Artist: Felicia Forte

I first saw this artist at the BP Portrait Award 2018 at the National Portrait Gallery this summer. I was struck by Forte’s technique of layering the paint (in gradually thick layers) onto the canvas. Leaving parts of the canvas quite bare, so early layers can be see, and to the right of the figure’s head – you can see a patch of the bare canvas.

This painting really stayed with me, hence why I want to look at a few of her pieces for this project.

Felicia Forte
Time Traveller, Matthew Napping, oil on canvas, 72″x72″

From the BP Portrait Award 2018 website:

Time Traveller, Matthew Napping finds Forte’s sweetheart Matthew DeJong asleep on a sweltering summer’s day in Detroit. Forte says she was struck by the beautiful contrasts in the scene – the ‘cool light from the window meeting intense red light from the bedside lamp and the loneliness of the sleeper amidst the festive colours.’ The portrait was the culmination of a body of new work made in residence summer 2017 at Redbull House of Art in Detroit.

I think it was the loneliness of the piece that made this painting so vivid in my memory. The saturated colours fit with a fuller-than-life image. But the reality is a lonely napping figure, and this contrast between colour palette and content makes for an intense portrait.

The size of the canvas makes the feeling of loneliness stronger because there is literally a lot of ’empty’ canvas surrounding the viewer. The fact that the room is abstracted and objects are reduced to blocks and gradients of colour really helps to capture this feeling of emptiness; if the objects were detailed and realistic, the figure would I think look more grounded in the image, and surrounded by objects that fill the space around him. This would mean the feeling of loneliness wouldn’t be nearly as strong?

Felicia Forte
Private Eye, oil on canvas, 36″x60″

This painting Private Eye is similar to Time Traveller, Matthew Napping. The difference is that the objects and the room surrounding the figure are more detailed, and of course the viewer is looking through a door frame into the bedroom, instead of being in the room with the figure.

I have looked closely at how doors/windows change the dynamic of a painting in the past, and my conclusions were they disconnect the viewer from the scene through the opening, and remind them of their distance from a scene. So a door/window can be used in a composition to detach the viewer from a scene and make them feel as if they are looking through into a private scene. I think this theory applies here. As the viewer we are peering into a quiet, personal moment.

It’s interesting what Forte says in her artists statement:

[I’m] searching for a moment when the least amount of detail meets the truth of my subject… In the essentialist space of my work there is room for others to experience their own reality.

You can see this intention in Forte’s work. The choice to leave the face featureless and not include any objects in the room that appear personal to the artist or subject.

This idea of allowing the viewer to apply their own narrative / emotion to the piece works really well, it’s something that has interested me in this project (referring to the Art as Therapy book), and why this painting made such an impression on me when I saw it  exhibited.

Most of Fortes work may draw on the same ideas, but have a very different subject matter:

The bottom painting of the lamp is worth including because one really gets a sense of the painterly quality of her work. You can see the way she layers colour. Was this lamp painting a ‘practice’ piece for the larger work I looked at above that included the same lamp and striped wallpaper?

That might be something to consider: painting pieces that focus on objects in the room before going in on a big canvas with the whole scene. This might help to work out composition and light before stitching it all together.

More on how this relates to my own work: 

There are a lot of parallels between Forte’s work and the intentions of my own. Aspects of her work such as the scale of the canvas, and the way she simplifies and abstracts the subjects are ideas that had already been forming in my mind, but are just strengthened with this example of an artist who is applying these ideas very successfully.

I want to make sure I am not too influenced by Forte, and my work draws too many parallels with her work! If that’s possible?! More experimenting will reveal that.

Life Drawing to Painting ex.3+4

With these next experiments I wanted to try painting from drawings of new mediums and experiment more with painting more instinctually.


Charcoal drawing from life, 20 mins.

I picked this drawing because of the tonal detail I made and the notes of colour written on the body, making a pretty comprehensive drawing to paint from. By chance, I also liked the way the body faced away from space on the right of the paper and so chose to keep that in the composition of the painting.


What worked well 

I used a palette knife to apply a light blue layer at the end to the background. I chose blue because its opposite the warm orangy-nudes on the colour wheel and I wanted to see what that looked like. Using a palette knife meant the underpainting still shows through which works well to add depth to the piece. This is a similar technique to one Denis Sarazhin with his backgrounds and I can now see why it works well. It directs the eyes towards the body and provides a contrasting texture to the brushstrokes.

The way the face is cut off at the nose. The viewer is given no clues as to the emotion of the person since they cannot read their eyes. So again, the viewer has to read the body to find narrative.

What didn’t work 

The pose of the man: Not dynamic, doesn’t provide a narrative. Too much of a life drawing pose for the piece to be anything more than a technical experiment.


Oil pastel sketch from life.

This drawing is very successful in it’s right. Since the eyes are shown in the piece our direction is focused on the expression, and the rest of the body just supports the narrative of the face – the slumping of the shoulders.

