Posted in Exhibitions & Books, Research & Reflection

Visit to the National Gallery

It is strange, given I work in London and am on an Art Degree, that this was my first visit to the National Gallery. In visiting the Gallery I needed to focus, at least to a degree, and so I chose to consider primarily Landscape images. That didn’t restrict me too much, as there are large numbers of them in there, but it at least allowed me to have a meaningful approach.

I ended up going round the Gallery trying to find images that I found interesting. I then tended to look at them as a whole, look at their context in the gallery and then try to focus in on the details of the image. My intention was to compare and contrast the production of a range of images and styles in the hope of learning things to bring back to my own work. That is not to say I was looking to limit my work to copying of these works (though that might also be a useful exercise), but to draw on these pieces to inform my own working approach.

Even taking the approach I still viewed a massive number of images over the course of my visit. As with other visits I tried to record some of the work photographically:

Despite spending a few hours in the gallery I barely scratched the surface of the place. Despite the landscape focus there were other images that caught my eye.


I stated earlier that I “tended to look at them as a whole, look at their context in the gallery and then try to focus in on the details of the image. ” This seems worth illustrating at this point, as it is a relatively new approach for me in a gallery. Take for example the following image:

Still Life with flowers, Antoine Berjon (1754-1843), Oil on Canvas

The image isn’t one of the photographs taken in the gallery, but the result of processing the actual photograph to attempt to remove point of view distortions. I also recorded the gallery’s information about the painting, so that I have a record of what I was viewing. This information can, of course, be used to find out more about the image, especially the National Gallery Information.

In reality I took multiple photographs of this image to record and consider over time:

I also considered the lighting of the image in the gallery. Generally the paintings were not the focus point of the lights, and the lights were “cluster lights.” This they had direction and a centre, rather than a single focus point. The lights were above the painting and centred below and slightly to the right of the painting. This showed the painting off to good advantage.

Close examination of the brushwork of the painting, for example, was fascinating. The painting had a very light touch, with accuracy and delicacy clearly a primary consideration. Examine the water drop on the leaf and weave of the basket in the detail picture for evidence. This isn’t detail produced for the casual observer. The water drop, for example, is barely visible in the overall photograph. The viewer is clearly expected to view the painting and different ranges, rather than just take an overall impression`.

Note: On many of the images I have included links to the National Gallery information about the image. This web site often has zoomed into and scrolled around. When present this allows the overall image to be viewed as well as a very detail examination. On the still life with flowers, for example, it is possible to zoom so close that you can examine the cracks in the paint’s surface.

Reflection on discernment

As part of viewing the gallery I started to reflect on discernment in image viewing choice. To tour the gallery I necessarily needed to select what I viewed in any level of detail – even stopping in front of so many works for a few seconds would be impossible for every image in the gallery in any reasonable time.

This leads to a consideration of what is driving my selection and viewing. What is guiding my eye? How much work on value do I move on by from? Another day I am sure that I would have a different selection, but I’m not convinced that there is an over riding level of randomness it the selection process.

Mountain landscape with lightening, about 1675, Francisque Millet (1642-1679)

I was definitely looking mainly for landscape work, which I’ve already declared, but the analysis above and the next section demonstrate that this wasn’t an exclusive selection. I was also looking explicitly for a range of different styles – from Classical through to more modern and contemporary work. To a degree I’m also comparing and contrasting this with the previous visits to the British Museum and Tate Modern. Above any beyond this, however, I was more likely to select paintings with some striking elements – such as the colours in the flowers or a lightning flash.

J. W. M. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1838-9

Of course a famous painting or painter clearly draws the eye, but it is far from universal that I focus in on work by artists that I already recognise. This trip has, however, allowed me to reflect on the fact that the range of artists I know and can recognise has expanded significantly since starting this journey.

This brings me briefly back to the subject again: Has this expansion of knowledge and recognition also brought a significant change in what and how I view art? If so, and I think it is true, then is this a good thing? I am starting to view art somewhat more analytically. I don’t think I’ve lost the joy of the initial viewing, but is that spectre awaiting in my future? I’m hoping not, as I feel I would have lost something in the process.

