Look Closer

Constable discussion and activities resource

Whether you are studying John Constable or just interested in exploring his art: use our discussion, research and activity suggestions to investigate and be inspired by his ideas and techniques

John Constable, ‘Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’)’ 1816–7
John Constable
Flatford Mill (‘Scene on a Navigable River’) 1816–7
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Familiar Places

In a letter to his friend John Fisher, Constable said ‘I should paint my own places best’. The places he knew well and loved best, were the places he we see in some of his greatest works.

Be inspired by Constable's familiar places; look at how other artists have depicted the places close to them; and think about how you can use your familiar places as inspiration for an artwork.

Discuss: An emotional landscape

John Constable, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ exhibited 1831
John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831
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The city of Salisbury in Wiltshire was a place that was close to Constable’s heart. His best friend lived there and he went there on his honeymoon. But it was also a place where he had felt sad – visiting there after his wife died.

Look at this picture of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 (or if you are visiting a gallery where the painting is on display, look at the painting).

  • What are your first impressions of the painting? How does the painting make you feel?
  • Think of words that describe the painting and your feelings about it.
  • How do you think Constable wanted you to respond? How did he use features of the painting to create impact? (Think about WHAT he has included in the picture and HOW he has painted it – e.g. colours, composition and brush-marks)

Watch and Create: 2D to 3D a kids' activity

Video placeholder

Watch this video to explore some of the details of Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831. Have a go at answering the questions in the video. Then try making a 3D model of a place you know well.

Discuss: A sense of place

John Constable, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ ?1829
John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows ?1829
Tate

Constable painted landscapes and places that were important to him and that he had a personal connection with. Most of the landscapes he painted were of places around where he grew up in East Bergholt in Sussex. In fact he said that it was these places that ‘made me a painter’:

  • Why do you think he chose to paint views of places that he knew really well?
  • If you were making an artwork about a place you know well, where would it be? What things would your work include?
  • How would ‘your place’ be similar or different to Constable’s places?

Watch and explore: Contemporary artists and their places

Rachel Whiteread, ‘Untitled (Stairs)’ 2001
Rachel Whiteread
Untitled (Stairs) 2001
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© Rachel Whiteread

Rachel Whiteread makes casts of spaces. Her sculptures have a haunting feel – they appear like ghosts of places.

Peter Doig, ‘Echo Lake’ 1998
Peter Doig
Echo Lake 1998
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© Peter Doig

Peter Doig: 'I often use heightened colours to create a sense of the experience, or mood or feeling of being there’.

Mark Dion, ‘Tate Thames Dig’ 1999
Mark Dion
Tate Thames Dig 1999
Tate
© Mark Dion

Mark Dion explores places through their archaeology. Tate Thames Dig includes a display of obejcts collected from the banks of the River Thames.

Willie Doherty, ‘Ghost Story’ 2007
Willie Doherty
Ghost Story 2007
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© Willie Doherty

Willie Doherty uses video to record a journey around Derry in Northern Ireland. A voiceover details personal memories connected with the landscape.

Hamish Fulton, ‘Wind through the Pines’ 1985, 1991
Hamish Fulton
Wind through the Pines 1985, 1991
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© Hamish Fulton

Artist Hamish Fulton use words and phrases to capture how a landscape makes him feel

Graham Sutherland OM, ‘Black Landscape’ 1939–40
Graham Sutherland OM
Black Landscape 1939–40
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© The estate of Graham Sutherland

Graham Sutherland abstracts landscape shapes and details to create powerful interpretations of landscapes.

Vija Celmins, ‘Galaxy’ 1975
Vija Celmins
Galaxy 1975
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© Vija Celmins

Vija Celmins bases her meticulous images of galaxies, seas and desert landscapes on found photographs.

Richard Hamilton, ‘Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different?’ 1992
Richard Hamilton
Just what is it that makes today’s homes so different? 1992
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© The estate of Richard Hamilton

Richard Hamilton has used collage to comment not just on our homes, but also on contemporary lifestyle and culture.

Guy Tillim, ‘Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique’ 2008
Guy Tillim
Grande Hotel, Beira, Mozambique 2008
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© Guy Tillim

Tillim photographs decayed modernist structures across Africa. The buildings evoke another time charged with promise and possibility, but their dereliction suggests broken hopes and dreams.

Artists often use places that are special to them as inspiration for their work. These might be places they grew up in or have a connection with, or places that have moved them in some way.

  • Browse the slideshow of artworks to explore some of the very different approaches and techniques artists have used to evoke ‘a sense of place’.
  • Use the links below to watch artists talking about places that are important to them

Videos:

Create: A place of my own

John Piper, ‘Littlestone-on-Sea’ 1936
John Piper
Littlestone-on-Sea 1936
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© The Piper Estate

Create an artwork, photograph or design exploring a place that is important to you or has inspired you. This place could be where you live or it could be somewhere that you have visited or heard about.

It might help to brainstorm!