The vibrant colours and texture of oil pastels made me question whether this piece could be translated in to something any better.


What worked well

Cool, dark brown palette knife background. Contrasting texture and silhouettes the figure well.

Brush size and colour palette.

Less focus on face since I reduced the contrast of the his features so move the focus to the body. This works well for the purpose of these experiments – to capture narrative with the body.

What didn’t work 

If the body filled less of the paper? And there was more black? Just an idea. But the figure takes up most of the paper, which makes the piece very painterly, but a nice narrative could work if this figure was placed amongst more dark space or an interior.

Overall and what next?

I now want to branch into painting from sketches with more intention than just technique. I want my next drawings to be of people in bed, so that I can start applying what I have learnt with these paintings to my concept for this body of work.

From Life Drawing to Painting ex.1+2


These experiments are a technical investigation into painting from sketches made from life. I had never done it before so I wanted to see how I would lay the paint down, what colours I would use with the information I had, and what the final result would be.

I used a thinned underpainting of Burnt Umber to plot the shapes, angles and shadows.


For this first experiment, the drawing included notes that I had made with the drawing that described the colours to use.

When painting, it created a feeling of paint by numbers kind of, that I had not experienced to this extreme before. It was a matter of mixing the colours I described, and filling in the areas I had plotted.


The end result is made up of quite intense colour and the texture is very painterly, so there is an emphasis on tone.

What works 

The piece functions well as an observational painting. There is no real emotion to the piece, since the face is not included of the sitter, and so the viewer has to search for any meaning / emotion in the body language. Which in this piece, is difficult to find.

The washed out painerly marks that suggest a chair fit with the mood of the piece; that this body is kind of floating? Emotionally and possibly physically – removed from any context.

What doesn’t work 

What I’ve said above makes the piece interesting in itself, but doesn’t fulfil the greater intentions I am trying to achieve with my work. I don’t know how to change that for the better yet though.

The sketch I chose for this second painting has far less detail and information for me to use when making the painting. This meant I followed my instinct more, meaning the piece is less accurate to the pose I originally sketched, but maybe better as a painting?


What worked

I knew straight away I wanted to make the background dark for this piece. Inspired by the ink pen strokes I had done in the background which works with the verticle composition of the piece. This dark background brings out the colours and light in the paint, and makes a more striking piece than the first experiment I think.

The composition is also better than the first piece. Cutting the face off higher up means more critical information is given to the viewer, which in this case is the sloping of the shoulders and the face stuck forward and away. Without these information, the person would carry less character and so the piece would have less narrative to be found.

Maybe it does work? 

I had no information on the colour for this piece, and very general information on tone. Therefore the shapes I made and the colours I used are more made up than before. Making the finished piece look less together, and more like the silhouette of a body with shapes contained within it that sometimes verge on abstraction. This idea is quite interesting, something I wasn’t expecting a perhaps something I could play with more.

Overall – comparing the two experiments

The first experiment I did looks far more complete. Because the colours and the shapes that make up the body make sense. However there is something more intriguing about the second experiment. These are the reasons why I think the second experiment works better:

  • Composition
    • Angle and part of body chosen provides more character and narrative.
  • Dark background
    • Brings out skin colours.
  • Shapes and tone of body more abstract.

Instead of the first experiment:

  • Composition
    • Interesting shape to study but no character or narrative (since face and shoulders are important if hands etc are doing nothing?)
  • Light background
    • Doesn’t bring out colours
    • (Washy chair works really well – there is colour and form)
    • Texture hard to see
    • White is too harsh
  • Shapes and tone very predictable – too predictable?

Moving Forward 

More experiments!!

Using what I now know and what I want to explore more:

  • No white background – maybe underpainting coming through if white background wants to be used.
  • Play with following nose more. Improvisation and less painting by numbers may bring more interesting result.

Artist research: This idea of abstraction and following my nose can be explored with an artist – Felicia Forte. See where that takes me.

Artist: Denis Sarazhin

Contemporary artist, born in Ukraine, 1982.

Initial thoughts about Sarazhin’s work.

  • chiaroscuro – more recent work
  • interlaced bodies
  • portraits
  • placed figures
  • reminds me of people sleeping – the awkward angles their bodies are in

Screen Shot 2018-10-18 at 13.48.52.png
Oil on Canvas
24 × 24 in; 61 × 61 cm

Image result for denis sarazhin Pantomime 10
Pantomime 10 

In the garden
In The Garden

It is hard to describe the way I interact with these paintings, because the mood Sarazhin has captured is not tangible; by this I mean that the completed painting holds more meaning than the sum of the physical paint and canvas. The painting has an essence? I want to create an essence in my work.

