Picasso’s Blue Period portraits

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Jaime Sabartes. 1901, oil on canvas, 46 x 38 cm

I recently read that during Picasso’s long life he made ON AVERAGE (!) 1.5 artworks a day, and there must have been days he didn’t do any – like when he was sick. I am still very impressed by this, as my output is pretty meager, even if I just look at the quantity and I won’t even speak of quality.

I have always loved the Blue and Rose Periods of Picasso, since I saw some of his pictures in the Pushkin Museum in Moscow. I am sure the portrait below (The Bock) was there too in 2000, because I remember it was one of the reasons for me to keep coming back there during my semester in Moscow. I find it wonderfully melancholic.

Pablo Picasso: Portrait of Jaime Sabartes (The bock), 1901, 82 x 66 cm

The styles of the 5 pictures here (3 from 1901, one from 1903 and one from 1904) differ a lot.

We got one resembling the flat illustrative style of Toulouse-Lautrec, one flat one with strong outlines, Mateu is painted with lots of colour shading  and outlines – reminiscent of Cezanne – and 3 years later a subtly shaded portrait of Suzanne Bloch has lost all the sharp outlines.

Portrait of Mateu Fernandez de Soto, 1901, 45 x 37 cm

The Absinthe Drinker (Portrait of Angel Fernandez de Soto), 1903

Picasso: Portrait of Suzanne Bloch, 1904

5: Extending the view – Adolph Menzel

Adolph Menzel (1815–1905). Treppenflur bei Nachtbeleuchtung. 1848. Öl auf Papier montiert auf Karton. 36 × 21,5 cm. Museum Folkwang, Essen, Deutschland

I have been putting off some of the tasks in favour of the people drawing section of the OCA Drawing I course as I needed a break from “non-peopled” visual worlds, hence the silence.

In the meantime I have found a picture which reminded me of the problem I was facing with my last Painting I attempt to render a dark interior space in acrylics, in which I failed miserably to come up with a convincing picture.

My staircase picture from earlier post.

Menzel’s staircase picture – although I assume his staircase lit with an oil lamp in 1848 must have been as dark or darker than my entrance area – seems to glow. There is no black, no sudden colour shifts like in my picture from purple to blue and yellow. However there are some subtle greens, reds and browns in the lit part on the left.

He treated the topic with a lot of tenderness. Mine is like a misplaced sledgehammer. I must try something similar again.

5: Extending the view – Project 2 (Looking from one space into another)

Painting I – Task: Choose one of the two drawings depicting the view from one internal space into another. Make necessary adjustments and develop this into a painting. It should be painted from direct observation. “If you decide to include shadows in your painting, don’t paint them as indiscriminate muddy greys. Try to see every part of your painting as a colour, no matter how dark in tone or unsaturated the colour might appear to be.” (A2 – acrylics or oil – spend 4h)

I had made my two drawings almost from the same spot. I thought both drawings needed corrections. On the one hand I prefer the view towards the window in the living room as the eye could make a big circle around the composition. In the other hand the open bathroom door and half lit staircase has some clarity of light and dark, but the different paths suggested by the picture – one by the opened bathroom door and one by the staircase – may be confusing, kind of separate.

But then weather intervened with an almighty downpour rendering the flat pretty dark at 2pm. It provided more clarity for the lit bathroom composition as the rest was in the shadows.

5.2. Looking from one space into another. Acrylics on primed paper. Cropped from A2, about 41 x 46 cm

I think the composition turned out ok. (It’s the painting that sucks.) Not sure if I was just tired and uninspired but I struggled with my acrylics like never before. In summer I had been painting outdoors with oil and I loved the sensuality of it. Acrylics seem rather nasty by comparison and the dreadful plastic bits that float on the surface when you overworked things and the paint got too dry… I will try out the slow-drying medium I got the other day for the next picture. Maybe that alleviates the pain?

5: Extending the view – Project 1 (Some different views)

Painting I – Task: Visualise the many views you could draw within your home. Make 2 A3 charcoal drawings looking from one room into another and 2 more looking out of a window or open door to a wider vista. You will be developing paintings form at least 2 of these idea sketches. Concentrate on tonal information and creating a sense of space. (spend 2h each drawing)

Sketch #1: Living room staircase and view towards window. Charcoal, A3

In Sketch #1 the staircase was the trickiest in terms of perspective and I drew that several times.

I just realised that there might be something wrong above the window to our mini terrace. That line should be slanted the other way round following the top of the cupboard that is seen from the back next to the staircase. Since I had to turn my head several times to capture this scene, I kept getting confused about my perspective. Also the sofa’s back should be much darker, since right now even I struggled to read it as a solid object.

