The Hedda Sterne Project #3 – Sketchbooks, Materials, Techniques.

Sketchbooks Alison Critchlow

Sketchbooks are a great place to start in understanding an artist’s thinking, and that was my first port of call in researching Hedda Sterne’s practice. Her sketchbooks (those that I have been able to see) are full of words – written notes, observations and ideas – as much as drawings. Here are some extracts I love. Where there are lines it is because there was a word I couldn’t decipher and rather than guess I left a blank:

The whole above surface surrounded with gray
Grey resulting from naples yellow _____
with transparent very dark greenish
substitute for black ( _____ with blue?)

here and there possibly’

With the words ‘trans yellow written at an angle off to the side.

I was thrilled when I read this. Partly because it could be read as ‘instructions for making a painting’. At first I wondered if Hedda was making observational notes from a picture in a gallery, until I got to ‘here and there possibly’ – which I LOVE. In that phrase she sums up the painting process. I also love her precision in naming the colours and especially in noting the transparency.

One or two more extracts from the same sketchbook;

‘of viridian with white (copper mixed)
with black shadows
and interruptions’

‘Black and viridian design on light blue
nearly white.’

‘dark ivory and black surfaces with raw
sienna outline- white writing on
black surfaces (here and there)’

The visual interruptions I think are wonderful! The word light was underlined twice. I imagine in the double underlining of this she cemented an exact colour in her mind…but my favourite phrase that she uses frequently on these pages is ‘here and there’. Wonderful ‘notes to self’ in amongst brief composition ideas and occasional observational drawings.

Drawing On The Beach, Aberdeenshire

This has made me consider my own use of sketchbooks, which is very different. Mine are generally used outside and are quite messy, full of observational drawings and sometimes written notes. I have long known that I use them almost like a form of mediation, a way of slowing down and just being. Absorbing a place and a moment in time. I never use these sketch book drawings as the basis for paintings. They are quite separate from my practice. A few pages here from a recent trip to Scotland.

Sketch 7
Sketchbook Page
Sketchbook Page 4
Sketch 5

Sketchbooks are a section of my painting process which I have often wondered about… they seem to be like fuel for everything that follows. Hedda had a practice of daily meditation which was, similarly, an important part of her painting process. In the course of this project I have started drawing in the studio on small boards as well. These abstract drawings began as experiments with new combinations of media but have turned into a useful thought process. I am starting to group them in interesting ways and find that they help me to approach the large paintings from a new perspective. They are becoming a bit like a studio sketchbook which has broken free of it’s format! They are informing the painting process from the side lines.

Recent Drawing On Board

Hedda’s notebooks often refer to fluidity and transparency – aspects of painting I have not paid enough attention to over the years. I decided to start investigating and experimenting with layers of colour- opacity, transparency, glazing, mediums, new techniques and materials. With that in mind I now have various pots, potions and mixtures in jars in my studio which sit beside my usual mounds of paint. Marble dust. Wax medium. Damar varnish. Various mediums and oils. Spray paints and acrylic colours have joined the studio ingredients as well.

Studio Shelf
Wip Building Ayers

Hedda Sterne was extremely innovative. Firmly believing in using the materials and techniques which were most appropriate to the idea. I am of the same opinion. If you use it to its full potential the material itself can lead the way to a point.

This note in one of her sketchbooks sums it up:

‘Ideas and techniques can’t be separated in painting as they are both cause and effect’

I have been experimenting with techniques- building layers, underpainting, masking and glazing much more, as well as drawing on the painting. The variety in pace and density of marks created is expanding my language of paint and with it my thinking. Some close up photos of work in progress here showing various combinations of layers and marks.

Close Up Exp With Glazing
Drawing In Process
Detail Oild Sharky Close Up
New Techniques In Studio

Equating thinking with materials and physical making is crucial to Hedda’s working method. This ‘thinking through painting’ fascinates me too. There is an amount of alchemy or mystery involved in painting. If you can allow yourself to ‘let go’ of logic in the studio, it is possible to reach conclusions you never would have without a paintbrush in your hand. This is something Hedda explored, using various automatic drawing processes. She told Life magazine in 1951,
‘If there was no mystery, I could not paint’

I applaud her willingness to change her approach to suit her evolving ideas. She had a curious and brilliant mind. I suspect she was also determined not to be led by the market and was absolutely resolute in treading her own path, regardless of critics and collectors. To quote Betty Parsons, friend and gallerist who represented her for many years:

‘Hedda Sterne is a Pandora’s box. The light, the line, the unknown, the known, come tumbling out with endless surprises’.