The idea of still life seems really anachronistic now, I don’t think I’ve set one up for years, but it used to be a central plank of visual learning. There were two main issues we used to deal with. On the one hand there were concepts related to the types of things available to make images from and on the other hand it was a controlled situation whereby you could explore how to approach image making itself.
If we wanted to as employees of Leeds City Council Education Department we could borrow objects from the Leeds Schools Art Loan Service. They had a large ground floor storage facility behind the Leeds City Art Gallery, this service was when I first used it headed up by John Robb-Webb. He would mysteriously on Frank Lisle’s retirement then be made our new principal and the Art Loans Service would follow him and be relocated in the basement of our Rossington Street building. I used to use the service for my classes at the Swarthmore centre, the centre wasn’t far away and I could borrow things in the morning and take them back once classes finished in the afternoon. In particular you could borrow full skeletons, actual ones not the plastic surrogates you get now, bones browning with age, wired together and attached by a hook to a stand on wheels. The walk to the Swarthmore took me past the back of the Leeds General Infirmary, you might find me many a morning and afternoon wheeling my bony companions to and fro in full view of patients looking out from the wards to the amusement or horror of passersby.
Once this service had relocated into the Rossington Street basement the foundation course started using it more often. In particular to build elaborate still lives. Students would often be employed to help with the building of these situations and of course different staff would have different views as to how these should be set up and what for.
Colin would often choose objects for their geometric potential. Selecting objects as cones, cuboids, cylinders or spheres, not really too bothered that one object would be a Nigerian drum another an Edwardian lamp, an old leather football or a Japanese box. Students would be asked to help him draw out a geometric floor grid with proportions based on the selected objects. The intersections of this grid with the objects being very important and these would be linked to the students having to check sight-lines and horizon lines, vanishing points etc before actually starting drawing.
Geometry in perspective would be the actual subject matter of this type of still life.
These drawing sessions implied a Platonic idea of universals, everything could be reduced to geometric solids and there were clear mathematical principles as to how these objects could be described using perspective.
Gavin’s approach would be more to do with his desire to introduce students to new things. He always carried a duffel bag with him. It wasn’t used just to hold bottles of the latest beer he had found, although this was an important aspect of Gavin’s life and if you went to his house it was stacked with beer bottles of all shapes, sizes and dates, masses of them covering the floors. He would also go on a regular basis to Leeds market. He would look for any new fruit or vegetable coming in and buy one. I remember him one day bringing in a brown paper bag full of kumquats. He had brought them in to show his tutorial group, he would demonstrate how to eat them, skin and all, the rind being sweeter than the juicy centre. As long as the ‘bank’ wasn’t open yet, he would wonder the studios with these vegetable finds, getting students (and myself as he had quickly guessed that I was as culinary uneducated as the foundation lads and lasses in those days) to taste them. The British Isles had been cut off from the rest of the world during the second world war and fruits and vegetables from exotic locations were only now (mid 1970s) starting to arrive in the shops in any quantity. Markets were places where strange fruits often came into a city for the first time, in particular because many of the immigrant families who wanted these additions to their diet would shop there. This interest in the exotic would also have Gavin enthusing about different fish or squid now available. He would take students down to the fish market to show them a particular red gurnard or cuttlefish that had become available. These things would also be something to wonder at, new forms to explore and colour combinations to use. It might mean a smell of rotting fish because it took several days to mix colour and get an understanding of what was being looked at but it was well worth it. These still lives were used to develop an intense look at colour form. Usually painted in oil, (I also ran some sessions where we used watercolour to work from squid), these still lives would be dense fought over mixes of paint. Zurbaran, Chardin and Soutine were looked at as examples of painters who had made realities from their direct confrontation with simple basic foods, but Cezanne would be the hidden ingredient. The struggle to recreate the moment of looking was seen as key to this. Life would be recreated on paper if the eye could sense the excitement in the initial looking, hence Gavin’s need to find new objects of desire. I had a feeling he was a frustrated Gauguin, the nearest he could get to the exotic being these market found imports .