I like the umbrella on the back of the cupboard. It was a relief to insert a slightly less geometric shape among all those rectangles and straight lines. Maybe I could insert slightly more of the lamp shade on the upper right, as it is rolling out of the picture.

Sketch #2: Living room view onto terrace. Charcoal, A3

The table is not correct in perspective. I was just standing too close to it, so I couldn’t judge the lines very well. It’s all a bit too fussy. Maybe I should have zoomed in onto the terrace window a bit more.

Also my drawing paper is very thin and cheap. not exactly a joy to draw with, I must admit. But then in German there is a saying: “The swimmer always puts it down to the swimming trunks… (if he fails to swim fast enough)” so I shouldn’t blame my tools for uninspired drawings.

I think what actually makes me a bit itchy is that I am not a great planner. I prefer just to paint and to change it along the way as the colours and shapes come to life instead of doing 4 x 2 hour charcoal sketches that leave out the all important aspect of colour. But I am aware that these drawings teach me something about the surprising tonal values within a room, where white walls can appear black at times. So how dark exactly white appears in your picture needs to be experienced and learnt.

Sketch #3: Bathroom and stairs, Charcoal A3

Two days later: Sketch # 3 is drawn from almost he same position as sketch #1. In #3 I had to darken the white wall facing me several times as I was underestimating the tones. The brain just thinks it knows what a white wall should look like, but this knowledge hinders me to see what’s there. The 3 light sources are from the door at the left and some at the ceiling to the right (daylight) and the bathroom (lamp). The right edges of the stair are a bit unconvincing. Largely as I have simplified what was there (1 more pole and a glass protection with edges… very fussy). You can still see it’s an imagined border… I would have to work on that.

A note on paper… #3 was drawn on the backside of a watercolour pad’s first protection paper. It is a bliss to work with compared to the cheap thin drawing pad paper I used for #1 and 2. But I guess a Seurat would have been able to make a cheap ugly paper shine too.

Sketch #4: window view, Charcoal A3

In #4 the sky over the mountains between the tower blocks has to be the lightest parts even though there are some lit white parts of the room. The whole composition looks a bit dull right now, but I could imagine it with a colourful sky against a monochrome rest of the picture so that it reads more as a window to nature in the distance. In that case I should remove the storage boxes from the window sill, as the eye gets hung up on them. Even the plant would probably have to go. In that case the interior should be as simple as it can be. Also the right part of the room could be more cut off. There is a lot of dead space in the right.

Charcoal sketches #1-4: Overview

Overall Sketches #1 and #3 with the staircase are the most complex and to me also the most appealing and universal as a little world. There is a certain atmosphere with the variety of subtle light sources.

5: Extending the view – research (how did other artists do it?)

Painting I – Task: Drawings of rooms with an accurate perspective. How did other artists solve this problem?

Vilhelm Hammershøi. Interior, An Old Stove. 1888. 62 x 54,5 cm

I wanted to see how other artists had tackled the interior of rooms and saw Hammershøi’s paintings of empty rooms and opened doors suggesting something but revealing nothing.  Colour, tone and mood remind me a bit of Morandi. He can make greys shimmer.

Hammershøi’s Interior above is a bit different from his other pictures in its fuzziness (I hope this is not due to a bad reproduction). It seems like he has swallowed a Seurat drawing and infused it with colour. This is for me the most atmospheric of the Hammershøi paintings I found.

I made a perspective drawing of it below. What initially looks like a frontal view at the wall with the open door turns out to be a slightly angled pane, of which I cannot quite tell if it meets at the same eye level as the open door. Something looks quint in the wall behind the stove, but it does not harm the picture at all.

Hammershøi with perspective lines and eye level

Vilhelm Hammershøi. White, Open Doors. 1905. 52 x 60 cm

Hammershøi with perspective lines and eye level

The white doors seem generally accurate in terms of perspective. But the right open door seems to have the eye-level shifted up a bit. Also there is a wobble in the upper right of the left door frame as well as on the left door and on the left of the right open door that feels odd. It looks almost as if this picture was taken from a book where the paper wasn’t quite even. When I searched for this image however I found these slight distortion in all of them. Might it be in the original too?

Johannes Vermeer. A Maid Asleep. 1656–57. Oil on canvas. 87.6 x 76.5 cm. Metropolitan Museum of Art. Accession Number: 14.40.611

Compared to Hammershøi, Vermeer’s sleeping maid sits in a room full of domestic items, draped and arranged. It’s warm. We got a frontal view with an eye level probably at the upper part of the picture. The chair and the stripes of the table cloth are the only perspective line indicators I can see. The rest is either a frontal view or it is cut off like the door.

Paul Cezanne: Curtains. 1885. watercolour on paper. Musee d’Orsay, Paris, France

Cezanne’s frontal perspective of a wall with a door is a background to his fine drawing of the curtain folds. It was a nice way of simplifying what’s there and focusing on the soft aspects – the drapery, the patterns – of a room. He also doesn’t see the need to fill the entire paper. His colours seem carefully placed.

