Drawing One Part Two Still Life Research Point Ben Nicholson and check and log page 62

Research Point

Find out about Ben Nicholson

Why does Ben Nicholson simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?


History: Ben Nicholson 1894-1982 Born in Buckinghamshire, into an artistic family, the son of artists Sir William and Mabel Nicholson.

Landscape by William Nicholson:

Sir William NicholsonThe Hill above Harlech c.1917

ref:   http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nicholson-the-hill-above-harlech-t01047

he studied at the Slade school

Married artist Winifred Roberts in 1920 ref: http://www.artrepublic.com/biographies/85-ben-nicholson.html

(I enclose two pictures by her as I can see both in form and colour the influences that she may have had on Nicholson’s work.)

1)  Flowers Wrapped in Paper, Kings Road

ref:  http://www.winifrednicholson.com/node/219/35

2) Quarante Huit Quai d’Auteuil 1935

ref:  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nicholson-quarante-huit-quai-dauteuil-t01995

Both these paintings by Winifred demonstrate the colour scheme, the abstraction and the use of simple forms to depict an image which are to be found in Ben’s work.

 Ben Nicholson initially painted still lifes and landscapes, influenced by  his father  ref: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/ben-nicholson-om-1702

But in early 1920s he visited Paris and met with: Picasso, Braque, Brancusi and Arp and later Mondrian with whom he formed a close friendship and invited to England to live and work closely in Hampstead. -and became influenced by these artists, particularly Braque, and by postmodernism and cubism.

He joined the Abstraction Creation group (1933)and painted-“Au Chat Botte” (1932)-(Puss in Boots this was the name of a shoe shop in Dieppe in which the red lettering on the window made him think of the interaction between the real objects and the reflections and so with imagined dimensions Ref:http://www.manchestergalleries.org/the-collections/search-the-collection/display.php?EMUSESSID=0ed19293d12422868298b94770106541&irn=5640)

Image ref:  http://arteverywhere.org.uk/artwork/1932-au-chat-botte/

He eventually became involved in pure abstraction attempting to convey sensations rather than just observation. “Dependance on observation gave way to construction….(with other) artists, (he) tried to convey the sensations….no longer standing outside nature but striving to become one with it”… ref: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/ben-nicholson-om-1702

In 1938 he remarried  the artist, sculpture Barbara Hepworth : As his relationship with Hepworth developed during the 1930s her influence may have been seen in his work: ““White Reliefs of 1933-8, which he carved, suggest the influence of both Hepworth and Mondrian.” Ref: http://www.artrepublic.com/biographies/85-ben-nicholson.html

Sculpture by Barbara Hepworth:

ref:  http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/hepworth-oval-sculpture-no-2-t00953

Work by Mondrian at around the same period:


One of Nicholson’s white reliefs:

ref: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nicholson-1936-white-relief-sculpture-version-1-t07274

The influence of Mondrian was recently the subject of an exhibition of the two artists works side by side at the Courtauld Gallery London . ref  http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/exhibitions/2012/mondrian-nicholson/index.shtml:

The influence of Mondrian was intense in the early years and Nicholson after visiting his Paris studio in 1934 is quoted as saying “I remember after this first visit sitting at a café table on the edge of a pavement …..and sitting there for a very long time with an astonishing feeling of quiet and repose!’ref: http://www.waterman.co.uk/artists/164-Ben-Nicholson/biography/  Hence he was exceptionally impressed, by Piet Mondrian’s work (who was 20yrs his senior)

Mondrian moved to London in 1938 and they worked in neighbouring Hampstead studios –they were both driven by a “profound belief in the potential of abstract art to create new forms of beauty and visual power” .  :ref::


 He argued for painting to be a metaphysical abstraction, painting to be a religious experience Nicholson is said to have believed “White reliefs: “have a purity sustained by idealism”

 (ref: book  “British Art since 1900” by Frances Spalding  ISBN:0-500-20204)

“Landscape by itself is meaningless, but it works on our feelings in profound ways, arousing in us a sense of ourselves in relation to the outside world. What does it feel like to stare up at the night sky or to confront a mountain?  A picture which mimics the appearance of natural phenomena will miss the point, not just of their essential nature, but of ours too.  Instead, some equivalent has to be found: an equivalent of the way in which they act upon our sensibilities.
– Christopher Neve, Unquiet Landscape ref: http://gerryco23.wordpress.com/2010/12/03/ben-nicholsons-cornwall/

Liberation of form and colour by abstract art was believed to be linked to other forms of freedom

Mondrian’s influence was not absolute but a stepping point for his development “While Mondrian pushes everything to the surface of the painting, employing the simplest primary colours, Nicholson explores the spatial effects of subtler, secondary hues. Where Mondrian’s compositions appear weightless, pulling outwards in every direction, as though sprung from within, Nicholson’s can seem to drag towards the base of the canvas.” ref: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/9094226/Mondrian-Nicholson-in-Parallel-The-Courtauld-review.html

Nicholson uses the minimalist geometry similar to that of Mondrian’s work, but loses the colour.

