Working methods

Features on Ghislaine Howard's working methods:
  • Jane Fickling on the maternity unit residency - Daily Telegraph, 29 January 1993
  • In Conversation with Philip Vann - The Artist's and Illustrator's Magazine, October 1992
  • Ghislaine Howard on the genesis of a double portrait - the artist, July 1988
  • Ghislaine Howard on self-portraiture - the artist, May and June 1984

  • GHISLAINE HOWARD spent four months in a Manchester maternity hospital - painting.
    Jane Fickling reports

    Just picture the birth of twins

    Photograph: JAMES MILNE
    "I'm not at all brave but I found my pencil and paper acted as a barrier between me and the blood, and I had to work so fast to get it all down that I didn't have to think. Besides, I know that if I did pass out no one would stop to pick me up."

    War artist? Crime reporter? No, painter Ghislaine Howard has been witness and recorder to a more domestic life-and-death struggle - the emergency delivery of twins by Caesarean section. Mother and babies are doing well: "And I," says Ghislaine, "for all I thought I was detached, got a bit tearful when it was over and was on a high for days."

    It was the most dramatic moment of her four months spent drawing and painting expectant and newly-delivered mothers at St Mary's, the Manchester maternity hospital. From the ante-natal clinic to the delivery room, she recorded moments of tenderness, anxiety and sheer boredom.

    Ante-natal examination 1993
    oil on canvas
    91cm x 122cm
    36" x 48"

    Commissioned by Manchester City Art Galleries, the residency is believed to be the first of its kind in Britain. It was also exactly the kind of project which Ghislaine had been struggling to organise for some years. She had been talking to two other hospitals, one for maternity and one for geriatric patients, when the St Mary's commission was offered.

    Aged 39, she is primarily a portrait artist. But it was not until she became pregnant with her first child, Max, now eight, that she turned her brush on herself.

    "People have always been my theme," she says. "The thing that has always interested me is our shared humanity, the emotions and experiences which bind us together. My work has always been about my life and what is important to me, but even so I was surprised by the impact that pregnancy and motherhood had on me. It seemed an obvious thing to want to record, but I was surprised at how urgent the need was.

    "I think it was a way of making sense of the experience, getting it outside myself so that I could look at it, and also of keeping the moment forever. There seemed to be so little time. I found myself working in a much simpler, more direct way."

    The results are lifesize and larger-than-lifesize portraits of Ghislaine pregnant, a mother's eye-view of daughter Cordelia, now four, breast-feeding. Max struggling into his pyjamas or being tossed into the air by Ghislaine's art historian husband, Michael.

    She kept the same direct style for her work at the hospital, producing vigorous paintings in bold strokes of oil on canvas: "I think the work does reflect the urgency of the situation - not that it was all drama. In a hospital you get a whole range of emotions, the mundane waiting around for appointments, the day-to-day domestic routine of life on the ward, and then the drama, anxiety and elation of the delivery room."

    The paintings sacrifice fine detail to atmosphere and movement. Facial features are generally indistinct, although the subject matter, a baby feeding, sleeping, being born, is always examined in close-up.

    "I'm not a distant observer," says Ghislaine. "I think the close-up gives a sense of immediacy and that other parts of the body - the midwife's hands, for instance, or the surgeon's back - are just as expressive as the face."

    Her own face is elfin, topping a slight figure. Many of her canvases are considerably bigger than she is. "I am happiest working on a large scale. Painting is a very physical activity for me - my whole arm goes into it."

    Born in Eccles, Ghislaine trained at Newcastle University and then worked in London for a time. But for the past seven years the Howards have lived in Glossop, Derbyshire, and since she moved there she has discovered a growing interest in landscape painting. Her style translates easily. She favours strong but sombre colours.

    Remove the head and her painted torsos assume an elemental air reminiscent of the stark hills and valleys above her home.

    She works in an airy, not to say chilly, studio overlooking the river running through a deep cleft behind her stone cottage. While her children were small she learned to work in whatever brief spaces of time she could snatch, but now the house is blessedly peaceful during the day.

