Category: Alchemical work

The beginning of the landscape, Raw Umber brushed and ragged.

The landscape takes shape behind the shaman. The beginning of a tree trunk cuts through the horizon, soon to be developed into an old oak.

Once the blue was wiped away from the morning glory and the figures, cleaning up any overlapping colour, it was time to start work on the horizon line. I want the landscape to be a little wild and unkempt, to be reminiscent of a location somewhere on the edge of Dartmoor in South West England, or among some of those mysterious Sierra foothills in California where the oaks dot the open rolling landscape, grazed by herds of wild ponies, far-ranging cattle or sheep.

The paintings are increasingly part of a series of windows into a strange alternative world in which the people are involved in alchemical processes that alter the environment and their lives. The landscapes are becoming increasingly green and verdant, almost as if the world in the paintings is taking on a life of its own as it gets more frequently captured. I’m enjoying finding out what’s going on in there.

Increasingly aggressive morning glory vines

A sketch for the Resurrection (Judgement)

The morning glory has spread to cover much of the calf of the Emperor’s right leg, but I want to show more of it reaching up to pass his left foot, perhaps even stretching out tendrils toward his abdomen and increasing the feeling that he is being overwhelmed by the creeping vines. Working on the intertwined leaves and stems is still immensely satisfying, and I’ve pulled out the Empress painting so that I can give it more attention in the same manner. When I painted the Traveller I found that a layered approach to the plants was effective, so I think that the decorative work I already did to the Empress should serve well as background to a new layer of foliage that’s more like this new piece, especially if it’s darkened a little.

I’ve been drawing for a resurrection painting. In the Marseilles tarots the Judgement card is clearly Christian, although it probably comes with an alchemical slant to it given the nature of the imagery of those decks. It’s been tricky for me to get behind the imagery of the card, because I find it so hard to believe in the resurrection of the body, but I think I’ve found a way to express a more allegorical resurrection in which the energy of the soul emerges after the death of the material body. For me, this is going to be a painting that celebrates unity with the universal mind of God.

In the sketch I’ve drawn the figures emerging from a Neolithic chambered mound reminiscent of the extraordinary Maes Howe in Orkney, watched by a group of people gathered around the entrance. I’ve studied these amazing pieces of ancient architecture for many years and love exploring their mysteries and I wonder how Neolithic British ideology dealt with life after death. This is a period that begins four thousand years before Christ – did they even conceive of an afterlife?

I shot reference pictures of Mark, first with him balanced on a ladder challenged with the tricky proposition of looking like he was flying upward with pointed feet, then shot him standing on tip-toes on the ground while I went up the ladder to get the right point of view for the figures who will be lower in the composition. Clearly I’m feeling the powerful influence of William Bougeureau’s extraordinary painting Les Oreades, which we saw at the D’Orsay in Paris last May. It’s an extraordinary piece of work – virtuoso painting by a great master. I remember standing before it in open-mouthed awe of his handling of the complexities of the intertwined bodies. Perhaps one day I’ll emulate this magnificent work more closely.

I’ve put down the first rough layer of Foundation White that will become the Magician’s bare feet. Pretty plain right now, they’ll be re-drawn and get a couple of layers more before they’re complete. I’m quite pleased to get them started, because they have needed attention for such a long time during the process of making the painting.

I’ve chosen to paint the feet bare because I like the idea that the Magician is feeling the earth between her toes, literally grounded as she completes the alchemical work to find the quintessence.

I’ve spent a short time working with re-rendering the whites of the Magician’s clothing in order to build some substance to the paint and simply to clean up the glazes that had stained the figure while painting the background. The white looks incredibly bright against the more muted tones of the rest of the painting.

In the left foreground I’ve added another area of the white layer that is seen in the background, increasing the impression that the painting is set in an area that is surrounded by a salt lake bed. I’ll add Raw Sienna to this first layer to bring the brightness down and set the new work into the rest of the painting.

Fifteenth century alchemical process followed a sequence of colour changes as the work progressed. Black (nigredo), White (albedo), Yellow (citrinitis) and Red (rubedo).

Now coloured, the flags in the landscape indicate that this is an alchemical image, with a blue one at the centre of the cross representing the quintessence.

The eponymous character demonstrates her mastery of the elements and understanding of the organization of the natural world, much like Della Porta’s description of a Magician in his book “Natural Magic”.

“I think that Magick is nothing else but the survey of the whole course of nature, for whilst we consider the heavens, the stars, the elements, how they are moved, and how they are changed, by this means we find out the hidden secrets of living creatures, of plants, of metals and of their generation and corruption; so that this whole science seems merely to depend upon the view of nature.”

2, Porta, John Baptista. Natural Magic. London, 1658. Kessinger Facsimile edition.

I’ve glazed the foreground mud landscape with a mix of Olive Green and  Van Dyke Brown, deliberately making the colours shift in density and colour to create a vibrant surface. I ragged off much of the paint so the base coat of sandy brown came through, making the surface deeper and quite complex. I think one more layer should do it. In the process of ragging the paint I came across a great method of making grassy patterns that I can use later in other works. It’s important to mentally file away little tricks and techniques that you notice while working, even if they aren’t useful in the work you’re doing when you find them.

Early Western science included the study of the medical benefits of herbs, alchemical experimentation with distillation and a philosophical understanding of the evidence of the handwork of the deity in the natural world. Because there was such a lack of understanding of their work, renaissance practitioners of scientific research were often confused with sorcerers.

