September, 2010 Archives

I’m really enjoying painting the marble wall, which is going to work nicely with the addition of two or three very light transparent glazes of warm Iron Oxide red and a blue to give it some vibration. I need to measure the position of the cracks between the slabs too, so I can line them with the Iron Oxide. I’ve noticed that in Alma-Tadema’s work my favorite bits of marble are those which have water stains and areas of the rusty red oxide laid around the seams of the stones, and I’m quite excited to emulate his graceful painting.
To capture the delicate grey veining I abused a sign painter’s sword brush, conventionally used for long pinstripes, but now twisting and sliding the blade-shaped hairs across the canvas to create varying line weights and shifts from line to scumbled marks. Once the grey was laid down with the brush I lifted most of the paint off with a soft rag, then painted a slightly loose coat of Ceramic White over the top. Because this white is fairly transparent the grey marks beneath it blend into it and become softened by it. Finally I worked the surface with my big blending brush to take out any brush marks.

Having finished with the wall for the day I returned to the Empress, painting the eponymous central figure’s face with some Raw Umber. She’s at a strange angle, so I think I will need to be particularly careful with defining her features when I get to the later layers. I’m not overly concerned with getting every detail at this stage, more interested in getting painted material down so that it can be worked with. My students will know that I’m about to say that “oil paint is endlessly re-workable”.

This evening I made use of a short hour and a half to get started on the faces in the Empress painting, with good results. I’m pleased to get started with the work – it’s good to get back to painting the figure again after painting the skulls and bones of the Angel of Death for so long. I’m trying the Pre-Raphaelite technique of painting Raw Umber over the white I put down yesterday, which seems to work well, although I’ve always avoided this pigment because of its tendency towards greenness, which I will have to get used to. The face will need lots of work to make it right, with obvious problems around the mouth and eyes that will need care.

Joseph helped with the Virtues, beginning to add general light blue-grey patches to the white marble. With another ten layers or so, it should start working well.

The base white is down on the lower half of the Virtues painting, beginning the work in earnest. The gesture of the brush marks follows the contour of the wall and the slabs of marble that will be on the ground, while some of the warm orange colour of the sealer coat is allowed to peek through the white. My old student and friend Mark Tevis came over and spent a pleasant hour or two working with Joseph and I in the studio helping to get the work moving. We’re using a very nice Foundation White made by Michael Harding which is a well ground pigment that I’m pleased with (Steve Aufhauser from Continental turned me onto this paint, because I griped to him about the poor quality of the Flake White I was using before).

It’s almost impossible to get a picture of the entire painting because it’s so big!

While Mark and Joe based out the Virtues I worked on building the first layer of paint on the Empress, only working in white for now, and staying with the flesh until I can get a bit more time to work on the clothing. I want to stylize the drapery a bit, making it a bit more dramatic. I love the work designer Lily Blue has been doing down in Santa Monica, creating some fabulous clothes with swaths of beautiful fabric, perhaps I’ll refer to some of the folds of her work in the dresses the girls are wearing.

I’ve been looking for sources for the two paintings, particularly the stonework of the foreground of the Virtues and the fabric of the dresses that will feature in it and the Empress. I’m very interested in Alma-Tadema’s work with marble in many of his paintings – he clearly knew he was onto a good thing, repeating the technique many times. I shot several details of  his painting Coign of Vantage at the Legion of Honor, poor quality on my phone, but useful for reference.

John Roddam Spencer Stanhope

Love and the Maiden (detail).

Here’s a detail of a fabulous example of late Victorian painting. She’s fantastic, isn’t she? I found her quite by accident at the Legion of Honor Gallery in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, in the company of a beautiful Bougereau and a lovely Alma-Tadema. There’s an image of the whole painting here of better quality than my cellphone snapshot. I want to emulate this kind of work in my Empress painting, which will start taking shape this week. Now that I’ve returned from San Francisco I can focus on working in the studio again, although I need to take care of a bit of administrative work too, so watch this page as the Empress and the Virtues start to come to fruition.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England has announced that it is putting together an exhibit of Pre-Raphaelite paintings. This isn’t particularly earth-shattering news in itself, but their plan is to bring the show to San Francisco, which is an enjoyable six hour drive North through vineyards and amazing coastal scenery from my home, and my favorite city to visit. I’m going to keep a very close eye on this, and I won’t be missing the show when it gets here.