    In fact, it can become too peaceful - hence her plans for more hospital work, this time in the geriatric wards of the Shire Hill Hospital near her home. "I do have a need to get out and work with people," she says.

    "And I am fascinated by old faces, by the way a face changes as it becomes old, and the experiences that shape it. I spend a lot of time just talking to the patients at Shire Hill. It is a privilege to be allowed to share the intimate moments of people's lives."

    The Daily Telegraph, 29 January 1993

    GHISLAINE HOWARD talks to Philip Vann about painting her family and wider subjects

    'Even though some of my paintings of parenthood are very big and monumental, I do not lose the sense of the particular, of intimacy and tenderness'

    Your son Max was born in 1984 and your daughter, Cordelia, in 1987. How has this affected your life as a painter?

    Before the birth of my son, I used to waste so much time. Since then it's been a balancing act all the time. I remember when Max was tiny and I had a portrait commission, and I ended up painting with him in a sling support on my front. But the business of shortage of time has concentrated my mind tremendously, so that now I can make good use of any amount of time.

    When Max was born, I'd been offered a big exhibition at Salford City Art Gallery. I was so desperate that the birth of this child wasn't going to stop me working, that I said I'd have the show when he was six months old. So every time he shut his eyes I would be painting away like mad. There were times when I found it difficult and stressful, but looking back, I did enjoy it. A lot of the work then was based on him and my feeding him, so it did seem to fit in fairly naturally. I found reserves I didn't know I had.

    How do you cope with interruptions in the studio?

    When I paint, it's a very concentrated and quite frenzied activity, totally absorbing. I need to know I'm not going to be interrupted, even if it's only 15 minutes. I think 'I've got time' and the dog starts up an awful caterwauling and the phone rings! When Sesame Street was on television, every day at one, my children sat and watched it. That was a precious hour when I could work. My studio is attached to the house, but it's slightly apart, which is important. The building was originally a tripe factory! When I used to work in the front room at home, I could hear everything going on, but now it's very quiet.

    Early morning, Belle Ile 1983
    acrylic on canvas
    52cm x 42cm

    Study for self-portrait 1984
    oil on board
    86.5cm x 61cm
    34" x 24"
    How has your subject matter changed since you were a student?

    I studied art at Newcastle University, and looked a lot at Titian and Delacroix. I wanted then to paint very significant, dramatic pictures, scenes from novels and poetry, for instance, and was left very much to myself to do that. When I went to London as a postgraduate, I suffered quite a loss of confidence. I did a lot of reflective self-portraits and interiors. When I came back north, to my roots as it were, my work started to gain momentum and became more focused. I'd always been interested in painting the figure, but being pregnant and having children added a sense of urgency, also the sense of sharing a common condition.

    In a way, I don't see my landscape paintings as separate from my mother and child paintings. Since I moved back to Lancashire in 1980, the landscape has become very important. I think the landscape informs my figurative painting and has helped it to develop. I go for strong, monumental pieces of landscape, like stormy seas and cliffs, not attempting to paint them in a purely representational way.

    In 1984, during your first pregnancy, you made a striking series of autobiographical paintings and drawings. How conscious were you that this a rarely-depicted subject?
    Thinking back through the history of painting, there are very few images of pregnant women. There's the Madonna del Parto by Piero della Francesca, for example, and the Jan van Eyck Arnolfini portrait, if indeed she is pregnant. But such images are few and mostly by men. There are also the paintings of Paula Modersohn-Becker and works of more recent artists. It seemed obvious and necessary to me to record this most momentous experience. 

    Hospital study 1985
    charcoal on paper
    57cm x 75cm

    In my paintings of pregnancy, I notice a lot of blue, a colour reflecting quite an introspective time, a happy time with a slight sense of melancholy that things are changing. As the children have grown there have been paintings of them learning to walk and climb, and developing. I've painted Max Climbing the Stairs, not a particularly personalised image.

    Do you paint other women and their children?

    Yes I've done, for example, a lot of drawings of a friend feeding her new baby. Manchester City Art Gallery bought one of these. I do very many life drawings, studies from the human figure, which is the backbone of my art. Even though some of my paintings of parenthood are very big and monumental, I do not lose the sense of the particular, of intimacy and tenderness, little details like the tiny hand being held in the big adult hand, or the interplay between the feet of the mother and of the new child.

