November, 2010 Archives

The velatura layer is making a big difference to the painting, with most of the arms and legs coated in a simple pinkish layer of paint, supplemented by shadows felt out in a Graham Burnt Sienna. I’m happy to see the head of the Empress sitting well within the painting – having the flesh become more substantial has really helped to unify the change. I’ve dropped her hair across her face to lower the forehead that I felt was too high.

The faces of the three girls on the right have yet to be touched with the velatura – there ‘s quite a difference once that pink layer softens the features of the face. I’m looking forward to getting them all done.

Still concerned with the brightness of the colours, I’ll almost certainly glaze a white over the dresses to make them more pastel. I also want to revisit the design of the yellow dress.

I’m getting a sense of how the cherry blossoms will work in the background. I originally expected them to be similar to the acacia in my Traveler painting, but now I’m tending toward their being shorter and occupying the lower two thirds of the sky.

Adding the pink velatura layer to the legs has made the girls more substantial, and will help me to make decisions about the balance of colour in the painting. Once I get the skin of the upper part of the bodies done I will have completed the first layer over the entire painting, and can focus on the subtleties of shifting colours and shadows. I’ve been looking at the dresses and wondering how I can modify the shape of the yellow one in particular to make it flow more, with more mass. Perhaps a second layer would work. I’ll do some sketches to see how different approaches might work.

This painting is about fertility, but it’s not unlike the Angel of Death piece because both are allegories of the crossing of a threshold into a new state of being, and I think it’s one of the reasons that the article about spitting at Raphael has struck a chord with me. I think that studio art is crossing a threshold right now, and these paintings are in part allegories representing that change.

I’m disturbed by Rossetti’s spitting notes in part because while I see the Pre-Raphaelite revolt against the Victorian Royal Academic status quo as an example worth following in our own day, I don’t wish to be reduced to his schoolboy marginalia. It’s a different scenario, to be sure: presently the art world is dominated by Post-Modernity, with master techniques of painting and drawing discouraged by its leaders, but many of the goals of Pre-Raphaelite painting are still relevant; a focus upon technical mastery; a sense of return to that which has been lost; romantic idealism; and a search for grace and beauty – all ideals which have been scorned by cynical, irony laden, self-referential post-modernity.

When Rossetti scorned Raphael he was acting because he needed a marker for when things went wrong, so can we identify a similar marker for the beginning of the decline of painting now? Pre-Twentieth Century? Art was reduced to its most minimal in that century, with its ghastly price tag of millions of souls. Should we spit at some famous 20th Century deconstructionist? Call ourselves “Pre-Duchamp-ites” or “Pre-Piccasso-ites”? I don’t think this is necessary. Millennial romantic artists needn’t share the Pre-Raphaelite’s disdain for any individual, or even for academic painting, but will find satisfaction in setting their foundations upon the skillful work of the masters of two and a half thousand years of art history, seeing the decline of studio arts in the twentieth century as a pause to gather our cultural breath as we revitalize technique and the pursuit of beauty.

Pictures: (from left to right) Shadows on the marble; A green and brown dress; Bottecelli Madonna, Lippi’s Saint; Raphael Madona; Closeup of Raphael’s Madonna; Decorative work on Medieval alter-piece; Twisted wool robe lining on Medieval alter-piece.

In the studio I’ve coloured the last of the dresses and shadows have been growing around the marble and the feet of the girls, finally getting the figures grounded and making the space feel more convincing. I’ve added staining and line work into the gaps between the slabs, referring to the Victorian marble-master Alma-Tadema again for guidance in the work. Although I’m not much of a fan of his portrayal of women, I love the environments he painted and I’m perfectly happy to stand on the shoulders of giants like him and the other Pre-Raphaelites. However, while reading the Pre-Raphaelite Papers I came across a narrative about Dante Gabriel Rossetti that saddened me (Quentin Bell’s article “The Pre-Raphaelites and their Critics”).

