Part 3

Project: People in context

Exercise: A figure in an interior

I liked the idea of having a group of figures in an interior so started with making some notes about the above two artworks and what I could / could not take from them to use in mine. Neither of these are painted from actual events but the artists have painted their friends/acquaintances into a setting, making up the composition. I could do that!

I decided to use my kitchen as the setting as it’s a large open space without too much fuss and detail. I then found a range of photos from social events with figures holding interesting poses or expressions. I pulled these together into a composition with larger more detailed figures at the front and those with good poses towards the back.

The foreground is a chap (my son) looking directly at the viewer holding a cocktail glass. He is the focal point that our eye starts at before being drawn back to the man blowing out the candles (David) and then onto the background.

This is the point that I decided to leave it overnight to take a fresh look the next day. Made notes on my thoughts:

It’s a shame, and odd perhaps, that none of the figures are looking at the man blowing out the candles – hmmm.

Made the changes I’d identified :

  • The main one being the legs of the man blowing the candles – tricky but I’ve done what I could. I overpainted the bottom section of the black shirt with titanium white and then the blue of the jeans, reshaping a bit too. I also moved his knee up to extend the length of his lower leg and narrowed his arm. Not exactly right still but better.
  • Added more width to the face of the lady across the table, now including the other eye. Also narrowed her neck which looks more human now
  • Added some light detail to the clothing of the background ladies
  • Altered the line of the chair seat – looks less awkward now
  • Flattened the bottoms of the dangling lights

Pretty happy with this now. Taking a step back to dwell on what hadn’t worked out and why was a good move and I was able to refocus and come at it afresh. I wonder if the people would be recognisable to themselves – I’ll pop this on Instagram was see what reaction I get. The form of the candle blowing guy still bugs me – something to note for the next time – I must make sure my sketch is accurate before starting to paint. Glad I chose to use acrylics rather than oils – I don’t think I could have managed this if I had to keep waiting for it to dry.

The composition gives the interior space – the foreground figure is large and detailed, the background smaller and rougher. Also the perspective of the table, bench and far wall.

Update 10/1/20: I showed this to a friend who immediately named three of the people without hesitation. What a relief that I’ve caught the essence of at least some of the people without needing to paint totally realistically.

Research point 3: Figures in interiors

Flip Gaasendam, Maja in Kimono reading, 2018, Oil

A dreamy, misty room with a figure sitting on the floor, reading. It looks as if she happened across the book, got engrossed and just sit down where she was to read. Detail in room is non descript – tables with objects on. Bottom third of canvas is just floor. Limited palette of pale browns and blue – soft and relaxing. The woman sits centrally within the painting and is the focus.

Max Beckmann, Party in Paris, 1931, Oil on canvas

A black tie event with guests crammed into the room. Many looking rather depressed – definitely not a party atmosphere! Many of the characters have been identified but this is not a party that really happened. The reason for this virtual gathering and its mood is left to our interpretation. The figures form the focus with the room mostly hidden. Our eye darts from one figure to another, studying ‘who they are’ – no single one pulls you in more than another. Interesting style: how he uses an assortment of skin colours and tones, black for outlines and feature detail, semi abstract, each person very individual personality – I tried to use this style for the Interior painting above and it does help give each person an individual personality.

Philip Geiger, Three thirty PM, 2004, Oil on linen

Scene from everyday family life. Figures are in the foreground but the eye is drawn backwards through the enormous room by the highly polished floor. What would otherwise be a rather bland floor covering over half the painting, is brought to life by the patches of bright summer sunlight coming through windows and casting bright patches on the floor. No furniture to speak of to distract the eye. Whilst the figures should be the focus, our eye is quickly taken by the great sense of space created within the rooms and the figures seem to become insignificant.


Bonnard, G. (2017) Flip Gaasendam – Galerie Bonnard. At: (Accessed 09/12/2019).

Paris Society (1931) At: (Accessed 09/12/2019).

Three Thirty (s.d.) At: (Accessed 09/12/2019).

Exercise: Telling a Story

Rather a tricky one this, needs plenty of thought…

I went Christmas shopping to Exeter and was struck by the number of homeless people (mainly men) on my walk from the car park. It struck me that there was such a contrast between these people (cold, lonely, hungry, dirty, unshaven, desperate) and the shoppers (happy, wrapped up warmly, laughing, spending freely, full of festive joys).

I sketched from memory when I got home – obviously couldn’t stand there to sketch or take photos.

At first I thought about doing a view of a home with a lite up window showing a family inside laughing and eating their christmas meal. In the foreground I could put a silhouette of a young lad watching them – perhaps an estranged son or son from a previous marriage. However this composition idea gradually changed into a view of distant shoppers amongst the bright lights happily going about their business with the homeless silhouette in front. I was keen to have a go at painting figures in a loose way in the distance and this seemed the ideal opportunity. Being loose and free is something I find very hard and need lots of practice!

For some reason I decided to go with Oil paints again despite finding them a pain because of the waiting for layers to dry. And also I find mixing them tricky and quite a fuss – harder to get the colours you want than with acrylics I find, and adding fast drying mediums and Linseed oil is a faff.

As the composition is fairly wide it didn’t suit the more square shaped canvas boards that I have and so opted for the SAA Artists primed canvas 380gsm 40x50cm, which I taped to a board.

At the end of first session – rough marking out using brush and also knife. Distant shoppers with bags look OK but I need more up towards the shops and these need to be even more vague and loose!

Using colour to accentuate the differences between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ ie warm colours – reds, oranges, yellows – for happy shoppers. And cold blues and blacks for the foreground homeless.

I’m aiming for the foreground being a dark silhouette so that the initial focus of the viewer is on the shops and shoppers. Hopefully the eye will then be taken to the foreground and the contrast noted – that’s the aim anyway!

Spent some time looking at how other artists paint bright lights in a dark street and also ways of painting figures in the distance – see sketchbook

Left for 4 days to semi-dry…

I like Leonid Afremov’s painting style of night scenes in the rain with brights colours reflecting and merging. Obviously my painting is of a cold snowy scene rather than rain which means I can’t have the long reflections and glare but I’m keeping my brush strokes rough and a little abstract rather than trying for realism. More work needed on homeless figures and also the xmas lights.


Good contrast between foreground and background creating the story of different lives. Happy with my effort with the distant figures and keeping them free and loose. Perhaps I could have added more figures, especially in distance.

Tried to convey the feel of life happening inside the shops whilst still keeping it loose – I think I’m getting there especially with the left hand bar …

I can tell that there are 2 homeless people in the foreground but I wonder if that’s obvious to others? (seems to be when I asked a couple of people)

Left for a week to mull over and then made a few changes:

That’s better.

  • More variation in colour and marks added to trees where light catches them.
  • Upstairs windows have been changed so they’re not quite so luminous – window bars/objects hinted at.
  • bit of detail to xmas light hanging in street and also in bar window
  • more distant figures

Not completely happy – it’s all a bit twee and christmas card like but the essence of what I was trying to convey is there. The eye starts with the shoppers and windows before coming forward to the silhouetted men and so it leads the viewer into seeing the two halves of the scene.


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