marriage of earthy and heavenly philosophies.

Don’t expect a dry historical account of statues, though. Clark winds back and forth, attending in turn to Apollo and Venus, energy and pathos, ecstasy and the grotesque. The book is full of pictures to copy in the absence of life models, and will open your eyes when you return to the gallery to dutifully copy from the antique.

Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.



Words, words, words. Time to draw.


On beginning at the beginning


The Rokeby Venus (1648-51), by Velázquez

The Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, has put on a remarkable Velázquez show that has afforded me a much deeper understanding of this Spanish heavyweight. I know that painters are supposed to adore him by default, but despite the Queensland Art Gallery’s efforts a few years ago, I have come quite late to this party. I stand by the view that it’s best to keep quiet about things you don’t understand, and to take as long as you need to come to terms with something on your own. You don’t have to fake it!

Natürlich, the former imperial seat of Vienna has much cultural clout and is presumably more trustworthy around nice things than that convict island somewhere well across the seas, such that the Prado, Berlin’s Gemäldegalerie and London’s National Gallery among many others across the world have graciously loaned some seriously significant works to our fair city and her already impressive stock of Velázquezes, making for an achingly spectacular exhibition.

Gloriette, Wien

Gloriette, Wien

One might lament that a roughly chronological exhibition is somewhat unimaginative, but the progression rather wonderfully traces Velázquez’s artistic growth. Each dimmed and solemn room is a cluster of works from distinctive times and places in the painter’s life, a fact that is obvious without needing reference to a guide book or captions. The first room is respectfully darkened, its rich wine-red walls closing in on you, that woody, furniture-polish scent of the Kunsthistorisches filling the air like incense. A serious reverence hushes this room, which is hung with saints and peasants: Velázquez’s earliest works from his native Seville. These paintings feel as if they emerged from the hot earth itself: warm and deep oranges and browns, as earthy as one imagines Spain to be. The saints sit steadfastly in their voluminous, course robes, complex godly thoughts straining their faces, their gnarled hands like roots from the ground, painted with love and precision. Sweet and lavishly-coloured egg-shaped Marys look down graciously from turbulent clouds, stars lacing their heads, and their hands gracefully prayerful. The painterly precision of these paintings is delicious.


The three musicians (1617-18), by Velázquez

But the most heart-warming picture is the Three musicians (1617-18), who normally live in Berlin, painted when Velázquez was only eighteen years old. One hears Velázquez bursting, like his compatriot Dalí many centuries later, ‘Hurry up and grow old—you are horribly “green,” horribly “bitter.” How, before I reached maturity, could I rid myself of that dreamy and puerile infirmity of adolescence?’ This painting has the colouring of his other Seville paintings, and even the same sort of characters. His understanding of light and shade is solid, and his composition is far more daring than a youthful still life, with extremely satisfying design elements like the sure sweep through the boy’s downturned hand. The perspective through the instruments is endearingly skewed, but otherwise it is difficult to fault his execution. Yet Velázquez is not yet himself, and in but a few short years, at the nearby Waterseller of Seville (1622), we are treated to such an advancement in modelling, in tonal and pictorial hierarchy, in the treatment of texture, and in the pronounced fullness of forms, that we must be aware that we are in the presence of greatness. And this is only the beginning. For the lesson of Velázquez is that one can always learn, and always advance, and each mastery of a skill attained only opens the door to more powerful abilities to be learned. But the importance of chronology to this exhibition (at least to the painter student) is this: one cannot start at the end, with the effortless and airy brushstrokes of the Rokeby Venus (1648-51). This is an advanced level of fluency with paint, not a careless ‘style’. And we can appreciate this when we see Velázquez’s humble and determined origins, wrestling with the muddy pigments of Seville.


The Waterseller of Seville (1622), by Velázquez

You leave this room through an antechamber with one painting to each side and one before you. These pictures mark an important transition for Velázquez, as the one to your right, a portrait of the distinguished and well-connected Don Luis de Góngora (1622), brought him enough acclaim at the budding age of twenty-four to have him invited to paint a portrait of the King. The humble and elegant Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-4) lies to your left: cropped below the shoulders, as is the Don, and strikingly lit richly coloured flesh is set against caramel backgrounds. Their faces are deliberately planar and hard-edged, everything carefully placed where it ought to be, as though a mark of respect. The king’s hair is one delightful smooth-gelled mass, its rippling but singular volume indicating Velázquez’s sculptural way of conceiving of feathery masses—an early insight into his later facility with wafting hair and explosive lace. In his mind, one suspects, he always saw such indistinct surfaces as full and voluminous forms, whatever his increasingly competent brushwork deceives us into thinking.


Portrait of King Philip IV (1623-4), by Velázquez

King Philip IV was also duly pleased with his Elvis quiff, for he promptly hired Velázquez as court painter and refused to be painted by anyone else. On our way to the dramatic and high-ceilinged Baroque hall of court paintings, we are treated to some luscious larger portraits which begin to exude a confident and expert softness of paint, as though they melted right off the brush. Portrait of a lady (1630-33), pinched from Berlin, and Portrait of Juan Mateus (1632) are stunningly mature works. Juan Mateus’s sharp, black irises peer out of a roughened face. Every lump and pucker is attended to, the heavy bags under his eyes, but with a new delicacy of edge. A haze up close, the features are true and distinct from afar, because Velázquez’s softer mode of painting is not a shortcut or a cover up of a lack of knowledge. Rather, his earlier deliberate work has, over many years, formed a solid foundation for freer movement. His hands begin to catch up with the fleeting impressions that kiss his eyes because he knows what structures lie beneath them. These pictures still carry the warm earthy tones of his saint pictures, the lively flesh set against honeyed caramels, and an elegance of design despite the focus on the faces. There is much use of the space around the figures, and the large and bulging egg-shapes of the bodies are accentuated with arm gestures and clothing embellishments—a happy union of form and design. The woman’s sumptuous dress is faithfully embroidered, her pearls individually rendered, but all lavishness is tastefully subordinated to the greater picture.


