Research point: Bad hair day? How sculptors treated the tricky subject of hair

Greek funerary statue of a woman. Archaeological Museum, Athens: Parva Herculanensis. c. 300 BC. Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto

Each time I do a head in sculpture I am a bit hesitant about the hair. Unless you look at some 60s reincarnation of the big hairdo with plenty of hairspray, chances are that hair is somewhat flimsy, moving thin strings. Not exactly a solid mass that translates easily into sculpture.

So what did sculptors do to make it work? Here are some examples from different cultures spanning more than  2000 years. I don’t think this is an easy subject as I found a whole lot of bad hair sculptures as well, but I tried to pick the ones I feel that have mastered the tricky subject beautifully. There is a large degree of abstraction in all of these attempts to render the hair.

The Greek statue of a woman above is an interesting mix of highly abstracted symmetrical looking grooves, while at the same time adding varied detail of curly defined strands of hair to each groove/hair sausage. Weird but interesting.

Chinese Tang dynasty woman, pottery, Shanghai Museum, should be around 800 AD, photo by Andrew Lih

The ceramic funerary figure of a Tang Dynasty woman above shows a sensational solidity of hair mass. It’s the 60s hairdo of its time. The chignon sits asymmetrically on the woman’s left, and is balanced by a bigger shape of hair on her right, that seems to be painted in a different colour, so maybe refers to a bow or a second chignon. Note that the sculptor really only focused on the distinctions of very clearly separated shapes and treated the rest as a rather washed over bubble shape: The hair above her forehead does not come as a big jump from the forehead, and neither is your hair if you look at it… it’s a smooth transition, a slight wobble but not more. But the chignon on the other hand is much more dramatically curved and distinct from the adjacent shape of the hair tied up. Gorgeous.

German figures of Saints on a reading podest (Lesepult), mid 12th century, willow wood with tempera on chalk ground, 120cm high, Stadtkirche Freudenstadt (city church)

Ok, I cannot quite conceal my love for Gothic shapes.  Above once again the 12th century German reading podest shown in an earlier post. The hair – highly stylised grooves and even some knobbly symmetric curl net pattern. Intriguing, albeit almost on the edge of too symmetric and hence quite stiff for me.

Nicolaus von Leyden (Nikolaus Gerhaert).Man Meditating (Buste d’homme accoudé), an apparent self-portrait, c. 1467. Strasbourg: Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame. Photo by Cancre

Nicolaus Gerhaert was an influential Northern European sculptors of his day. Of Dutch origin, he worked largely in the German speaking regions. He masterly rendered the human figure with very natural facial expressions (look at the eye-lids and the veins on the hand!) and elaborate and vivid folds in his subjects’ garments. The hair here is somewhat abstracted compared to the skin. It falls asymmetrically and Gerhaert tried to express the strand-yness of hair by adding fine lines to the surface. It looks quite modern to me.

Wilhelm Lehmbruck. Head of a Youth. 1913. Source: All-Art

Ah, and Lehmbruck. I just can’t get over him. In his Head of a Youth of 1913 he fleetingly captures the hair with what looks like some roughly applied masses of clay, left unfinished, i.e. not trying to detail anything in the hair that would distract from the furrowed brow of his man. Although it still looks dramatic in its piled up state, if you focus on it. Lehmbruck also doesn’t create a big jump between forehead and hair in his bust but rather a washed out transition with some tiny variation.


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 …

Hong Kong life drawing options

Life drawing in Hong Kong

I started life drawing sessions some weeks ago. And initially I had a hard time finding those places in Hong Kong, especially since I initially didn’t necessarily wanted to go to Shek Kip Mei as that takes me 1.5 hours each way and at 10pm that’s not very attractive. There were a lot of dead links on the web for studios on Hong Kong island that must have once offered life drawing.

Below are the options I tested out so far. Both are drop in sessions where you pitch up with your own material and draw a shared model, no teaching. Models alternate weekly (male/female), short & long poses – maximum 20 min. Pay at the end of the session.

