Research Point – Ben Nicholson

Ben Nicholson Mousehole 1947

Born in to an artistic family in Denham, Buckinghamshire in 1894 Ben Nicholson was the son of artists William Nicholson and Mabel Pryde.  In 1896 the Nicholson family moved to London where Ben was educated at the Tyttenhangar Lodge Prepatory School in Seaford before becoming a boarder at the Gresham’s School for boys in Holt, Norfolk. Ben Nicholson began his training as an artist in London at the Slade School of art, where he studied from 1910 – 1911, then from 1912 to 1914 he travelled between France, Spain and Italy.

In 1920 Nicholson married is first wife, painter Winifred Roberts to whom he had three children, two sons, Jake and Andrew and a daughter Kate, who also became a painter. From 1923 Ben and Winifred split their time between England and Switzerland spending their winters in the southern Swiss town of Lugano and the rest of the year was divided between Cumberland, where they made their home for that decade and London While In London following an exhibition with his wife Winifred he was invited to join the 7 & 5 Society, he was made chairman of the society in 1926.

Nicholson’s early paintings were still-lifes influenced by the works of his father but then after his first solo show at the Twenty-one gallery he began experimenting with abstract painting influenced by Synthetic Cubism which he implied in all his works thereafter. His works throughout the 1920s were of deceptively simple table top still-life’s and landscapes painted in Switzerland, Cumberland and Cornwall, making his first visit there in 1928.

While visiting France in 1932 and 1933, Nicholson became familiar with the works of artists such as Hans Arp, Joan Miro, Piet Mondrian and Alexander Calder who had settled in Paris in the 1920s. Nicholson was successful in fusing the European trends into a new style that would become identified as his own.

He made these visits to Paris with Barbara Hepworth; Winifred and Ben were divorced in 1938 a break up that was brought on by his growing relationship with Wakefield born sculptor. Hepworth had kids to Nicholson in 1934, three triplets and after his divorce in 1938 she would become his second wife.

Together they moved to Cornwall in 1939 and in 1943 he joined the St. Ives society of artists. Following the Second World War Nicholson lost faith in the ‘utopian promise of geometric abstraction’ and resumed painting landscapes adding colour to his abstract reliefs to emphasize the fundamental unity between nature and abstraction. Hepworth and Nicholson were divorced in 1951.

Throughout the 1950s he achieved international recognition as an artist through a series of awards which included the first Guggenheim International Painting Prize in 1956 and the International Prize for Painting at the São Paulo Biennale in 1957. From 1954 – 1961 retrospective exhibitions of his work were held throughout Europe including shows at the Venice Biennale and Tate Gallery and in several cities in the USA in the 60’s and 70’s.

Nicholson married his third wife, German photographer Felicitas Vogler in 1957 and the two moved to Ticino in Switzerland in 1958 where he again began to concentrate on painted reliefs. In 1968 Queen Elizabeth awarded him the O.M. (Order of Merit) and in 1971 after the end of his third marriage he moved back to England where he died in London in 1982 at the age of 87.

Researching this Artist

I used many different websites researching this artist as the information I found was confusing and contradictory, with information differing from site to site and so I chose to gather information from the websites of establishments that I found out at shown his work, The British Council, Tate Gallery and the Guggenheim comparing the details with the biography

I have never heard of Ben Nicholson before although his second wife Barbara Hepworth is very familiar to coming from Wakefield I have seen her works in West Bretton (Yorkshire Sculpture Park). Since I have been living in Thailand they have opened the Hepworth Center in her name in my home town so it was interesting to read about their relationships, both personal and professional.

Although I have never heard of the artist by name before, I did recognise a few his works, including 1934 (Still Life – Birdie),  1933 (Study of a Head) and 1932 (Head and Mug in a Greek Landscape).

Ben Nicholson Mousehole 1947
Ben Nicholson Mousehole 1947

Why does he simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on a Cornish Landscape?

I think the answer to this lies in the above text where it says Nicholson ‘resumed painting landscapes and added colour to his abstract reliefs to show the fundamental unity between nature and abstraction’.  Which maybe reflected in what he said in a letter from Nicholson to Patrick Heron (9 February 1954) ‘All the “still lifes” are in fact land-sea-sky scapes to me.’


Detailed Observation – Check and Log

Exercise - Stipples and Dots, Finished Drawing

Which drawing media did you find most effective to use, for which effects?

For me I love pencils I’ve been developing my pencil skills more and more on this course and I have got to the stage where I am doing less and less smudging and more and more hatching using my pencil at different angles with different holding techniques. I really think I did well depicting the tone of the wood and especially the bark in the ‘Getting Tone and Depth in Detail‘ exercise. However I was very happy with my stippling with the Rotring drawing pen on the ‘Stipples and Dots’ exercise, not only being able to depict the tone of the leaf but also it’s texture.

