Assignment 4: Life in Red White Black

Abstract self-portrait

Overview and Assessment

This project evolved somewhat from what may have been the original brief. As I started to think of myself in the abstract I focused on internal emotions, and their changeability and how my sense of self is constantly changing, switching between layers of experience. I have just started to do meditation and yoga following a long period of stress and depression. As I was working on this assignment I was able to better observe how my mood and feelings changed. Many of these feelings have colours, and are associated with memories that go round in a loop. One approach would have been to go to complete abstraction and try to capture these moods as for example in Project 2.2, but letting my emotions guide how I interacted with the materials.

The assignment also asked me to think of objects that are important to me. I am not particularly attached to things as such. But I travel a lot for work and have a lot of different cultural artefacts. These do not generally in themselves have particular associations for me. But have interesting symbolic meanings that I thought could reveal more about my emotions.

So the assignment evolved into something that built more on my work in Assignment 3 Mushrooms where objects themselves are abstracted and take on a life. Influenced by the biomorphic abstraction of Picasso and particularly the drypoints of Louise Bourgeois. In  style  and approach I was also influenced by the intensely personal traced monoprint narratives of Tracy Emin.

The images started off as somewhat random – starting with Guitar as the most intense experience. But as I thought about new objects the feelings suggested evolved into more of a narrative series of abstracted events that have shaped my sense of self over time.

I selected media, ink, paper and colours that fitted the abstract mood and/or had symbolic meaning.

Following Louise Bourgeois I decided to use Drypoint –  because I  like the variety of expressive line and shading that can be produced. This has been quite a learning curve as it is a technique I have not yet really explored in depth. I chose to use plastic plates because the resistance of the plastic makes the line sharp and jagged and somewhat unpredictable – like my life.  It has to be gouged and scratched. Unlike zinc and copper that produce much smoother lines, and card where the needle glides along.

I decided to do a series of small prints placed in a narrative sequence on a large board because I feel rather small and insignificant. I experimented with different types of paper – tissue paper, Bristol board, cartridge paper and newsprint. All of these produce different types of line because of the thickness and absorption capacity. In the end I decided to use just one type of paper for consistency, and chose newsprint partly because of the grungy line and partly because it is cheap and throw away – again how I feel at the moment.

I use oil-based etching inks because they are sticky and tacky. My other possibility for Drypoint would have been Akua ink. But I find this a bit waxy.

I made several prints from each plate, some of which were more successful than others. Finding it difficult to consistently get different tones in the same plate to give interest and depth. So I though of collaging prints together so that I could get more control over the ways in which the images would be read.

This was a very intensely personal project. I like the simplicity of many of the images, and the way that for me the meanings evolved and developed. Meanings may not be immediately apparent to observers without explanation. But I think they do have impact.

The titles evolved  – generally simple reference to the object. But in some cases like ‘Mother’ and ‘No Evil Speak’ they attempt to guide the meaning a bit more.  As I show the sequence to more people I may decide some of the titles need to change to be a bit more directive.

I am still not sure about the background. I find the plain backrgounds rather boring. The newspaper collage was random – like life. And I find the paint cracks expressive. I also enjoy some of the chance juxtapositions – like ‘help’, ‘swoon’ and the upside down holiday in Australia under bonzai. I was worried that the images might get swamped – though I reduced that by mounting the images on board (also for protection of the fragile paper). People I have shown the mounted images to feel that the fact that they are in a chaotic background means they look much more closely at the images to look for meaning.

1:  Evil No Speak

This image started off as two separate images and the second part of the series:

    • Nicaraguan ceramics of the Mayan ‘Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil’ that I bought then I was in Nicaragua doing some research in 1988 just before the Sandinistas lost the election the first time – a period of civil war, hyperinflation and chaos caused largely by the US trade embargo.
  • West African wooden statue that I bought in Cameroon that I find broodingly powerful – a ‘Savage God’, but do not know the precise origin or meaning of.

But as I explored the images in my sketchbook, they seemed to combine into a common theme – in my work I see and hear many things that are extremely upsetting. But it has often been dangerous to speak out. This creates an anger inside me. Doing my best, but feeling very small and powerless against forces in the world.