Wanchai art group: every Tuesday night 7.30 – 9.30pm

HKpainter Studio (above the Carnegies Bar in Wan Chai), 4A Spa Centre, 53-55 Lockhart Road, Wan Chai, HK
bring own equipment and materials, Fee: HKD$150 per session for two hours
email Philippe at before each session to let him know you are joining

Spitting Gecko Studio: every Thursday night 7.00 – 9.00pm and on Saturdays (not sure what time – pls email John)

#601 , 30 Pak Tin Street, Jockey Club Creative Arts Centre, Shek Kip Mei, Hong Kong
bring own equipment and materials, $100 per session for two hours
email John McArthur at

Kitsch territory: Children and animals

After the Museum visit with the fantastic creatures last week I was thinking that to attempt to depict fantasy creatures like scylla, mermaids and angels for that matter is a very dangerous thing for any artist. It’s not like we really believe in these things these days – a personification of human fear of the open sea, hope etc. It can so easily become fake and kitsch.

The same holds true for cute things, like children and animals, as all too often it goes down the slippery slope of kitsch. The omnipresent wiki has some ideas of what kitsch is but I find that very unsatisfactory. I have yet to find a good explanation of what kitsch is to me, but it implies something badly done or sentimental but fake or superficial/too easy in some way.

But first I need to share with you the most hilarious picture that wiki uses as an illustration of “kitsch”:

Frederick Dielman. The Widow. c. 1861-1897. Chromolithograph. Location: Boston Public Library, Print Department. Source

That picture totally made my evening yesterday, I laughed so much. It’s so bad it comes out the other way for me. I would absolutely hang this picture at home (for some time).

To my mind, pictures of children are super dangerous territory, as are pictures of small animals. Children with small animals – it seems almost humanly impossible not to produce kitsch with that combination. Case in point:

A Boy with a Bird. Probably 1520s, Titian or Titian workshop. National Gallery.

Astonishingly Picasso kind of managed it – but really only just. But then – he’s the man. I think he is not quite in the kitsch territory because he abstracts the topic a lot and comes in with a rough way of painting. The realism of the Titian Workshop picture above gives the subject matter the final kick down the kitsch trap. Put in the angel’s wings and you have arrived fully.

(According to the museum’s description there are actually angel’s wings in the underpainting. And angels offer a whole new realm of kitsch subject matter. How do you make that one work? The only one I can think of who did this successfully is Chagall. Not even Picasso dared to venture there to my knowledge. And I’ve been thinking of a relief of mythical creatures for one of my sculpture projects… beware!)

Pablo Picasso. Child with Dove. 1901. oil on canvas. 73 x 54 cm. National Gallery, London, UK .

One of the most kitsch-prone things to me are badly executed pictures of children/small animals or both. For example below are 2 of my drawings of my son last year. The left to me looks borderline kitsch because of its poor execution as a drawing. I think the right one is an improvement. So the lesson is that you got to be somewhat abstract/expressive or really good in naturalistic drawing if you want to pull off a picture of a small child, especially with small animals? Or maybe I am just a bit paranoid here. If treated with skills and honesty and it’s not overly sentimental, if should be alright.

That all said, I distinctly remember the painting above the bed in my granddad’s home as it was in full view from my bed. It showed a blond mother playing with a naked baby on a table bathed in light with 2 little angels peeking in from behind the dark olive green velvet curtain. Idealistically rendered of course and very large. At the age of 4 I deemed it the most beautiful picture ever. So maybe kitsch also refers to pictures that are so sweet and straightforward that they would appeal to our infantile longings and tastes?

My pencil sketches of my son 2011: bad realistic drawing of children = automatically kitsch?

Ops, another theory entry into my logbook. Bring on more practical work, girl!