The first white relief was made in 1933 in wood with geometric  lines and circles and showed “a love of English understatement, linear elegance and tonal restraint” Ref: British Art since 1900:

Nicholson joined with a group of like-minded artists and architects who wanted to apply ‘constructivist’ principles to public and private art, advocating mathematical precision, clean lines and an absence of ornament and In 1935 he chaired the organisation “ Seven and Five Society and organised the first abstract exhibition in England ref: http://www.waterman.co.uk/artists/164-Ben-Nicholson/biography/ef:


In  1935 he moved to Cornwall with Barbara Hepworth and helped form the St Ives school ref: http://www.waterman.co.uk/artists/164-Ben-Nicholson/biography/

In 1958 he moved to Switzerland with his third wife, the photographer Felicitas Vogler.

He was a determined avoider of formality and convention in his life and in his art’ (DNB).ref: http://www.waterman.co.uk/artists/164-Ben-Nicholson/biography/

Why does Ben Nicholson simplify still life forms and negative space and superimpose them on the Cornish landscape?

Some Nicholson paintings:

Nicholson was experimenting with the relationship of objects in space

1943-1945 (St Ives Cornwall)

( ref: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/nicholson-1943-45-st-ives-cornwall-n05625)

In this painting the very angular and large forms of the cups with their sweeping but regular patterned handles sit in what appears to be a window-as the horizontal frame and curtains at either side can be seen . This composition has little tone, being made up of three or four colours based on greys and grey browns—the only colour is the small union jack flag. Behind these cups and window ledge are the outlines or what appear to be roof tops and chimneys-depicted in the same colours as the foreground with no difference in tones orcolour. Then perched on areas of light brown and blue are several small toy-like boats—simple in their rendering and without tone or shading and very small in comparison to the foreground cups. One of the boats on the right picks up the colour of the red on the union Jack  but otherwise the colours are very monotone as in the foreground, with structures demarcated by black. There are some small houses represented by feint lines to the left of the boats.

Behind the boats are the impressions of hills which do have some tonal variation although the colours are the same if a little lighter in tone than the foreground.

The overall image is one of large foreground blocks of shades of grey and more detailed patterns in the background. There is little movement and no figures.

Everything is reduced to basic shapes .

It has a feeling of light, with a quiet harmony with few colours.

I like the work a lot because of its basic shapes and reduced colours and the child-like representation of the foreground and background.

Objects are represented not only by their outline but by the spaces between them (negative spaces) and the impressions of distant views or objects are reduced in size and colour with the removal of perspective.   A play with lines and shapes of different sizes and minimal colours which vary little with distance.

By doing this the picture becomes a game of shapes and spaces, the picture is a whole and not a foreground and background. The picture is lost to a sensation and impression.


ref:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/paintings/11-november-1947-mousehole-177113

Here once again domestic pieces which appear to be glasses and a bottle of wine are made into angular (cuboid) blocks of textured colour and placed in the foreground of a patterned landscape depicting a harbour in which a small child like boat floats. The colours are once again reduced with greys, creams  and light browns, split by black patches, reflected in foreground and background. The only diversion from the colour scheme are the greens of the hills on the right behind the angular structure of the glasses and bottle. This feels a little like the preparation for a picnic or wine on the verandah as those partaking look over the quiet harbour. It has a feeling of quiet of peace and of opulence as well as a rugged sensation of the outdoors.

Again the foreground is reduced to a collection of geometric shapes which catch the eye and lead you into an obvious harbour scene, which being reduced in detail and transformed to geometrical shapes blends and harmonises with the foreground into a sensation rather than an objective picture.

Check and Log page 62
How much negative space do you have?
In some of the drawings there was little negative space in others more –I like the use of the whole page as in the pencil hatched drawings and some of the felt tip representations of fruit and vegatebles, I like the activity in the background in the oil pastel representation of the vegetables, the oil pastel bowl of fruit crowds in the centre with poor use of negative space–there are two blocks -the fruit bowl and the space around which makes the picture less interesting.
What have you learned from drawing fruit and vegetables?
the colours of felt tip are useful
pencils are once again a means to delicate representation
filling the page with shapes is more interesting than drawing a central composition
underlying colours in different media adds great interest and more excitement
What did you find most challenging?
Acceptance of felt tip -but if you want gaudy brightness then they are the thing to use
I like the compositions which look down on the vegetables or fruit.