I had the pleasure of hosting a studio talk at my space at CLU yesterday afternoon, including a brief demonstration of glaze painting, using a Sap Green over the background of the Star to show the luminosity and flexibility of oil painting. Between twenty and thirty people attended, and we had a very pleasant afternoon together. I spoke about the allegorical meaning of the four big paintings, alchemical symbolism, renaissance emblems, traditional painting techniques and teaching.
I was moved by an email I received this afternoon from Margaret Fieweger who told me that she was reminded of two poems as I spoke about the big paintings around the studio. First, accompanying the Magician, Fire and Ice – a piece by Robert Frost written in 1923
Some say the world will end in fire,
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire
I hold with those who favor fire.
But if it had to perish twice,
I think I know enough of hate
To say that for destruction ice
Is also great
And would suffice.
The second piece she chose to accompany the Traveler was Pied Beauty written by Gerard Manley Hopkins in 1877.
Glory be to God for dappled things–
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced–fold, fallow, and plough;
And all trades, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change: Praise Him.
After continuing the patchy Raw Umber brown a little further by using a rag to lift leaf shapes from the paint, revealing the orange glow of the Iron Oxide ground, I’ve expanded the range of the star shaped jasmine flowers to create an S shaped swoop down behind the figure. This done I spent a pleasant hour or two adding a layer of light grey leaf shapes as I did before, ready for a glaze of green that will give the background a softly focus leafy feeling.
I’ve added some sketched lavender points at the bottom, but I feel very reluctant to go into detail in this painting, preferring to allow the girl to be the centre of attention. It’s a trick used by those great Pre-Raphaelite painters Millais and Waterhouse, whose landscapes are sometimes so blurry that they resemble French Impressionist paintings, with the exception that the figures are rendered with greater care.
In the studio Joseph and Stacy prepared the space for a special event tomorrow: we’re hosting a group of friends of the CLU Art Department to spend a little time to learn about the work that I do to teach our students traditional technique in the BA program here. You can see the Traveler, the Empress, the Magician and the edge of the Angel of Death. I’m really pleased to see them all together in the space – it gives a sense of how they will work in a museum context.
I’m very pleased to be able to share these four images with you. They’re the result of a year and a half of painting.
The Angel of Death, The Magician, The Empress, The Traveler.
All Oil on Canvas, 96″ x 96″. Copyright Michael Pearce 2011
This has been a day of almost finishing.
I’ve added a little Iron Oxide Orange to the flames, making them look nicely fiery, and almost concluding the work on the Magician painting with the exception of a little lightening of the right arm. I added a light touch of the same colour to the right hand edges of the silver circles in the belt, making them vibrate a little more than they did when they were just blue. I’ll drop in a little highlighting tomorrow.
I never did paint the Wormwood on the right side of the Empress, so I pulled out some greens and painted that, a la prima, completing the work that was missing from that piece.
Finally, I pulled out the Angel of Death and did a bit of work on the right hand wing which lacked the peacock feathers at the top, where they emerge from the wrist of the skeleton, then added a lot of Sap Green strands around the neck and top edges of the wings. Once the white is covered and shadows deepened with Sap Green the Angel will be complete too.
I expect to complete all four paintings tomorrow, if all goes well. Brian Stethem is coming over Monday morning to take some really good pictures of them, so this weekend is a chance to clean up any shortcomings I think are necessary, although I’ve often changed paintings long after they’ve been exhibited, so I might alter things, even now…
That’s it! The last of the morning glory flowers and the leaves are painted in their respective green and blue, leaving only the wormwood on the right in its en grisaille state. I still need to paint the shadows and detail on the leaves, but once that’s done the painting moves into a new stage, with corrections and detail being the mode until it’s completion.
I’ve enjoyed painting these flowers, all thirty-two of them, but I must admit that I was beginning to feel the same impatience I did while I painted the Angel of Death with those hundreds of skulls at its feet. Speaking of which, I’ve added a couple of skulls into the Empress’ clouds; difficult to see unless you know they’re there. I like to connect these recent paintings together by popping in little reference to each other, and I love to include little secrets into the compositions.