Update March 2012: I cannot believe it, but I just randomly found the picture that hung on my granddad’s wall in an ebay auction. I haven’t seen it in (erm) about 30 years. Apparently these sort of pictures became very popular in lower to middle class German households of the early 20th century as a towel format picture to hang above the bed. Hence the German name “Schlafzimmerbild” (bedroom picture). They were often sold by salesmen at the door and tended to have topics like mother and children, angels, religious, motifs. It became hugely popular in the 1920s, when my granddad was still a small child. It was derided by art critics as “sickly sweet kitsch” (sic). And I guess it is. No wonder I liked it as a 2-4 year old. It just pushes all the buttons that a child could wish for: gorgeous mummy loves me, and so does my sibling (not so in real life, ey?) and angels are watching after me. I am the bellybutton of the universe after all. Ok, here’s the thing: The over the top/unrealistic/foolish sweetness of the world that the picture creates is one major ingredient for kitsch.

Gosh, I am so happy I found this, totally brings me back to my granddad’s small flat and his garden with the huge digitalis that we weren’t allowed to touch.

"Schlafzimmerbild" (bedroom picture) that used to hang over my granddad's bed when I was very little.

Museum visit: Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum

The last weekend I was at the exhibition “Fantastic Creatures from the British Museum” at the Hong Kong Museum of Art (20 January – 11 April 2012). I was sailing through it as our 1.5 year old was in a foul mood, just recovering from a cold this week. And HK Museum staff were not amused when he started crying.

What was remarkable (you couldn’t take pictures for some reason, so not many shared pictures here) was the collection of imagined and hybrid creatures, many of them would be terrifying if you imagined them as a child. I have always been fascinated by the depiction of fears personified as monsters. And how devious are the ones like mermaids and like Scylla below, who come along in such semi-pleasant form.

I’ll keep this as an idea for the Bas-relief project of Sculpture I.

Terracotta relief showing Skylla. Greek, about 465-435 BC. From Mílos, Aegean Sea; Found on Aegina. Picture shown with permission from the British Museum

The piece above is a flat back terracotta plaque. Acc. to the British Museum description these plaques were typically pierced to attach them to other objects, maybe chests or coffins. These low relief plaques were a speciality of the Greek island of Mílos. (There might have been a factory on Mílos at the time, given that I found another piece below which is very similar and has survived for 2500 years too!)

If I am facing 2 bad options that I have to choose from I usually say, that it’s a choice between plague and cholera, which is essentially a translation from an idiom from my native German, I believe in English you have the choice “between Scylla and Charybdis” – a sea monster that devours you alive and a whirlpool that swallows your ship. Seems like a bummer choice too.

So the plaque above shows the said Scylla, a sea monster that devours men, with a rather pretty woman’s upper body and a snake’s/dragon’s/fish’s tail, 2 dogs leaping out of her waist. The wiki entry says she was described as having 4-6 dogs surrounding her waist. The woman’s body is not really consistent with the horrid sea monster description of some stories. Ovid’s narration tells the story of Scylla as one of a beautiful maiden, who flees from Glaucus, who is in love with her. The latter turns to Circe for help to win Scylla’s love, but Circe gets jealous over the whole thing and turns Scylla into a monster.

Following this story, it could be that Scylla is represented here as her past (beautiful maid) and her present (monster) at the same time. I like this idea. Obviously many artists and craftsmen in Greece at the time liked it too, as there are many representations of Scylla found on pottery, reliefs etc. Similar fantastic creatures in appearance are mermaids, who are a recurrent myth in many other cultures.


I wonder if the 2nd plaque above was from the same “factory” since it certainly has the same design, with only minor changes in the execution – e.g. the tail holes to hang up the plaque, the 2nd one has stylised hair.

I recently have been amazed at how moulds were used successfully already thousands of years ago. People were looking for ways to abbreviate lengthy repetitive work ever since a couple of brain cells worked together. Ingenious. So I bet these Scylla plaques were press moulded into shapes – maybe fired terracotta or plaster moulds?