Here’s Rosicrucian Michael Maier from his “Laws of the Fraternity of the Rosie Crosse”, which critiques the medical quackery of the period, and describes how practitioners of early medical science should use their understanding to heal. I’m posting it here because of its relevance to the tarot Magician as a roughly contemporary description of magical practice.

“(The Rosicrucian brethren) …apply themselves only to the study of Natural Magic, which is a science containing the deep mysteries of nature, neither is this divine knowledge given to any by God, but to those who are religious, good and learned…

“…that true  magic by which we come to the knowledge of the secret works of nature is so far from being contemptible that the greatest monarchs and kings have studied it; nay, among the Persians none might reign unless they were skillful in this great art.

Magick (as some define it) is the highest,most absolute and divinest knowledge of Natural Philosophy advanced in its wonderful works and operations, by a right understanding of the inward and occult vertue of things; so that true agents being applied to proper patients, strange and admirable effects will thereby be produced, whence Magicians are profound and diligent searchers into nature; they because of their skill know how to anticipate an effect which to the vulgar shall seem a miracle…

“We need not stand any longer on the praise of magic, it being of itself so honourable; but yet this noble science doth oftentimes degenerate, and from natural becomes diabolical, from true philosophy turns to necromancy, which is wholly to be charged on its followers. who abusing or not being capable of that high and mystical knowledge do immediately hearken to the temptations of Satan, and are misled by him into the study of the black art. Hence it is that magic lies under disgrace, and they who seek after it are vulgarly esteemed sorcerers, wherefore the brethren thought it not fit to title themselves Magicians; but Philosophers(.) They are not ignorant Empirics, but learned and experienced physicians whose remedies are not only lawful but divine: and thus we have at large discoursed of their first law.”

Maier, Michael. 1656. Laws of the Fraternity of the Rosie Crosse (Themis Aurea), 89 – 92. N. Brooke, London. Philosophical Research Society Facsimile edition, Los Angeles 1976.

I’ve drawn the landscape for the Magician’s world onto the canvas, with distant mountain range, a trough of water, a cross of long rags attached to sticks, and rocks and clouds that resemble each other. All four elements are represented in this painting.

In the distance, placed on the golden section at the centered horizon line, there’s a citadel on a hillside. I’ve drawn perspective lines to help me draw the clouds in a receding pattern emanating from the city. The composition still lacks the raven who will sit in the foreground of the left side. I’m concerned to get the bird right, so I started looking for a stuffed raven, and discovered a weird legal fact: it’s illegal to make taxidermy mounts from American ravens!

I’ve painted the morning glory flowers blue, but still need to add a couple of layers of colour to the leaves – they’re quite flat at the moment. I’ll continue working this evening.

I’m planning on shooting reference photos for the next big painting on Friday, with a perfect model for the image. This time I’m working with an image that includes all four elements and a figure who is controlling and in balance with them all. I’m abandoning my earlier idea of a male and female harmoniously floating in a cosmos for a while, because I think this new image is much more in keeping with the theme of the other three pieces.

In the sketch you’ll notice a raven on the left side, and the figure of the Magician on the right holding a bowl of fire – the alchemical crucible in which all things are simplified and made pure. The puff ball clouds in the sky are similar in shape to the rocks on the ground, referring to the old principle that things in the cosmos reflect things on earth: as below, so above. A lake on the left represents water to complete the ancient group of four elements. The raven is an enigmatic character who I see as a mischief maker who wishes to confuse and mess about with the Magician’s work as he seeks to understand the mind of God by exploring the elemental composition of the universe.

We had a very busy day in the studio. Ethan and Joseph were occupied with the second coat of gesso on the big Virtues canvas, then Joe got into stretching the third of the eight foot square canvas that Cyn McCurry sent from Texas onto its panel, ready for a wash of distilled water prior to preparing the surface with a coat or two of gesso so I can draw the empress and her attendants onto the new surface.

While the lads worked hard at preparing the surfaces for painting I added more peacock feathers to the Angel of Death, getting them most of the way up the right wing. I’ll add colour to them tomorrow and figure out what needs to be done to the top of the wings, then get to work on the empress drawing if the gesso dries fast enough to take the graphite.

I scanned images from Michael Maier’s Atalanta Fugiens, a well known alchemical emblem book. Emblem books were incredibly popular bestsellers in the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries, filled with allegorical pictures and their accompanying epigrams, generally speaking rooted in mystical Christianity and Neo-Platonism. I love these books! They’re inspiring, mysterious and fulfilling, and profoundly supportive of the desire of man to understand the mind of God, while written and illustrated in a style that is unapologetically intelligent, requiring the reader to be thoughtful and patient as the sometimes obscure messages of the emblems is revealed by research and exploration. I emulate them in my paintings, hoping to equal their spiritual depth and to follow their guidance toward a better understanding of the universe.

The first layer of feathers reaches to the top of the left wing, leading me to much head scratching and sitting and looking at the painting in order to figure out what to do with the structure of the wings around the top of the arms and shoulders. I want the wings to feel more like a cloak, instead of being so flat and simply hanging in space behind the skeleton, so either I expect to shape feathers around the top of the wings, or to paint a set of wing bones that come in and out of the highest feathers.