A Student's Work From a WEA Art Course

Sue Freeman is a student from a Continuing Abstract Art course in Chester. Part of her work was focused on 'Les Oiseaux' by Henri Matisse. Here is a sample of her working processes, and a flavour of what new students can expect from the many art courses we run throughout the region.


Henri Matisse Les Oiseaux 1947 by Sue Freeman March 2017

4 white, featureless bird shapes on a bright blue background.

Image found here

I was unable to find any reference to the work on Google apart from it was created in 1947. Images of it were different ways up, but one photograph shows it on a wall (domestic, not gallery), so I have taken that as size and the artist’s intended display orientation of the picture.

I don’t know what shade or hue of blue he used or whether the white areas are painted or just left blank.

My initial response was a slight irritation that the bird shapes were unrealistic – vaguely birdlike blobs.

The blue of the sky is glorious, like a bright clear day in France and darker in the bottom right. The slight variations in the paint thickness reminds one that it is a painting, that is, a representation of the sky, not a photographic realism one.

Extrapolate from this and see that the birds are only impression of real birds, an artistic representation. Therefore the lack of anatomical accuracy works to again remind us that it is not a photograph, it is encapsulating the artist’s response to the experience of viewing birds flying in a blue sky. The white colour and amorphous shapes are also reminiscent of clouds in the bright blue sky. The size of the birds in the canvas could be show that the image was captured as a snapshot as they flew passed a window or just a section of a view into the sky

The positioning of white bird outlines are calculated in their composition with the tail of the single bird in the bottom right quartile marking the 2/5 golden section. The, not quite touching, shapes between the birds are pleasing.  The composition overall works well as the diagonal line draws the eye diagonally down top right to bottom left (the direction of reading in the Western world) across the canvas in the line of flight. However, in this context I would have expected have the birds to be rising; illustrating the vastness of the sky, perhaps Matisse was literally emulating the flight of birds across a skylight or window as he was confined indoors. One interpretation of the birds being shown as negative shapes in the solid blue of the sky, and not as detailed living creatures enjoying the freedom of flight, could be because they are representing incidental interruptions blocking the perfect pure blue view of the sky.

The ambiguous shape of the bottom right bird means that it could be interpreted as flying down or right. This helps give the impression of freedom, as does the bend in the leading bird’s neck – is it looking down at the dizzying depths below or looking for the following friends?

I could not determine if he painted the outlines straight on to the canvas, or cut out templates. As most of his work from that period was created by creating cut out shapes from big sheets of paper using used large shears, I decided to explore this technique.


I computer printed an A4 copy of his painting and cut out the outlines which worked well with 30cm scissors which fit my hands. His hands must have been notably bigger than mine.

I then simply used the shapes as templates and painted a blue background.

The simplicity of this work made it very easy to copy without an increase in depth of understanding, so I decided to break down the piece into the constructing elements and try to better understand Matisse’s creative processes and intentions. Having gained this understanding I wanted to create a personal piece of work closely based on my interpretation of Les Oiseaux 1947.

As Matisse lived in the South of France, the birds he would see over his house would have been swallows, hence the backward curve of the wings.

My version was going to use the birds that I see fly past my windows, i.e. seagulls, but I found this picture of white doves and liked the symbolism and the wing shapes of the doves show more variety and generally more interesting shapes.

Image found here

I selected 4 of the birds from this picture.

I had thought that Matisse was working to create a jiss* outline, but when I found pictures of real birds and tried cutting out their shapes even very roughly and/or left-handed they looked too realistic compared to his.

Cut outs left to right:

  1. Simply cutting round the bird outline – too realistic
  2. Cutting the bird outline freehand from memory – too calculated/graphic
  3. Copying elements of Matisse’s bird shapes and adapting them to my bird picture outline. USED
  4. Top right: Matisse’s bird outline.

Matisse’s shapes out lines are so approximate that even the general species of the birds is indeterminate. Coupled with the knowledge that he was almost housebound at this stage in his life it made me come to the conclusion that he was working to get the jiss of the memory of birds in flight: purely an impression, a representation.

Jizz *(birding) - Wikipedia 

There is a theory that it comes from the World War II air force acronym GISS for "General Impression of Size and Shape (of an aircraft)", but the birding term was first recorded earlier than that in 1922. More likely, jiss is a corruption of gestalt, a German word that roughly means form or shape.

Matisse used big cutting shears and my experimentation with size of scissors meant that when I used my big wallpaper cutting shears I was cutting out shapes of a similar size to Matisse. I found the large scissors unwieldy to use.

I only have small canvases (not much bigger than A4) to experiment with, so I decreased my size of scissors proportionately.

Having cut out the birds I then experimented with layout by placing the pieces and standing back. The smaller canvasses made this easier than it would have been working on the same scale as Matisse. Matisse himself was unable to stand back and view his work from a distance and then make corrections as he was disabled, so he had an assistant to move the pieces under his direction.

I had no reliable reference to choose the hue and shade of blue, so I chose a colour that would give the impression I wanted for myself.

At this point I felt that I wanted the birds to be flying up into the sky to increase the feeling of space and freedom. They are transient and about to fly up, up and away.

Finally, as I didn’t know if the birds were gaps in a blue background, or painted white I experimented with the idea that they are actually interruptions in an otherwise perfect blue sky, incidental random patches blocking the view which compounds the theory that they are not meant to be actual birds, just the impression.

Experimenting with different media. Acrylic paint was the most suited to this project and was the medium used by Matisse.

My 2 pieces in this series are:

My work 1: The Birds 2017 (Doves)

2 The Birds (Gulls)

I took photos of gulls near where I live and developed shapes that gave the impression of them flying. Gulls do not flock the same way as some other birds, but more often, even when flying close together take random directions as they ride localised air currents. Some of my shapes leave the viewer to interpret the direction of flight as the details are omitted.

The simplicity made the final piece look too much like a computer graphic so I added many layer of paint and some texture. Also I feel that the canvas should have been much bigger to give the feeling of space and height. Gulls are surprisingly big birds and do fly close together, so that is represented more accurately.

Famous shades of BLUES


(My own photos taken in Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, Morocco)

This beautiful colour was named after the artist Jacques Majorelle (March 7 1886 – October 14 1962), a French painter whose most notable work is thought to be the Majorelle Garden in Marrakech, Morocco – a twelve acre botanical garden which Majorelle landscape designed between the 1920s and 1930s. Before Jacques Majorelle died, he had the recipe for Majorelle Blue patented, which has meant its reproduction is very costly.


International Klein Blue (IKB) is a deep blue hue first mixed by the French artist Yves Klein. IKB's visual impact comes from its heavy reliance on ultramarine, as well as Klein's often thick and textured application of paint to canvas.

He mixed with pigment with a matte PVA type media.

Pablo Picasso's Blue Period - 1901 to 1904. The Blue Period of Picasso is the period between 1900 and 1904, when he painted essentially monochromatic paintings in shades of blue and blue-green, only occasionally warmed by other colours.

The beautiful lines and shades of blue are themes I will explore next term.


Feeling inspired? We have art courses just like this, as well as hundreds of other courses throughout the North West. You can use our new course search which makes it much easier to find the right course for you: www.wea.org.uk