DETAIL : Sean SCULLY Ireland 1945  Robe figure, 2003 2003 Painting oil on canvas

The Artist

Artist quotes:

The Art


Formal Analysis


Student worksheets

Information for teachers

This section of the site has been developed for Secondary School teachers and students. A worksheet is provided as a Acrobat pdf to encourage students to read and absorb the information prior to visiting the exhibition. Post-visit activities are also included.


The Artist

Artist’s quotes are from an interview with R. Eric Davis in the Journal of Contemporary Art, 1999, online version,

Being a painter :

It was the most adventurous, in a sense the most dangerous, the most insecure, and, potentially, the most profound thing I could do.

My work is really based on a kind of idealism and romanticism with beauty and form and profundity all wrapped up.

I am taking on the history of art, I am immersed in it and I’m immersed in what I make. I am what I make in other words; there is no difference.

The role of painting in society :

I simply cannot think that human beings will be able to discard their desire and need for something that is sublime, something that transports them, takes them out of time, takes them out of the banality of the everyday world

You can do certain things with painting that are unique to painting that you cannot do with anything else. With a painting you can contain within borders a lot of experience, narrative, emotion, poetry, idea, thought, time, references and so on, all within a frame … Painting has a unique potential to stop time and compact feelings and experience.

Beauty in art :

The question for me is whether or not something moves me and engages me. If I am moved and engaged by something, I find it beautiful. For me the term beautiful is not pejorative, it is always affirmative.

The only thing for me that distinguishes whether or not I think something is moving or profound or necessary or beautiful, they are all more or less the same thing for me, is whether it is convincing. And this in the end comes down to the character of the person making it, not the style in which it is made  .It is not a question of appearances. It is a question of whether something is, to my mind, humanistically convincing.

Art versus advertising :

The values of the advertising world, the virtual media world, the world that assaults, have infiltrated the quality of the human personality.

Art no longer offers the sanctuary that it once did. It can, but you have to fight for it more because the enemy is already inside the walls.

Spirituality in art :

Rothko obviously satisfies another desire in the culture, a desire for beauty and a sense of spirituality and a sense of precariously tragic drama.

Question: ‘Was there a certain point in modern history that art attained its own religious state?

I think that point is Malevich. When he put a figure on a ground with all the severity of a Russian icon painting, but with none of the descriptive and authoritarianism of one, in that moment it was liberated.

But I don’t think an abstract painting is something you worship. It is something that is part of the world. It is as if the spirituality in art stepped off a pedestal, or from behind a sheet of glass, and has joined the world of the living.

Abstraction and figuration :

I am not fighting for abstraction. Those battles have already been fought. I’m using those victories to make an abstraction that is, in fact, more relaxed, more open, and more confident … I am trying to make something that is more expressive and that relates to the world in which we live. In that sense my abstraction is quite figurative. It is not very remote.

I try to make paintings that everybody can relate to in terms of their drawing, it’s a very simple kind of counting. It’s based on rhythm or simple architectural structures or mathematical structures. I’m not making them complicated. They are very simple. Within that the painting of them can be quite emotive. So, the emotive painting is, in effect, rendering something, its attached to something that in fact takes the place of the object in figurative painting.

Process and link with contemporary experiences :

What I am painting is a simple divisional structure, but you see the way it is painted, what colour is painted, and how many times it is painted in relation to that simple structure … What I did, basically, was I went back to what it was originally based on.

The language I use is the language of the contemporary world you can find anywhere, on computer screens, things are arranged in rows and lines; its simple numerical order. If I stand in the subway in New York and I look down, everything is repeated. That’s how we put the world together now and that is how I put my paintings together. In that sense they are in complete accord with the contemporary world so people can enter them quite naturally.

They are abstract paintings and they are quite lyrical. But they remind you of things that exist in the world. They remind you of the way the world is ordered.


The Art

Quotes in this section are from an interview between Sean Scully and Jörg Zutter in the National Gallery of Australia magazine artonview Issue no. 38, Winter 2004


Oil paint Bigland
Sean Scully creates the silky, sensuous surfaces of his paintings by using oil paints mixed with resin, oil, turps and varnish. He uses large, wide brushes and moves between the painting on the wall, the liquid paint placed in buckets on the floor and the chair in which he sits to assess the work’s progress. Often he paints to music. These paintings are generally huge and dominating. The stretchers project from the wall giving the paintings a solid three dimensional impact. Often his works are made from a number of connected sections, some projecting further than others. Sometimes smaller sections are slotted into spaces created within the larger structure. Many of Scully’s paintings are overpainted a number of times. This builds up an expressive paint surface where hidden colours are revealed along the edges of his geometric shapes.

