Human Condition

 Final A2 prints

Human Condition 3: Fury
Human Condition: Fury

Overview and Assessment

These prints were initially inspired by the exhibition at Tate Britain ‘All Too Human’ and based on abstraction from a series of pastel life drawings. It deals with stereotypes of women and femininity – these being as much part of ‘Human Condition’ as experiences of men. The final images and their meanings evolved as an interaction between the process of abstraction and inking and printing.This is very much the approach of the artists who inspired the series:

The struggle is part of making things work. (Jenny Saville)

If anything ever does work in my case chance, and what I call ‘accident’ takes over. (Francis Bacon)

Painting isn’t an aesthetic operation; it’s a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange, hostile world and us, a way of seizing the power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires.(Picasso)


A picture is not thought out and settled beforehand. While it is being done it changes as one’s thoughts change. And when it is finished, it still goes on changing, according to the state of mind of whoever is looking at it. (Picasso)

Although obviously I cannot compare my inexperienced ‘accidents’ from  to the skilled experimentation of Saville, Bacon and Picasso, printmaking for me is a process of exploration of media, inks, paper and how these affect and build meaning. Not just making a print from a pre-determined design. Particularly with monoprint and collagraph.

I started with what I thought was a reasonably clear idea from my life drawing and digital experiments. I produced some reasonably interesting colour and shape combinations, aiming for something like the Picasso 1932 paintings. Initially as large abstract linocuts or woodcuts. It was only as I had already started that the further link with the Tate Exhibition occurred to me as a real linking theme – leading me to look in detail at Saville and Bacon as well as Picasso. I had also by then become very interested in the cross-over between collagraph and monoprint to mix techniques from Project 2.1 Formal Abstract Prints and 2.2 Random Abstract Prints. Then as soon as I started work the images started to develop meaning. As I prepared the images for assessment and looked at which to select as part of my Portfolio and which would be supporting images, the order and meanings changed yet again from a series of three images to:

  • Fury (originally Human Condition 3 inspired by Bacon) was selected for my Portfolio because it fitted more with the narrative of the rest of the images I selected around ‘From the Edge of Nightmare’ and abstract my self-portraits. The Fury in the context of the Portfolio relates to anger against the world and death, rather than gender issues per se.
  • Love (originally inverted orientation as Human Condition 2: Flesh inspired by Jenny Saville) seemed to fit well as a dyptych around stereotypes of women with a contrast between an idealised sweet adoring young female and the smug huge-lipped muscular male.
  • Fallen (originally Human Condition 1) is based on icons of Virgin Mary and stereotypes of female purity and suffering – the large blank brown area bottom right shows the inevitable emptiness of that ideal.

I learned a lot from this project. I enjoyed exploring different possible abstractions from the same image and different colour possibilities. I particularly enjoyed the inking using different instruments and techniques – including gloved fingers. I kept discovering new things – new possibilities for abstracting the shapes as I cut, the ways particular types of paper reacted with glue and water, how particular textures revealed themselves in different ways with a particular thickness/viscosity of ink. With each inking and even after I had finished the final images, new interpretations and linkages occurred to me.

I am quite pleased with the final prints. I think the images have a good impact and also textural interest. Probably if I had decided on the final theme before I started then I could have made the images hang together better as a series with a more specifically linked set of titles eg as a Bacon Triptych. Multiple colour schemes and interpretations for each image would be possible. I could have pushed all of them more to either complete abstraction, or greater figuration.  But part of my aim in this assignment was to explore abstraction and go with the flow. If I had stuck too tightly to my original digital ideas – producing rather flat more ‘pretty’ abstracts, I would not have discovered so much. Plenty of ideas to take forward in future.

Choice of theme and media

For this assignment I decided to use some of my pastel life drawings. I started by going back through my portfolio to see which images I liked and thought would be suitable for an abstract treatment. I cropped these to fit into an A2 sketchbook – this was an interesting process and improved the images.

I also explored further crop possibilities in Lightroom and Procreate on my iPad. I then explored different abstraction and colour options for these images (see below) before finally deciding on the first three drawings for further development.

I considered a number of media options drawing on earlier abstract linocut and back-traced monoprints I had done in Printmaking 1 before deciding to combine the work I had been doing with abstract collagraph shapes in Project 2.1 with the ink experiments I had done in Project 2.2.

The discussion below is in the original narrative order of the series.

Human Condition: Fallen

Originally Human Condition 1, this print is based on a very reflective pose. I was attracted by the triangular shapes and the muted colours. I was reminded of the images of Mary Magdelene and the discussion in a recent BBC documentary: “Mary Magdelene Art’s Scarlett Woman”.

My final crop of the pastel drawing in Lightroom focuses in on the woman’s face.

I then made a number of different versions to abstract from this.

