Why Micheal Borremans in my favourite Contemporary Painter

If you follow me on Instagram you might have seen that I have recently bought Micheal Borremans book titled “Micheal Borremans As sweet as it gets” to continue fuelling my obsession with him and his work. Borremans has just started to gain some proper acknowledgment, and to continue this momentum, I decided to dedicate a blog to him and how he has influenced my  own work.

Micheal Borremans was born in 1963, Geraardsbergen, Belgium, acquiring his M.F.A in 1996 from Hogeschool voor Wetenschap en Kunst located in Ghent, Belgium, where he worked as a teacher for a couple of years and is now currently living and producing his work (Artnet, n.d.). Borremans is mostly known for his paintings and their unusual and unsettling content that makes one ask more questions, rather than being provided with the answers.  He places his characters within a theatrical aesthetic, where they have been captured during a crucial point in their story, which seems more surreal but grounded to the laws of reality.

I was introduced to Micheal Borremans by the same lecturer that introduced me to oil painting around two years ago, from then on I continued to follow him and his work. In fact Borremans is the reason why I became so interested in the concept of ambiguity and how the element of the uncertainty can completely change the physical boundaries of a painting. What I mean by this is, a painting of a realistic nature, can only capture a specific moment in time within the physical boundaries of the canvas, but the element of ambiguity removes those boundaries through the fact that there is something that has happened before or after what you are allowed to see, a story that goes beyond that captured moment which can only be completed by you, the viewer. The genius of Borremans is that he has effortlessly harmonized ambiguity to a realistic style of traditional painting which in some regards is considered to be dead, bringing it back to life and in the Contemporary Art Scene once again.

Below is one of my favourite paintings by the artist titled “The Preservation”,  one can identify that a puzzling action has been paused in time, an action which I find to create a tense ambiance. I find the idea of putting, what seems to be, a plastic bag over someones head a bit alarming,  as my perception immediately identifies the dangers associated with such an action. Then again the woman seems to be calm….. Her head is down and her eyes are closed, rather than being frightened she’s sitting still, rather submissive. I can’t help but ask who is the other person? And why is she or he placing such an object on her head? Is it to harm her?, or to help her? What has happened before that lead to this, and what is going to happen after the action is done? What is being preserved? Is it her hair?  Maybe her head?

As I mentioned before, putting a plastic “bag” on someone head can create quite a few bad connotations. Just by adding an unusual element Borremans manages to create a sense of tension which lures you in and makes you ask questions which might never be answered, or perhaps be answered by all of us who have been enchanted with its mystery. Let’s not forget to pay attention to the incredible level of skill the artist has using oil paint with such fluidity yet conciseness, the skin is rich and fleshy, detailed and loose.

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Micheal Borremans, 2001 (image Online). The Preservation. [Oils on canvas].

The painting below titled “The Devil’s Dress” is more recent dating back to 2011. Between the two images one can see the evolution of Borremans painting technique. His brush work is still very fluid, but has become more solid and informed. The content is still unique and makes you raise an eyebrow from inquisitiveness, why is this man lying on the ground? And why is he laying within a cardboard box? Or if asking so many questions is not your cup of tea and you simply accept things as they are visually, appreciating Micheal Borremans refreshing paintings.

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Micheal Borremans, 2011 (image Online). The Devil’s Dress. [Oils on canvas]

 

Bibliography:

Ben Quilty and his view on masculinity

Ben Quilty is an Australian contemporary Artist, at the height of his artistic career, having over 30 solo exhibitions in Australia and overseas as well as being the winner of various prizes such as, The Doug Moran Prize in 2009, the Archibald Prize in 2011 and the Redlands Westpac Art in 2012.  Quilty can be considered as one of the artists who explores the concept of masculinity in relation to “rituals” that best display the characteristics of male rebellion and anxiety. Quilty’s  work is usually autobiographical, often recalling his teenage years, full of no sense of authority, boldness, restlessness, spontaneity, pleasure seeking, alcohol, drugs, cars and recklessness, and he uses such events to explore how we define what is being a man, and how boys become men (Caddey, n.d, p.7).

