Project 2 – Exercise 3: Creating mood and atmosphere


Atmosphere of mental health, sadness, isolation, melancholy based on my work experiences as an art therapist. Using myself as a mirror (and with a mirror) and as a carrier for the mood that I experienced while working with patients in a psychiatry clinic.

General symptoms of depression are: fatigue, worthless, hopelessness, emotionless, dumb, emptiness, anxiety, insomnia, sadness or ‘feeling blue’. General a high risk for suicide (death thoughts) at a level of major depression.

Final painting: Dry pastels on Mi-Teintes Touch pastel paper 350 g/sqm (50x70cm)

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3

Contextual research:

  • Vincent van GoghDoctor Gachet (in version 1 and 2)’ , 1890 
    1) Oil on canvas (67 x 56 cm), 2) Oil on canvas
    [Online images] Available from: [accessed 12 Aug 2016]
    – Van Gogh started to be patient of Dr Gachet in Auvers after his release from the asylum in Saint-Remy

=> Van Gogh wrote a letter to his sister Anna in 1890 about this painting: “I’ve done the portrait of Mr Gachet with an expression of melancholy which might often appear to be a grimace to those looking at the canvas. And yet that’s what should be painted, because then one can realize, compared to the calm ancient portraits, how much expression there is in our present-day heads, and passion and something like waiting and a shout. Sad but gentle but clear and intelligent, that’s how many portraits should be done, that would still have a certain effect on people at times.” (available from:

The depiction of the herbal plant foxglove in the portrait could be read as symbol for Dr Gachet’s profession as a physician.

Van Gogh took reference for his painting to Delacroix and his depiction of Tasso, who spent 1579–1586 in the madhouse of St Anne.

Overall I do think that part of the way an artist is depicting the mood of a sitter does also reflect partly his/her own moods. Clearly as the reality of the world around us is translated or modulated by our inner perception and bodily unconscious awareness. In this case I would say that Van Gogh’s own emotions went into the painting as well.

=> This painting is painted in earthy colors, the bars in the background indicating location and the the stretching arm through the bar could be read as desperation.

With respect to color use I looked at the self portrait by Van Gogh
– ‘Self Portrat with Bandaged Ear’, 1889
Oil on canvas (60.5 x 50 cm)
[Online image] Available from:  [accessed 12 Aug 2016]

=> expression of melancholy but also inner reflection. Painted in blue and green. Behind the artist a picture of a print by Sato Torakiyo. The image is manipulated so that it fits better the overall composition and place of the artist’s head.

Another painting by Van Gogh depicting rather the emotion of sorrow is
– ‘Treurende oude man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’)‘, 1890
[Online image] Available from: [accessed 12 Aug 2016]
=> Man with head in his hands painted with blue clothing and orange color use for flesh and surrounding space. The use of complementary colours emphasises  even more ‘feeling blue’ of the old man.


Looking at contemporary artists depicting portraits at edges of life, melancholy and sadness. Looking for different use of colors and painting approaches:


Portrait painting

Expressive intention / objectives:

  • Mood: Conveying a believable sense of the emotional state of mind of depression (hopelessness, emotionlessemptiness, insomnia, sadness or ‘feeling blue‘)
  • Atmosphere: eerie, disturbing, fuzzy
  • Colors: white, green, blue – perhaps with some yellow for hope?
  • Form: Shapes unclear and fuzzy
  • Figure: powerless, closed eyes or ’empty’ eyes
  • Background: Blue, dark, or quite the opposite white as emptiness?
  • Painting approach: Dry pastels or Oil paint. I am wondering whether a flattened face or with more ‘body’ would be more suitable for my subject. With more discernment I remember that depressed patients often like material that are flowing, they especially like to use dry pastels and wiping that on the paper. Therefore I will reflect this with using dry pastels as well in a different way than I usually do: with blending heavily with my fingers.

=> My painting will be a combination of pose, color use, and specific painting approach – all to reflect the inner emotional state of mind of depressed patients that I am working with in a psychiatric clinic.


Preparatory work:

Finding poses for my subject taken me in mirror or through camera projection as sitter:

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3 - sketchbook 1

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3 – sketchbook 1

Exploring blue, green and white with different poses.

in gouache:

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3 - sketchbook 2

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3 – sketchbook 2

=> with gouache I can obtain a very fluent and sketchy paintings. Reminds me of the paintings by Maria Lassnig (e.g. ‘Two Ways of Being (Double Self-portrait)‘, 2000)

in dry pastels:

for this I prepared my sketchbook pages with PastelGround (Lascaux) with addition of blue (#2) and green pigment (#3)

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3 - sketchbook 3

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3 – sketchbook 3

=> after looking at the final paintings I decided to look at different viewpoint and cropped and rotated studies #1 and #3. Inspired by the close up portrait paintings by Marlene Dumas (e.g. ‘Alfa‘, 2004)

I do find the rotated and cropped image #3 as the most appealing one. Conveying stronger a hopeless perception. The rotated #1 looks rather like a person laying in bed and more restless.

in dry pastels & gouache & white pigment:

on unprepared sketchbook paper, working with my fingers

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3 - sketchbook 4

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3 – sketchbook 4

=> The addition of white pastels and modifying and further blending of the initial paint, pigment application changes significantly the overall appeal. I am wondering which one is more successful? What is I would reverse the green paint and the white pigment to white paint and green pigment? Would this be more successful considering my goal? I have the feeling that simplicity would be stronger for my final painting. Overall I am pleased with this study as it conveys sadness and hopelessness.

I find the hand gives a different appeal and a stronger perception of sadness, hopelessness, melancholy. (e.g. Vincent van Gogh’s painting ‘Doctor Gachet‘ and ‘Treurende oude man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’)‘, both 1890).


Work in progress: 

Stefan513593 - Project 2 - Exercise 3 - work in progress

Stefan513593 – Project 2 – Exercise 3 – work in progress

At this stage I stepped back and had to digest over night what I should think of it.

There are few elements that I am not satisfied with:
– Head and arm seems to be from to people, different tonal depiction
– Underground: I have the feeling this should be lighter
– Face: compared to my sketchbook study I find this less interesting, missing expressive marks

I am wondering about the reasons in my approach to loose expressive when working larger

Comparison large painting – sketchbook study:

The final painting is at the top of this post.


  • Did I achieve my objectives?
    => I do think that I delivered a painting that would meet my goal. Especially the use of color and blending approach makes the painting eerie and disturbing. I do feel that rotating the initial painting worked much better conveying a stronger sense of hopelessness and dumbness.
  • Did I create an expressive and unusual likeness, an interesting statement using paint that is more about the expressive quality of the paint itself – or an exploration of colour?
    => used myself as the sitter for the figurative painting. I was not so much interested in depicting myself as much more into expressiveness considering form and shape accuracy.

Next time:

  • What would you do differently if you were to tackle this exercise again?
    => I decided to go for pastel as this is the medium that I found had a special connotation to patients (blending with finger for ever – getting lost, fading). My preparatory work, especially #3 showed me other options (pastel and gouache and pigment) that I would like to explore more as this would give me more expressive options. But as I was not so interested this time in expressive strokes or bold color use I will take this learning for other works.


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