What sort of Marks work well to create tone and texture?

I used a variety of hatching to depict the texture of the tree branch with sporadic hatching to depict the bark and fluid lines and hatching to show the stripped wood all these marks worked really well. I thought I had chosen the wrong type of subject for the stipples and dots exercise but I think I showed the texture of the object really well with dots and patterns of stipples to show creases in the dying leaf.

Did you enjoy capturing details or are you more at home creating big broad brush sketches?

I must admit that capturing details with stipples and dots was a bit tedious but I am delighted with the finished drawing and I really enjoyed working on the tree branch in the first exercise so I can probably say that I am more at home capturing details.

Look at the composition of the drawings you have done in this project. Make some sketches and notes about how you could improve your composition.

The composition and the angles of the subjects that I chose were thought about long and hard before embarking on these exercises, I feel I chose the best compositions that I could to not only capture the full beauty of the objects but to fill the paper.

Research Point B – 2 Contrasting Artists, Gustave Courbet

Gustave Courbet auto retrato

For this research point I was to find two artists who work in contrasting ways: from tight, rigorous work to a more sketchy style. For the artist who worked in a sketchy style I had already researched Egon Scheile in Part A so now it was time to find an artist who did more tight, rigorous work.

I was all ready to research a modern artist for this part of this research point and discovered Grant Wood while looking at Egon Schiele’s work, but then on a last minute search I found another artist that was just as new to me.

While searching for images  I came across a picture that I had seen many times and for some obvious reason I thought was a picture of Johnny Depp in one of his movie rolls. I was surprised to find out that it was a self-portrait called ‘A Desperate Man’ by an artist called Gustave Courbet, the father of realism and even more interesting the artist that first coined the phrase.

Born in Ornans, France to a wealthy family, Gustave Courbet went to Paris in 1841 with the intention of studying law but soon decided that he would study painting and did so by copying the paintings of the French, Flemish and Spanish masters in the Louvre.

His style was shaped near the start of his career when he chose direct his paintings to observed reality, among his early paintings were self portraits portraying himself in various roles he also painted seascapes, still-lifes and figurative compositions.

Courbet’s figurative work was somewhat controversial because he addressed social issues in his paintings portraying subjects that were considered vulgar at the time such as rural hierarchy, peasants and the poor working conditions of the underprivileged.

Courbet’s style became known as realism however instead of using perfect line and form in his paintings he dealt with realism with spontaneous brush strokes and a rough handling of paint achieving a sense of direct observation by the artist while depicting the inconsistency in nature.

Although Gustave Courbet and Egon Schiele are artists of two different movements living at two different times their lives are very similar in that they seem to demonstrate freedom of expression in their art by painting subjects that were pornographic or controversial at that time. The poses by Courbet’s nudes such as La Femme Aux Bas Blancs, (Woman with White Stockings), 1861 and The Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde) (1866) remind me very much of Schiele’s paintings; as though Schiele could have been influenced by the artist. Both artist’s also served time in prison.

I’m not particularly turned on by the works of the old masters and so there are a lot of Gustave’s paintings that I don’t find appealing, but there are two or three that I think are brilliant simply because I can imagine how sensational they were at that time being so ‘real’ when photography was still in it’s infancy. – The Origin of the World (L’Origine du monde) (1866)

Gustave Courbet auto retrato
Self-portrait (The Desperate Man), c. 1843–1845 (Private collection)
Gustave Courbet Autoportrait
The man with a pipe Self-portrait, 1848-49


Exercise – Stipples and Dots

Exercise: Stipples and Dots Finished

For this exercise I was to pick another interesting object and use A4 cartridge paper and a ballpoint or drawing pen. Then use a stippling effect, dots and and a variety of marks to create a drawing of depth and interest.

Exercise - Stipples and Dots, Finished Drawing
Exercise – Stipples and Dots, Finished Drawing

After my research on Eliot Hodgkin I took a walk through the very small park area opposite my school and took some photos of leaves with my mobile phone so I might use them later. When this exercise came up I went back into the park to grab some dying leaves to take home.

Exercise - Stipples and Dots, Leaf Subject
Exercise – Stipples and Dots, Leaf Subject

One particular leaf caught my eye as it had some great lines and at the time was half green half brown, so took many photos during the change from green and brown to completely brown and also tried the leaf at different angles, for my drawing I picked out the one above.

I can’t say that I love stippling as it is a very slow process and this exercise took me about three hours over two days to complete and since my first assignment was handed in quite slow I’m trying to keep up momentum.

