Visual research: Frank Auerbach (b.1931) – a physical approach in charcoal & Exhibition

Frank Auerbach (b. 1931) is a London based contemporary figurative artist. Besides Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, Leon Kossoff, and a few others he is considered as one of the London school painters. However, Auerbach himself never considered himself as part of a style or movement.

For his figurative works, mostly portraits, he works at times over decades with the same models/sitters who were quite close to him.

Auerbach applies quite a progressively destructive and revisionary way of working. During the process new possibilities and new ideas arise and need to find a response on the picture. There is a constant stream of feeling: every element of a picture response to every other element. As Auerbach says: ‘One need to be prepared to destroy everything that’s nice about it.’ (Lambert, 2015 – p.104).

Till he is satisfied it could take hundred of hours and sittings. ‘The final picture then is the result of the process and conditions of its creation’ (p.114). A quite intimate approach and the close relationship with his posing models are making it even more connected. One can feel ‘life’ within his works.

He worked on some works months, and as a routine scraped down thoroughly every day in order to start fresh anew as a measure that the support is not getting bumpy. The final painting as such was often done in a few hours after Auerbach was satisfied with the result. For some paintings Auerbach did exhaustive researches, at times more than 200 sketches for one painting.

Asking Auerbach about how he decides when a picture is finished, he mentions certain criteria:

  1. The picture should convey a sense of something specific in the tangible world
  2. It should function like a machine, ‘every part of it performing a function’
  3. It must seem ‘an object like nothing on earth’
  4. It must ‘feel exact, having the expression that your idea has’
  5. A tense, surface character

Mostly Auerbach works in oil with paraffin as a thinning solution. At times he just pulled strings of paint on the surface.  Some works are so heavily covered relief like with paint (couple of cm thick). Interestingly he always encourages to put his paintings under glass to keep the viewer on distant to the thick paint surface, as for him it is not about the thickness of paint but rather about the mood embedded in the painting as such.

He also uses acrylic paint in his other studio for avoiding problems with the landlord due to smell. The faster drying material make him more adventurous in his colour palette.

In his charcoal drawings (around A1 formats) Auerbach works evenly intense on the surface. He works on and into the surface with constant usage of charcoal and tremendous usage of an eraser (rubber) in a constant search to find and build forms and expression.

Auerbach own words:

In a BBC radio interview in 2001, the journalist John Tusa asked Auerbach what he would say to a young artist starting out from art school and the answer pointed to the winter building-site work. It was important to begin with ‘some experience that is your own and to try and record it in an idiom that is your own, and not to give a damn about what anybody else says to you … I think that the key word there is subject – find out what matters most to you and pursue it.’ (p.42)

Bomberg, one of the first art teacher for Auerbach, is cited ‘ that his own approach to drawing aimed at ‘a fuller and more expansive delineation in the representation which is structural, taking no account of appearances‘, and thus closer to Cezanne and Michelangelo, who were ‘builders of form’, in opposition to the more usual representational art that was imitative and superficial. One hears an echo in Auerbachs words of 1958: ‘My attitude to form is conditioned, often, by an interest in the exact distribution of weight rather than in an exactitude of shape, in the true inflections of the masses in space rather than in the associations of particular colours or arrangements.‘ (p.46)

One has little power over the crisis in life,.. One cannot control wealth or poverty, happiness or misery. I am only in control when I am in the studio. Then I am close to life‘. (p.162)

His approach is rather impulse driven as he says ‘I never visualize a picture before I start. I have an impulse and I try to find a form for that impulse.‘ (p.176).

Major exhibition at the Bonn Kunstmuseum (14 June – 13 Sep 2015, 

This exhibition was curated by Catherine Lampert (a long time sitter for Auerbach for 37 years) in collaboration with Tate and goes afterwards to Tate Britain (9 Oct 2015 – 13 Mar 2016, ). I was surprised to pay just 3.50 EUR for admission. Shown works included drawings (my focus), portraits, and land-/townscapes from London area.

There was a text posted on the wall from Catherine Lampert were she cites Auerbach when he talked about the drawings from Watteau and Constable: ‘The artist is in himself, inhaliting the space physically until the marks themselves seem imbued with tangible, unguarded feelings and the rectangle has a tense, surface character.’ I felt this quote is quite to the heart of Auerbach works.

