Category: Sources

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.

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.

I’ve started work on the Hanged Man, painting a first layer of Raw Umber to start defining the figure. I’m particularly happy to see the foreshortening of the figure working well.

Pitture infamanti were part of a tradition that was designed to cause humiliation to its target by displaying in public the shame of the person who had offended the authorities, ideally ruining their reputation. Public humiliation was an established form of punishment in North Italian cities for people who had offended public morality, including the practices of stripping the victim naked and chaining him to a post in the town square, wearing a paper pointed hat with his crimes written upon it. Other punishments included degrading the victim by making him ride a donkey backwards, holding its tail, or being forced to kiss the bottom of a pig.

If criminals had escaped the city, punishment became tricky – how was justice to be done? For debtors and traitors who had fled the answer was that paintings of them were commissioned to humiliate them in their absence, revealing their shame to the people. There are numerous records of the commission of such works, which were displayed in cities all over North Italy, but none have survived to the present because they were placed outside in the crowded plazas and market places, where both the weathering of the elements and the damage inflicted upon them by stone-throwing enemies took their toll upon the paint. In addition changes in government sometimes made them obsolete as last week’s enemy became this week’s friend, in which case they could suddenly become embarrassing and were quickly disposed of.

I’ve just cracked open a collection of essays from a conference titled “Gnosis and Hermeticism” which looks promising, although I want to get through Dante’s Paradiso before I really get stuck in. There’s a passage in the introduction that I liked:

“…one openly fights an enemy as long as one fears that he still might win. In this respect as well, history seems to repeat itself. Like the Christian Church before it, modern rationalism, once safely consolidated, could afford itself the luxury of exchanging active combat for a more comfortable (and perhaps more effective) solution: silence. Believing in the inevitable progress of human rationality, one could simply ignore esotericism, in the confident expectation that its still surviving remnants would eventually wither and die by itself…  However… it is clear that the optimistic self-confidence of Enlightenment thinking is no longer widely shared. Together with growing doubts about the doctrine of human progress through science and rationality, we witness a new interest in historical alternatives to the dominant components of western culture.”

Preface ix. Ed. van den Broek, Roelof and Hangraaff, Wouter J. Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. SUNY 1998.

I enjoyed this on two levels: first, because I agree with its sentiments. Mysticism is as real an experience as any and shouldn’t be discounted. Secondly, it amused me that the writer might have been describing the experiences of traditional painters with the same language!

Hello 21st century, we’re back.

Welcome relief has come to the studio with the completion of almost all the leaves and flowers. I’ve reworked the areas that got a little too much of the cobalt blue and  the white glaze coat, and fixed up lots of little transitions where the vines twist onto each other and around the legs of the chair. I really like those wiggly bits. There’s still a little area of leaves that I haven’t done, but they’ll take no time at all to finish up.

I’m digging ever deeper into the personalities and symbolism of the renaissance, which brings me great satisfaction. Dante’s Paradiso is on my nightstand these days, with some real delicacies to appreciate.  Renaissance thinkers and alchemical experimenters were in awe of the structure of the universe that they were revealing, overcome by their mystical experience of the mind of God that emerged from their work – described eloquently by Dante in his Paradiso as “the primal power made with such order all that revolves in mind or space that he who contemplates it cannot but taste of him.”

As fledgling science revealed what Porta and Ficino termed “natural magic” and the structures of the universe slowly yielded their secrets to an inquisitive generation of indomitable explorers in search of a deep understanding of the creation, using images to understand the mind of god became particularly important as a method of achieving deeper knowledge because of the concept of “sympathetic resonance”. As the 20th Century traditionalist Rene Guenon put it: “…true symbolism, far from having been artificially invented by man, is to be found in nature herself, or rather, that the whole of nature amounts to no more than a symbol of the transcendent realities.”

“So, if the intermediate world of the stars and planets corresponds to the imaginative faculty of the soul, it is then, through the imagination that we can resonate sympathetically with the heavens; the imagination which will lead to a deeper, more unified kind of knowledge. We must distinguish here from our common use of the word “imagination”, which tends to mean a free-ranging, personal fantasy, and a term understood by Ficino as a means of unifying sense-impressions into images, which are then translated by the mind into thoughts. The mind needs the images in order to grasp the universal concepts to which they point – but then can leave them behind as it moves into the pure contemplation of intellectual activity. Imagination then, plays an essential part in the ascent towards the spiritual union of the intellect, which in the Platonic sense is the place where the soul realises its identity with the divine ideas and indeed finds immortality.”

From Angela Ross’ introduction to her collection of the writings of the renaissance scholar and thinker Marsilio Ficino

From Plato to Ficino to us.

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 want to look at a caveat from the great master painter William Bouguereau, who I regard with awe:

“I detest realism” he told us, “for it is nothing but photography, neither more nor less! Well, if you are a painter it is so that you can do better than photography, so that you can beautify nature! So you see, I soften angular gestures, I diminish foreshortenings that are too abrupt and I add beautiful colours. That’s our job!”

458, Bartoli, Damien, 2010. William Bouguereau, His Life and Works. Antique Collectors Club.

How does this comment read in the age of Photoshop? Everything Bouguereau talks about can now be achieved in the computer. Because in the 21st Century a photograph itself is endlessly manipulable, does this mean that the efforts of the painter are redundant? Is painting to be declared dead again, this time by the hand of technology?

No. If millennial painters work to produce images that demonstrate exceptional technique to the highest standards their works will transcend the everyday, emphasizing that individuals are capable of remarkable feats of connoisseurship and great mastery. Their paintings will be regarded among our highest cultural achievements. We celebrate extraordinary feats of human skill and ability; we will certainly rejoice when we see the delicate touch of a master painter whose trained hand has produced sublime beauty that uplifts the human spirit and tells the story of the people of the new millennium.

A great painting by a true master like Bouguereau still touches the soul because it possesses layers of glory – first the glory of the artist’s achievement in transcending ordinariness through magnificent technique, then the glory of an image that is contrived to lift us from the muddy tedium of everyday life.

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 sketched composition on the gessoed canvas which has been stretched over a wood panel.

The first stage of painting.

Detail of the day's work

Following shooting photos of Amy for the figure sitting on the ground I sketched the drawing onto the canvas using a simple one foot grid as a guide. I like this composition very much for a couple of curious reasons: first, the way the woman is seated refers to a figure on the Gundestrup cauldron, an ancient Celtic artefact found in Germany in the late nineteenth century. It’s special because it includes a rare example of an image of an Iron Age shaman. Wearing antlers and holding a snake while accompanied by a deer, this enigmatic figure represents the power of nature and the energy of life. Secondly, I’m particularly pleased with the arrangement of figures, with the Emperor, totally materialistic and oblivious to his lack of connection to the natural world, sits high up in a wobbly chair, while with grounded and natural energy the woman looks up at him while vines creep up to overwhelm and ultimately topple him.

Once the  drawing was roughed out the canvas got a coat of Iron Oxide sealer to make the surface take the paint more effectively. WIthout it the gesso sucks up the oil from the pigments and makes painting a horrid experience. I like the warmth of the Iron Oxide when it peeks through layers of paint and as it warms up some of the more transparent areas in the painting. Once dry I was able to begin working in grey (en grisaille) on the painting. I’ve allowed the landscape to begin emerging in the negative spaces around the woman, from memories of a trip through the foothills of the California Sierras, where rolling hills are capped with widely spaced oak trees.