I used a Rotring 0.3 drawing pen and began as I did with other exercises, drawing the light tones by spacing out the dots  and then going back over for the darker tones with more dots. I used a variety of mark making techniques which included stippling, dots, really short hatching and lines and for the creased patterns of the dying leaf I drew the dots in tracks close together and then went back over with more dots.

Exercise: Stipples and Dots Finished
Exercise: Stipples and Dots Finished

Research Point 2 Contrasting Artists A – Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele - Seated Woman with Bent Kneee 1917

For this research point I was to find drawings by two artists who work in contrasting ways: from tight, rigorous work to a more sketchy style.

I decided to research the artist who works in a sketchy style first.  While I have tried to find new artist so far in this module for this part of this research point I decided to research an artist I was already familiar with as when I saw the words ‘sketchy style’ he was the first artist that popped into my head and rightly so.

Austrian Expressionist painter Egon Schiele  was born in Tulin in 1890. His father Adolph Schiele was the station master at Tulin Railway station and as a child Egon was fascinated by trains and would spend many hours drawing them. It is said that his passion for drawing started at the early age of 1 and a half years old and this led his father to believe is son would become an engineer and so at eleven years old was sent off to attend a Realgymnasium 25 miles away from his home town. Due to lack of friends and lack of interest in his studies he was a poor student and was kept back two years. When his father died of syphilis in 1905 family problems made his situation worse and eventually was politely asked to leave school by his teachers

In 1906 he asked his mother and uncle to allow him to apply at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts and in the summer of that year, passed the tough entrance exam to became the youngest student ever to attend his class. Although he was passionate about art he showed a resistance to the strict regimen at the academy. As a brilliant draughtsman he would get through projects in minutes that would take other students in his class hours to complete but his early works were heavy handed and his soulless depictions of professional models did not amuse his tutors who simply gave him grades of ‘satisfactory.’

Schiele’s early work showed traits of Gustav Klimt and then in 1908 after a visit to a the large art show known as the ‘Kunstschau’ where a room full of the artists’ paintings were on show the influence of Klimt emerged full blown in Schiele’s paintings. He saw himself as the new Klimt and paraded round Vienna calling himself the ‘Silver’ Klimt and against the Academy’s authority accepted invitations to exhibit at the ‘Kunstschau’. In 1909 Schiele and a few of his like-minded class mates handed over a formal letter of protest to the academy expressing their disapproval at the academy’s rigid rules and withdrew themselves from the school.

By 1910 Egon Schiele’s unique expressionist style had gotten him many admirers including Gustav Klimt himself who bought several of his paintings and also offered to exchange some for his own. Klimt also introduced him to patrons and collectors and he thought that leaving the academy had turned out to be a wise career move but that wasn’t to be the case. Klimt was very vain and expected his works to be snapped up by the patrons who he had hoped would show him devotion but the truth was they didn’t find him the least bit cooperative and found his commissioned works, far too sexually explicit. Feeling let down he left Vienna for the countryside.

Egon Schiele led a short life dying at the early age of 28 of the Spanish flue in the epidemic that swept Europe in 1918 but his short life was somewhat controversial. At 21 years old he was imprisoned for seducing an underage girl and during his arrest the officials destroyed many of his drawings that were regarded at the time as pornographic due to the nature of his subjects. He spent a total of only 24 days in custody but during that time he a created a ‘series of 12 paintings depicting the difficulties and discomfort of being locked in a jail cell’ – Wikipedia.

His work was shaped by World War I during which he was drafted up and stationed in a Russian prisoner of war camp; however he still continued to paint and was even given a disused store room to be used as a studio where he painted captured Russian officers.

His style changed over the years  he was influenced by Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka and his early works from 1907 to 1909 resembled those of Klimt but in 1010 began experimenting with nudes and began developing his own unique style that we know today, pasty soulless doll like figures with strong overtones. Many view his works as pornographic, twisted or erotic depicting death, sex and discovery and yet I see his works as simply brilliant and way ahead of their time; paintings that have influenced so many artists since.

I first came across Schiele’s work in the music room at my secondary school, a poster of his ‘Self Portrait of Saint Sebastian’ but it wouldn’t be til many years later that i would find out the name of the artist or what the painting was called.

Egon Schiele - Self Portrait as Saint Sebastian
Egon Schiele – Self Portrait as Saint Sebastian

My favourite paintings by Schiele have got to be the Fighter 1913 and Seated Woman with Bent Knee 1917, although I have to admit I do love a nude or two of his which are simple, crude but very erotic.

Egon Schiele - Seated Woman with Bent Kneee 1917
Egon Schiele – Seated Woman with Bent Kneee 1917
Egon Schiele - Fighter, 1913
Egon Schiele – Fighter, 1913

I love the way he has clearly thought hard about the subjects (maybe a bit too hard from what we know of Schiele) and yet his paintings are no more than coloured sketches on a plain background, allowing him to show movement and even though some regard his subjects as being ‘soulless’ I don’t think they can be accused of being lifeless. I can see how it is easy to be influenced by an artist such as Schiele and I know that his paintings will come to mind in the ‘Drawing Figures’ part of this course.


