Repetitions and compositions: The rewards of trial and error

In painting, and in all art for that matter, repetition can be the artists’ best friend and worse enemy simultaneously. Anyone who has ever taken a drawing class will know how much looking and drawing and looking and drawing again is drilled into you during the creative process, and this notion of revisiting or even recreating a work can be a very useful method for developing the piece. Just as we see artists use sketches and rough plans to influence their work, we also see repetitions in their paintings’ subjects, often described as a muse. Some famous examples include Francis Bacon’s paintings of Robert Dyer, which exemplify the repetition of a subject – in this case the artist’s lover, which takes us back to the painter-subject relationship. But I digress – shows us how the artist can use the same subject or pose, repeated multiple times, not only to develop and explore their representation of the subject but also to explore their relationship and the way they are defined through paint. 

First painted sketch

First painted sketch

For me, repetition in my work has often taken a different form. I have used repeated drawing of a subject as a method in my process to understand the composition of the figure better, however recently, I have found that I am using repetition as a developmental stage; painting a subject multiple times, in various sizes, colours and styles, as a kind of trail for new works. As my work stems from digital imagery, I often find myself with a multitude of images, sketches and ideas for paintings, yet as I begin to create them on the canvas, they do not reflect the original image in the way I wanted. Often, in this situation I will spend time reworking, covering, altering and re-painting the piece, until it feels more like the plan I have in my head.

Second, larger sketch

Second, larger sketch

About a week ago, I found an image that I instantly wanted to paint, the crop I chose focused on the shoulder, chin and chest of the subject, with wonderful contrast of shadows and bright patches of light on the skin. Contrary to my usual process, I did not draw this image prior to embarking on painting. I began with a small canvas and a selection of paints and created a quick sketch of the composition I had chosen. Whilst this ‘sketch’ was successful, it felt miles away from the bold, stylised works that have come to encompass my interests and passion as an artist. Rather than continue to work on this same piece and try and change it, I decided instead to try and recreate it. Transposing it onto a larger canvas, I wanted to try and exaggerate the colours, explore the visible brushstrokes of the original work and examine how this differs to the colour-blocking method that has been so successful in previous works. Both this piece and the initial sketch are reminiscent of my earlier painting days, before I began to develop my ‘style’. Despite being more painterly, which I have often strived for in my work, they seemed almost too much like portraits than the abstract/figurative works I employ to discuss themes of context, objectification and inhabitation of the body.

Large work in progress

Large work in progress

As such, I once again decided to try this composition out again, this time sticking to my process a little more rigidly; I sketched the outline onto a 100 x 100cm canvas and filled in large blocks of tone to cover the background, areas of colour on the shoulder, neck, chin, and collar bones. Following this I have begun working into the painting, building layers of colour and tone, using shapes and lines to accentuate the contours of the subjects body and explore the breadth of the palette. Despite this still being a work in progress, I am so pleased with how this painting is developing, and although very different to the initial small sketch, I feel this work is much more reflective of my style of painting and is much more effective in discussing the figure than the simple ‘portrait’ I began with.

So here we can see a repetition and how much it can effect composition – especially when your initial plans for the perfect image do not translate into paint at first. I am definitely no Francis Bacon, and as yet have not found a specific muse for my works, but more and more I am understanding that revisiting and recreating one image or subject or composition can – and will – be valuable for yourself, and also will create a work that may not have existed if we all only painted something once. I bet Monet’s first water lily wasn’t all that…

Felicity Beaumont