    Some of your most moving pictures are of shared moments between your husband and your children.

    Father and child 1985
    oil on canvas
    145cm x 115 cm

    Yes. You don't see many father and child pictures historically but that's changing now. I have done two paintings of Mike holding Max in the air. That was an intimate moment, suddenly catching sight of Mike throwing Max up into the air. [ Michael with Maxim ]
    I homed in on it as a tremendously strong image, the dark image of them against the light of the window. I made a rapid notation to evoke the pose and then had to go and get Mike to do it all over again! It was lovely, both nude figures, the wrapping around of the striped dressing gown against the light. It is a case of being aware all the time of pictorial possibilities. Another picture just shows the father's hands with the child. I like to focus very closely on particular parts, like purposefully excluding the head, showing just an eloquent movement of the hands.

    In painting and drawing, what are your preferred materials?

    I don't find pencil very sympathetic to work with. I use scene painter's charcoal, and broad director's brushes, made from hog's hair. For me, painting is a very physical process. I like using the whole arm, putting my whole self into it. I like best very coarse, heavy flax canvas, which I stretch to size.

    Initially in a painting I draw in simple shapes, the basic structure, with very rapid movements, add fairly thin washes of paint, then rework the charcoal into the paint. Next, I start to apply thicker paint in areas that seem to be the mainspring of the composition, pivots in the structural scaffolding, like here, the shoulder, there the neck. I use a palette knife to scrape off paint where need be, redefining all the time with charcoal.

    When do you consider a work finished?

    There's no way I'm seeking a static, finished object. In some pictures you can see, for example, that an arm has been in two or more different positions, and very often I'll leave that out because I'm happy for a record of the making of the picture, traces of movement, to be left. There is often a dialogue between the raw canvas and heavily worked areas. From underpainting, all sorts of colours come through.

    Do you paint en plein air towards landscape paintings?
    Yes, I do lots of rapid sketches and inky watercolours, which I bring back to the studio. That's where the invention really begins. I end up taking liberties and pushing things around until a memory of the feeling of being there re-emerges, the feeling of the elements, the spray of the water and so on.

    Which artists have you particularly admired?

    Titian, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Cézanne. Bonnard was very important to me at one stage. In recent years, I've looked at Modersohn-Becker and Kathe Kollwitz, not to imitate them, but in the way that looking at other artists' work is a form of nourishment.

    Cleft in the Rocks,
    Flamborough Head 1990
    oil on canvas
    145cm x 115cm

    Living and working near Manchester, what relationship do you have with the London art world?

    As a northern artist, in terms of exhibitions and sales, you have to go to London. I really recovered my confidence coming back north to live, and I was very chary then about the London art scene. It's a question of waiting till you're ready, though even then it's very hard getting to exhibit in London galleries. In 1991, I had an exhibition at the Boundary Gallery in St John's Wood, and recently I showed some works at the Bruton Street Gallery in Mayfair.

    When you're painting away, you don't necessarily think about all the tedious, mundane tasks that you wish somebody else would do for you: photographing works, sending out slides, keeping an eye out for open exhibitions, sending in paintings, approaching galleries, sorting out framing and so on. It's necessary to promote yourself. If your paintings just sit in the studio racks, you're not communicating anything. You have to make a bridge between yourself and the public. The only way you can do that is by working with the galleries, the middlemen.

    How do you see the future development of your work?

    I'm now working on drawings towards a series of paintings on the theme of 'Stations of the Cross', concentrating on the single figure. I've recently been offered a Residency by the Manchester City Art Gallery in a maternity unit in a local hospital, leading to a show at Manchester City Art Gallery in early 1993. It's very exciting having the opportunity to tackle the same intimate subject matter I have always done but in a wider, more public context. These ambitious new works complete a cycle, bringing me back to the preoccupation of those artists I have always loved, namely depicting our common, vulnerable humanity.