Skylla/Skylla (clay, late second century BCE). München, Staatliche Antikensammlungen. Inventar NI 6691, Pferdemann & Löwenfrau K-126b. Picture source

The above Skylla appears to be more sculptural than a low reliefs. I couldn’t find a picture of it from a different angle, so I am not sure if it’s a full sculpture, a very vivid relief or potentially a corner element. She has a tail on each side in what looks like a 90 degree angle. Initially I wondered how she was identified as Scylla and not a mermaid. But if you look closely you can see the dogs heads coming from her waist.

Very vivid and modern – impressionist – as her shapes are indicated in a broad way, like washed over – maybe this is just the effect of 2200 years of existence. But she looks perfect like this, and gives the mind some freedom to complete the depiction.

On that note… (more art less words)

My uncle, the painter Harald Becker, said the following to me (I try to translate from German) last year:

“… Time flies. I am so spread out in my activities. And though I don’t procrastinate, I can’t seem to catch up. Yet looking back, I see so much time has passed already. Of course I need to know – in order to stay healthy – what else is out there. Otherwise, the return to my own garden would just be an immersion into a fool’s garden. But little of it is the other hand already enough so as not to lose the strength for the specific deed. “

And yes, I am aware this is another wordy post. (sic) So back to work. And I’ll try to switch off the visual stimulus from the outside world for a while, it does take away some of my strength to do art myself.

What came out of the Lehmbruck bust exercise: Shattered and bruised, but not defeated

My work: Terracotta bust I (ca 30 cm high) - terracotta slip on stoneware clay, slightly burnished in parts, Remnant of stoneware clay bust II after firing

Some time ago I had started a little side project of making a copy of the bust of the kneeling woman by Wilhelm Lehmbruck (see earlier logbook entry). Here is the outcome. I made 2 pieces, and only the smaller one survived the kiln firing since the girl No 1 exploded into a gazillion pieces during the firing strangely leaving her head intact. Thank God the other pieces in the kiln (not mine) weren’t really damaged. Girl No 2 got some scratches in the red terracotta slip surface as you can see on her chest, revealing the light coloured clay underneath.

I must have not wedged the clay properly for the body part of Girl No 1 (the explosive one) or included air bubbles later when I built the clay. That’s the first time I had an explosion of a ceramic piece of mine ever. And what a spectacular one that must have been.

I had noted earlier that one big crack and a lot of small ones had developed on the inside of Girl No 1 by the time she was bone dry, indicating that aside from the small air bubbles in the clay that expanded during the firing exploding the piece, I also didn’t compress the clay properly. I remembered that I indeed had only compressed it from the outside, but not from the inside as it was filled with paper initially to hold the clay up. The head came from a different batch of clay and I had made it separately, squeezing it from the inside out, explaining why that one wasn’t blown to pieces.

My red bust after 2 layers of slip - showing the underglaze colour that went under the next layers of terracotta slip

Girl No 2 (the red terracotta one) was smaller, I pricked the entire inside with lots of small holes in case I had included any air by accident. I had about 4 slip layers, and half way through I also used underglaze paint in red and black and white to emphasize the crevices etc. Then I burnished her nose, cheeks etc – all the high points. It looked way too shiny in pre-firing but it turns much more matte with the firing.

The slip layers behave a bit like oil colours, so they are semi-transparent. I guess the underglaze colours shine through slightly, probably adding a bit of depth.

However compared to Lehmbruck’s bust, my pieces are not simplified enough and lack expressiveness. Given that I started out trying to make a copy of Lehmbruck’s bust I readily admit that mine look nothing like his. Lehmbruck’s girls have incredibly long necks that are arched in a beautiful and impossible curve.

I think his faces show less realistic detail but more of an abstract “general impression” of a face, rather than mine, which look somewhat more specific, although I didn’t have a model other than pictures of Lehmbruck’s bust.

Using slip has the distinct disadvantage that the layer of colour is not that thick, so if it gets chipped or damaged it is then quite noticeable.

I guess I should go back to the OCA assignments, which I have been procrastinating for quite a while now.

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