Anxieties and Fears – Mechanical Doll


Paint: Acrylic titanium white, yellow ochre, cadmium red, cadmium yellow, cobalt blue, ultramarine, process cyan
Brushes: Daler-Rowney System 3 – 1”/1½” flat, Pro Arte – flat ½”
Support: Reeves cotton canvas
Size: 45 x 60 cm (18” x 24”)


Test piece from previous exercises

Test piece from previous exercises

My aim with this piece was to develop one of the practical exercises undertaken in Part 2 of the course, Practical Exercise 5 – Anxieties and Fears – Acrylic.  This related to the theme of ageing, particularly the anxieties and fears that arise. The experimental piece in that exercise was based on a dream that my mother had in the care home where she dreamt that she found herself in her bedroom with a glowing, mechanical doll.

Feedback from tutor

My tutor had a number of suggestions on this piece:

  • Support – try something other than canvas board and prepare surface properly
  • Experiment with mediums and support – stretched or unstretched canvas
  • The test piece in oil pastel has vitality and good mark-making – this becomes lost when using acrylic plus canvas shows though and texture of board is fighting with paint and creating an interruption for viewer.
  • Mark-making on doll, the acrylic version, small areas working but needs vitality of oil pastel.
  • Don’t treat female figure differently, use same scraping/robust techniques. A better surface will help.
  • Try working on a larger scale. The smaller size is constricting hand movement.
  • Try smaller sketches/studies before creating bigger piece – it will inform ideas in advance of larger work.

Initial Work

I reviewed my original work and looked at other examples from Shani Rhys James, Louise Bourgeois, Dorothea Tanning, Alice McMurrough and Mark Ryden. These are listed at the end of this post.

In looking at their work I considered the different ways in which they conveyed anxiety or an unsettled response. These included:

  • Size – the work of Alice McMurrough is relatively small scale. You need to go in close to appreciate the detail so physically it draws you in. Even with work on a large scale, like Mark Ryden you need to go in close to appreciate all the detail.
  • Viewpoint – in examples most have a viewpoint higher than the subjects in the painting, as if we are looking in, intruding.
  • Contrast of elements – in the examples looked at most have contrasts of familiar items or scenes but with something discordant about them.
  • Colour – the treatment of colour varies from the muted palette of McMurrough to demanding-on-the-eye reds, yellows and black of Rhys James.

I decided that I wanted to use a number of these elements in the developed piece:

  • Increase the size of the canvas
  • Use a viewpoint that looked down on the scene
  • Use contrasting elements – the figure of the elderly woman and the doll, the suggestion of a bedroom that represents safety and warmth being something else.
  • Contrasting colours – warmer light from bedside lamp contrasting with shadowed area where the doll lies.
  • Texture – robust mark-making to contrast with potential peacefulness of the scene.

Session 1

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For the first session I worked from thumbnail sketches where I had developed options for different compositions. I decided to work on one particular option which included more detail of the furniture around the bed and a lamp. I moved onto a larger version of the sketch but began to realise that this particular option may not work at a larger scale. The furniture was taking up a lot of space when scaled up and wasn’t adding anything to the sense of unease that I was trying to create.

I reviewed the other sketches and decided that the original test piece for Part 2 of the course contained most of the elements that I wanted. I did, however, want to add in an alarm beside the bed to add to the sense of vulnerability of the figure beside the doll. After another thumbnail sketch I decided to reduce the size of the bedside cabinet. This meant that the lamp wouldn’t be in view but the light could be conveyed through the paint rather than requiring the object in view.

Session 2

Test piece for Mechanical Doll

Test piece for Mechanical Doll

I reviewed the sketches from the previous day and began to feel that they were too structured and constraining, perhaps because I want to work in a looser way and focus on the mark-making. From research on Shani Rhys James a number of techniques had resonated with me and I decided to try these out. One was working directly onto the canvas and letting the marks inform the direction of the work. She also talks of looking at her face as a landscape when she is doing self-portraits. In addition, she often uses bold colours for the initial layer which can be seen through subsequent layers. I decided to try working directly onto the canvas, using the sketches for reference but trying to step back and see where the painting led.

This initial try went better that I had anticipated as it moved me away from fretting about the overall outcome and be more focused on what was happening on the canvas.

Session 3

Initial blocking in of figures

Initial blocking in of figures

For the larger piece I began by working in a similar way to the smaller colour study. I blocked in the shape of the elderly figure and then realised that, compared to the sketch, I hadn’t left much space for the doll. After a bit of debate, I decided that this could work for the better although it meant missing out on the alarm on the headboard. Something, however, to consider is to be aware of all the elements and how they work together.

Session 4

Blocking in colours

Blocking in colours

In this session I was trying to be mindful of all the elements and making sure they were treated in a similar way. Overall, I felt that the position of the doll was an improvement on the drawing with the eye of the viewer going from the figure of the elderly person to the doll in the corner.

