Master As Muse – Article

A recent article about the influence of old masters in my practice.


My practice as a painter is focused on portraiture, but I do not paint people’s portraits. I’m interested in describing an emotion or state of mind rather than a person.

Visits to museums and galleries are a great source of inspiration; I often use old master portraits as a muse for my own paintings, manipulating their sensitivity to the subject and formal structures. The paintings are not copies or reproductions of art historical portraits; they are created from the impressions the paintings make on me. In parallel to my studio, I work as an artist educator with The Courtauld Gallery. This has meant spending a lot of time with the collection, during which certain works have stood out and both directly and indirectly influenced my practice.

‘Portrait of a Lady’ by Berthe Morisot in The Courtauld collection has inspired several works. I’ve always loved this painting, and still remember my first impression: I saw it as an understated piece in the collection, it seemed to be painted in mostly greys and browns, but the longer I looked I begun to notice the browns had purple tones within them, and the beige has pinks. The pinks that made up the flowers were reflected throughout the canvas. I loved how such a small ornamental detail of the painting could impact on my perception of the painting as a whole. As with most works, my exploration of the painting came from drawing, my sketches explored the composition, distilling the brush marks and tones into short, continuous, thick or thin lines. Drawing is a vital tool both in situ in museums and galleries and using photocopies in the studio. The process of drawing is not about mimicry, for me it’s a tool to observe and distill an essence of what interests me in the original. The drawings I made of Morisot’s painting mostly engaged with the sense of grounding the triangle structure gives to the composition, and how the contours of her dress met with the background. Several paintings have been made in response to Morisot’s portrait, and each painting is very different.

I often work on multiple paintings at once, and both Pretty in Pink paintings were made together. Oil paint can take a long time to dry and I prefer to keep working whilst waiting for paint to dry. The aluminium painting was in response to the gaze of Morisot’s sitter. In the flesh there was something quite confrontational about her despite her scale. I felt that the pink on aluminium responded to the sensation of being looked at. This piece also explores surface textures, although depicting her face, the texture of her dress was in my mind whilst manipulating the paint over the panel. The marks that make up her features were inspired from observing the folds of fabric in Morisot’s painting. Many of my works are built of multiple layers, but this piece was made with one thick coat, I purposely ground the oil paint into an impasto (thick paste) to provide a surface to draw and scrape into.

With the canvas painting, I wanted to explore the edges of where the dress met the background. The formal concerns between the foreground and background interested me, and I worked to create a subtle yet direct distinction between them. I make my own oil and waterbased paints, which allow a playful approach to manipulating material. This is especially the case when exploring mat and glossy tones of a single colour. My memory of the nuances of pinks in Moritot’s palette was translated into working with a vibrant pink pigment, oil was mixed into the pigment for the figure and an acrylic binder for the background. The bold monotone palate was created to juxtapose the sense of nostalgia the figure evoked.

Sundea took inspiration from the sentiment behind the painting rather than its formal qualities. Although a portrait, there was no clear identity to which woman ‘portrait of a woman’ was about. I was interested in the fact that Morisot’s sister posed for this painting but she was not the subject of the painting. My practice is often steered towards arenas where identity is open to discussion, so the notion that this was a portrait of a woman without a prescribed personality or character resonated with me. After working on various sketches depicting women, a detailed drawing was traced onto copper then obscured by textured paint, to create the effect of a passing of time or incomplete memory. Copper is such an exciting material to work with, it is a beautiful colour to respond to and if uncoated it oxidizes to create wonderful patinas. I use these natural qualities of copper as much as possible, and allow parts of the surface to react whilst working on them. The oval format also refers to history of portraiture; the shape, material and scale of Sundae relates to lockets – in particular their sentimentality.

References can also be indirect, and this article offered the opportunity to review the influence of The Courtauld collection. Although Once More with Feeling was not based on a portrait in the gallery, with hindsight I identified several ways it related to Bonnard paintings in the gallery.

I always start with a source image, OMWF responded to ‘Study of a little Girl, seated’ by Wenceslaus Hollar. I had seen this drawing at UCL’ s Art Museum, and loved how delicate yet bold the drawing was. My initial drawings focused on the simplicity of the composition, her hands and face were the main focus. She was posed in a traditional/ classical form yet something about her felt so modern. This sense of modernity from the Hollar drawing was the catalyst for my own, my drawings explored a heightened sense of modernity. Most of the details of Hollar’s drawing were edited out during the final painting process; the hands were the only detail that remained. It took a while to create the right intensity of her state, and as no other depiction of her features had the right impact I ended up working very fast bold gestural marks across the face. I work in a very intuitive way making decisions following my instinct with no direct reference material. Which is why I was so amazed to see then similarities of tone and gesture of Bonnard’s works. It was surprising to see what a powerful yet implicit influence ‘Woman in an interior’ and ‘The river seine in Paris’ had made. After revisiting the collection, I noticed unintentional yet clear links between the blue wall in ‘woman in an interior’ and the background of OMWF. The layering and juxtaposition of blues, greens and purples from ‘River Seine in Paris’ felt very reminiscent of the palette in OMWF. He is one of my favorite painters in the gallery, I am always impressed how their initial naturalistic appearance fades to such dynamic and rich tonal contrasts.

Drawing has previously just been a thinking tool in the studio, but over the last year I have placed greater significance to their output, developing them into coherent works in their own right. This drawing is one of my favourites: and is based on the daughter from Rubens ‘Brueghel Family Portrait’. Without being propped up by her mother, her body contorts unnaturally, giving a lovely dynamic pose. Taking her out of context allowed an initial ownership of the image, which was expanded by a personal style of drawing. Various fluid sketchy drawings were made, editing Rubens figure to create a subtle impression of the girl without making it feel ghostly. Working fast has its merits, but it is very easy to overwork an image. When working with oil paint there is a greater possibility to undo unwanted marks but this style of drawing needs to be right the first time, finding that balance can be frustrating, but very rewarding when it works.

Last summer I made a playful series of drawings for the Art Car Boot Fair (a summer art fair that allows visitors to view and buy art in a fun and informal way). I wanted to create something fun and accessible for the fair and in keeping with my practice. Taking my lead from the Equisite Corpse style of drawing, I made a series of simple line drawings of my favourite old master portraits, divided them up, and reformed them to create a series of art historical Frankenstein’s. The first example here is a fusion of the barmaid in Manet’s A Bar at Foliès Bergere and Don Franciso de Saavedra in Goya’s Portrait of him. Working with multiple figures scattered indiscriminately throughout Art History, this series surprisingly came very naturally as many figures fused wonderfully together. Unlike exquisite corpse drawings, these forms felt very natural blurring the lines between real and imagined figures. Manet’s barmaid is so iconic, yet she is rarely identified. The Second drawing is a combination of Goya portraits. The drawings take a playful approach to perception and memory, they are perceived as historical but rather than being recognisable they evoke a sense of implacable familiarity. This sense of ‘familiarity ’ is one reason why I continue to reference old masters; I’m fascinated how their images are embedded within our cultural memories.

Published by Courtauld Gallery public programmes March 2015