So the image became one of a towering  ‘Savage God’ with a small frozen ‘Speak No Evil’ praying or almost trampled under foot.

I then experimented with different inking styles in red and black trying to make the statue look as fierce as I could, then used a pencil to subtractively draw a white outline for the Speak No Evil. Getting this small figure really clear was a bit of a challenge at A6 size. The plates produced prints of varying quality. The final two both had texturally interesting elements, but neither could really stand on their own.

As I had nothing to lose – apart from in any case needing to re-ink and re-print – I decided to try collaging the elements I liked into a new image – one with a leering mouth and multiple bloody hands. This started my exploration of collage for the rest of the series. The name changed many times: ‘Fetish’, ‘Savage God’, Speak No Evil. I decided that the last – but changed around – was best so that the meaning might make the viewer understand the small scratched figure at the bottom.

1 Evil No Speak
collaged drypoints

2:  Mother

Originally the first image of my series called ‘Spider’.

The spider is my ‘personal identity icon’ at participatory workshops for my professional work. Because they build webs and link people. But beware! The females are strong – and can eat the males if they bother them too much. They spawn many offspring who go out into the world to build new webs. I like them in the house and never kill them. But – because of experiences in Africa – I am also somewhat scared of them. A long time back I also saw the huge sculptural spiders of Louise Bourgeois for whom the spider is an iconic symbol in much of her work where it represents her mother.

So this image became a counter-balance to ‘No Evil Speak’ – my attempt at tidy motherhood. Neatly spinning webs and making house and tidying up my work – but all the while my drippy alter ego cast a shadow – coming? or going?

In refining this image I studied Internet photos and videos of spiders – how do they make their webs? How many spokes on a web? How close are the rings as spirals or circles?  What are their legs like?

I then experimented with different blackness of ink and tonal variations on the plate, and the effects of printing on different types of paper:

  • Cartridge paper is a bit boring with drypoint producing a flat image
  • Bristol Board produces a very white crisp image – the closest to the meaning of the image
  • Newsprint produced an interesting grungy image

Again there were two final ‘acceptable’ images on newsprint. But neither of them were particularly striking. It is difficult to vary the ink tone with any predictability across the same plate to get depth.

So having collaged my fist image above, I decided to collage the two final prints to make the black spider blacker against the rather weak spider on the web. To emphasise more the meaning of the image – renaming it ‘Mother’ so the meaning is clearer.

2 Mother
collaged drypoints

3: Mask

This African mask was one of the first objects I thought of using for this assignment – linking to Picasso’s interest in African art. This mask was another artefact I had brought back from Cameroon, though I was told it was Congolese. I do not know its meaning, but it has hung for a long time as a trophy of my travels on our front room wall.

I photographed it from different angles and drew some mock-ups on my iPad – experimenting with ideas of reversal and then splitting.



The idea of the split mask seemed to express how I felt quite a lot of the time – a rigid mask split between home and work. Lambasted both ways for not being adequate.  It then seemed to key in very well with Louise Bourgeois’ image of Sainte Sebastienne.

I again experimented with different types of paper – I preferred the vulnerability of the tissue paper and ghost print to the bold print. But none of these images really stood on their own.

In the final image I used the ghost print as my base, then overlaid the threatening red and arrows on the outside from the bold print and half the tissue face. I really like the varied textures this gives, and the combination again enhances the meaning.

3 Mask
collaged drypoints

4: Guitar

This was the first abstract image I had of myself – possibly influenced by looking at Picasso’s abstraction and the exhibition ….

The guitar represents my body shape since having children. But then it became an abstracted image of the end of music (the guitar has no strings) and descent into depression. From being a teenager I have played a lot of music. But then in 1994 I had to stop playing music because I got severe RSI, and have never been able to start again for the same reason. The guitar then became more and more distorted in my mind – the mouth with its mix of strings. In 2009 I was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy so the soundhole became a breast. I then took some more photos of the guitar from different angles and noticed its slim form sideways on. That became the ‘ideal’ reflection in the mirror on my bedroom wall.

