VIDEO 7 – 2018 – Vera’s Dispatches from the Art Studio – Visit to London’s National Gallery “Monochrome” Exhibition
Below is a blog that is based on my vlog about my visit to the National Gallery’s “Monochrome” exhibition in London that is on until February 18, 2018. In the video, I share some of the background of how monochrome has been used in art, as well as my own thoughts on the exhibition – what I learned, what inspired me, and what I thought was missing. Please note, I’ve edited this blog from the original video version for clarity and brevity :-) To see the full video go here for Facebook and here for YouTube.
Hi everyone! Welcome, this is Vera! I am a London-based, nature-inspired abstract artist. Welcome to my weekly video series “Dispatches from the Art studio” where I share with you some of the behind the scenes footage of my life as an artist in London, what I’m working on in the art studio, and also my life outside of the art studio – what I’m inspired by, what I’m learning from and how I’m evolving.
So this week, I’m here at Trafalgar Square. You might be able to hear and see some of the London noises, but hopefully you can still hear me. I’m here because I wanted to come visit the “Monochrome” exhibition at the National Gallery, where I’m a member. If you’ve been to the National Gallery in London, then you know that it’s one of the premier institutions that houses an amazing array of artworks as well as doing ongoing temporary exhibitions. One of the temporary exhibitions going on right now is the Monochrome exhibition, which I’ve been wanting to see for a long time. It’s now the final couple of weeks to see it, because it’s ending in February so to visit it, it was a matter of “now or never”.
For me, as an artist who does actually use monochrome in some of my work, it was particularly interesting to see what monochrome means in the context of this exhibition and what the curatorial team decided to focus on and highlight. All in all, I found the exhibition really quite interesting. The challenge, if I’m being honest, with a lot of the National Gallery exhibitions, is that the space is a bit small. It’s certainly a smaller than some of the other art institutions in London, so there’s a natural limit to how much work you can show. There’s a natural limit to how much of a story you can tell and what artwork you can include. So at the end of the day, it obviously doesn’t cover the world’s artistic tradition in monochrome, but it highlights certain parts of it, which is still quite interesting to see if you’re interested in art at all. For me, a lot of the interest came from the fact that I use monochrome in my work as well and it was quite enlightening to understand a bit more about the background of using monochrome within art.
Monochrome use – religious meaning:
Specifically within Western art, the exhibition highlights that early on, monochrome used to have a religious or symbolic meaning. It was the artists’ way of creating a clear delineation between the everyday life (which is colourful and secular) and the religious life (which is meant to be more contemplative, a bit more quiet and maybe a bit less joyful in the sense of there is less food, less colour, less wine…). In the exhibition, there were some religious artworks where you could see how monochrome and black and white was used to create that differential and therefore it was really symbolic of that religious, contemplative, and spiritual side of things. Often times in the context of those religious paintings, artists used monochrome to literally frame certain artworks that had colour, which I thought was quite interesting as well.
Monochrome use – grisaille – study and preparatory work:
In the exhibition, you then move on into artists who used monochrome in the “grisaille” tradition, where you paint on a canvas in monochrome. In this context, artists used monochrome used to create a quick study where you paint a sketch in preparation for the final artwork. With the “grisaille” technique, you lay down in monochrome some of the forms and shapes as well as the shadows and the lights before you actually then go back and put the colour in. In terms of ways that artists use monochrome, the grisaille technique as a big part of that tradition.
And then, the interesting thing is that at some point, that changed. At some point, artists saw those types of paintings as a finished product in their own right. And audiences saw them as a finished product in their own right. At some point, everybody decided that a black and white quick sketch or preparatory painting is not just a preparatory painting, but actually it has merit in its own right – it has its own artistic voice in its own way. For me, that transition sadly wasn’t fleshed out as much as it could have been in the exhibition. One thing is to say that technically there is a difference between preparatory sketches and final artwork. But it’s quite a different thing to say that aesthetically people’s tastes changed – artists’ and audiences’ tastes changed and broadened so that these black and white works that were previously seen as preparatory material can now be seen as a final piece of artwork. And that was quite interesting.
