The path to this door started, without any doubt, with the purchase of a book on the journals and drawings of the English artist, Keith Vaughan in 1972, and one ink and gouache painting in particular:
“Group of Figures - Amacuzac, 1959“(1).
This small coloured drawing, only 36.8x31.8cm, had such a fundamental impact on me I have been continuously drawn back to it over all the intervening years frequently making copy studies of it. If only I could make images like that I would be a happy man.
What I saw in it was the simplified forms of figures overlapping one another in a sort of free for all jumble of shapes and lines, and although the illustration in the book is not in colour, in my head I could imagine what the real thing must look like. In many other paintings of his he would often use yellow ochre and blues as well as black.
What also fascinated me was the suggested shapes and forms of some background setting, perhaps a doorway, a wall? It was this ambiguity that always suggested more and always brought me back for more.
2.00 Keith Vaughan:
His Journal was begun at the outbreak of World War II and, having registered as a Conscientious Objector he joined the St John Ambulance Corp., there would be no opportunity to continue ‘normal’ life as a painter. However, with his life no longer his own, there would be many periods of inactivity to pass in the company of others which he recorded in writing and with small drawings, it’s purpose was “therapeutic and consolatory” (2). His journal continued for 26years until his death in August 1965.
Influenced , as many artists of his time (and still are), by Pablo Picasso, with his simplicity of line and form, I in turn have been influenced by Vaughan’s manner of drawing. The quality of a portrait like this small study of a young man with the assured lines and solidity of form has been my inspiration to draw better:
“Study of a Student”, 1950, 20x28cm.
But it is his colour studies such as this one of figures in a landscape which point towards a semi-abstract style of painting:
“North African Scene”, 1965.
The figures are distilled down to simple, mainly rectangular, shapes and slabs of colour but also become part of the background such that you are unsure where reality begins and ends, an idea derived largely from Picasso’s Cubism.
We see that concept again in many of Vaughan’s studies for paintings like this one:
“Boy with a Jug”, 1949.
The boy merges with his background and is also overlaid by unspecified elements in front.
In this charcoal study for a painting the features of the figure are further simplified and have become somewhat unnatural making for a more dramatic graphic image:
In the following illustrations of some of his paintings made during the 1960’s he has pushed the figurative much further into the abstract and much closer to the paintings of Nicholas de Stael whose work I’m sure he would have been aware of:
“Three Figures in a Landscape”, 1960.
“Study for Lacoon” 1964.
But it is the paintings in which the figures are simplified into fairly amorphous shapes standing and sitting in coloured settings which I enjoy most and would like to emulate. I like very much the idea of seeing a painting initially from a distance as an abstract with the colours and large shapes attracting my attention and interest but, on approach and closer inspection recognising the figurative elements:
“Ninth Assembly”, 1976.
“Group of Dinkas”, 1963.
“Assembly of Figures VII”, 1964.
This painting in particular I find very satisfying with the figures grouped closely together making a single mass of light browns and blues set against a field of cobalt and violet. I can’t say what the curved element may be but like the way it curves round the figures like a hook to draw us in.
3.00 Nicholas de Stael.
During the 1950’s, a period of painting I particularly enjoy, de Stael, a Russian-born émigré to Paris, was making his own highly colourful semi-abstract landscape and figurative paintings. His style, however was more abstract than Keith Vaughan’s and carried out with his own heavily impasto’d manner in oils:
“Figures by the Sea”, 1952.
The figures are presumably lying on a beach mat and standing perhaps having a picnic by the seaside which can be seen as a patch of blue-grey, top left corner. The figures and surrounding objects have been simplified to rectangular shapes of strong colour laid over a dark background which has been allowed to show through at the edges. Their faces are only suggested by vertical coloured oblongs laid side-by-side.
“Figure”, 1954, 130x80.6cm.
In some respects it is obviously a standing figure with two legs and arms framing it’s own head. The face is a simple white oblong perhaps with dark hair each side of the head. Other elements of the figure have been given individual slabs of colour which seem to be breaking away in movement? I am very attracted to the bold colouring and the simplification of form.
“Parc de Princes”, 1952, also known as “Les Grand Footballeurs”.
This reminds me very much of a small acrylic painting I made for the OCA Painting 2 Course abstracting shapes and colours of footballers:
“Spot the Ball”, 2002.
De Staels “Footballeurs” are treated with the same slabs of impasto colour laid on with staccato directional effect set against a uniform black background base and close greens above which give the painting a strong and clear design.
4.00 William Scott.
Largely known for his still life paintings it is his figurative abstractions that I enjoy most. Like many artists he was a figure drawer of great ability and as with most abstract artists the starting point of life as an artist. And, as with all other artists especially of the 1940’s onwards, obviously influenced by Picasso.
Representational drawing is quickly left behind for the more stylistic interpretations giving his figures a more simplified form such as this painting of a young woman:
“Seated Girl”, 1937.
The figure of the girl with yellow blouse sitting on a chair in a red-walled room with darker red door is treated as a series of interlocking simplified shapes. The only details are patterns on the blouse and skirt and also the flowering plant. It has the feel of a Bonnard about it but you can see the beginnings of abstraction.
“Seated Nude”, 1940.
This later painting also shows how the figure is being flattened out into simpler shapes. Changes in colour values are still present indicating form but essentially the figure is becoming less realistic.
“Girl and a Birdcage”, 1947.
In this painting the figures of both the boy and the girl have been ‘flattened’ out and along with the background has become more like a graphic or poster design.
By the 1950’s Scott was treating his figures like his Still Lifes with exaggerated limbs - either elongated and thin or blocky and fat - necks are drawn out and hands and feet are barely without digits:
“Seated Girl”, 1954.
“Bending Figure”, 1956.
Another preparatory drawing in ink on paper, 63.5x48.2cm, for a painting with the girl bent over and her body looking like one of his own table-tops tilted up so that we can see the full flat surface.
This type of drawing would precede paintings such as this:
“Figure: Red and Black”, 1956.
The figure is massive and altered so much away from reality it has become a huge red canvas in itself, heavily marked and scratched with layers of colour, and blocking out the white chair she is sitting on. The background is a series of dark, nearing on black, rectangles with touches of red showing through.
Finally, in this painting the figure is laid out horizontally and if it wasn’t for the legs separated by a portion of the bed she is lying on it would hardly read as a figure at all:
“Reclining Nude”, 1956, 91.8x152.7cm.
While the drawings and paintings of Keith Vaughan may have set me off on this path of semi-abstraction I have been fortunate to find many others that work in much the same manner. And while most of these happen to have been active around the 1950’s and 60’s there are still painters around who follow, I believe, in the same footsteps. For example the work of Jacqueline Watt, Scottish contemporary painter and tutor for the OCA, has been a frequent source of inspiration any time I have been fortunate to see her work. I wish to be able to follow in her giant footsteps too.
1. “Keith Vaughan: Journal & Drawings, 1939 - 1965“, page 168.
2. Introductory preface, p7.
7.00 Selected Bibliography.
1. “Keith Vaughan: Journal & Drawings, 1939 - 1965“. Publ. Alan Ross London, 1966.
2. “William Scott”, by Norbert Lynton. Publ. Thames & Hudson, 2004.
3. “Roger Hilton: The Figured Language of Thought” by Andrew Lambirth. Publ. Thames & Hudson, 2007.