Category: Pre-raphaelite

Here's the rough composition in grey as it stands right now, in its most elementary state. I'll begin marble, foliage and wall treatments once I've finished the first layer of grey on the girls.

The grey work continues to expand across the canvas – it’s beginning to feel like a proper painting now. I’m having a great time working on the piece, which is the most reminiscent of a pre-raphaelite composition that I’ve done so far, although I doubt that anyone would mistake this for a nineteenth century painting. I will push pretty hard to finish the grisaille this week, perhaps even starting on the colour work if I can. I’d like to begin a new piece as soon as possible, perhaps a flying painting of resurrection and angels next.

This girl is listening to her twin.

This one's explaining how to arrange the circle

And this girl wishes she could join in the working.

The grisaille work is moving along quickly, with the three major figures already painted in the first layer of the grisaille. I want to get more of the bodies complete, then I’ll make a second pass at all three, fixing all the bits that aren’t the way I like them.

I’m thoroughly enjoying painting them, the work is moving fast and pleasantly. I particularly enjoyed the greys and whites that are beginning to shape the structure of the third girl’s dress. She’s sitting in a doorway to the left of the twins, wishing she could participate in their secretive reading of the book between them.

I’ve moved the height of the wall behind the twins up so that their faces will be surrounded by one area of colour in the finished piece, pulling focus to them. I’m planning the colour palette more carefully than usual, taking my inspiration from Waterhouse’s lovely Pre-Raphaelite paintings and Stanhope’s fabulous canvas “Love and the Maiden” at the Cult of Beauty exhibit at the Legion of Honour.

Detail of the center of the painting

Detail of the left hand girl

Detail of the right hand girl

It was so satisfying to get to work on drawing the girls in the new painting. We’ve been very focused on preparing the conference, including a trip to San Francisco to visit Sadie Valerie and the wonderful exhibit at the Legion of Honor, the Cult of Beauty show that has traveled from London’s Victoria and Albert museum. It’s a magnificent display of paintings by pre-raphaelites and other aesthetics set within elegant furniture and decor from the Arts and Crafts movement, including some gorgeous William Morris tapestry and paper designs. Aptly named, the show really made me feel like a member of the cult of beauty. In a world so centered on violence and ugliness we need it now more than ever!

I’ve been working in grey pencil to render the first outlines of the girls, which are coming along quite nicely. I’m very happy to be working on this. I’m composing it based on nineteenth century works by Waterhouse, who I admire greatly, but I will be careful to make sure that this is the world of the present. I’m particularly concerned that my paintings are 21st century works that avoid nostalgia.

I’m thoroughly enjoying myself in the studio working out the architecture of the new painting, making shapes for a courtyard beside the ocean somewhere on the coast of California. I want to create a setting for two girls to look at a big old book, under warm sunlight and shady leaves, in the golden sunshine of early evening. They’re sitting in a private world, but among trees and plants, with stucco and marble. I think their lives are comfortable, but they want excitement, so they’re exploring the book to learn how to work magic. Another girl will probably be watching them from the doorway on the right. In order to get some sense of really successful spatial composition I looked through Peter Trippi’s excellent monograph on Waterhouse, one of my favorite Pre-Raphaelite painters. Several of his paintings make use of leafy courtyard spaces in this kind of composition, with pretty girls reading, or listening to music.

The painting looks terrible right now with nothing but structure roughed in. I’ve not worked this way before – usually I start with figures then invent backgrounds around them -this time I created the world first. I like this, but I had to be careful to consider the point of view so that the eyeline in the photo references would match that in the painting.

I shot reference photos of Trew for the painting – she’ll be both of the girls – with Aaron standing in as her friend for reference when she swapped characters. I’m very happy with the way the pictures turned out. Trew’s a natural model.

The grassy land receding to the mountains, obscured by my platform which is in place so I can reach the raised arm and leg.

The man's arm has been treated to areas of Ceramic White, with a little Alizarin Crimson in the shadows.

If you had asked me ten years ago what colours I would use most in 2012 there is no way I would have predicted that Cadmium Orange, Viridian, Lead White, Carbazole Violet and Raw Umber would have begun to make regular appearances on my cart. I used to use an almost entirely earth tone driven palette, which has gradually given way to richer colour and much more glazing.

Yesterday I glazed the white grass with Sap Green (another favorite these days), mixing it with areas of Yellow Ochre to make some variations in the colour, while also varying the thickness of the glaze to vary the value of the colour – a shallower glaze means that more white shows through it, so it reads lighter. In the foreground areas I added a bit of Raw Umber to the green to darken it in those areas close to the rock so that the grass would get a bit of depth between the stems. It’s coming along nicely now, feeling rich and deep. I think the more glazes I put on, the richer and more complex the painting becomes.

Once the grass was done I moved to working on the raised arm, which had only had a couple of layers of paint, consequently it was pretty rough. Now the modeling is improved by highlights in Ceramic white and Alizarin Crimson. The transparent white is a lovely soft paint, nicely transparent when you’re looking for a glaze, but pretty bright too, although obviously it can’t compete with Titanium for profound brightness. The Crimson is working beautifully in the shadows. I’m emulating Rossetti, the Pre-Raphaelite painter in this work, recalling that lovely painting in the Birmingham Museum that we visited in May last year.