With this image I was really trying to get some of the feeling of vulnerability from Tracey Emin’s monoprints – very simple but expressive lines and shapes. My main question was how to show the image in the mirror – black, white or grey.

I decided to combine the darker inking of the mirror with the thin line of the ghost print to make the image in the mirror stand out more as the object of regret.

4 Guitar
collaged drypoints

5: Bottles

I had originally intended to combine the guitar with bottles as a Picasso-sty;e sensuous image. I have had an uneasy relationship with alcohol for many years – periods when I don’t drink eg when travelling for work. But then more regular drinking and the occasional binge when I am very depressed. This became much worse during relationship issues after my mastectomy – alongside my mother’s death and other traumas at the same time. I have a big collection of varied bottles, some of which have resonance because they were given by particular people.

Like mushrooms in Assignment 3, they also take on anthropomorphic character. And I experimented with different narrative possibilities through varying size, placement and angle of the bottles on the page. The melodramatic fat bottle at the front is myself. The smaller, rather sheepish bottle in the middle is my partner going to the slim straight bottle on the left. The stern-looking black bottle on the right is my own self-critical conscience disapproving my ridiculous weak behaviour.

In this print particularly, the resistance of the plastic against the etching needle produced some interesting lines that were less straight than in the original drawing – eg the bottle in the middle became much more bent and sheepish.

The final image was much more complete as the dark print than the others. But for consistency I just collaged a thin line of the spilt wine at the front from the ghost prints to very subtly give it a little more depth and variation.

5 Bottle
collaged drypoints

7:  Bonzai

Bonzai is a clipped tree where the root is restricted so it does not grow. As part of Japanese culture it also has links to Zen Buddhism that has been a strong influence on my life. I have many Buddhist artefacts at home – meditation and yoga having been very much part of my life as a teenager and in India when doing doctoral and post-doctoral research. They are now important parts of my life again. But the world is still out there… And my yoga is a bit more shaky.

This image started out as two images:

  • the Buddha paper picture that I have had on my bedroom wall since the 1980s and an engraved glass meditation ball
  • the zen bonzai tree – with its dead leaves and spider web from neglect on a high shelf

Combining the images gave a tree trying to grow on top of a boat-like dish with a stone mountain. Underneath it a teetering would-be yogi. All sailing backwards into the Hokusai wave.

This print – with the spider web tree – was quite intricate to wipe. But gave very interesting textures if I took care.

I decided to use the ghost image as the tentative ‘new journey’, collaging the top of the oppressive crashing wave over the top to give depth and more contrast.

6 Bonzai
collaged drypoints

Narrative sequence

These images formed a narrative sequence. But the original order started with the spider and looked unbalanced when printed together – apart from being back to front by mistake in my original combined print of the dark versions of the final prints.

The final collaged image put the Evil No Speak image first to give more balance. The titles and signature are planned as a shape (yet to be decided) on the right – like an abstracted observer.

But I find the plain background a bit boring. So I added collage on an old A1 board. I have yet to decide whether or not this works, or needs more thinking through. I like the textured paint, but may get more ideas as I work on mixed media in Assignment 5. Certainly the titles and signature need to be designed still. The images are attached  so they can easily be removed or mixed around. But after an intense period I now need some space to re-evaluate.

Life in Red White Black
Narrative series on newspaper ‘whitewashed’ collage


For this assignment you are again going to develop a self portrait. However, this time you are asked to think back to the previous projects in which you were asked to simplify and formalise your image into an abstract or semi-abstract work. You can work on a facial close up, head and shoulders, a half or full body portrait.
It is more of a challenge to think of yourself in the abstract, so add a few objects that have some symbolic meaning to you or capture what is important to you. Do sketches of these objects and work out ways of incorporating them into your composition.
You then need to decide on the printmaking method and colour scheme for this project.
You may make more than six prints for this assignment but however many you make aim for the best possible quality in design, technique and consistency of process. Your tutor will be looking for a well balanced design, good printed surface quality with neat edges and borders.