    The Artist's and Illustrator's Magazine, October 1992

    The double portrait:

    Richard Kendall and
    Richard Thomson

    For a long time it has been Ghislaine Howard's practice to paint portraits of her friends and to incorporate into the paintings visual references to their professional and personal interests. Here, she describes the genesis of one of her double portraits

    Little Dancer No 1
    oil on canvas
    18" x 14"
    46cm x 35.5cm

    Collection of Bradford City Art Gallery

    In January 1987, the exhibition The Private Degas opened at the Whitworth Art Gallery [in Manchester]. Organised by Richard Thomson, a lecturer in art history at Manchester University, it explored the means by which Edgar Degas arrived at his startling images. Being an admirer of his work I found this insight into his studio practice intensely stimulating and made many drawings and studies of the exhibits.

    By coincidence, at the same time another friend, the artist and art historian Richard Kendall, was working on a book and some articles about Degas. As both men knew each other well, it seemed a perfect opportunity to record not only their mutual interests and regard for each other's work, but also to give expression to my own admiration for Degas by attempting one of the types of painting for which he is best known: the double portrait.

    I had already made several portraits of art historian friends, as they present to the artist with my interests the opportunity to express not only the likeness and character of the individual, but also references to their fields of study. In 1986 I made a portrait of John Sheeran, then Keeper at Dulwich Art Gallery, now Curator of the permanent collection at Cartwright Hall, Bradford, and a contributor to this magazine. At that time he had completed two shows; one dedicated to transcriptions of the works in the Dulwich collection, and one to the British painter of the boxing scene, Sam Rabin. He had also been engaged in the preparation of a Poussin exhibition.

    Portrait of John Sheeran
    oil on canvas
    60" x 48"
    152.5cm x 122cm

    In the portrait (left) John is shown checking proofs of his Rabin catalogue, framed by a painting which has special significance for him, Poussin's The Nature of Jupiter. To suggest his interest in transcriptions I included  on the left side of the canvas a partially completed reworking of the same Poussin. The sitter is seen surrounded by his enthusiasms, and completely immersed in his work. I wanted the painting to suggest something of the monumental grandeur of the gallery building and its contents and so I began the painting by stretching a large piece of canvas on the studio wall and blocking in the major elements of the composition as freely as possible to allow the subject to find its own scale. Gradually, as I worked on the portrait, it began to assume a size relative to the paintings of that collection.
    I felt that the picture was successful within the terms I had set myself, and it gave me the confidence to embark upon the much more ambitious project of the double portrait. Not wishing to produce a pastiche of Degas, I resolved to begin the painting as two separate canvases which could be joined together within a single frame. I knew that I wanted the final painting to be a large one, but the first things to resolve were the relationship between the figures and the nature of the space that both men were to inhabit.

    I wanted to achieve a sense of reality, to produce the kind of space that would be, initially at least, believable as a breathable atmosphere; the details could wait. It was important to capture in the the poses something that would be instantly recognisable to those who knew the two men as being a 'true' expression of some part of their personality.

    Before starting work on more specific studies I made several compositional sketches. These focused my thoughts on possible compositional ideas, and gave me a basis for the drawings and studies that were to follow. As I drew Richard Thomson working in his attic study, I decided to use that setting in conjunction with the exhibition space at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Richard Kendall was more problematic; his interest in Degas has affected both his painting and his academic work as an art historian. Somehow I had to resolve these complexities into one compact image.

    After a few false starts, I decided to show him in his study and to refer to his practical interest in the subject by including one of his own paintings in the portrait; that of Degas as an old man sitting in front of a garden trellis, a work owned by Richard Thomson. On the desk would be the paraphernalia of his present research interests including his prized photograph of Degas' spectacles. I made many rapid sketches of the two figures, not attempting to capture their precise features but trying to catch a pose, movement or gesture that I felt to be typical and which would be seen as such by people who knew them.
    One of the pastel studies of Richard Thomson standing in his study, talking on the telephone, served as an effective counterpoint to my idea of having Richard Kendall leaning over his desk; Thomson's pose evolved quite naturally. The first drawings were 'stiff' and rather too formal for my liking; I dislike the formality of posed drawing sessions and much prefer to work with the sitter whilst actively engaged in his work. As so often happens in such cases the artificiality of the situation is broken when the outside world intrudes upon the pre-arranged drawing session. The telephone rang and, forgetting my presence in answering it, he fell into the characteristic pose that I had been hoping for - a fortuitous link with my original concept of Thomson as a standing figure; the two poses creating a visual tension familiar in many of Degas' paintings.