In the painting “Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)”, 2007, the artist depicts himself heavily drunk after a whole night of drinking (Caddey, n.d, p.8). The paint is thick and heavy, composed of patches of dull colours that make up a blurry representation, portraying through medium the mood of being heavily intoxicated. The artist states “it’s a comment, about reckless masculinity rather than a celebration of drunkenness” which acknowledges the fact that he’s aware of how the idea of masculinity has affected him personally, which might be the reason why he heavily drinks. The artist then follows by stating “It’s me as a willing participant in the mayhem that is modern man, it’s quite critical the statement I’m making. I want people to see the vulnerability” acknowledging the fact that he’s consciously taking part in activities that make man today, himself included, chaotic, showing the viewer the state of vulnerability that ensues (Caddey, n.d, p.8).

hjk Ben Quilty, 2007, Self-Portrait Dead (Over the Hills and Far Away)

Quilty also tackles the aspect of guidance, or rather the lack of.  Teenage boys acquire from boyhood to manhood, in white Australian culture, “rites of passage”, such as getting legally drunk on their eighteenth birthday, which symbolize some kind of passage from boyhood to manhood. In the “Crash painting series” the artist choose to represent, with his bold application of paint, this issue the iconic powerful cars of the 1970s such as the Torana and the Falcon, cars that “reeked of rebellion”, as a metaphor for the idea of masculinity which consists of strength, power, swiftness and intimidation. In this series Quilty depicts the powerful cars after they all had crashed, to intentionally send a visual message that masculinity is just as vulnerable to self-destruction, such as the high injuries and death rates in males caused by reckless behaviors encouraged by this idea of masculinity (Caddey, n.d, p.9).

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 1.

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Ben Quilty, 2012, Crash painting 2

Bibliography: 

Books that a painter must have

Ok, maybe the title of this blog sounds a bit dramatic but I wanted to share with you 5 books I have recently purchased in relation to contemporary painters and their work that I believe a practicing painter must have. As one of my Lecturers once told me; “An Artist is always good to be aware and connected to what is happening around you and in the International Art Scene”.

Vitamin P Series:

I’m going to start this list with my absolute favorite, the Vitamin P series, published by Phaidon Press Ltd. Currently the series is composed of three books, Vitamin P, Vitamin P2 and Vitamin P3: New Perspectives together covering a large number of International Painters and their works since 2007.

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What’s great about this series is the fact that each book compiles the latest Artist who have gained recognition and impacted the Art Scene in previous years of the publication. In turn this allows you to recognise what themes and painting style are currently doing well in the art market. As a figurative painter, I can always get an indication how well figurative painting is doing within the art market from these books. Another reason, which I consider more important, is that you’ll have a vast amount of inspirational material that might benefit your practice. As artist tend to live in their own bubble, which can result suffocating for our works, sometimes a simple external source of inspiration can allow your work to breath and develop. These books are not designed to be carried around as there quite large and heavy, but this allows the book to have good detailed images accompanied by their title, medium and size. The information about the Artist is always placed on the left side of the first page, in the form of a column, usually the information ranging from biographical to how the artist’s work and what theme they tackle in their work.

Picturing People and Painting People:

If you love figurative paintings like myself, then these are the books for you. The two books, Picturing People and Painting People are both written by Charolotte Mullins and are published by Thames & Hudson.

Although both books are by the same Author and Publisher there is a difference between them. Picturing People, which is my absolute favourite, is not reserved to only paintings, even if the majority of works featured are, but has a combination of figurate works in various mediums such as photography, watercolours and mix media. This book is very recent, first published in 2015, so it features a large number of the latest Contemporary Figurative Artists divided into 5 sub-headings. With a fresh clean look, the book’s cover itself is beautiful enough to buy. Inside you’ll fine around 200 well detailed illustrations followed by a title, medium and size. Each Artist is introduced with information about how they work and what themes they tackle.  At the back of the book you can also find the biographical details of each Artist.

The other book titled Painting People follows a similar format but only featuring figurative paintings. The featured Artists are also divided between a total of 5 sub-headings, along with large detailed images of their work, with the title, medium and scale. Information about the Artist is also added, again mostly reflecting on their subject matter. At the back of the book you can also find a short biography of all the featured Artists.

A thing or two I know about oil Painting Part 2: Techniques

In the previous blog titled “A thing or two I know about Painting Part 1: Materials” I wanted to start off the two parts blog with materials. The reason why is simple, how can I explain how to use a material without explaining what that material is, so If you haven’t checked Part 1 yet, I would suggest you go give it a read so that this blog would make more sense. As stated in the Part 1, I will be explaining certain things in the way that work best for me and might not work for you so treat this blog as a basic foundation to start experimenting with oil paint.