Late 19th Century Pre-Raphaelite painters produced art that was beautiful for the sake of being beautiful; enamored by romance and opposed to functionalism, they looked for grace and craftsmanship in their work, producing richly detailed images of chivalrous men and graceful women. Although these are ideas and themes that have been deeply unfashionable during the modern period and have attracted the scorn of the contemporary art world, the romantic work of the Pre-Raphaelites has remained very popular and now seems to earn increasing attention as we steadily move away from the skepticism and ironic self-reflection that characterized 20th Century Post-Modernism.
Fantasy seems to accompany economic difficulty in the West, so given that we seem to be immersed in a downturn of epic proportions I’m looking for new millennium painters who are engaged in the same ideas that excited the Pre-Raphaelites for the gallery at the University, planning an exhibit to correspond with the V and A show when it comes to California, showing how the work of these wonderful painters continues to influence artists today.

There’s a story about the V & A Pre-Raphaelite exhibit in the Guardian newspaper here.

I relined the blue drawing of the figures with graphite, having discovered that the pigment was not particularly strong once I started work with the base coat.

The completed figures have been sealed under a wiped out layer of Iron Oxide Red, which means that soon I’ll be able to do some en grisaille work to establish them with paint. I’ve ragged the area around the girls, leaving the surface with quite a bit of texture so that when I get into the cherry blossom there’s already some variation between light and dark petals.
Alma-Tadema did a couple of extraordinary paintings that featured thousands of petals, notably The Roses of Heliogabalus but they’re a little too disorganized for my liking; I think I’m going to be more specific.

I continued drawing the Empress, getting the feet onto the canvas, then editing the figures to make them a touch more graceful. Altering figures is a risky business because if you do too much they stop being cohesive and anatomical relationships begin to fail. Although we may not all study the anatomy of the body, we certainly can tell when it doesn’t feel right.

I’ve yet to fully understand how the background of this painting works, so I think I’ll probably seal it as it is, then worry about it later. Presently all I’m seeing when I imagine the piece is a lot of flowers, but they lack form. I plan to research cherry trees, because when they blossom there’s such an abundance of beautiful petals, and that’s the feeling I’m after: multitudes of flowers cascading around the girls.

A few technical clues for checking proportion from the great Vitruvius – I use these all the time and find them an incredibly helpful “rule of thumb”. Like any rule, you will find that often they aren’t quite right, but Vitruvius wasn’t messing about, he was interested in the general human form.

The eyes are at the centre of the head.

The hand is the same size as the face.

The fingers are the same size as the palm.

The groin is the centre of the height of the body.

One head units can be used to measure from chin to nipple; nipple to navel; navel to groin.

We did an impromptu survey in my drawing class yesterday, with my students bringing a picture of somebody they thought was particularly beautiful. By dividing the faces into Vitruvian proportions we noted two interesting trends: we tend to like the appearance of women with large eyes and thin faces, but prefer men who are classically proportioned. I’d like to develop this survey a little more so that I can apply it to my paintings, because I’m particularly interested in our understanding of beauty.

A lovely afternoon with my painting students led to a few hours of concentrated drawing on the Empress canvas, continuing the work from my initial foray and adding the majority of the other figures to the composition.
I’ve edited out the globus cruciger from the image for now, but I’m not sure that this will be a permanent change. I’m pretty happy with the way the drawing is going so far, although naturally everything will change when the painting work starts.
I’m still enjoying drawing in blue far more than my customary graphite because I can see it more clearly at a distance than the grey, although I don’t know why this should be.

My student (and model for the virtues) Devin has set up her blog, documenting her work on the mural project.

With the sealed canvas dry and ready for the first painting work to begin Joe, Jason, Devin and Casey started to put down the base en grisaille layer. Because my goal is to have the painting feel filled with the beauty and glory of the sunlight the work is particularly light, with little shadow. What darkness there is is rendered in Raw Sienna, emulating the work of Alma-Tadema.

Base layers