Mirror mirror ... can reflections help us to see art with new eyes?

March 2, 2018

The Gallery of Modern Art in Glasgow greets visitors with an entrance hall of mirrors. Created by the French-American artist Niki de Saint-Phalle, the mirrored mosaic covers all four walls with cut-glass shapes, and certainly makes more of a statement than the 'white cube' we might expect to find inside an art gallery! As a tour guide for GoMA (do pop in and say hello one weekend!) I've had time to think about the impact that de Saint-Phalle's mirror installation has on audiences. It is striking how her choice of mirrors as a material allows viewers to literally become part of the art around them. Gallery-goers might be used to looking at the walls, but less so to seeing themselves looking back

 

 

 

This month, I've been reflecting (geddit?!) on using mirrors in my own artistic practice. Perhaps not going as far as smashing them into tiny pieces (I don't think I could afford seven years of bad luck!) but as a way to provide new perspectives. If you're a fan of Sky Arts 'Portrait Artist of the Year', you'll know that mirrors often feature in the portraiture process, and there are good reasons behind this working strategy. When an artist turns around to look at their artwork's reflection - or sometimes the reflection of their sitter! - the mirror almost acts as a second set of eyes. In everyday life, our vision can make assumptions on our behalf: a useful shortcut for processing information quickly (don't try checking for 'light and shade' if you're crossing the road at the same time!) but potentially leading us astray when we want to create accurate art. Have you ever looked at a friend or family member's face when reflected in the mirror? Strangely enough, even someone you know well can look ever-so-slightly different. Their jawline curves in an unfamiliar way, perhaps, or one side of their smile is crinklier than the other. Our eyes are just that: our eyes. When we want to make something that a variety of viewers will appreciate, it doesn't hurt to double check how things look from the other direction.

 

 

Yet you know - and can see for yourself via my painting page! - that my artwork usually involves natural imagery rather than human figures. When painting my favourite subjects like trees, flowers, feathers and landscapes, I've found that asymmetry actually plays a part in illustrating the beauty of nature - capturing an organic moment that will not come again. Mirrors can still be useful, of course: they help me to gain a sense of how my composition looks from alternative angles, and highlight areas that might need more balance (for the media I tend to work with, watercolour and ink, it is far easier to add than to take away!) But I've found that, when it comes to natural subject matter, mirror-image perfection can be taken too far. My best pieces are those that come closest to the natural spark of the environment around us: whether that conforms to symmetry or not!

 

Perhaps in art, as in ordinary life, it is best to use mirrors simply as a tool - and avoid getting too caught up in your own reflection! As Niki de Saint-Phalle understood, a mirror's power often lies in the eye of the beholder: a reflection isn't really complete (in fact, does it exist at all?) until someone gives it a second glance. So maybe mirrors don't represent an entirely new perspective. Instead, they're a way to shine a light on your own.

 

 

In the Frame (a fancy way of saying 'here is my painting of the month'!)

 

Jan van Eyck, The Arnolfini Portrait, 1434. Oil on oak, 82 x 60cm. The National Gallery, London.

 

 

Mirror mirror on the wall ... I couldn't sign off without mentioning one of the most famous (and earliest) artworks to add a mirror into the mix. This painting is certainly loaded with symbolism - a dog for fidelity, a bed for marriage, a glowing candle for piety and faith in God - and if you look very, very closely, you may even be able to see a third human figure inside the convex glass of the mirror. Could this be the artist himself? The Arnolfini Portrait is one that has stuck in my head ever since my MLitt studies in History of Art, when we used it to illustrate the distinction between 'iconography' and 'iconology'. Loosely speaking (and without boring you all to tears!), we might say that this is essentially the difference between understanding the culturally rich symbols of an artwork (its 'iconography') and understanding the deeper, human truths that may be explored through those symbols ('iconology'!) I like the reminder that, when interpreting a painting, we need to consider what it means to us, but also what it could have meant to its artist and original viewers in days gone by. Perhaps there are always as many perspectives as there are pieces of the mirror mosaic!

 

 

Technical Tricks (top tips from my own adventures in painting!)

 

In some ways, crosshatching could be considered a traditional technique: it is typically used by pen-and-ink artists to create depth by varying the length and intensity of lines that 'cross' over each other. I've always liked the simple graphic ‘look’ that this achieves, and for my own work there are also ways to make crosshatching more dynamic and contemporary. After all, a line doesn't have to be a straight line! Following the contours of a tree trunk, for example, can provide an elegant and gradual shading effect: by allowing my pen to move with its curves and branches, I can actually reinforce its shape. I love techniques that help me to combine the simplicity of ink with the more fluid, energising qualities of watercolour - and if you have the time to invest in building up your crosshatching slowly, it can be very satisfying work too!

 

 

 

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