Wassily Kandinsky. Interior (My dining room). 1909. Oil on cardboard. 50 x 65 cm. Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus, Munich, Germany

Kandinsky’s Interior has a great way of distorting the objects slightly. The cupboard is slightly rounded, so perspective lines are in some sense not an issue. The door on the right must be due to an odd shaped room that has a change of direction in the wall otherwise his upper line of the door frame makes no sense. It is possible the wall has a “fold” to the left of the door frame, however the light reflection on that wall seems uniform.

Adolph von Menzel, The Balcony Room (1845), Original: Nationalgalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

Menzel’s perspective

Menzel’s Balcony Room feels airy and sensual to me. The perspective seems the most accurate from all pictures displayed here, judged by extending the lines of the objects.

Apparently it was a sketch he made for his own enjoyment (see this source), as it was only published after his death. Being for his private pleasure Menzel didn’t need to pay heed to academic conventions of painting at the time so this sketch devoid of a narrative and looser in style. You can almost see where the impressionists picked up the loose ends.

In summary what this tells me is that perspective is one of the components that you could be accurate about but equally you don’t need to be a slave of it in order to create a successful visual world. It depends a bit what style of painting you have. Menzel’s Balcony room would have been odd with a wildly inaccurate perspective as it stays rather true to the moment and the feel of the actual room (I assume) but Kandinsky’s colourful room can take a fair bit of bending and shaping of objects to his will.

5: Extending the view – tonal drawings in sketchbook

Painting I – Task: Make some keenly observed tonal drawings from direct observation in your sketchbook which are accurate in perspective. Simplify the shapes (check Seurat), incorporate 2 kinds of space – like a view into a different room etc.

Seurat. Railway tracks. c1881-82. Conte crayon on paper. 24.1 x 31.6cm. Source MoMA

Georges Seurat’s (1859-1891) drawings are atmospheric tonal drawings typically done with conte crayon on handmade paper. Source 1 mentions that incorporating the paper texture as a grid for his composition is Seurat’s innovation. He often used the wire side of the handmade paper to make this effect more pronounced instead of the felt side. He also used paper stumps to work the conte into the paper, evening out some of the paper grid. The same source also says that after laying down the conte pigments, Seurat scraped away some pigments in short lines following the shapes of his figures and objects, revealing the paper colour. This results in highlights that are quite sharp and almost like an etching against the soft conte marks. The Moma site (still source 1) doesn’t mention what he used as a scraping tool. (Under Techniques you will find a close up of a girl’s head of Cafe Singer that illustrates this technique very well.) He could produce areas that appear bright white with more or less extensive scraping.

The Railway tracks drawing is impressive in its barren modernism. The composition follows the railway tracks and the line of trees and electric wires to both sides. The pokey and slightly squint masts look forlorn and are echoed by another fence or mast line behind the railway dam. Despite being somewhat dark and melancholic the sky feels almost luminous.

Seurat. L’Echo, study for Bathers at Asnières. 1883-4. Conté crayon on Michallet paper 31.2 x 24 cm. New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery  Source

Georges Seurat (1859–1891). Approach to the Bridge at Courbevoie, 1886
Conté crayon. 232 x 298 mm. Thaw Collection, The Pierpont Morgan Library, New York. Source

Source 1 also has a feature where you can flip through selected pages of Seurat’s sketchbook. What a treasure this applied technology is – very far from being gimmicky!

My sketchbook entry #1: Living room. Tonal drawing

Now to my sketchbook drawings. Drawing into this sketchbook felt strange. I had to fortify my Drawing I sketchbook as it was well-used and it was falling apart, but my Painting I sketchbook looks virginal. This is also because I don’t switch sketchbooks or take several along just because one would be a great fit for Painting I and the other for Drawing I.

The living room sketch #1 made humbled me – especially after seeing what Seurat did. The couch is seen from its back looking out through the big window on an enclosed terrace. Slightly fussy drawing with attempted but unconvincing perspective.

My sketchbook entry #2: View into bathroom

The view into the bathroom is a drawing made in charcoal, white chalk and some black/white poster colour on a tinted background. It works much better as a simplified drawing than the other two as there is some sense of light shining from one direction. The light dots above the sink are some chandelier-style bathroom light. Hong Kong really loves chandeliers it seems. The perspective is perhaps a bit odd around the staircase, which I wasn’t too sure how to draw, as I had to turn slightly to do it. It’s like an assemblage of views.

In this picture I realised that the white walls are very dark in the shade. I briefly tried Seurat’s scratching method to get highlights and sharp edges but it didn’t work on my thin sketchbook paper. I’ll try it with watercolour paper later.

