Exercise: Telling a story -preparation

Create a simple narrative involving one or several human figures and produce a painting that gives the viewer the clearest possible idea of what’s happening…

I considered various  scenarios for this exercise mostly focused around people enjoying the beach but influenced by my visit to Elda’s Calais exhibition last weekend and current events I decided to focus on migration and refugees. I looked at news photos of bombed cities in Syria and migrants who have  made it to Europe. This was an uncomfortable task as I was  closely reading expressions and body language and couldn’t help but feel the contrast between my comfortable life and that of the people I was focusing on.

I did two exploratory paintings in my sketchbook. Actually I did a third of a crying child but I didn’t do justice to the image and have not included it. Drawing and painting the soft and vulnerable features of a child is challenging. Something I must come back to.


A4 Sketchbook – Migrant family sheltering from the rain at the border of Greece and Macedonia

Sketchbook picture 1 (from a photo by Sloyan Nenov/Reuters)

This is a migrant family hoping to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia. They are sheltering from the rain under a blanket but they are already soaked to the skin. It’s a desperate situation. I feel this could translate into a painting… I’m visualising a collaged background of bombed out homes representing what the family is fleeing / sheltering from. I’m going to keep the idea in mind and save it for Part 5 when I think we get to have a go at multimedia.


A4 Sketchbook (watercolour/pen) – Stranded at the Macedonian border – Iranian migrants on hunger strike

Sketchbook picture 2 (from a photo by Yannis Behrakis)

When I worked for Reuters, I helped to set up a touring photographic exhibition, Inside:Outside, which included Yannis’s photographs of Kosova. He was a talented photographer then and has gone on to win multiple awards including The Guardian’s 2015 photographer of year. The photograph is a group of stranded Iranian migrants who are on hunger strike. Some have their lips sewn together. They are sitting on the tracks near the border with Macedonia. Their expressions speak volumes about the hardship and despair they feel… they have nearly given up but not quite because the strength of the bonds between them are keeping them going… just. It’s a very emotional image.  It’s hard-hitting but it has beauty too. This is the picture I’m going to work with for this exercise.

I photographed my sketchbook painting and, to help me think about how I would translate this into a larger acrylic painting without slavishly copying the photo, I played around with colour and effects in Photoshop.


Vibrant colours – very Fauve – effective but not right for this subject




Black and white






Photocopy effect


Graphic pen effect









Definitely leaning towards a black and white or very limited palette with a preference for the pen effect as I would like to continue experimenting with drawing lines in paintings (Jonathan Yeo influence). I’m thinking a colour palette with a little brown along the lines of the Henry Moore Shelter drawings… these have a tone and mood that seems just right. See Woman seated in the Underground.

Then I experimented with cropping the picture to square in order to focus on the three very strong figures that create a kind of triangle of strength. The first crop below is my preference as it is nicely balanced. Three are three faces and three hands (I could give some additional emphasis to the hands). Also there are some strong lines in the image that I might be able to exploit.  This all feels as though it has come together into a reasonable plan.


My preferred approach for the final painting









Another idea

votives3 votives-1 votices-2


Ideas are like buses… either none come along at all or a whole load come together and you can only get on one. I’m thinking about the votive figures I sketched from a museum visit in Umbria. The figures are often damaged with broken or missing limbs and sometimes they appear to be running or dancing  in a deranged way. These figures are dug up from and around the remains of ancient buildings and I’m thinking about the war in Syria and the bombed buildings and the terrible injuries people have sustained.  I could paint my votive figures against a backdrop of buildings reduced to rubble and they could represent the people who have escaped but not without emotional and physical scars.

Also see Telling a story – Final painting


2 thoughts on “Exercise: Telling a story -preparation

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