Preparing your Canvas:

I’m going to start from the very basics which looks at the techniques you need to know in order to make your own canvas, unless you want to buy a readymade one. The first thing you need is unprimed fabric which can range from canvas, linen, cotton etc.. but for the time being let’s stick to canvas. Unprimed canvas is light brown in colour and can come in different weaves, as can be seen from the image below. This will affect the surface of your canvas, for example the canvas on the right would give you a more textured surface, while the fabric on the left will give you a smoother one once its primed.

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What does primed mean? Basically a primed canvas mean a canvas, made from any fabric which has been coated with “Gesso”. Gesso is a white medium that has the consistency of a thicker matte enamel paint, which Winsor and Newton sells in tubs or in buckets as shown in the image below. When priming you fabric with “Gesso” it acts as a protective and non-absorbent coat for you to paint on.d4208897040f06b4d4c75633110eba29You can prime your chosen fabric after or before stretching it,  (I’ll explain what that is further on), but there is a specific way of applying “Gesso” and how to get the best coverage. You start by preparing a container with a mixture of “Gesso” and a little water to make more fluid and a large smooth brush. You start by applying the first layer in one direction, let it dry, and then sand it with fine sand paper to completely get a nice and smooth surface. The next layer will be applied in the opposite direction, let dry and once again sand it with fine sand paper. Repeat this process for about 6 to 7 times, depending how smooth you want you surface to be. To get a better idea of what I’m talking about I have attached an image below showing the difference between a primed (left) and unprimed (right) fabric.

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Stretching your canvas, No I’m not talking about the stretching you do before you do some exercise….or whatever those people do…I wouldn’t know. Stretching your canvas means applying the fabric over a wooden frame, which can be done by a carpenter unless you’re handy with building stuff from wood. Instead of confusing you with a long paragraph, I decided to add a YouTube video that explains how to properly stretch your canvas, as a step like this is better explained visually.

Under-painting, Grisaille and Layers:

You can apply oil paints in several ways, but the traditional way is by applying several layers on top of each other following the rule of “fat over lean”, which basically means that with each layer, you apply the paint thicker than the previous one. This is an important rule, as if you apply a thin later over a fat one, you risk getting cracks in your paint…and trust me….you really don’t want that to happen. The steps I take when I paint in this manner, are very similar to the order shown below. I always start by drawing my composition beforehand, as I personally find it better to apply your composition by drawing, as it allows you to really put in certain fine details if you want. I usually use a 2B pencil, but be warned,  you’ll have to sharpen it constantly and it can leave a lot of dust on your surface, so after you drawn your image I would advise to give the canvas a good dusting with a large brush. The second step is called an “under painting”, it is the very first layer of paint you’ll apply which will act as the foundation for your tonal value,  and even if the under painting is the very first layer, it will add depth to you painting. Traditionally the under painting is done by using only burnt umber applied as a thin layer, do not add white but rather thin your paint with turpentine to create your tonal range. It’s not the first time I let the first layer dry and then continue painting it, I do this because it becomes easier for the paint to have something to “stick” to and becomes more easy to control. The third layer, which you can actually considered optional, is called the “Grisaille”, which is completely made out of tones and tints of grey, basically monochrome. I never actually included this purpose in my paintings as I find its purpose debatable, but it usually also adds more depth to your painting, as after all you are adding the first layer after the under-painting.

Colour matching:

As you now have a brief idea of how layers work when painting in oils, it’s time to start adding colour, but before you do I would suggest you do this process, called colour matching.  In simple terms this basically means mixing all of the colours you will need before you start painting. The way I work is this, I prepare two large pieces of glass, one to mix the colours on, and the other one as my actual palette to put the finished mix colour on. Now let’s say you are working from an image of a human figure, what you need to do is identify each individual colour. When I first did this I was advised by my tutor to contour each colour I saw so that I don’t get confused, so if you are a beginner I would suggest you do the same until your brain starts to do it automatically…….this takes a bit of practice. The second part of this process is to actually start mixing your paint to achieve this, as its quite a difficult process to explain in words, I have attached below a video that explains very well how to mix flesh tones and tints;

Remember I mentioned a layer called “Grisaille”? Ideally you also prepare your monochrome palette beforehand by creating what is called a value scale. This scale is composed of 9 or 10 tints/tones, starting from a pure white ending into a pure black, with a gradation of greys between them, to explain this better I have also attached a video which visually explains what I’m talking about.