Notes for Bigland 1987–88

The title and structure of Bigland refer to the gigantic, geological canyons found in the American landscape and the man-made avenues, grids, and skyscrapers of its cities. He is also referring to abstract art, such as the geometric abstraction of Piet Mondrian’s paintings, the post-painterly expressionism of Barnett Newman and the minimalist repetition of Carl Andre and Donald Judd.

Watercolour 2.17.94 1994
Scully’s oil paintings are heavy and three dimensional, covered with a ‘skin’ of layered paint. Although concerned with similar formal issues such as repetition, asymmetry and ambiguous edges, Scully’s watercolours are light and airy. The illusion of space is more subtle with the forms appearing to ‘hover’ on the plane of the paper. In comparison with the chasms, edges, divisions and the physical presence of the oil-painted surfaces, these delicate watery works appear almost ephemeral.

Pastel 10.11.98 1998
Pastels are pure pigment. They are dry and powdery and the pigment is pressed into the paper repeatedly to create an opaque surface. They record the physical energy of the process of layering colour over colour. The blurred edges, intense colour and geometric structure demonstrate a strong link to his paintings.

Photography San Domingo for Nene 1999
In 1978 Scully began photographing doorways, windows, facades and other geometric architectural elements and fragments. He was interested in texture, repeated shapes and patterns, verticals and horizontals and the inserted shape of the covered space as presented by the doorway. These inserted shapes also appear in his large oil paintings that explore the ambiguous spatial relationship between the figure and the ground. Scully is interested in light and its opposite, shadow, and how form is described by light. He was attracted to the clear strong light of Spain and Mexico. The patina of age on the architecture of this area, resulting from extended human use, relates to the sensuous scumbled and scored impasto of his oil paintings.

Formal analysis

Colour Mooseurach 2002
Scully applies many layers of paint over another. The colours merge and resonate with each other creating indefinite and ambiguous edges. Note in Mooseurachhow the orange pierces through the stripes of this painting. He is challenging our perceptions. The longer we look at the surface the more depth of colour and texture we see.

When I’m painting, I’m overlaying and overlaying and I might paint a painting green and I end up painting it black and white and the green is somehow influencing what you’re looking at. The green informs the tremor along the edges, between the colours. So what you’re seeing is perhaps a black and white painting, but what you are feeling is a green painting…

The colours he selects are generally earth colours associated with soil, ochres and charcoal. They also reference the aged quality of the built environment. Colour is symbolic and has an emotional impact. For example, Durangowith its heavy black and grey stripes and the monumental triptych structure conveys a feeling of ancient times and dramatic happenings.

Compositional design
Scully’s work is almost entirely based on vertical and horizontal stripes organised into blocks. The balance of dark against light, of colour against colour, of horizontal against vertical, creates works of great tension and visual complexity. In this exhibition, Scully’s compositional designs for his oil paintings include vertical and horizontal triptychs and diptychs, squares bounded by rectangles, and rectangles inserted into a background area.

Vertical triptych: Durango 1990
Horizontal triptych: Sea wall 2002
Vertical diptych: Four large mirrors, 1 and 2
Horizontal diptych: Standing grey
Square with rectangles around: Yellow Bar
Vertical sections: Wall of Light
Inserts: Falling Figure

Texture Wall of Light Desert Day
Repeated layers of paint result in textured surfaces of shadowy brushstrokes. The edges of the stripes often reveal the underlying layers of colour. Texture is created by dragging the brush across the canvas. Scully’s paint has a lustrous quality that catches the light and emphasises the direction of the brushstrokes. The energy and spontaneity of the painting process is thereby revealed.

Three-dimensionality Durango
Some of Scully’s works of art are made in separate sections. Box-like stretchers are connected together with some sections projecting into the viewing space while other sections recede. These paintings have a sculptural ‘objectness’ that require careful placement as the walls behind and the space around become part of the work of art itself.

But what is interesting to me about the work is that it’s a triptych that’s in a fight with an all-over painting. It’s both, and that’s something that runs through my work a lot, the idea of the dialectic, the divided idea, the double idea. In a way, it looks like an enormous altarpiece, because this particular structure has religious connotations. The way it’s painted is almost violent; it has a kind of force in it that makes it difficult to negotiate with. And in another way it looks like a wasteland. It’s not a painting that is full of hope.