Monochrome use – in response to competition:
The other element of the exhibition that I’d like to highlight is the competition aspect of it – where you’re competing with different artforms (particularly sculpture) and with technology. I think competition with different artforms and particularly technology is something that we can all relate to as artists in modern day. Today, there is a lot of digital art and technology is constantly changing and we as modern day artists compete with that.
In terms of the exhibition, artists historically were competing with technology – for example, technology in the sense of printing. When printing first came about, obviously it was in black and white. Artists were also competing with technology in the sense of photography - photography was all black and white when it first started out. And artists were even competing with film – the moving image – that also started out in black and white. In that context, when there are technological advances that create other artforms that previously did not exist, and those artforms were in black and white, that challenged artists to consider their own practice. It probably inspired them to use more black and white in their own artwork, and to directly compete and see if they can create art from scratch, like an oil painting, in black and white that competes with a reproduced print. This competition also was relevant in terms of photography. When photography was invented and suddenly, you were able to capture images perfectly exactly as they are in black and white, perhaps that led to some artists being inspired to use black and white and to see what they can create to compete with photography.
Monochrome use – abstraction:
In the last part of the exhibition, we move on to abstraction. To a lot of us, this is much more recognizable modern art – abstract art. In the last room of the exhibition, there were artworks exclusively in black and white, and to me, that room was perhaps the most interesting. In the explanation at the exhibition, the curators talk about the fact that a lot of those artists chose to limit their colour palette as a “perceptual and intellectual exercise”. That’s interesting… but the other element that’s maybe relevant, but that was missing from the explanation, is the fact that a lot of art teachers say that there is no pure black in nature. They say that there is no pure white in nature. They say that these two harsh colours are very strong colours that we think we see in the natural world, but actually we never truly see.
When you look at nature, even when you see what you think is the blackest black is actually not – it’s brown-black, or blue-black, or slightly purple-black… From that perspective, often times, when people talk about painting landscapes, florals, or other elements of nature, they talk about the idea that you’re never meant to use true black and true white. You’re always meant to mix those pure colours ever so slightly even, because that’s the way nature is. And for me, I think maybe that is why a lot of those purely abstract artists were drawn to black and white – because it doesn’t really exist in nature and that was their way of saying “I’m not trying to represent something that exists in the natural world, I’m trying to represent an idea, an emotion, something entirely different”. And one way to make sure that this idea comes across to the viewer is to use colours that don’t really exist in nature as such.
The exhibition – what was missing – Asian art:
For me, there were some things that were fundamentally missing from the exhibition. It’s difficult, because it’s a small space and you can’t cover all the artistic traditions, but one key piece that’s missing is the long tradition in Asia that has to do with monochrome. Obviously, a lot of the monochrome artistic tradition in Asia is calligraphy artwork, but there are also traditional scrolls and that you see in particular in China, Japan and Korea and other parts of Asia as well. A lot of those traditional artworks were created in pure monochrome. Sadly, there was no reference to that artistic tradition and I think that’s a shame, because if you go to those countries in Asia, and you visit their art museums, they’re full of monochrome work and it’s a particularly important part of the artistic tradition.
The exhibition – what was missing –transition from sketch to final artwork:
Also, the other missing piece is that I really would have loved there to be more explanation or exploration about the aesthetic changes that enabled the transition from sketch to final artwork. It’s one thing to say that at some point, artists and their audience decided that preparatory sketches were good enough to be artwork in their own right… but my question is who decided that? How did that change come about? Obviously for hundreds of years, people thought that monochrome was an almost student drawing, or a way to start a painting but it was unfinished. And at some point, multiple artists, including Picasso and other quite famous artists decided that instead, that painting in monochrome and paintings in black and white have their own value… their own merit, and their own artistic tradition. And to me, that deeper exploration is the bit that is missing.