One of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, who by chance I have least respect for of all the painters associated with the movement, Rossetti is known to have scribbled “spit here” in the margins of one of his books about art at every mention of the great painter Raphael. Although this seems crass, particularly when we admire Raphael’s graceful Madonna (presently on exhibit at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, which I visited this afternoon) I suppose that it helps to draw a line in the sand when attempting to establish a revolt against the blandness of contemporary art; to Rossetti, Raphael was a convenient marker for the beginning of the rot that was ultimately to lead to Victorian sentimentality and sloshy brown palettes. But while looking at these beautiful Madonnas, it’s hard to imagine being able to cast scorn upon them, which got me thinking about what made a really beautiful painting at the end of the nineteenth century. Rebelling against the maudlin blandness of Joshua Reynolds and establishment Victorian painting, which was often indeed “brown and sloshy” the Pre-Raphaelites wanted to find light and grace, to re-invent painting in a new form that referred to the past while simultaneously stepping forward by creating an imagined version of the British past that emphasized nobility of spirit, gentility and a spiritual foundation.

In the room adjacent to the Raphaels there’s a Botticelli, his Madonna and Child with Adoring Angel, c. 1468 in rather poor condition and a couple of lovely alterpiecesby his student Lippi, one of which, his Saints Benedict and Apollonia, c. 1483 features a classic Botticelli style woman, slender and graceful, but disconcertingly holding a pair of pliers and a molar tooth. These artists were deeply inspiring to the Pre-Raphaelites, who clearly loved Botticelli’s women, repeatedly emulating them in their own works, but I don’t see how anyone who loved these paintings could despise Raphael’s Madonnas. There’s no need for spitting at the Norton Simon, but plenty of room for admiration.

The Cobalt blue sky is much improved by a coat of fat Ceramic White that has been softly pounced off to leave a gentle glaze that makes the colour less intense. The blue was far too bright in its pure state, and feels much more natural now. A tiny bit of Cadmium Red mixed with Ceramic White made a very pale pink that I added into the tops of the clouds, making them feel a little brighter because of the direct colour contrast against the blue of the sky. I’ve also painted a line of white at the horizon that I’ve blended up into the body of the clouds, making the hills stronger and the clouds feel as if they run deeply into the distance. The yellow dress on the left has also been softened with a glaze of Ceramic White, making it far more delicate.

I am constantly amazed at how pure pigments are so rich compared to the majority of colours in the natural world, which are often almost grey by comparison.

I’m pretty tired, feeling a bit under the weather (appropriate for painting clouds, I guess), so I’ll colour the remaining dress and leave it at that for today, although I’m really tempted to get into the shadows on the marble, because I’m excited to see how the spatial drama of the the action of light upon the figures within the courtyard will pay off.

I’ve finished the first draft of the Empress’ most recent face, now painting my daughter in the role of the main character, (she got a crick in her neck from keeping her head in that position while I tried to match her head to the position of the painting). Re-working the head has been a tricky project, but it’s paying off, and I think this is a better choice for the painting because the first face was positioned poorly, with a strange expression while the second, although very pretty, was simply incorrectly positioned and didn’t fit the composition.

I painted the face in wet white, the Pre-Raphaelite technique of painting the flesh into a wet foundation. My preference is to emphasize shadows once this layer has dried. It’s not unlike painting a velatura layer when working on an en grisaille painting, but it tends toward a softer value over the whole face. You can see the slight difference between the colour of the faces in the third phot0, which shows the neighboring girls alongside the newly painted Empress.

This is the first draft, so expect some changes to come, with the addition of hair, shadows and eyebrows (!).

I’ve added colour to the ribbon dress worn by the girl on the right, using some Raw Sienna mixed with to fill the shadow areas, then picking out the highlights of the individual strips.
The Empress’ face is deleted again and will be ready for the third version once the foundation white is dry. I think this one will turn out much more effectively, although figuring out her position was tricky because I’ve altered the girl on the left a little so my points of reference have changed.

There’s been little time in the studio available for concentrating on painting the Empress over the last couple of days, with the demands of my personal life colliding with my work; however, I shot photos of Keziah posing as the Empress, deleted the original face and sketched in a new version that I had high hopes for, leaving the studio last night feeling optimistic that I’d figured out how to resolve the face, but this morning I returned to the studio and was disappointed in what I had done. Back to the drawing board! I have my kids with me this weekend, so I asked Elizabeth to pose for me – she’s already in the painting, but I don’t see any great problem with her being in it twice – so we shot the new photo reference with much more care and attention to the angle of the head, this time more effectively succeeding in getting the angles of her face and the lighting to match that within the painting.

I will have to re-model the neck a little to make the shape just right, and need to check on the shape of the hair and position of the face in relationship to the girl to her left, then I can redo the en grisaille and velatura layers to get the new face up to speed with the rest of the girls.

