A few months ago, I went to an exhibition at the Ashmolean in Oxford. One of the sections of the exhibition, which was on American Modernism, covered Precisionism, a movement I had not previously been familiar with. It was born in the industrial heart of America in the 1920s and 1930s, and included painters such as Charles Demuth, Louis Lozowick and Joseph Stella, and photographers such as Paul Strand. Taking inspiration from Cubism and Futurism, its themes were industrial and architectural; factories, machinery, chimneys, bridges, streets, apartments and office blocks. The predominant colours seemed to be black, grey, red, blue and brown, with straight lines and perspective being an important feature. As well as the colours and the subject matter, I was taken by the use of words and letters in some of Demuth’s work, in partly obscured signs, or the iconic “I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold”.
On my daily commute one day soon after, I was struck by a particularly pleasing composition as I left the train at Bristol Temple Meads station. It had all the elements of a Precisionist piece; the industrial architecture, the colours and the perspective. I snapped a few photos with my phone and went on to work. So it goes. The more you enrich your brain with new ideas and images, the more you notice such things in your everyday life.
Then, a few weeks ago, I treated myself to a new book; “Artful Adventures in Mixed Media” by Nathalie Kalbach. With a chapter on urban inspiration, and techniques including monoprinting and collage, I returned to my railway station photos with a new enthusiasm to create a Precisionism-inspired piece. With a bit of photo enhancing to bring out the contrast and increase the saturation, here is my reference photo.
First, I decided to do an experiment in monoprinting. Using an acetate sheet, I traced the photo straight from the screen of my laptop (I’ve never been much good at perspective, and that was one thing that had to look right in this style of work). Then, using acrylic paint on the back of the acetate, I painted in each area one at a time with block colour, pressing a sheet of paper over the top and wiping off the excess paint from the acetate each time. Now, acetate sheet and relatively thin acrylic paint are not the ideal materials for this. The prints didn’t come out very clearly or completely. However, they did provide a basic outline of the image, and got some good strong colours down as a starting point. And with mixed media, you can just keep adding layers until you’re happy with it.
The next layer was collage. Old maps and book pages, and a scrap from a previous mixed media piece that hadn’t turned out how I wanted, but was perfect for the windows of the structure on the right. I added vague cloud shapes to the sky as that area was a bit empty, knowing I’d knock this back with gesso at a later stage.
I then added ink in places, filling out areas the monoprinting had missed and adding a few details. With a felt-tipped pen I added the numbers 40 and 50, evident in the photo as painted marks beside the railtrack, but thinking of Demuth’s work and some of the examples in Kalbach’s book I made more of a feature of them.
After adding gesso to soften some areas and add a bit of texture in others, I did a bit of stencilling using the waste sheet from a board game that the game pieces had been popped out of – there were some good railway track shapes that I thought would add some interest around the edges. I also scribbled some train announcements in a few areas to help give a sense of place and atmosphere.
I was then ready to start on the details. I used coloured promarkers and black fineliner to sharpen up the shapes of the buildings and add brickwork, ironwork and other details. I reasserted some of the contrast that had been lost with the gesso, giving some strong lines and shapes that enhance the architectural elements. Finally I used a white gel pen to add the pillars and some extra details.