Monochrome – why I use monochrome in my art – history and tradition:
For me as an artist who does use black and white, the bottom line is that the Monochrome exhibition at the National Gallery was a fantastic. I really urge you to see it. For my own work, I speak a lot about being hugely influenced by nature (the colours of nature the textures and patterns of nature). And much of that nature influence is the use of colour – vibrant, saturated colour. However, I do also work in black and white and there are a few reasons for that decision. One is a purely traditional one. You might have heard me speak before about the fact that in terms of my ink on watercolour paper artworks, I use liquid acrylic ink and calligraphy ink. And calligraphy ink, by definition, is black. Not all of it, because ink manufacturers have changed and modernized calligraphy ink a bit, but traditionally calligraphy ink is black. So that is part of the reason why I sometimes work in monochrome - because it is the history of the material that I choose to use and I think that there is something important about honouring the history of the material.
Monochrome – why I use monochrome in my art – capture the eye:
The other reason that I use monochrome in my artwork is a purely aesthetic one. I think the patterns and the contrast you can create with black and white are often times much stronger than what you can create with colour. They often say that children, when they’re first born, can’t see the full range of colour as adults can. And that actually, the ability to see all the different gradients and shades of colour develops over time as the child grows up. Some people believe that what babies first truly recognize is pattern – high contrast patterns, as opposed to some of these more pastel colours. One of the best ways to create a high contrast pattern is with black and white. I believe there is something innate in us as humans that means that black and white patterns just capture our eye. They focus the gaze in a way that no other combination can – it’s that high contrast… I don’t know whether it’s because physiologically, that’s the way that we’re programmed, or if there’s another reason for it. But it is a fact that black and white patterns and contrast capture our attention like no other colour can. There is something very interesting about that to me. Definitely, when I work with patterns, forms, and shapes, you do want to capture the attention and the viewer’s eye.
Monochrome – why I use monochrome in my art – create a mood:
The last reason why I sometimes also work in monochrome is to tap into the contemplative meditative atmosphere that monochrome can create. I mentioned early on that in the National Gallery exhibition, they talk about the fact that a lot of black and white used to have religious significance and that it was meant to mark or delineate between every day life and the more spiritual religious life. I believe that a fundamental reason why a lot of the Asian calligraphy artworks and scrolls are monochrome has to do with the meditative tradition in those countries. If you go to a lot of the monasteries and temples in Asia, many of them are hugely colourful… and yet there is something about using monochrome to calm the mind. When your senses are not heightened by colour... when your senses are just focused on black and white and focused on the pattern, this is where some of the meditative and almost spiritual connection can happen. For some artists, the physical act of creating calligraphy or traditional scroll artworks itself is a form of active meditation.
As much as I love colour, and it is one of my joys as an artist to work with colour, there is definitely a place for working with monochrome. There is the traditional reason why I paint in monochrome because I use calligraphy ink. And purely aesthetically, I love the way that with black and white, you can create patterns that grab the viewer’s attention in a way that no other colour can. Lastly, I appreciate that monochrome can have a meditative, contemplative softness quality and can create a delineation between calm meditative softness and vibrant joyful colourful work.
That’s it for me for this week. Thank you so much for joining me! I hope you’re enjoying this behind the scenes video series of what I do and also how I’m inspired. For me as an artist, I mentioned in one of my other videos that there are “the 3 Es” – evolution, education and experimentation. Those are three Es that I came up with that I think are particularly valuable as an artist, when I look at myself, and when I look at other artists and their careers. For me, part of those 3 Es is coming to exhibitions like the Monochrome exhibition at the National Gallery to look at other artists’ work and to learn about traditions. And to be reminded about parts of your practice that you’ve worked on before that maybe you want to revisit. Or, maybe to have a stronger sense of why you do what you do – why do I work in monochrome sometimes, even though colour is my dominant way of working?
I hope you’ve had a chance to learn a bit more about me and what I do. Thank you so much for joining me today and if you want to connect with me in real life, you can always do so at Wimbledon Art Studios, studio 310. Or you can connect with me at one of the other art fairs or evens that I’ll be doing over this year, or whether you prefer social media, I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Pinterest, and others and on social media, my handle is always @veraveraonthewall. And you can visit my website at https://www.veraveraonthewall.com.
Thank you so much for joining me this week, and I hope you have a lovely day. Bye!