Session 5

Work on figure and mechanical doll

Work on figure and mechanical doll

For this session I alternated between the figure and the doll following the advice of the tutor to treat both in same way in terms of mark-making. I was trying to keep stepping back and make adjustments and checking the relationships of the elements as I went along. In place of the alarm I decided that I would add in a name tag on the wrist of the figure to suggest the idea of a hospital environment.

Session 6

Further development of doll

Further development of doll

I then worked on the figure of elderly person but wasn’t sure about the position of facial features – note to self – be careful about positioning.

Session 7

Working on position of doll

Working on position of doll

At this stage things started to come unstuck. Another note to self – stop before you get too tired. I hadn’t been happy about the position of the doll and began to overwork the face and block in potential changes to the position of its body.

Session 8

Review of composition, changes made

Review of composition, changes made

I back-pedalled and rubbed off the areas of paint I had added to work out possible changes to the doll’s position. I reworked the face a little adding thin washes onto previous layers to give a cracked surface. I was concerned at this stage that I was moving away from my original intention of treating the figures in a similar way and in danger of overworking the painting.

Session 9

Work on figure and doll and shadows

Work on figure and doll and shadows

At this stage I contacted my tutor for advice. She agreed with my idea of trying to rework the face of the doll to the point where it was closer to earlier version at Session 6. I tried doing this but wasn’t sure this was working. I left some layers on and concentrated on the shadow area to the right of the doll using a mix of cadmium red, process cyan and a small amount of burnt sienna.

Using the same mix, I added a layer to the left of the doll on the pillow and, when dry, wiped this off allowing some of the darker mix to settle into the crevices of the previous layers.

I then worked on the figure. I felt the nose wasn’t in the right position so worked on that and the mouth.

I worked on the hair, blocking in loosely and adding a layer of process cyan and cadmium red which I later wiped off to add some depth and texture. I added a similar layer around the figure, on the pillow and sheets and wiped off.

I made some changes to the red triangular area beneath the doll’s arm by adding in the edge of the pillows.

I was uncertain as to how to proceed at this stage so have decided to submit this as a work in progress. Areas to think about include:

  • Is there too much of a discrepancy between the way the doll has been worked and the figure? I have used the same colour palette for both to serve as a link. In some ways I like the rougher, scraped appearance of the doll and think it works as a contrast with the sleeping figure.
  • I have tried to keep true to the inspiration for this, mum’s dream, and have the doll ‘glowing’ as I thought it added to the unsettled quality, but it may work better if doll is in more shadow.
  • I am still concerned about the positioning of nose and mouth of the elderly figure.


Technical and visual skills – As advised by my tutor I have been more focused on the process and for this developed piece I have spent more time considering composition through thumbnail sketches, testing out larger scale drawings, and trying out colour studies. In previous parts of the course I have worked in this way but have skimmed through parts this process when I have felt under pressure with timescales. Working with more focus on the process has helped to highlight potential problems earlier, such as the initial sketches which didn’t work out at a larger scale, and allow other options to be considered.

Quality of outcome – With more engagement with the process I feel that I am beginning to make more informed decisions about pieces of work. My research and reading is feeding into the practical work in a more coherent way and I am more able to see connections between my own work and the work of artists that I am researching.

Demonstration of creativity – For this piece I have been more experimental in terms of the practical work. Taking inspiration from the artists I have researched I have tried to work on a larger scale (for me), explored different viewpoints and compositions and worked in a less structured way in terms of applying paint. It may not be entirely successful at this stage but some aspects of the work appeal in a way in a way that I didn’t think they would including working straight onto the canvas without an initial under-drawing and working with layers of washes and thicker applications of paint.

Context – I am still finding the balance of research and practical work difficult in terms of time and need to think about ways to more quickly assimilate reading and research so that it is documented and can feed into the practical exercises.

Images [External links – open in new tabs]

Bourgeois, L. (2000) Cell XIV [Sculpture] At:,_Tate_Modern,_London,_October_2016_(12).JPG (Accessed on 23.08.18)

McMurrough, M. (s.d.) Swan Song [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

McMurrough, M. (s.d.) Full Scottish [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Rhys James, S. (2004) The Pink Room. [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Rhys James, S. (2017) Blue Top Orange Hairband [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Rhys James, S. (2017) Boy with Bowl and Spoon [Painting] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Ryden, M. (2006) Cernnunos [Mixed Media] At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Tanning, D. (1943) Eine Kleine Nachtmusik [Painting] (Accessed on 16.08.18)

Related posts

Practical Exercise 4 – Anxieties and Fears – Oil Pastel –

Practical Exercise 5 – Anxieties and Fears – Acrylic –


Shani Rhys James, (Accessed on 17.09.18)

The Art Story. (s.d.) Dorothea Tanning. At: (Accessed on 17.09.18)

Who Do You Think You Are? – Shani Rhys James, Episode 7 (1/2) [television programme online] Pres. Bright. BBC UK (2013) 15 mins At: (Accessed 17.09.18)

Who Do You Think You Are? – Shani Rhys James, Episode 7 (2/2) [television programme online] Pres. Bright. BBC UK (2013) 15 mins At: (Accessed 17.09.18)