Bodies in Barcelona: an Interview with artist Eloise Gillow
I originally went to Barcelona to study drawing “for three months”. There’s been a revival recently of academies that teach traditional realist techniques of drawing and painting, starting in Florence, and the Barcelona Academy of Art is an offshoot of this. That’s where I am now. I got completely hooked and now that three months is turning into three years.
The course is very structured and intensive – you have to pass a series of increasingly difficult set exercises in order to progress. We also have special classes such as anatomy, history of art, expressive drawing, constructive drawing, light and form, composition and abstraction, and landscape painting. I’ve spent a year drawing and have now moved onto painting with oils.
I’m usually in the academy working from 10 to 8 every day. At the moment I spend the weekends landscape painting too. I paint almost every day and I love it.
A charcoal study takes time. This one of Jordi was completed over five weeks, with four sessions of three hours each week.
On the first day we spend some time setting up the pose – it is important that the model is comfortable in the pose so that they can hold it for the full five weeks. We also look for a pose that has an interesting gesture. Jordi’s pose is an example of “contraposto”, where the model’s weight is on one leg, creating interesting rhythms and a sense of movement.
Once the pose is set, we spend one or two days doing a small pencil drawing (or drawings) in order to study the gesture, to see how the pose changes throughout the session. As the model relaxes into the pose their weight may shift slightly, changing the angles of their hips and shoulders among other things.
The main drawing starts with a block-in of the big shapes and rhythms using straight lines. We stand far back from the easel to look at the model using the “sight size” method so that we see the model the same size as we draw them.
Then we start to look for smaller shapes and the shades of light and dark. We look to locate the darkest dark and the lightest light and then divide the figure into five or six main "value" groups. This helps us to focus on the overall light effect. When you look at one area for a while, for example the dark shadows in the legs, your eyes adjust to that lighting and you start to see more and more detail, small changes in tone. This is why it’s important to refer back to the value study in order not to get lost in this detail.
The objective of these charcoal drawings is to learn. It’s not so much about the end result but the concepts I learn along the way.
I didn’t have much experience of painting before the academy so I didn’t have to fight against a personal style to learn these techniques. Some people find that a struggle when starting this programme. For example, if you come from a background of illustration or line drawing it can be difficult to switch to thinking in terms of masses of light and dark.
In the academy we are all taught in the same way but everyone absorbs and interprets the process differently. I find it fascinating to see how different people’s drawings move through the process. I think people’s individuality is often especially evident in the earlier stages, revealed in the subtle differences in approach. Even through the drawings are set academic exercises no two processes are the same.
Sometimes I love those earlier stages of a study. I look forward to producing my own work in the future and being able to decide for myself when a work is “finished”. Many of the steps in the process are beautiful in themselves.
At the moment I’m most focused on technique. I'm looking analytically at the bodies I draw in order to train my accuracy. However, if I know the model’s personality then I’ll often want to convey this and it affects the way I work. I can see the hint of a style developing in the way I naturally paint. In the future I would like to push this and, in a sense, break the rules, or play with the rules.
Portraiture is an interesting way to connect with people. I love to hear other people’s stories and often get to know Catalan people through the process of drawing or painting their portrait. Last year I took part in the “volunteers for the language” scheme and met up regularly with a local man for a beer to improve my Catalan. At the end, to thank him, I drew his portrait.
I like to read as well. I’ve just finished John Carlson’s Guide to Landscape Painting, which is a fascinating book and has taught me a lot about painting generally. It is also an amusing book that at times is incredibly technical – “The discernment of the exact atmospheric conditions of the sky to be painted decides the speed or ratio of all color gradations both in sky and land” – and at other times quite emotional – “Know your trees, their nature, their growth, their movement; understand that they are conscious, living things, with tribulations and desires not wholly disassociated from your own”.
I’m currently reading James Gurney’s Color and Light: A Guide for the Realist Painter, which delves into the fascinating workings of light and how to represent it with paint. I would also recommend Gombrich’s The Story of Art, which is a really useful introduction to the history of (western) art.
I use anatomy books to help understand the human figure. My favourite is Steven Rogers Peck’s Atlas of Human Anatomy which uses fun little diagrams and doodles to help you to remember and understand how different body parts function visibly.
I do plan to return to the UK eventually but Catalonia is a vibrant and exciting place to be at the moment. Next year I’ll do a third and final year studying at the academy, delving deeper into technical aspects of realist painting and carrying on working from life. There are themes I’d like to explore in painting but at the moment these ideas just get written down in my notepad and stored for when I finish the programme. There’s so much possibility with painting and I’m excited about the future although I’m not sure yet where exactly it will take me.
Eloise's art can be seen on instagram at @eloisegillowart