But talking more specifically, I have picked these three paintings to include here to highlight that the people in Sarazhin’s paintings always seem unaware that anyone is ‘watching’ – be that painter or viewer. The subjects seem absorbed in their own world, mentally a world away and also physically preoccupied – contorting their bodies in shapes that remind me of people sleeping, or moving with un-intention.

In Sarazhin’s more recent work like Awaken and Pantomime 10 there is also sharp contrast between the highlights and shadows. Whilst researching who Sarazhin is influenced by I could see there were artists current and historical who used chiaroscuro in their work. This technique combined with fresh and vibrant colours creates a fleshy, impactful show.

The faces in Sarazhin’s work tends to direct the viewer towards the body and away from the face. He does this by having the face/body face away from the viewer, or having hands/arms covering the face. This means the figures never make eye contact with the viewer, they are always looking elsewhere.

Reading the face is an instinctual way of reading someone, so when Sarazhin doesn’t allow this, the viewer has to look to the body to discover the meaning and emotion of the piece.

An article by D.S. Graham and Harriet Lloyd-Smith explores this idea further:

we feel the sensuality of the body, but also disgust at the over-attention thus paid to the flesh…It’s a profound reflection on our own physicality. More importantly, however, it’s a reflection on contemporary human relations. How do you approach a Sarazhin painting? How do you struggle without their Faces? How do you struggle without Language?

In an interview with Sarazhin, when asked about the importance of hands in his work he states:

Hands are a very important part of the human body. They are taking part in the expression of emotions and feelings. This is one of the ways of non-verbal communication… So when I’m depicting hands I set a task, not only to display correctly and truthfully, but also try to express by them a certain emotional and nonverbal value.

So without language, Sarazhin uses the body to communicate. Evident in his more recent body of work named ‘Pantomime’:

Pantomime – the kind of performing arts, in which the primary means of creating an artistic image is the human body and action without words as a means of expression.

How does this impact my practice? 

After looking at Sarazhin, I have a clearer idea of how I can communicate a feeling of intimacy, open / closed emotions, physicality – using the body:-

  • positioning the body
  • how I paint the body – brushstrokes, colour
  • the balance between focus on the face and focus on the body – covering the face focusses attention on the body.

Looking at Sarazhin has helped me to explore how the mood of a piece can be captured with practical technique.

Visual Mindmap


These are a collection of artists that I have been drawn to over the course of summer. Unintentionally, there are themes that can be seen in this collection of artists and artworks:

Content of the paintings 

  • People and the positioning of bodies is a key theme.
  • Tender interactions between people OR tender paintings of single people.

Atmosphere, mood, emotion contained in the paintings

  • Colour – muted tones, colourful tones, cool palette, warm palette, how the colour of the body interacts with the rest of the composition e.g. furniture/room/abstract background.
  • Feelings of care, intimacy, physicality, openness and internalisation.

I think the reason the themes deal with intimacy is because of my personal experiences currently and over the past few months. Experiencing the end of a relationship meant the way I interact with other people on a daily basis changed – from living intimately with someone, to having that suddenly not there. Perhaps I have been drawn to these paintings as a form of therapy for myself (referencing my last post)?

Regardless of this however, I am drawn to these paintings and want to experiment with these ideas of personal intimacy in my own work. Painting will form the starting point for this idea since the language of painting is one I am familiar with but never for a concept quite so personal to me, so it should be new. I think sculpture would be an interesting material to work with for this theme at some point as well – it could let me explore the shapes and composition of bodies with a more hands on approach.

What now? 

Currently I have intentions but no technique for achieving those intentions. So I need to start experimenting and studying technique, and make that the focus of my attention for now.

I am going to choose one (or maybe two?) artist(s) to look at in more detail and also go to a life drawing class. This will give me some material to work from and start painting with. And what is my intention? To start developing a technique that allows me to capture a feeling of tenderness, internal/external emotion, physicality. For now with just one person in the portrait, I want to start simple!

I like the idea of painting from sketches, where previously I have worked from life only or from photographs. Perhaps I could research painting from sketches as well.

A book I read: Art as Therapy by Alain de Botton and John Armstrong

Image result for art as therapyI read this book over summer and it has really made an impact on the way I view the purpose of art in culture and society. The book is relevant to my practice because it made me think about the purpose of my work. This includes:

  • how the context of my work is interpreted
  • what the content on my work is
  • how I choose to display the work – where and how
  • the writing (if any) I choose to accompany a work

One big argument in the book was that artworks can make people feel understood. Whether that is a photograph capturing a troubled marriage, a sculptural piece that oddly describes what grief feels like. Or a painting made hundreds of years ago, given a new meaning with writing beside it that highlights the mother, son bond in a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. All of these examples detailed in the book show how works of art that touch on personal experiences can make the viewer feel less alone, or part of a wider network of people experiencing the same. This is a form of therapy! And I want to explore how I can use these themes of understanding for the viewer in my own work.

But what about therapy for the artist – me – as well? Can it be a form of therapy for both the artist and the viewer?