Somerset House, National Portrait Gallery, London, 5.10.12

The main reason for this trip to London was to allow me to carry out research at Somerset House and the National Portrait Gallery for the current project of portraits within the Options module. As I have chosen Illustration, this was my primary focus.

The first destination of the day was Somerset House, a neo-classical building, which I feel is a fantastic piece of architecture to see as my photo shows, and these qualities were best reflected in the courtyard and basement. The exhibitions I saw were Images 36: Best of British Illustration as well as Night Paintings by Paul Benney. The purpose of seeing these exhibitions was to find inspiring designs and research into the styles that the artists have used. So what stood out? Firstly, I’ll look at Images 36: Best of British Illustration.

  • The wide variety of styles. It appears that many styles are used, which allows for real freedom when it comes to deciding how to create an illustration. I’ll cover the different ways illustrations can be created in another research section but for now I was delighted to see that there was not one dominant style, which I feel would restrict the creativity around and is not as inspiring I think for students like myself.
  • Sketches using pencils, charcoal and pens grabbed my attention the most. The style has always been of great interest to me, and I feel is a very accessible manner of illustrating as some of the materials used are so basic.

Although there were so many designs I liked, I’m going to pick out a couple of specific pieces to talk about. I would say my favourite piece from the whole exhibition was the cover for the book Oh No, GEORGE! by Chris Haughton whose website I have taken this image from for analytical use. Apart from admiring the cartoon element of the illustration and how it looked so simple, my first thought was ‘How do you get a cartoon dog to look guilty, surprised and worried at the same time?’ Here’s what I thought:

  1. The eyes. The wide eyed stare at the reader captures the character very well indeed and captures that surprised element you get especially when you are a child when you know you’ve been caught doing something you shouldn’t have done!
  2. The ears. These give a big clue to the reader of the book, after all, drooped ears has connotations for the audience of a dog who might just be worried about what it has done… This fits very well with the title.

What can I learn from this? Well again, it marries in with my other research, which shows how the face can carry emotion and is therefore strongly linked to someone’s psychology.

The other piece that caught my eye was the cover for the Looking for Transwonderland – Travels in Nigeria by Noo Saro-Wiwa with illustration by Rod Hunt whose portfolio I got this image from for analytical purposes. Here is what made me enjoy looking at this illustration so much:

  1. The detail. I could easily spend hours looking at that, and I would still be fascinated with what I was noticing at that time, especially with the level of detail lavished on all of the individual features from the larger features such as buildings and signs down to the small touches like people, logos on cars etc… It really captured my interest, an important trick I think illustration should have, to be able to draw you into their world and to help you become lost in time for a while.
  2. The style. As mentioned earlier I am a big fan of pen drawings, which I’ll talk more about when I conduct research specifically into illustration styles. I feel with pen drawings you can go from loose, scrappy sketches to wonderfully detailed illustrations like this one.
  3. The title. Including it within the design allowed more space for the illustration and keeps your eye focused on the illustration instead of tearing it away.

I then moved onto the second exhibition, Night Paintings by Paul Benney. Based in the Deadhouse, the basement of Somerset House where I felt it was a very apt setting with the contrast between light and dark which threw the shadows around, which matched the shadowy nature these paintings took. I focused on styles here seen in the paintings. Paul Benney uses a variety of styles, some of which I will talk about below:

  • The raised texture used for the leaves of the trees in the Snow in Jerusalem 2012 (the image on the left here for analytical purposes) painting created a minimal three-dimensional effect which bought the painting to life far more than normal. Perhaps a 3D effect could help me for my design as it would bring a portrait to life, the only trouble is implementing it.
  • The use of resin was very unexpected, but I could not doubt the qualities it gave. The apparent “polished” effect, combined with being translucent, which the artist claims “obscures time and distance”

What have I learnt from this? The exhibitions have reinforced to me the importance of selecting the right materials to help the design to get the message across, whether it is a pencil sketch, delicate and precise in nature, or a textured painting, appearing to bring  the canvas to life.

Moving on to the second location of the day, at the National Portrait Gallery, here was where I felt my attention turned directly to the task of addressing how portraits are shown, as there is a lot more choice than a traditional ‘head and shoulders’ portrait made commonplace in the medieval era.

I saw many of the free displays that were around, an example of one such display being  Mario Testino: British Royal Portraits. As I’ve mentioned that one specifically, I’ll start there, I felt that the photographs really captured the Royal Family well, and was very tastefully done and showed them at ease, a quality which is sometimes forgotten during their official visits here and there and so makes them more accessible to the public. I feel this is important as if you have portraits commissioned you are not looking for something that degrades your image.

Something that interested me the most was how several images to me at a glance, looked to be black and white photos, but then you would read the info and it would say something like ‘Charcoal drawing’, so I would look closer and then see the finer details that proved it. I feel with the flexibility of charcoal/pencil drawings that if you can go from photo realistic drawings to sketches, a design for this project could say be detailed in some areas and loose in others.

The stroll around the NPG ended up looking at a vast series of portraits of royals from several centuries ago, which I must be honest and say is not my thing at all. However, I respect the art for what it is, and I do think the way that some of the colours shone from the canvas was very impressive. I was also interested at how realistic the portraits  appeared to look (although I am aware they would have flattered the sitter) as it dawned on me that of course in that era there would have been no photography. I can’t really imagine what it would be like to have to rely on paintings and sketches for everything with no photos.

What have I learnt from this? Overall, I would say that this trip has been most beneficial, providing me with some primary research and consolidating my secondary research I started on yesterday at the college library. Now I shall continue with my research.

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