My students are working hard to complete their own projects as we rapidly approach the end of this semester, learning some tricky techniques with specialized brushes – for example properly using a script brush to create long lines that define shapes – rather like drawing in paint. Because the hair is so long and fine, the brush carries a lot of paint, but focuses the paint into a small surface area, so if you smoothly drag the brush with consistent pressure you can make long even lines. The trick with this brush is simply to keep going in the gesture of making the line. If the line goes crooked, delete the paint and repeat the motion, but don’t stop and go back and forth on the line; this will only make it jagged, which defeats the purpose of the tool. I probably use this kind of brush more than any other, but although I use it to draw line with paint, as I did yesterday to re-render the new face, I’m also attracted to it because with it I can use that long line to make a clean edge that I can soften on one side using a finger to smudge the colour, which is very helpful when creating areas of shadow.

While it seems a little crazy that these eight feet high paintings are largely made using the tiny 00 Silver Script brush in the first picture, which I surely have in my hand more frequently than any other, my next favorite tool these days is my inch wide, two inch long bristle Egbert, which is the correct name for a long Filbert. A Filbert is a round brush that has been pressed on the end of the ferrule, creating a flattened, rounded shape that carries a lot of paint and tends to create a soft edge to the mark it leaves. I use this brush predominantly for large areas of paint, like the cloudy sky and soft blended marble in this piece. I find a flat brush will tend to leave a ridge in the paint at the edges, which I dislike, preferring the mass of paint to stay in the middle of the stroke, where I can move it with greater ease. (A ridge of paint that dries on the edge of a stroke can make life difficult later when I am re-arranging shapes or blending shadows, so I tend to avoid flat brushes.)

My students are also deeply involved in learning to use a fan brush to blend areas of paint very smoothly; this centuries old method of generating areas of delicate shifts from one colour or value to another was used by the great old masters – these young painters are certainly in the company of Rubens, Raphael and Da Vinci as they fan their sable brushes over the surface of the panel. Perhaps they feel their spirits watching them as they work? (No pressure!) I’ll describe how to use this tricky, but invaluable brush next week.

I’m preparing to include more detail in the environment of the Empress by repainting her face completely. Model Keziah will be in the studio tomorrow, so I”ll get her to pose for me so I can improve the Empress. Keziah has a perfectly Vitruvian face, with strong feminine features; I’ve been looking forward to painting her for a long time, and she’s perfect for the Empress.

I’m adding two pillars to the opening that emerges from the courtyard on the left behind the Empress. Symbolically speaking, then she will be between two pillars bordering the archetypal threshold; crossing a threshold is an essential part of initiatory ritual to this day: any candidate must pass through an entrance to symbolize his parting from his previous existence into his new life. Anthropologist Victor Turner described this as the liminal experience, from the Latin limen.

As guardian of the threshold, the Empress shows us that the power she holds is to be found between this material world and the transcendent world of spiritual attainment, for initiation into mysteries is a necessity for any seeker who desires to find their pathway to God. It is necessary, because it is through initiation that one finds others who share the same destination, if not entirely the same journey to it.

I will include, probably as a necklace, a miniature of the globus cruciger, the emblem of God’s dominion over the earth and coronation accessory of Britain’s earthly rulers (known in Monty Python as “The Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch”). It appears in Alciato’s Book of Emblems as “the Seal of Venus”, in association with a bird.

The warm yellow and orange paint I’ve added to the dresses so far looks incredibly bright over the gray tones that have been the work of the last couple of months. I’ll continue adding the colours onto all the dresses and the skin, then glaze them back with a transparent white that will unify them all with the rest of the painting.

I’m spending increasing amounts of time looking at the painting and thinking about what effect my actions will have on it. Next step, to render the shadows onto the marble and also suggest some reflections on the surface, then to add pillars and figure out the shape of the trees and blossom. The pillars are important because they will emphasize the threshold that the courtyard represents, because the Empress is the guardian of that entrance.

The veining work is almost complete, and although the slabs still look a little bare without the shadows of the architecture to create the play of light upon them, I think it’s working nicely. The girls will also need cast shadows to ground them so they don’t float above the surface in the way they presently do, and finally, still more work on the play of light will be needed when I render the tree branches and blossoms into the painting.

The Cadmium Blue sky is so intense that I think it will need a glaze of white to make it a little less overwhelming, but I want to wait until I can see it with the colour of the dresses completed before committing to painting it, or I’ll end up doing it twice.