How Gwen John inspired me to paint Flash the Toy Monkey

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Gwen John painted “The Japanese Doll” in her studio in Meudon, Paris, around 87 years ago. The painting was acquired by the National Museum of Wales in 2003.

When Cardiff Made invited local artists to create works inspired by the National Museum of Wales collection,  “The Japanese Doll” sprung to mind as a domestic still life with an unusual subject matter.

The objects in her picture are familiar studio props: round table; rectangular box; checked cloth that appear frequently in her work.  However the Japanese Doll only appears in this painting and a second version of it. I decided to use The Japanese Doll as my starting point for a painting that would hopefully echo Gwen John’s theme.

Unfortunately I was unable to recreate Gwen John’s studio with the attic window in the top right corner of the picture. However I decided to replicate the theme of a round table. I cut a circle out of a large sheet of cardboard and covered it with a white cloth. I cleared a corner of my studio so that my round table would have wall in shadow in the background – as well as a window to the upper right, although it was actually too high to feature in the painting. My still life was also lit by relatively soft natural light from the front. My choice of doll was between ‘Buzz Light Year’ and ‘Flash the Monkey’ both still hanging around the house, although my son is now 20 years old and at Uni.I soon realised that, like Gwen John’s Japanese Doll, my doll would need something behind it to lean against.  

So I dug out an old box - which had shells and other childhood treasures in it. Two shells are left on the table.  The other objects are perhaps more random: a copy of Artists Materials and Techniques that lies around the studio; another treasure box with a metallic finish that I had dug out; a pink ‘really useful’ box containing pencils; a transparent empty jam jar.  

Flash worked better than Buzz as centrepiece of the painting.  He was a better sitter (!) – and, being a distinct colour, I could more easily make him a focus point and build the colour composition around him. Gwen John’s doll is blue and red and it seems to me that her muted tones work in harmony with these two dominant colours. I decided to build my colour composition around Flash’s red clothing.  My background shadows tend mostly towards greens with which I try to balance the dominant red.I quickly realised that I needed to grey my colours far more than is normal for me – and even then, I had only vaguely begun to approximate Gwen John’s deliberate and precise orchestration of chalky greys.  I came to appreciate even more that each tone in her picture was exactly as it should be for the picture to work as a whole.

My mixes didn’t seem anywhere near as precise! Whilst I could have gone further with the exercise, I was pleased that I was able to create a painting with a subject matter and atmosphere that was unusual for me.  I also feel that the painting expresses some of the poignancy and nostalgia that sometimes washes over me now that my son is away from home and no longer a child.

Lynne Cartlidge  June 2015