Brush work:

Sadly this paragraph is going to be short and I’ll explain why. The way you paint is a very personal thing that develops with time, so this is something you have to figure out on your own and develop your way of painting, although I can give little tips that might help you. The technique I commonly use is the “dry brush” technique which basically means you apply your colours in shapes and then blend them together with a dry brush. It’s important to remember to keep the brush dry and wipe it on a dry cloth every time you finished blending an area. DO NOT DIP THIS BRUSH IN TURPENTINE and if you accidently switch to another dry brush, if the brush is wet it will not create a nice blend, but rather a smudged one.

Ground And “Alla Prima”:

Alla prima is a technique which I have just started to explore, I would not suggest this technique for beginners as its better to familiarise yourself with how the medium acts first. What does “alla prima” mean? It basically mean that you are working wet on wet, in the previous technique you usually allow the layers to dry, but with “alla prima” you have to work quite fast, finishing the painting before it dries…hence why I said I wouldn’t suggest it to beginners without familiarising yourself with oil paint. Before I start applying the paint, I cover the entire canvas with what is called a “Ground”, which is usually a mid-grey from a value scale. Applied in a thick manner, this acts as the foundation of your painting, similar to an “Underpainting” or the “Grisaille” layer. On the other hand it’s best to let the “Ground” dry, I usually add liquine to it so that I don’t have to wait that long for it to dry. I then draw my image using a 2B pencil and then progress to adding colour. I still mix my colours beforehand even if I’m working in the “alla prima” technique, as I’m still not that confident in mixing colours on canvas right before applying it onto the canvas. As I’m a visual learner I believe in the power of YouTube, so once again I’m adding a video below of a painter working “alla prima”, it can be seen that the artist also applied a ground to his canvas, but instead of using pencil to drawing his portrait, he draws his outlines with a paint brush. I attached this video as it shows how the artist applies the actual paint, which might give a clearer example of how to apply paint when working in this technique.

A thing or two I know about oil painting Part 1: Materials

During my years studying in an Art School, painting in oils was one of the mediums I explored the most, this allowed me to gain some experience and knowledge in regard to the medium. So I thought it would be nice to share some of that basic knowledge, especially for people who would like to start painting in oils but don’t know where to start. In saying that, I’m talking from a personal point of view of what works best for me and might not necessarily work so well for you, but to get a better Idea of how I use oils you can always check my Instagram *Wink Wink*. I’m also planning to divide this topic into two, in Part 1 I’ll be discussing Materials while in Part 2 I’ll be discussing  Methods and Techniques.

Oil paints:

Well…this one is pretty obvious, you can’t paint in oils…..If you don’t have oil paints. The first thing I want  to advise about oil paints is to try and avoid the cheap ones or brands that aren’t the well-known, for two reasons, cheap pigment (the colour) and cheap binder (the medium which holds the pigment together). This will result in your paintings starting to fade with time. I suggest the brand I use, which is Winsor & Newton for a number of reasons, the first reason is the fact they divide their paints into series 1 and series 2. Series 1 is known as the student range which is cheaper and of a lesser quality but still of a very good quality and best for beginners. Series 2 is the Artist range which means the paint has a larger percentage of pigment then binder. This also means that their permanence is also better which is also graded from AA, A and B, AA being the most permanent.

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Series 2
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Another good thing to know is if your paint is Transparent or Opaque, on the Winsor and Newton paints this is indicated by a little square, I have attached a table below to make it easier to understand what I’m actually talking about. What these boxes mean is pretty simple, the Transparent paints….well are more transparent, this allows for the colour underneath them to still show while opaque ones don’t…or don’t as much. You can also make an opaque transparent by adding more oil to it, but this will take longer to oxidate. This will make more sense when I discuss methods and techniques in Part 2, but for the time being, just keep this in mind.

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Turpentine:

To dilute oils paint you need turpentine and I find this the worse part of  painting in oils. Turpentine has a very strong smell and can easily cause bad headaches for people who aren’t used to the smell. Even if I have been working with oil for a while now, I still use and suggest odourless turpentine, You can also get scented ones……which I really don’t suggest. You can buy turpentine from an Ironmonger or from a household hardware store. Always make sure you work in a well-ventilated room when using turpentine, this stuff can leave your hair, clothes and skin reeking of it. If you’re like me and turpentine magically affects you more than others, I would also give wearing an air mask a try, but in all honesty its pretty uncomfortable trying to work with one….so just make your life easier and buy the odourless.