Spatial illusion Stacked Yellow figure
In Scully’s paintings some blocks of colour appear closer than others. Subtle overlapping colour harmonies are used to create these complex spatial effects. Other works of art rely on the insertion of sections to suggest the illusion of space. In Stacked yellow figure the lowest block of cream and orange appears to have a different, sharper edge. On closer inspection it appears to be a separate canvas inserted into a window. The surface is no longer a seamless illusion of space but a fragmented structure. There is a suggestion of a narrative or a voyage.

Repetition and order Bigland
Scully’s paintings are made up of stripes and blocks of colour, which are geometric and carefully designed to balance colour and direction. They reveal connections with place, space, buildings, landscape, light and Scully’s own experiences.

I’m attracted to basic systems of ordering. The way things can be put together in fours or fives, sixes or sevens, carries with it a strange and mysterious logic. If I put two panels together and one is divided with an even number — six for example — it tends to feel balanced and completed. But if the number of units is odd, like five, it can run on forever.


Urban landscape/architecture San Domingo for Nene
Many of Scully’s canvases can be directly related to architectural structures like street patterns or shopfronts in specific cities or suburbs. Geometric structures such as, framing devices surrounding doorways and windows are a continuing physical link between his photographs and his paintings, and works on paper. Compare this series of photographs with paintings that feature rectangular inserts such as Stacked yellow figure. Scully states: ‘I am extremely engaged by my surroundings. I grew up in the rough parts of urban London. The colours of wet, dirty, grey walls are attractive to me.’

Non-urban landscape Sea wall
In scale, colour and texture, Scully’s paintings suggest the wide open spaces of magnificent landscapes and seascapes.

I saw it as a wall against the ocean, so it’s really a northern romantic painting. I’m painting the wall that stops the wave. But it’s saturated by the colour of the wave. You can see that all the reds have been almost completely painted out.

Wall of light desert day It’s extremely colourful for a big painting. There are openings from behind running all the way through the painting. The colour is extremely important. I think of it as desert colour. The idea of the desert is to me like the notion of a sacred land, a land that hasn’t been defiled.

Wall of light desert day has an ambiguous title. This ambiguity, linking a wall with its suggestion of mass and structure with the word ‘light’ is central to Scully’s work. In this painting he plays with the juxtaposition of opposites. Space suggested by the term ‘desert’ is subverted by the controlled structure of the image. The two vertical pillars in the middle are flanked by controlling bands of coloured stripes, which appear to visually protrude or recede, depending on your viewpoint.

Light Durango
Durango is the name of a city and state in north-west Mexico, famous for its 18th-century architecture often used as sets for Hollywood westerns. The painting’s all-over structure and monumental scale evokes both the architecture and the vast skies and strong clear light of this region.

Music Four large mirrors, 1 and 2
The idea is that a rhythm is created by the brush, the human action, and the endless horizontal lines. This horizontal rhythm jumps across from one canvas to another in a continuum. The whole room should be inhabited by this musical sense. One could say it’s related to drumming, or perhaps to playing Bach.

Other artists

Henri Matisse:

For Matisse the process of painting entailed repeated overpainting. This overpainting process and the subsequent complexity of edges and surfaces is a characteristic of Scully’s work.

Piet Mondrian:

Mondrian believed that Abstract–Real painting resulted from an equilibrium between the spiritual and the natural. Colour was seen as the essence of the natural, and geometry the essence of the spiritual. The dynamic tension of Scully’s paintings differs from the equilibrium of colour and form found in the abstract paintings of Piet Mondrian.

Mark Rothko:

Rothko’s paintings of floating colour forms with soft, blurred edges evoke a meditative response in the viewer.Scully achieves a similar result with his abstract paintings, which by rejecting any representational element leave the viewer free to experience the emotional effect of colour and compositon.

Pre-visit and Post-visit activities for Secondary School students.  

Pre-visit activity
Download the following worksheet and ask students to complete it while reading the information supplied and viewing the images. Download PDF (11KB)
Instructions : Right click (shift click on Mac) on links then choose 'Save Target As' from the menu and follow the prompts

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Post-visit activity
Ask students to note their analytical and emotional responses to the works of art and to write a review of the exhibition.
Research: Discuss the relationship between abstraction and spirituality in the work of Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. Relate your findings to the art of Sean Scully.

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