I’m going to have to lighten the yellow of the dress on the right to balance better with the pink on the left, which I like more and more. Also, the green skirt is going to get redesigned to be lighter and softer. I dislike its tweedy feel at present – it’s not in keeping with the gentler feeling of the other clothes in the painting. I’ll be looking at fashion websites again to find soft, layered designs that I can use as a more effective model for my own design. Again, I like those Pre-Raphaelite designs, but I want to be sure to remain contemporary.
I’ve been reworking that face again, because I really disliked the right eye. Now I’ve done it again, taking a lead from the great Botticelli’s Madonna and Child and rendering a more introverted face that regards the Empress with a slight sadness that could also be interpreted as devotion. I’m happier with this version than I have been with any of the earlier three. While I am shocked that there have been four versions – it’s most unusual for me to re-render a face so often – I suppose it shows how much I value the balance of this face with the others. I love Botticelli’s paintings of women – he’s the best.
Bert Green came over to drop off some ravens from the As the Crow Flies installation which I’d left behind at his gallery, so I pulled out the Traveler and the Angel of Death to show him. It was useful to see how the three paintings work together, even though the Empress is so far from completion, and really demonstrated how much detail the new painting will need to stand alongside the others.
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.
With a couple of hours in the studio yesterday I managed to achieve a couple of tasks that were both important for making the paintings effective, but neither producing particularly interesting photographs for the blog. I got to work on the Angel, putting a glaze of Olive Green over the peacock feathers, dropping them further back and subtly dimming their bright colours which were overwhelming the rest of the painting. Curiously the high feathers that hadn’t yet been painted with the colourful “eyes” looked very convincing with this simple treatment, and I think I’ll continue with some more of these slightly less complex shapes as I move forward with the wings, finishing the tops around the arms. I’ve allowed the green to go over the edges of the wings now, softening the hitherto high contrast between feathers and background, and again letting the skeleton come forward from them. (Paying attention to maintaining the focus of the painting in terms of depth is a constant task; I pay particular heed to the rule that hard edges almost always push forward in an image, while soft edges recede.)
Over on the big painting I worked on figuring out the landscape, softening the edges of the wall and sketching in the shapes of the sea and the distant points of the bay landscape, which I’d like to resemble the Malibu coastline. I’m thoroughly enjoying those Alma-Tadema compositions with the lovely white marble low in the foreground and Mediterranean blue skies above. I’m also looking at Waterhouse’s neat compositional trick of dividing the canvas into two distinct vertical halves, with one darker than the other, split by vertical shapes – either architecture, people or plants.
I continued working out the composition in Photoshop, creating an elevation of the wall with the furniture in place so that I can see how the figures are going to work in relationship to the environment. I’m looking forward to continuing with the work when my students are here and can get involved.
Last night I worked on the right hand side of the Angel of Death, bringing that painting a little closer to completion. I’m not particularly happy with the way these feathers turned out yet, they need more depth; another layer of colour will help to make them work. I haven’t done any of the feathers above his arms yet, so I’ve moved the platform over so I can get them started in the next week.
At our academic convocation this morning our Dean Joan Griffin introduced me to the Freshmen student class as Professor of Magical Arts! Very Hogwarts. (My PhD robes are particularly medieval, so I resemble a magician when I’m fully clad)
Today was crazed, in a good way. It started right off the bat at nine by setting up for a photo shoot for the Virtues painting, with my student Devon modeling for the four cardinals, Temperance, Fortitude, Prudence and Justice. I loved the shot we got for Temperance – she looks like a ballerina with the two vases held high and low with arms akimbo, and Justice turned out great, with a nice sword pointing to her outstretched foot. I wasn’t too thrilled with the way Fortitude turned out, so I’ll rework that one soon. Devon had a special surprise for me when we got to Prudence – she opened up her bag to reveal her pet snake, a young Python who seemed quite willing to curl around her hand for his picture.
After we shot the pictures I spent a little time working on photoshop to create a composite image of the three that we can use for the painting, arranging them so that they create a nice stepped composition coming away from the centre of the painting. I’ll need to continue with the work in the next couple of weeks so that we can get to work drawing out the composition.
Over at the Angel of Death canvas I’m planning to get back to painting the peacock feathers on the wings this evening. It’s accompanied by a newly gessoed 8′ x 8′ canvas which I’ll use for the Empress painting, although now that things are moving faster as we accelerate to the beginning of the academic year I’m not quite sure when I’ll be able to get it started.