Portrait of a lady (1630-33), by Velázquez

Vienna has surpassed herself: we enter the grand hall decked with court paintings and realise that this entire exhibition serves to showcase her already impressive collection of Velázquez paintings, accumulated through years of intermarriage between Austrian and Spanish royalty. Better than a postcard: receive a yearly larger-than-life painting of your betrothed throughout her childhood and see how that rosebud is blossoming. The absurdity and glamour of court life takes a firm hold of Velázquez and we see him transform yet further: The tiny Margaritas sparkle in their shimmering dresses; the pearlescent and grotesque inbred faces of sickly royalty give him new forms, new shapes and new textures to adapt his well-trained skills to. Parachute skirts and elaborately piled hair fare well under his sense for design. Now Velázquez is such a sure painter that he implies as much as he describes. The complex pattern of Queen Mariana’s light red dress (1651-61) is reduced to a brisker grey and red contrast of shapes that offset to produce a shimmering pink and silver. And, of course, Vienna’s starlet, The Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress (1659), famously shimmers at a distance, though up close her dress seems but a careless spattering of blues, of dull grey and neutral yellow. The liveliness of this painting and the sureness of touch become quite clear when it is hung next to a copy, as it cleverly is here. Juan Bautista Martínez del Mazo’s green dress variation (1659) fails to translate the illusion-generating contrasts into green and gold. Worse, his fast and loose brushstrokes don’t hang from a knowledgeable scaffolding: mashing on some white fuzz where lace ruffles ought to be does not begin to approach Velázquez’s light touch that actually indicates a full structure.


The Infanta Margarita Teresa in a blue dress (1659), by Velázquez

More corridors bring us to the finale, a room packed with deftly-executed works, many as humble as the earliest, though bursting with the vigour of experience. Velázquez is not consumed by the grand regal images, but brings his evolved powers afresh to small, dignified portraits and allegorical pictures. Several dashing moustachioed Spaniards, their pencil-thin moustaches all pointing towards heaven and no doubt goading Dalí to painterly greatness, use all of his accumulated knowledge in a stripped-back, elegant manner. Portrait of a man (self portrait?) (c. 1630) boasts a daringly rough edge sweeping down the side of the thinly painted black coat. The audacity of this gorgeous mark is enough to make a painter tingle. The nebulous cloud of hair floats thick but weightless about Velázquez’s brow, and a subtle twinkle plays in his quietly thoughtful eyes.


Portrait of a man (self portrait?) (c. 1630), by Velázquez









A small, near-square Female figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa) (1648) is equally limited in colour, and the sibyl is draped in simple cloth, but this picture is wonderfully composed. Her gorgeous profile is in shadow, but her rosy cheeks glow fiercely; the background quietly supports her, making a dramatic but somehow unobtrusive change from dark—behind her light hair—to light—behind her shadowy face. The sibyl herself is full and round like a Rubens figure, and the arcs through her body and clothing and arms enclose her in a deliberate though unselfconscious design.

Copy after Velázquez

Copy after Velázquez, female figure (Sibyl with Tabula Rasa)

And, unless you began the show at the end (as did I, breathlessly storming the marble staircase of the Kunsthistorisches after too many months away), you will at last come face to face with the infamous Rokeby Venus (1648-51), who stares blithely back at you through a dimmed mirror right above her achingly lovely behind, which you had hoped to appreciate unnoticed. I’ve heard her lauded as ‘the finest nude;’ Kenneth Clark (1985: 141) registers her importance by including her as the first picture in his comprehensive book on The nude, though only describes her as ‘dispassionate.’ And what shall I say of her? That the silks and satins, breathily painted, must be intentionally course to dazzle us by how perfectly fleshy that pale and luminous figure is? That Velázquez is a master of subtlety? The quietness of the pink, blue and white is in remarkable contrast to the sizzling red-oranges of Seville and the fanfare of colour of the court. This painting is a mystery to me, a surprising anomaly in Velázquez’s oeuvre. Perhaps its brilliance lies in his ability to bring a lifetime of learning to this age-old subject and treat it with fresh delicacy and empathy. For Velázquez could not even paint a nude without regard for her thoughts, reflected back at us in her defiant face, just as his brush illuminated peasants, saints, kings and princesses and dwarves with equal dignity.


Rokeby Venus (1648-51), by Velázquez

And so, in mastering our craft, we mustn’t get ahead of ourselves and try to start at the end. For our humble beginnings are cementing the foundation for our careers, for our entire lives. And whether we paint peasants or royalty, clay pots or pearls, our brush should focus with devotion on the excitement of the visual, on the possibilities of paint. The painter makes no moral judgements, but casts her levelling eye over all humanity and finds its dignity through the language she knows: the language of shapes and forms and colours. And in the end, it is all made of earth.


Clark, Kenneth. 1985 [1956]. The nude: A study of ideal art. Penguin: London.