Version 1: retains the eye and chair as well as curve lines.

Version 2: omits the eyes as a blank face

Version 3: starts to take the image to unrecognisable abstraction

Version 4: simplifies the image – not more like the Virgin Mary. I experiment with different tonal variations and slight differences in the shape of the face.

The image had now become much more one of virginal nun-like purity: the Virgin Mary rather than Mary Magdelene. I decided to lengthen the image again from the square format to portrait and made a plate with very simple shapes in corrugated cardboard, cartridge paper and tracing paper, making the dark areas thicker to emboss deeper.

I made three preliminary prints experimenting with different blues and browns, and using ink as well as solvent.

I produced two final images. The first image is more abstract and less obvious. But I felt the colours do not fit so well with the others in the series. In the second image I like the very dark dense brown unknown in the bottom right. Also the face retains more of the white purity of the virgin. So now a combination of the ‘two Maries’ virgin and sinner. A second more feminist interpretation is that purity is empty and pointless suffering.

Human Condition : Love (originally Flesh)

The original image Human Condition 2: Flesh was suggested by the body portraits of Jenny Saville, with flesh textures like some of those I had done in Project 2.2.

For this image I had a much clearer picture in my head of the colours and feel. It was also already nearly abstract. So I only developed one digital image – I like the way the pink looks like entrails, as well as breast and arm.

I then made this into a collagraph plate. This time using a wider range of textures. I was interested in the ways in which different types of paper eg wrinkled blotting paper or tracing paper give different body textures. As well as meanings of different shapes like the elision of the crease at the crotch and shape of vagina and womb from all those biology texts.

I really enjoyed inking this plate. I used my fingers and rubber gloves smearing the ink around the form. Again inspired by Jenny Saville. The first inking was the most smeary, oily and tactile. But printed too flat, so it went through a process of refinement into 4 prints. These aimed to enhance the different textures from the paper – the veining of the blotting paper right leg and the ridges on the tracing paper on the left leg. I added turpentine to get more interest on the flat red area.

The final image I was very careful with the lines and solvent. It is now a mixture of abstract and figurative. Possibly I could experiment further with different styles – pushing more into abstraction or increasing the 3D form – through varying the inking. I could also try very different colours, particularly for abstraction. But that was not the aim of this particular series – more a series in itself.

I was quite pleased with this image as sent to my tutor. But the bottom right area troubled me as being out of place. While preparing for assessment I happened to see the print upside down and this suggested a different narrative that fitted well with ‘Fallen’ as the dyptich above.

Human Condition 2: Flesh
Human Condition 2: Flesh

Human Condition: Fury

Clare is a racing driver. I really like the way she holds her head proud and almost glares out of the frame, particularly in the final crop.

Again I did a number of digital composition and colour experiments. It was very interesting how many very different variations were possible.
Version 1 used four colours on the original sketch, converting it to square format and using different crops. Progressively simplifying to become more abstract.

Version 2 was monochrome on the original sketch, converting it to square format and using different crops to further the abstraction to unrecognisability.

Version 3 used the cropped image. But was too complicated and lost a lot of the feel of the portrait in the simplification focusing on the left eye.

Version 4 used the cropped image, focusing on the right eye, leaving out the nose and mouth. This accentuated the proud muscles of the neck that really gave the portrait ‘attitude’. This was the version I finally chose.

I made up the collagraph plate using tracing paper and cartridge paper with just a few sharp corrugated cardboard strips. My initial thought was sort of ‘Picasso’.

But this was the image I was least sure about in terms of meaning, colours and textures. As it was the last image, I continued using the same inks, just to see what they might look like. It was at that stage that I discovered the scream mouth – and started to think of Francis Bacon (as well as the obvious Munch). I also found that the tracing paper had wrinkled to a really interesting skeletal texture.

The final image I made more subtle, emphasising the textures. I was not sure what to call this very alien-looking image – I had been calling it ‘Scream’, but that was really too obvious. I thought of ‘fear’ and ‘angst’, but they seemed too passive for the feel of the original portrait. I thought of ‘defiance’, but that did not have much of a ring to it. Then looking back through the paintings on Francis Bacon I discovered ‘Fury’ – both the Greek Furies and anger/protest.

Human Condition 3: Fury
Human Condition 3: Fury. A2 Collagraph. Oil-based Hawthorne inks on cartridge paper.

Selected abstract crops and inverted ghosts

As part of cleaning the collagraph plate and finishing the ink (to reduce water pollution) I experimented with inverting the image and overprinting as I had done in Project 1.3 Urban Abstracts. This produced two interesting images that could be developed further.

I also cropped and cut the less successful prints to see whether interesting images might be made through cutting and working further into the images that did not work as a final print.

I am particularly pleased with these two contrasting landscape/seascapes that I think make a nice dyptich.

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