 

Liquin:

I’m not going to even try and talk about adding oils to your paints as I never really bothered with them, on the other hand, I do use Liquin. Liquin is not a must have, nor is it commonly used, but what it does is speeds drying time, adds fluidity and gives you paint a slight semi-gloss. As you might know, or not, oils take a bit of time to dry depending on the climate of where you live. This is due to the fact that oils don’t dry by evaporation but by oxidation, which is a fancy word that means a chemical reaction caused by oxygen that makes the paint solidify and dry. A fun fact to know is that a painting in oils can take up to a year to completely dry, I’m not referring to touch dry here, but the layers of paint underneath the top one….again this will make more sense once I post Part 2. Going back to Liquin, I do find this medium great as it does actually help with the drying time as well as allowing for a smoother surface, which I must admit I love. 
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Brushes:  

Brushes come in different sizes and shapes, but the most common ones are the round and the flat brushes. Below I attached an image to show the various styles of brushes so that you can get a better idea.

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In my set of brushes, you’ll  find a lot of pointed round brushes which I find great for detail, flat and bright brushes which allow you to cover a larger area but still having an amount of control by using the brush at an angle.  For some reason, the most suggested paintbrushes to go with oil paints are always hog brushes……but I hate them. In fairness, they are pretty great if you want a brush that holds a good amount of paint as well as applying the paint in a thick manner, but as I said before I like my surface to stay smooth so I never really used them.

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To be completely honest with you, I never stay buying recommended brushes, so much so that my favorite brush for when I’m painting in oils, are actually watercolour brushes. The best advice I can give is this, brushes are like mediums, you need to try them out and find what you like best, no blog or someone else’s experience can find that out for you. On the other hand, the brushes which I constantly buy, and work best for me, are synthetic brushes that look like the ones below

The reason why I use these brushes is this, they can hold a good amount of paint, they are great to blend with as they aren’t to hard or too soft, they are cheaper but still do what I need them to do and if you know how to take good care of them they can actually last for a long time, contrary to popular belief (I’ll explain how later).

 

Brush Washer with Screen and Holder:

Trust me, you need one of these but not to use it to wash your brushes but rather as the container that you will pour you turpentine into. The reason why I use this instead of a glass jar is because the screen that comes with it, allows me to properly remove the paint from my brush and completely avoid contaminating my colours on my palette and on my painting. Before I bought one of these, I only used an old piece of cloth but this usually meant that I would waste a lot of time making sure that I cleaned my brush properly before applying a different colour, which used to effect my flow. Constantly rubbing the brush against the screen can also damage your brush, to avoid this I usually make sure to rub the brush against the screen in one direction. By doing this it reduces the chance of opening up the bristles and ruining the shape of your brush.

 

Taking care of your brushes:
I discovered the soap above while I was working in Austraila and it has made clean up a lot easier. This soap can remove oil paint from any surface, as a matter of fact, I use it to wash the paint off my hands and also from my bushes and it makes them look brand new. To wash my brushes I don’t use the screen but the palm of my hand  with a bit of the above-mentioned soap, like its shown in the image below, and repeat the processes until no colour comes out of the brush. The next step is just as important, I then take a normal soap bar and rub some of the soap into the brush, then using my finger, I try to compact the hairs together and remove the extra soap . Once the soap dries, the bush hairs become stuck together and frozen in place, and tada, good as when bought. Instead of soap one can also use gum arabic diluted in some water, the only thing to remember in both cases is to wash the brush before using it.

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Palette and palette knives:

When using oil paints, finding the right palette can be difficult but the best material I found out which works best is …..a piece of glass, yep a piece of glass. I own two pieces of glass, one around the size of an A3 piece of paper, while the other around the size of A2  which I alternate depending on the number of colours I’m using. The reason I use glass is because it is easy to clean after each use as well as providing a smooth surface on which to mix the paint. Palette knives, you need them! And don’t bother with the plastic ones which I used to constantly break. I understand they might be a little expensive but a good pair of metal palette knives are an investment. As they are made of metal, and they give you enough flexibility to properly mix the paint, especially when colour matching (which I will explain what that is in the next blog). Also, the pointed end allows you to add paint to the mixture in small quantities, which you’ll probably need to do for every colour you mixing.