Reinhard Steiner : Egon Scheile

Line Drawing Detail

Exercise - Line Drawing Detail Second Subject 2

For this exercise I was to select an object with interesting detail such as a sliced through red cabbage or a fir cone. Then on a sheet of A4 paper create a line drawing of the object that I set up, taking time and effort to really look at the patterning, thickness of line, texture and shape of the overall composition. The brief also said that I was to position the drawing well on the paper and fill the paper effectively with a continuous line drawing and no shading which is what I TRIED to do…

I made a few attempts at this with two different subjects, both of which were green peppers but in the Bangkok heat they go off pretty quick. With the first pepper every attempt was a continuous drawing with minimum detail, I used the thick nib of a double tipped felt pen and although the subject fit well on the paper, I didn’t give it a strong enough light source to pick up all the detail and too be honest the finished drawings at that line thickness all looked somewhat pathetic.

Exercise - Line Drawing Detail First Subject
Exercise – Line Drawing Detail First Subject

I gave it a week with another exercise in between before I had another go at this exercise. Visually the drawings with the second subject look a lot better, I used the finer nib of the felt pen and this time after I completed what I could do continuously without taking my pen off the paper I decided to add the detail which were the ribs on the inside of the pepper that I could see from wisely using a light source this time.

Exercise - Line Drawing Detail Second Subject 1
Exercise – Line Drawing Detail Second Subject – Image A

I probably did go a bit overboard and it does look like I have had a go at shading the object but this is all down to the closeness off the lines on the inside of the pepper. However I am quite happy with the results.

Exercise - Line Drawing Detail Second Subject 2
Exercise – Line Drawing Detail Second Subject – Image B

The thing that I am not happy with however is the positioning on the paper and how much space I left to the sides and underneath it. When drawing an object such as a pepper with a very irregular shape I think it’s best if you know where to start, in Image A above I started at the core just above the seeds. With Image B I started at the tip of the stem Starting near the center of the image was better with this object but that would differ with something like a cabbage.

Getting Tone and Depth in Detail

Getting Tine and Depth in Detail 2

In this exercise I was to practise building up dark medium and light tones principally using pencils and hatching and cross-hatching techniques. I was to select a single object such as a shell or piece of driftwood and get a varied effect by combining soft and medium grade pencils as well as altering the direction of the strokes I make. The brief also informed me that this exercise would be time consuming and indeed it was. I used a smooth sheet of A3 Canson paper and 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B pencils to complete this exercise as well as a putty rubber for the highlights which I used quite often to lighten strokes that were too dark as I made my way through my chosen subject. Living in Bangkok has it’s downfalls especially when taking a drawing course but I’m very lucky to have a small park with some very exotic trees in front of the primary school that I teach at. I found a small branch that had fallen or been broken off one of the trees a few weeks ago that reminded me of the hammers in Pink Floyd the Wall with patches of bark still on it and some really nice contours,  so I decided to use it for this exercise.

My subject for this drawing exercise, a tree branch
My subject for this drawing exercise, a tree branch

I started on the end that I knew would be the most difficult to try and reproduce with pencils, the tree bark, going over it first hatching with a 2B pencil then, 3B, 4B and 5B to get the darker tones. I know the brief said use hatching and cross-hatching on this exercise but I threw everything I had at it, including stippling, squirkling and dashes and I think I depicted the surface of the bark quite well. Unfortunately my photographic skills aren’t that great and the photo of the finished drawing is not as great as the drawing itself.

Getting Tine and Depth in Detail 1
Getting Tine and Depth in Detail 1

The area that I thought would be the most difficult was actually the easiest, to depict tone on the areas of stripped branch with soft bare wood was the most difficult, but one thing it did teach me was to be more fluid with my drawing and for the first time ever I loosened up.

Getting Tine and Depth in Detail 2
Getting Tine and Depth in Detail 2

I know there are flaws in the finished drawing, the shape is wrong in certain places and the shadow isn’t brilliant but there are parts of this drawing that I am really proud of namely the  bark area which reminds me of a ‘bio’ tattoo for some reason. In fact I think the finished piece reminds me of an anatomy drawing and while I was working on it I kept thinking of the Marco Evaristti drawings of parts of suicide victims that I saw during my first visit to the national gallery. Overall I think I did quite well in this exercise, my tutor told me I should be more fluid and I think I managed it while working on this exercise. However, one thing I do have a problem with is drawing the very dark tones on a textured surface such as this which is something I will have to work on.