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Filmic Painting Part II - Sickert's Information Gaps

Inspired by my recent visit to the Sickert show at Tate Britain (April 28- 18 Sept 2022), this post continues my research into artists and paintings that use the language of film. The aim of this research is to help inform and provide a context for my own painting practice.

Sickert as Artist-Stage Director

Sickert started as an actor, and throughout his life, his work reflected this influence in his choice of subject, the Victorian music hall, and also by the way he directed the elements in his paintings, like a director on stage or film.

Sickert was influenced by Degas and other french contemporaries, for their realist interiors, which usually involved one or two female figures. In 1905, Sickert rented a series of dingy rooms in north London and set about dressing these rooms like a stage set with the props found in these poor dwellings at the time, such as chamber pots, standing lamps, and iron bedsteads. Sickert took control of other elements in the painting too, giving attention to the lighting source, and directing his models into the positions he wanted, like actors in a scene. In L'Affaire de Camden Town 1909, a dressed male model, appears only half in the shot, as he views a naked woman, who looks vulnerable as she rolls on the tiny bed, chamber pot in full view. In Women Washing her Hair 1906, a naked women's head is cropped off by a door frame. Sickert framed his composition like this, to show, not tell, to suggest narratives, conversations, and confidences that anticipated the techniques of today's best film and TV directors.

Walter Sickert: Extract from Woman Washing her Hair. 1906 My photograph from Tate exhibition 2022

Sickert's Later work and Techniques

It is, however, Sickert’s later work that I find most relevant to my own; I am particularly interested in the fact that he used low-quality photographs he found in the newspapers of the day. He was possibly one of the first artists to use mass media printed photography as reference material for painting. Art historians, tend to dwell on the actual historical details of the press photos he used. However, I believe, it was more the nature of the media itself, their lack of clarity, and the accidental marks and effects he found in these low-resolution images, that he wanted to express in a painting. Sickert cropped and reframed the photos and then sketched up the image from the photograph by use of a grid; his work was always underpinned by a strong sense of the underlying drawing. He then painted in flat areas in low-key tones to suggest form and shapes. After allowing the paint to dry, Sickert then set about scrubbing and mark-making with a dry brush to develop the lighter areas, exploiting the tactile quality of the rough canvas and linen he used. This produced gaps in the paint surface, allowing the ground colour to sometimes show through. It is his expressive use of paint that lifts the subject matter away from its original documentary source to a more subjective experience.

Information gaps

In the book, The Science of Storytelling by William Storr, the author investigates how our brain's predisposition for curiosity is crucial for its development. Storr quotes Professor George Loewenstein, on how our brains become more curious when presented with an 'information set' that is incomplete such as a puzzle, or a crime mystery. "There is a natural inclination to resolve information gaps". We are drawn to difference, mystery, and the uncanny.

Sickert's paintings once isolated from their original photographic context, create information gaps both by their obscured narrative and literally in the paint surface itself. The effect of this is one of strangeness, that appeals to our natural curiosity and frustrates our sense of time and place. Sickert's later works, leave the viewer locked in a frozen moment of possibility - like a frozen still frame from a film.

Walter Sickert: Extract from 'The Taming of the Shrew" c. 1937 My photograph from the Tate Sickert Exhibition 2022

Walter Sickert: King George V and Queen Mary 1935. My photograph from the Tate Sickert Exhibition 2022. Queen Mary appears cropped given the effect of movement that is frozen like in a film-still

Creating information gaps - My painting techniques

I mostly use personal digital films and photographs for reference material. The original image is always mediated in Photoshop first before I use it to start painting. I use Photoshop tools to intervene and make selections, I zoom-in or blow -up areas I am most interested in.

I also convert the image to a low resolution and then apply various Photoshop filters to enable more chance effects to happen. Abstracting the image in this way helps to create my own information gaps that in turn I can translate into more painterly effects. I then use this as a reference to start the painting. During the painting process, I continue to edit the composition, reframe and crop to make a new selection on the canvas. This allows me to explore new details, that I find interesting. When I am satisfied with the new composition, I then cut this frame from the canvas or from the gesso board and remount. This fluid way of working helps me constantly refresh my original idea, reappraise and find new narratives as I’m painting.

Original photo of Pillbox taken down at Camber Sands, Sussex. Converted to low resolution.

The final painting zoomed in and reframed to its final composition during the painting process.


Christopher Neve Unquiet Landscape (Thames & Hudson 2021) chap.6 The grid and the Town

William Storr The Science of Storytelling (Pub. 2019 Faber) p11-18

Emma Chambers Walter Sickert Tate Catalogue 2022 p.149 (pub.Tate Enterprises Ltd 2022) Wendy Baron & Richard Shone Sickert Paintings p156 - 157 (Pub.192 Royal Academy of the Arts)


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