The Rosetti painting looks a bit odd because it’s under glass.

Because the grass will stand in front of the Empress’ legs I’ve decided to paint the skin now, then work on the grass over the top of it. This will be a lot better than trying to paint flesh around all the fiddly stems and leaves once the grass is in. It was such a pleasure to get some colour onto the palette at last!

I have seven brushes in use with different colours on each: a mini fan for blending subtle areas, a round with light flesh mixed from Foundation White, Cadmium Orange and a touch of Viridian; a long handled filbert loaded with Foundation White; a round with some Burnt Sienna; a small round with Raw Sienna; a small round carrying a slightly blue version of the flesh colour; another small round with a dark blue mixed with Burnt Sienna, creating a nice rich dark value that I use extremely sparingly to avoid muddiness. I’ll paint at least one more layer of glaze over this layer of skin.

I use my fingers a lot to move the paint around, especially at first when I applied a thin glaze of Foundation White over the Brown and grey underpainting. I like to work in a manner similar to the Pre-Raphaelites, putting down a layer of white over the grisaille, then blending colour into the white.

In this first layer of flesh I aimed for general areas of colour, then used the filbert with the white to add highlight areas that stand up from the surface with a little texture for some drama. I want the hand to come forward, so there’s more texture in the paint showing the transition of light over the darker areas. I’ll redraw the hands and re-examine the flesh in the next couple of layers to clean it up a bit.

  The Emperor is beginning to get increasingly convincing now that his shorts are becoming more substantial, although I’d like to add a second working of the Raw Umber to the painting I did today to make the value more appropriate for the next layer, which will introduce colour to the canvas. Meanwhile there’s a lot more work in the brown to define the imagery, particularly the woman and the completely neglected greenery – I’ve yet to begin sketching the vines around her, or their progress up the chair legs. The Green Man imagery is very important to me – I’ve admired these strange carvings in churches since I was a teenager, seeking them out in obscure folklore books.

Still feeling a bit shaky today from a bit of an upset stomach (food?) that caught me by surprise last night, I took it pretty easy today, working for only a few hours with frequent stops to rest and recuperate. I added the bands to the globus in the Emperor’s left hand (stage left, our right) and painted a small ball dangling from the end of his scepter-stick. I’m planning to paint a tattoo or two onto this character, and hope to work on ideas for designs this evening.

There’s nothing like building upon the foundations built by giants to make certain that your own work is of better quality. At the Getty we visited some of my favorite paintings (Alma-Tadema’s “Spring”, a lovely Sargent portrait, a pair of Tissot society ladies and one of Godward’s best pieces, “Mischief and Repose”). But I was particularly interested in taking a close look at the great Pre-Raphaelite Millais’ “The Ransom” – a magnificent piece of work that stands out as an example of the extraordinarily detailed work that the PRB sought in the early days of their association – I find his early work inspiring not only because of it’s technical mastery, but because of its focus on a romantic, fantastic past inhabited by people who behaved nobly and with heroism.

The careful observation of the grass and the muddy stains on the page’s stockings are outstanding; the treatment of the fur, while pretty simple to achieve with a fan brush, is perfectly executed; I want to emulate this kind of work in the Emperor when the time comes to paint the foreground and the next layers of the figures.



The face is much improved thanks to a solid day of focused work, although the ear still needs to be fixed up. I spent a lot of time around the mouth and eye, re-shaping the contours of the shadows to make them more accurate and to blend out some of the edges that I felt were too strong.

I hummed and hah’ed about painting the red hair against the red dress before committing to it because I felt a little nervous about having too much of these similar colours.Now it’s done I think they are different enough to each other to be comfortable and I like it. Once the glaze of Iron Oxide went over her hair I let some of it blend into the skin of her temple and the back of her neck. I added a white lace trim to the colour which I will glaze with a bit of a yellow to make it similar to the fabric around her stomach.

It’s time to work on the arms and hands.

  This sounds crazy, but I’ve spent a long time painting the red dress red again with the Red Ochre, deepening the colour and adding and blending some blues into the shadows. I added a little Raw Umber into the Ochre and used it to emphasize edges, especially around the hem of the dress. A few areas of shadow got a touch of this deep red as well. I painted the white fabric around her middle with a nice cream, mixing three combinations of Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre and Foundation White to create a mixture of yellows and white hues, then used Yellow Ochre on its own to line the edges and produce a deep but fine shadow.

Continuing our conversations about studio tools, Mike brought over a very interesting lens that his grandfather used to use in his work. I liked it so much that I asked Steve Aufhauser at Continental to get one for me. It’s a reducing lens, making everything look smaller than it actually is, which is useful if you don’t have the space to walk away from your work to see how it’s looking at a little distance from where you sit. It’s also great if you feel a bit lazy and don’t want to keep walking back and forth, especially when you get to the later stages of the painting when you want to look at the piece quite a lot for fine tuning. Because it looks exactly like a magnifying glass it’s quite good fun to hand it to an unsuspecting visitor without telling them what it is, so you can enjoy their surprise when they realize that the world has turned tiny.

My student Joseph is working on his project to investigate Pre-Raphaelite wet-white painting technique. It’s going well, and he’s made some interesting observations along the way.  Check out his blog and see what he’s been up to.