Category: Empress

The Empress is getting closer to completion

Donna Granata visited the studio yesterday to shoot the portrait photos for the Focus on the Masters archive that I mentioned a couple of days ago. I enjoyed her company very much, she’s great fun to chat with. I’m looking forward to seeing what the pictures look like; she’s going to show the portrait in a show pretty soon. I’ll post details when I have them. Most of the time I got to paint while she shot pictures, although we did a more formal set-up as well.

I’ve altered the sides of the Empress and painted the new edges white so that I can see what the composition will look like when it’s stretched to size. It’s very satisfying to get this painting on the right road and I’m considerably happier with the new composition, which has made a big difference. I’m close to finishing the work of painting the vines of the bottom left and right, and I glazed the top of the sky with Ceramic White because I felt that it was too strong, detracting from the foreground by pulling focus upward.

The quest for foliage continues, and I’ve been adding dark shadows into the foliage on the right side of the painting, building substance and getting further away from the very decorative leaves that were there before. In the photo you can see where the new edge of the painting is (regular visitors will remember I snapped a bright orange chalk line so that I could see what the new boundary was) because the thinly painted and linear work on the right contrast sharply with the dark leaves I’ve added in the last week.

We’ve also been busy getting the studio ready (read “cleaned up”) for Donna Granata to come over tomorrow to shoot photos for her impressive portfolio of portraits of artists. She runs an organization called Focus on the Masters which documents the lives and work of artists who live in Ventura County. Once the portrait is made it will be part of her traveling exhibit of photographs and also accompany an television interview that will make part of a file about my work that will be available to historians and researchers in the future. I’ll post a link when they’ve put my file on the web.

This weekend a beautiful exhibit opens at the Weisman Museum in Malibu. Strongly recommended!

The Epic and the Exotic: 19th-century Academic Realism from the Dahesh Museum of Art, which will be at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art at Pepperdine University from January 14 through April 1, 2012.  Opening reception is Saturday, Jan 14, 5-7 pm.

Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art
Pepperdine University
24255 Pacific Coast Highway
Malibu, CA 90263

This was the most nerve-racking but fastest photo shoot I’ve done so far, but I think we laughed more than most of the other shoots too. It was very straightforward in essence, just one model (Aaron again, except he’s lost twenty pounds and looks completely different compared to when he posed for the Emperor in the Empire painting) and simple lighting using the shade of natural sunlight.

In this painting the figure has to hang upside down from one foot, so figuring out how to suspend Aaron was a bit worrying, because this was actually used as a method of execution in late medieval north Italy. But people regularly hang upside down in the gym and do crunches to strengthen their stomach muscles, wearing gravity boots that strap around their ankles and can be hooked over a bar, so I borrowed a pair from my friend Antony and we explored potential places that might be high and strong enough to support Aaron’s weight. After a few false starts in locations that we didn’t like because they weren’t safe or the light was no good (stadium bleachers, trees, a swing set), we decided on an outdoor staircase railing that was the perfect height and nicely shaded, and we were in business. Aaron regularly does upside down sit ups as part of his training for waterpolo, so we were confident that he could hang for a minute or so, and I quickly shot a lot of photos while he twisted and turned. My son Ethan helped to get him unhooked and we were done.

Looking at the pictures later was very satisfying – they’ve turned out very well. I have to be thoughtful about the height of the head in the painting so that the point of view of anyone looking at the painting is in the correct place, I want to make sure that the painting will look right if it’s hung two feet above the ground. The canvas will be very tall – about twenty feet high – so I’m looking forward to painting a lot of sky, while the landscape will be fairly small, filling only the bottom of the painting. I’ll paint the figure well above the landscape to increase the sense of height in the composition. There’s going to be lots of foreshortening too.

After shooting the photos I got back to work on the foliage in the Empress painting which is looking much more substantial after a couple of days of work. Re-doing the floor has made a big difference to it, and the leaves are looking much better. I re-painted the girls’ hair and added deeper shadows to the faces and some of the bodies, but I want to rework the flesh generally once I get through the leaves. I like the idea of adding some debris to the floor to make it look more convincing. Outdoor floors usually seem to have leaves or sticks or something scattered around them here and there. Detail!

The darker floor makes the space more convincing.

New creeper leaves drafted in Foundation White. It's already much more complex. I've painted only to the new edge of the left side of the work.

The orange line shows where the new edge of the painting is going to be.

















I’m letting the Empire painting rest for a little while so I can look at the piece again with a fresh eye in a couple of weeks, so I’ve moved to the old Empress painting. I’ve had this piece leaning against the studio wall for several months, waiting for a chance to change it. I’ve never been satisfied with it for numerous reasons, which I think I know how to fix now that I’ve had a long time to look at it and really figure out what bothers me about it.

In no particular order:

First: because of the square composition and the symmetry of the courtyard the girls are standing in the painting lacks flow and doesn’t invite a visual journey around the world within it, so I spent a while figuring out how to re-shape the canvas so that there is less symmetry, snapping a chalk line down the right side, cutting eight inches or so, then reducing the size of the pillar on the left, which occupies too much space on the edge of the canvas. If you look closely you’ll see orange chalk-lines that show how I plan to re-stretch the canvas onto stretcher bars.

Second: I HATE the extended feet of the girl who’s lying down, and these are definitely going to need a re-paint, which I’ll get to next week.

Third: I want to repaint all of the girls. Although the face of the girl who’s lying down is pretty, its not sitting on the body properly and needs to be repainted; then the others need to be fixed up, and the clothes need to get lighter and looser. Everything is too decorative right now – it needs to be more painterly.

Fourth: the marble is way too bright and lacks depth, the landscape needs to be worked on so that there’s more space in it, so I deepened the shadows on the floor, making the space feel dirtier and giving the girls somewhere to stand. I also darkened the shadows on the walls on the left of the painting so that there’s more light moving through the space. I’ll continue with this later.

Fifth: I couldn’t stand looking at the facile vines I decorated the sides of the painting with. These have got to become much richer and more convincing. The decorative idea was nice, but it’s not the direction I want the paintings to go in. I need these paintings to belong to the same world.

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.

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.



I’ve been getting pre-occupied with the composition of the Empress, which bothers me in reductions of the painting. I’m planning to add several more figures around the existing girls, and to paint more detail in the figures, who are too simple at the moment. So today I borrowed my neighbors daughter and shot photos of her in front of the painting. Because the painting is so large she was almost the correct size to match the girls, so it was very satisfying to place her amongst the painted figures. I’ll put two figures close to the columns, one in the foreground and two on the right of the girls.


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