Reflection on Visual Research

This visit, and those preceding it, have given me a large library of reference material to consider as part of Visual Research for the future. It also, however, needs to be placed into the context of how to link all of this back into my own work to really start to add value. I will be considering this and how best to approach it in the cycles of this last part of the course and beyond. I’m not planning to try to directly copy from the master works (though I could see value in that if time allowed|), but I do intend to active use this visual research library in influencing my own work. Lastly, the visits and the consideration of my approach to this last part give me a way to start to integrate “drawing as visual research” and “study as visual research”. This will, however, continue to develop well beyond this course.

Boilly and Parisian Life

There is currently an exhibition of Boilly’s work on Parisian Life. This includes drawings that I found fascinating – partly because it illustrates the “editing” process that my tutor has been mentioning. Compare the study of “Meeting of the Artists” to the final work:

I also got the opportunity to view up close some of his character drawings and figure work, which I really liked:

Light and Dark

One of my reflections following on from the British Museum trip was around the use of light and dark areas in the composition. This thinking continued with some of the scenes in the National Gallery. Close viewing of the lightening flash image mentioned earlier is interesting:

Mountain landscape with lightening, about 1675, Francisque Millet (1642-1679) – Unprocessed photo

The effect of having a darker overall composition so that sections can stand out as bright (the flash and mountains in the distance) is clear here. There are some more subtle adjustments as well though. The colour scheme near the mountains reflecting the flash has been adjusted over those not reflecting it as well as the brightness. This is, presumably, to reflect the colour of the light of the flash. The background mountains, in contrast, are a relatively pure white.

There is a similar set of considerations with the The Fighting Temeraire:

J. W. M. Turner, The Fighting Temeraire, 1838-9 – Unprocessed photo

Classical vs Modern and Contemporary Landscapes

In many ways Bernardo Bellotto’s ‘The Fortress of Königstein from the North’, typifies a classical landscape oil painting as far as I could see from my visit:

Bernardo Bellotto, ‘The Fortress of Königstein from the North’, about 1756–8 – Unprocessed photo

This image alone, however, doesn’t do it justice. It is worth taking a much closer look:

As mentioned for the still life, there is a level of detail and rendering that can’t be seen by looking at it overall. You can perceive the elements from a distance, but the people on the bottom right, for example, can only really be appreciated from close up. Similarly, the rendering of the rocks needs close attention to be fully appreciated.

Moving through the detail scale there is Van Gogh’s “Long Grass with Butterflies”:

Long Grass with Butterflies, 1890, Vincent van Gogh – Unprocessed image

… or Seurat’s “Le Bec du Hoc, Grandcamp”, 1885:

These images, and many more of the impressionist and related styles are more about the overall view than the detail. They sometimes rely on effects only visible at a distance to gain their effect. The Seurat is an especially good example of this, as close enough there is no real image – just a set of paint blobs. The paintings eschew the detailed rendering to gain a very different effect to viewing of a classical oil painting. The approaches and styles of the artists are also much more individual, with the painting partially being about the artist’s own expression and individuality.

These effects continue and strengthen as we approach contemporary art works:

The Forest at Fontainebleau, 1909, Henri Matisse – Unprocessed Image

Moving forward from here, however, is more in the consideration of the Tate Modern, and so I will park this for the moment..

Rendering the sea

One of the aspects of landscape that kept catching my eye was rendering of the sea – especially a stormy sea. Turner’s “Calais Pier” is a good example:

Calais Pier, 1803, Joseph Mallord William Turner – Unprocessed photo

Similar to clouds and trees, waves are incredibly complex and allow for a wide range of rendering approaches. Compare this to Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” or one of Maggi Hambling‘s wave pictures. The styles are very different but in all cases it is a feeling and concept of the sea which is being conveyed rather than a photo-realistic representation.

Final Reflections

This visit, especially in conjunction with those of the Tate Modern and British Museum, has given me a lot to think about and consider trying. Some of these are practical, such as the light/dark consideration. Other aspects of the visit is more esoteric: such as the Discernment and Visual Research discussions. The challenge now is to integrate all of this effectively back into the course and my artistic practice beyond.

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