My sketchbook entry #3: View into kitchen. Tonal drawing

#3 is the view into the kitchen with a window and some reflection of the window on the marble floor. Confusing perspective in the staircase area with stairs going both up and down, as well as the ceiling.


  1. Museum of Modern Art Exhibition 2007. http://www.moma.org/interactives/exhibitions/2007/seurat/seurat.html
  2. New York Times article. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/10/26/arts/design/26seur.html?_r=1&ref=georgesseurat
  3. Seurat’s Secret. by Sanford Schwartz. http://www.brooklynrail.org/2007/12/artseen/seurats-secret

Misery and delight from Art HK 12

Yesterday night we went to the opening of Art HK 12. There was a lot of traffic and also a lot of crap on display if I may say so – with especially disturbing pieces in the sculpture department (think a big plastic realistic Rhino that would have been okay on a children’s playground or in a nature museum – but why should that be art? or a sculpture of a 100 year old little woman – life size) in a chair – naked of course and every wrinkle up to her private parts was rendered. Why, oh why? Just because you CAN do it it doesn’t mean you HAVE to do it.).

The best mildly irritated quote of the evening I overheard walking past a man in suit talking to a woman standing in front of one of Damien Hirst’s totally pointless (sic!) dot paintings: “Yeah, but what’s the fucking point?” (double sic!) Indeed, sir – my point entirely.

But instead of looking at the hilarious or dull stuff, let’s focus on the things that blew me away.

Mao Yan (from Art HK 12) … unfortunately the title wasn’t displayed + apologies for the picture quality – but you can still see the sheer beauty of this piece – watercolour or Chinese ink maybe?

The first one was Mao Yan, a Chinese artist in his 40s living and teaching in Nanjing, of whom 2 very broodingly grey pictures with a very light touch were displayed. Here you can find another article about Mao Yan that touches the importance of friendship, Nanjing – one of the nicer Chinese megacities from my memory – and realistic vs expressive painting. The article says: “In Mao’s eyes, part of art must go beyond realistic meanings to achieve the goal of art expression; it would be hard to escape narrow-mindedness if one’s too close to reality.” The article mentions a “scaled greyness” that Mao achieved, that feels very elegant and I would say touchingly quiet. And this is what I distinctly remember standing in front of this piece… they were rendered in the tiniest nuance differences of grey, without looking dirty mind you. What a skill.

Mao Yan (from Art HK 12) … i think the title is “Richard No.2” 2011

So I researched a bit on the internet and found a picture he had done during a residency in a distillery in Scotland (nice one), where he painted a lot of portraits of the workers. The one below of Callum Campbell stood out for me: it looked so vulnerable and closed up.

Mao Yan. The portrait of Callum Campbell. Photo- Courtesyof ShanghART H-Space. Source

And then my heart made a leap as I spotted a Morandi from about 70 meters distance.

Giorgio Mornadi. Natura morta (still life). 1950. 35 x 45cm. From booth of Galleria d’Arte Maggiore. Apparently the price for this sweet little piece was EUR 600k plus if I overheard the conversation of my neighbour correctly.

And here’s what I thought, friends of the creamy stillness – Morandi’s colours are much more powdery than I ever imagined them to be from looking at some internet  pictures. What do people do with the colours when they post a Morandi picture? Do they run it through Photoshop autocorrect, which obviously thinks  “hmm… creamy – let’s up the contrast and colour saturation to give it some real zing…”?

I tried to leave it as uncontrasty as I saw it, and it is divine, sandy, muted. The opposite of all those screaming contemporary pieces seen at the fair that actually have nothing to say apart from “me, me, me – hey you, look at me”.

After I tried to draw a still life inspired by Cezanne the other day – and Morandi in his own way is in the same camp for me – I realised how difficult it is (for me at least) to leave the narrow-mindedness (as Mao Yan put it) of realism. I still try to be very realistic at the moment. But then I have to say I am not far enough to leave realism for expression. I think that should come at a later stage of skill and experience.

Morandi captures the objects in a very personal vision – distorted in many ways. Imagine how a bottle looks in real life – Morandi’s  bottles can’t be called realistic. They have a connection to reality and a refreshing personal addition to it too.

I also noticed how short Morandi kept his brushstrokes but with no attempt to smooth them out. Given that in the previous Drawing I exercises we dealt a lot with negative space – I also noticed that Morandi reduced negative space between the objects to a minimum and kept it to the outside of his object blocks. His pieces seem to huddle together to withstand whatever may come their way in quiet unity.

The same gallery that exhibited the piece above showed some etchings by Morandi which stood out for me as they seemed to mathematically and evenly explore how far apart the strokes can be for a hatched pane to still convey the shape of the object. Pretty far it seems …

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