To see Auerbach’s works in reality is such an experience that no copy can ever achieve. Reminds me of some remarks from John Berger in his book ‘The Way of Seeing‘. Especially his paintings show such a relief like and mesmerizing color effect that one need to look from different angles to embrace the entire expression.

Several drawings from the 1960s till 2014 were on show. I was especially interested in the few drawings in charcoal, graphite, chalk, and ink. Overall I find that Auerbach moved on from rather darker heavily surface scratching works (see ‘Head of E.O.W.’, 1959-60) to drawings with lighter backgrounds and more gesture like black marks on top of more grey and white (postively and negatively drawn) marks (see ‘David Landau seated‘, 2011 or ‘Self portrait‘, 2014).

  • Head of E.O.W.’, 1959-60
    Charcoal and watercolour on paper (78.7 x 58.1 cm)
    [Online image] London: Tate. Available from: [accessed 08 Aug  2015]
    => Here the physical efforts of working into the surface are unmistakably visible with deep scratch marks  down to even destroyed areas of  the paper. I assume for that he had to glue collage like additional paper pieces onto it.
  • ‘Self portrait‘, 2014
    Graphite on paper (76.8 x 57.8 cm)
    [Online image]  London: Marlborough Gallery. Available from: [accessed 08 Aug 2015]
    => This one reminded me of some self portraits of Edvard Munch due to his off centre and the upwards view. Background in light tonal values, heavily erased with further markings and a few black gesture like marks making the pose visible.

There were a few others (‘Head of J.Y.M.’, 1990 in charcoal, chalk and ink and ‘David Landau seated‘, 2011 in graphite, chalk and oil pastels) that I studied deeper. Here I could see his development from darker to lighter drawings with a visual effect of multi layered (light or medium tone background, middle tone shaping of massed and final few black marks to create a believable figure. Somehow it  reminded me to some works of Jenny Saville (multi-layer), just from a different approach.

To get a better feeling from the shown drawings I studied them with my sketchbook, graphite pen, and brush pen. I forgot to take a rubber with me – improvised than, anyhow an experience on location.

Stefan513593 - sketchbook from shown works

Stefan513593 – sketchbook from shown works

I will contextualise later on larger scale to get a deeper understanding on Auerbach’s approach and considering my own experience and thoughts from the exhibition.


  • Auerbach’s approach is a heavily physical approach on material (support and media). I am fascinated by the bold usage of material to find and build the forms (more true in the earlier works as the later works seem to focus more on simplification).
  • One do not need to know the final picture when starting drawing/painting – it will eventually come through the process of deep engagement and scrutiny. The surface and markings will become the voice of the picture. This reminds me a bit to my approach of art (painting) therapy (of course without having ‘art’ in mind)

My work in context

For my context drawings I continued working with my model at full figure.

Stefan513593 - context drawing in charcoal

Stefan513593 – context drawing in charcoal


Stefan513593 - context drawing in charcoal and Conté crayon

Stefan513593 – context drawing in charcoal and Conté crayon

Both drawings went over 2 days each. I didn’t erased the drawing from the first day totally as Auerbach is doing with his paintings. However I used my putty rubber and plastic rubber to erase already drawn forms and to build up again. I kept the composition from the beginning. Now thinking about this I could experiment in the future also with changing composition on the same support (as seen in one drawing from Auerbach). For the second drawing I added a third medium: white Conté crayon. By that I was able to modulate more especially on the flesh parts as I did do so in some previous drawings of mine. During the process of the second drawing I was also thinking about some works by Jenny Saville, so this one is kind of mixed inspired  drawing.


  • I truly loved the more engaging approach with building up the form whiling drawing, using constantly the rubber for pushing back and pulling forward with more charcoal marks.
  • It can be challenging to myself to rub off the drawing, something I need to get more courageous on.
  • Using positive (charcoal, crayon) and negative (rubber) media allowed me to modulate
  • I liked the approach form the second drawing with rather expressive marks in dark black at the end, giving a kind of pop out and multi layer effect. Something to experiment more, perhaps with additional ink marks (like Auerbach did).


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