    Study of Richard Thomson
    pastel and charcoal on paper
    33.5" x 23.5"
    85cm x 59.5cm

    Although I rely mainly on quick charcoal drawings and pastel sketches to develop my ideas and capture something of the visual reality of the sitters, I also use a camera loaded with a fast film and, with little regard for the rules of photography, I take a number of shots between sketches. I find that the more blurred or quirky the results, the more likely they are to stimulate my imagination.
    A series of painted sketches followed. Some were rapid oil sketches, in which I pushed colours and forms around to explore and fix the relationship of the figures to the canvas area. Others were more highly finished tonal studies which have become paintings in their own right. Some of these were used to test a certain compositional idea, to find out how far, for example, the voluminous bulk of Richard Kendall's jumper could be exaggerated to create an effective foil to Richard Thomson's vertical pose.

    Compositional study of Richard Kendall
    pastel and charcoal on paper
    33.5" x  23.5"
    85cm x 59.5cm

    I continued to work in this manner right through the various stages of the painting itself. I enjoy using a heavy, coarsely woven unbleached flax which has the resilience to withstand the punishment it receives, and a fairly limited palette consisting of white and black, cadmium red and vermilion, alizarin crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium orange, cadmium yellow, Naples yellow, cerulean blue and French ultramarine, and occasionally veridian green. Because of the texture of the canvas I find hog's hair brushes most suitable for my needs.

    I worked on all areas of the canvas at once, drawing and painting at the same time. The initial marks were made with scene painters' charcoal, which was then  freely brushed over with thin paint, improvising as the picture progressed. Details were added and subtracted as the days passed, allowing conscious deliberation and chance to take active parts in the picture-making process.
    The space around Richard Kendall was naturalistically based from the start, whilst, due to my decision to incorporate references to the Degas show, the spatial construction of the Thomson canvas became more ambiguous as the work progressed. I have always been fascinated by accounts of Degas' studio, and I wanted to create some kind of feeling of the chaos in which he worked at the end of his life.

    Compositional study of Richard Thomson
    pastel and charcoal on paper
    33.5" x 23.5"
    85cm x 59.5cm
    Around the standing figure I began to weave a collage of images taken from sketches made during the dismantling of the show. These began to spill over into the Kendall half of the painting, across a charcoal drawing of Degas' Little Dancer that I had made over the connecting sides of the two canvases. Richard Kendall had also produced paintings of this sculpture and I felt that the piece had just the right sense of contained energetic movement to unite the two works.

    The small figure to the left of the joined canvas with its arm upraised in a distinctive painting posture began as a sketch of a Degas bather, but as I worked on the painting it assumed the guise of a self-portrait, glimpsed in a studio mirror whilst at work. Soon after this, the painting declared itself finished. The trellis work was strengthened, the figure of the attendant redefined and the horse in the left hand corner reworked. The canvas still had a pleasing balance of finish across its surface; some areas heavly painted, or scraped down; other areas showing the weave of the raw canvas and the original charcoal marks. I decided to leave well alone.
    The painting was intended to be a portrait of two friends and an exploration of some aspects of Degas' art. In keeping with the theme of Richard Thomson's show it also became in a sense a set of transcriptions of Degas' work. It made me realise the extent of Degas' genius in being able to suggest, as I did not attempt to do in any obvious way, a sense of mood or psychological tension. 

    The Degasists
    (2 canvases)

    Early stage, showing clearly the charcoal drawing and some of the preliminary 'brushing in'
    oil on canvas
    56" x 92"
    142cm x 234cm

    What I wished to evoke was the concentration and dedication of these two scholars in the pursuit of their chosen area of study, and at the same time pay my own hommage à Degas.

    Ghislaine Howard
    the artist, July 1988
    The Degasists (Two canvases) Final stage 
    oil on canvas
    56" x92"
    142cm x 234cm

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