This was all about recreating the excitement on seeing something new.
Small piles of fruit were always to be seen being painted once we had broken down intodifferent areas after Christmas. Often these would be set up within the L of a chair back and seat. The issue being that the scan of looking that went from the front edge of the seat to the top edge of the chair back encompassed a spatial transition from close to far and back again and the round solids of coloured fruit contained the mass energy that would have to be reconstituted in paint. They might as well be landscapes and one essential issue was scale. Patrick would hold sway over these situations. From mass to paint energy, from three-dimensional scanning, to two-dimensional syncopated rhythm. Poetry would be brought in via Wallace Stevens, “the colour like a thought that grows”, out of the colour mood would come a battle between the living and the inorganic, man and nature, where the only constant is time and paint the poetry of looking.These still lives were used for an exploration of the compaction of mass and space into painted surface and colour.Another approach to still life was based on the text, ‘On the Nature of Things’ by Lucretius. This involved a full day’s drawing that had a still-life setup as the subject matter and would be led by myself.
A situation was set up by each student, usually on a table-top or similar, (a drawing board on a stool might be used as a table). A small group of objects that included both straight flat surfaces and curves would be set up. No more than three or four objects.
Students would have been looking at measurement (26 Sept post) and spatial awareness and may well have participated in the ‘rain’ drawing session. (24th Oct post)
Before starting to draw there would be a discussion as to the nature of surfaces at an atomic scale. Lucretius would be invoked as a poet who through the use of poetic images led us towards an understanding of scientific principles. The objects set up ready to draw would be seen as vibrating compound bodies containing atoms of different types. Atoms moving through space create an infinite number of bodies, they are constantly in motion, and tend to (as Lucretius states), move downwards. The surfaces of these objects would then be described as surfaces of vibrating atoms, some of these atoms on liberation being eventually intercepted by the eye, vision being produced by the impact on the eyes of these atom formed images. However large distances between objects and the eye meant more air for atoms to pass through and this of course whittled the images down, thus explaining perspective and the fact that objects appeared smaller the further they were away. Spin and angle of trajectory would be discussed, hypothetical directions of photon bounce indicated and a reminder given of the 8 ball morning drawing. (6th Oct post) Object angle relationships between each other changed as you moved your head, this it was argued could be seen as part of the gravitational attraction.
Finally students would be asked to draw the situation. They could only use marks and lines moving through space, could not draw around edges of objects, but could change mark energy or direction when a surface was found or bumped into by a line/mark/photon/vibration.
In a good drawing gradually a mass of moving lines and rubbed out marks accrued across the surface and a vibrating mass slowly started to emerge, in other not so good drawings the concept was one step too far and students just concentrated on measurement.
These still lives were used for an exploration of a poet’s scientific understanding of looking.
In many ways this was illustrational and looking back it was perhaps a much too prescribed situation for any real invention to take place.
Because we had areas of the course heading towards different disciplines still life would also be used as a stimulus for pattern or decorative motifs for textiles students. Kate Russell
(this now feels quite sexist) as the only designer on the staff, would set up large displays of
textiles, decorative objects and coloured cloths, students working from sections of these
displays to develop design ideas and supportive drawing and colour investigation for their
What I find interesting looking back was that only within the design area was an object’s cultural understanding being considered as a meaningful subject. It felt as if in fine art (1970s)
everything could be translated into formal issues and that there was a universal visual
language based on looking that was fundamental. Kate as the only woman member of staff
and the only design specialist would be fundamental to a shift in opinions, not least because of her involvement with the development of feminist politics and her awareness of Griselda
Pollock’s growing influence over at the University of Leeds. What was at one time accepted as a principle would eventually be read as doctrine. (Formalist thinking)
Of course within the complementary studies area these issues were already being discussedbut as yet they had not really invaded the studio floor.