  • Close your eyes and think about what ‘your’ place looks like. Think about what you can see there. Think about the shapes and colours of the things that are there. Also think about the sounds, the smells and how the place makes you feel
  • Now open your eyes and try sketching the place from memory (or from the imagination if it’s somewhere you have heard about). Try and put across the ‘sense of the place’ – what it feels like as well as what it looks like in your sketch. (E.g. if it is a busy bustling place, how would you express this? If it is a calm place, what colours, lines and marks suggest this?) This doesn’t have to be neat and ‘finished’ its just a way of getting down your first thoughts
  • Write down ten words that describe this place and why it’s important to you
  • Use your sketch and list of words as the starting point for your artwork.

Changing places

Peter Kennard, ‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles’ 1980
Peter Kennard
Haywain with Cruise Missiles 1980
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© Peter Kennard

When Constable was making his great paintings of rural landscapes such as Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, there was a lot of change going on in the countryside. Acts of Parliament changed the conditions and rights of people living in the countryside. Industrialisation, the rapid growth of cities and the introduction of machinery to do the jobs that farm labourers would previously have done led to lots of people moving away from the countryside to big cities.

Discuss: your changing places

  • Do you know a place that is changing? Perhaps there are new houses being built on fields or buildings being knocked down to make way for a new development
  • Can you think of any situations today, or stories in the news where people are protesting against a big change in the landscape?
  • What do you think it’s like to be a local person in a place that is changing? What might be the pros and cons of new developments?

Create: What's so great about it?

Constable’s landscape paintings are popular because they present comforting, and sometimes nostalgic views of the countryside. They suggest the goodness of nature and healthy living. In fact the picture he presents is so appealing that details of his painting The Cornfield – of a boy drinking from a stream and of the cornfield itself – were used for advertisements in the 1980s, for mineral water and breakfast cereal!

Have a go at making your own advertisement related to the countryside, seaside, an open space or park near you. Design a poster, TV or radio advert, or a social media campaign.

Try thinking about:

  • What is good about the place you’ve chosen? What do you want to tell people about it? How would you promote it or attract people to it?
  • Constable’s countryside. Imagine Constable has asked you to design a poster promoting the rural life he loved and warning about what the landscape will look like if that all disappeared. Find details in Constable’s paintings that sum up the best of rural life. Consider what may be threatening it. Think of a slogan that might have appealed to Constable, summing up what he loved about ‘his places’
  • An environmental issue you feel strongly about that will cause changes to the countryside or nature. This could be about somewhere you know or about an environmental issue you have heard or read about.

Be a weather watcher

John Constable, ‘Cloud Study with Verses from Bloomfield’ 1830s
John Constable
Cloud Study with Verses from Bloomfield 1830s
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Constable was fascinated by the weather and especially by recording the changes in the clouds. His studies show a remarkable understanding of the structure and movement of clouds.

Research and create:

  • Make a cloud diary of your own.
  • At a set time each day go outside or look out of your window and make a note of what the clouds in the sky are like. You could make sketches, take photographs or use your phone. Estimate how much of the sky is covered by clouds, or try and describe what the clouds look like.
  • There are special names for types of clouds – look them up on a weather website and see if you can classify the clouds you see.

Working practice and techniques

John Constable, ‘Study for ‘Flatford Mill’’ c.1816
John Constable
Study for ‘Flatford Mill’ c.1816
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Explore scale

John Constable, ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ exhibited 1831
John Constable
Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831
Tate

In the 1820s Constable painted some huge six-foot (188 cm) paintings – also known as ‘six-footers’, of which Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 was the last. Part of the reason he painted these huge paintings was to help them stand out at exhibitions. But also, by painting such vast canvases Constable wanted to celebrate landscapes and the importance of landscape painting.

  • Make a small drawing of a landscape on a sheet of A4 paper. (You could use a sketch you have already done)
  • Mark out a grid over the top of your drawing – make each square 3cm x 3cm. Now grid up an A3 piece of paper with boxes 6cm x 6cm and enlarge your drawing box by box to the new sheet.
  • You could also try taking a huge sheet of paper or card outside and make a huge drawing of a landscape on-the-spot!

Hidden details…

Constable not only gives us broad views of landscape scenes, he also focuses in on details.

Nothing was too mundane or commonplace for his art. In a letter to fellow painter Charles Leslie he said, ‘my limited and abstracted art is to be found under every hedge, and in every lane, and therefore nobody thinks it worth picking up’.

Constable felt that it is the traces of everyday life that make a landscape complete and come alive, and his sketch-books are filled with small details which he later incorporated into his paintings. In Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 a horse-drawn wagon is shown crossing the River Nadder, and a sheepdog looks up at the Cathedral.

  • Look closely at the details in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows 1831 using this interactive resource.
  • Focus in on one area of the painting and make a drawing of it so that it fills your page.

Explore Constable’s mark-making

John Constable, ‘The Mill Stream. Verso: Night Scene with Bridge’ c.1810
John Constable
The Mill Stream. Verso: Night Scene with Bridge c.1810
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At the time that Constable was making art, surfaces of a painting were supposed to be smooth. But the surfaces of Constable’s painting were dabby, blobby and different.

Find out more

John Constable, ‘Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’’ c.1828–9
John Constable
Sketch for ‘Hadleigh Castle’ c.1828–9
Tate

Want to know more about John Constable? From short reads to in-depth learning packs, we have pulled together some extra resources so you can dig deeper into his life and work.

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