Tagged: Alchemical work

Here’s my friend and colleague Dr. John Tanacci checking on the still to make sure everything is bubbling away nicely. He came out to the gallery to set up the apparatus and has been a great teacher as I have been bumbling about in the laboratory recreating alchemical experiments that were practiced hundreds of years ago. John rocks! In the flask you can see the oak leaves boiling and the steam rising into the tower above the flask. img_9667

I took life very slowly and easily today. I walked fifteen miles or so up and down a mountain on Saturday night and Sunday morning, so this morning I ached all over. It was completely worth it – after the opening reception I hiked in the moonlight down an abandoned road in the middle of the Angeles Crest National Forest to the Northeast of L.A. occasionally using a headlight to pick out my way past landslides and fallen trees; to my right, towering cliffs, to my left sheer precipices.

I slept in a flat gravel area in my super-warm and comfortable mummy bag, waking at dawn and disturbing a bighorn sheep on the path as I paced back up the mountain to return to my car – I have never seen an animal move upwards so fast! With every leap it took this beautiful creature let loose an avalanche of rocks, stopping occasionally as he leapt up the cliff to stare down on me, gravity-bound to the road.

The wilderness is the antidote to the city. When looking for peace, go to the mountains or deserts and sleep alone facing the stars.

I love California’s weather for its kindness to roses – here you can grow plants that will bloom almost all year round, and I’ve often bragged about them to my father on the telephone as he looks out over his rain-swept English garden. Egyptian followers of Horus used the rose as the symbol of the deity, then the Greeks adopted it to denote silence, associating it with their Harpocrates, who kept silent the indiscretions of Aphrodite; Romans painted roses on their walls and ceilings in token of the god, considering that anything spoken beneath these images would be kept private: it’s where the saying “sub rosa” comes from.

Renaissance philosophers reviving Hermetic ideas adopted the symbol for the same reasons, keeping secret their devotion to neo-platonic philosophy in a period that saw violent swings of religious tolerance that endangered their lives, consequently the image worked its way throughout the Western Mystery tradition, denoting the Rosicrucians’ mystical secrecy and devotion to anonymously benefiting mankind through healing practices learned in the study of alchemy.

The classical five petalled rose has been used as an allegorical symbol of the five wounds of the crucified Christ, whose hands, feet and side were pierced during his torture and death. Pythagoreans saw the pentagram as the geometric representation of divine perfection, in part because the intersection of each of the lines in the pentagram is found at 1 : 1.62, the divine ratio.

img_9647In alchemy the rose garden is used as an allegory of the perfection of the work, or as a symbol of secrecy, with a rose garden showing up in alchemical texts as the ultimate goal of completion. In my Sun card within the walls of the alembic the blackening of the nigredo surrounds the twins, while a rose garden appears outside as an allegory of the hope to come as the work of re-combining the salt and sulphur continues. I’ve painted the first layer of greens and the white base for the rose flowers – don’t be surprised to see these turn red very soon; the white has to go down first when painting a bright red, because red pigment is so transparent that any colour beneath it will show through, altering and darkening it.

I’ve been laying down lots of gesso today, preparing the tall canvases for painting and getting those spheres that Justice and Temperance are standing upon ready for gold. The two virtues have had at least four thick coats to get rid of the weave of the canvas. Once I no longer see the fabric beneath the paint I’ll put a final layer of red base down then gild them. I painted the background of Justice white, so now she’s a white figure emerging from a white background, which I’m thoroughly enjoying, since I’m often attracted to a very dark background half-concealing shadowy figures.


Tomorrow we’ll have the distinct pleasure of having a model in the studio who’s pregnant. I am completely delighted that she’s coming in, and looking forward to making some paintings of her. Fabulous! I’m interested in painting the alchemical Adam and Eve on those two tall panels.

I’m hoping that she’s return when her baby is born and model for us then, with new born. Awesome!











Amelia’s feet are progressing well, and I’ve added a shadow to the ground to her right so she touches the ground. I added some shadows and details to the rocks, and will continue bringing colour into the surfaces of these stones. I added the words “Solve et Coagula” (Dissolve and coagulate) very faintly to the sword blade, as this is the alchemical motto to continue with the repeated purification of the element as the alchemist searches for the one thing. I left it almost invisible so that it becomes one of the secrets of the painting that will be noticed by the attentive eye. I think people love to know secrets about works of art, and I love providing them. 

I’ve done some work to the hand, bringing some more effective flesh tones to the skin, which had become a bit lifeless. It will need some drawing to fix it up properly now, so I’ll break out the burnt sienna next to fix edges and define the shapes of the fingers more effectively. 

Right now I’m heading out for some lunch, camera in hand so that I can get some reference pictures of people eating for the Temperance painting. 

The sword is coming along, based on a fabulous samurai sword loaned to me by our lovely costume designer, Lolita Ball, who is simply delightful. The alchemical Queen Amelia looks dramatic and intentional now, having acted to behead the king, now she has to transform herself in order to join the alchemical king in the process of conjunctio, when the two become one alloy. the beheaded element transforms into the pure essence, which I will soon add to the painting as a pure white flame, placed at 1:1.62 on the canvas.

I rendered the head (a self portrait) en grisaille, ready for development when this first layer has dried. Fast and thick, this work will look good as I build the layers of colour over it. 

Another layer of zinc white over the shadow work in the wings,  dropping the dark areas back into the white and giving a softer quality to the surface of the feathers.

I put the stream of water between the bottles in, which was tricky, because I wanted to get this umbilical twisting to the fluid as it pours impossibly from one bottle to the other. I’m pretty satisfied with the result. While I was at it with the white I scraped some highlights into the jacket, which had been pretty flat. I’ll put a glaze of iron oxide – burnt sienna – over it when it has dried, which will bring it back to the orange / brown I love. 

I worked on defining the features of the face first, using the Prussian blue to draw edges and shadows around the eyes, nose and mouth. Having defined the features I added some pinks and reds around the mouth in particular, but also a few touches around the nostrils and the corners of the eyes, to give them some life. I used some zinc white with a touch of pink to add some highlights into the skin, and cleaned up the eyes and teeth. To unify the painting I put a few touches of the same colours onto highlight areas of the coat, for instance the left shoulder, which in truth are so subtle as to be almost invisible, but I think they’re really important, because they imitate the natural phenomenon of reflected light, which will put discrete touches of colour onto surfaces that are close to each other.

These fires are too frequent and too intense. In alchemy the nigredo is the process of destroying the impurities of the material by burning it, reducing it to its essential element before re-combining it with another element. I’m finding a microcosmic parallel between the fires and the city and the process of this divorce: I truly feel as if I am being cleansed of non-essential material and finding the inner core of my self, the elemental centre. I’m discovering that material doesn’t matter, and the things that I really want to keep are few: my books, clothes and my tools for making things. Spiritually I have found that reducing the material needs of life has been liberating, and reminds me of coming to the United States eighteen years ago, with only a backpack and a thousand dollars. It was scary but liberating then, too.

Obviously my children come before any of this stuff, which fades to grey in comparison to the light in which I hold them.

The air smells of smoke. A breath of wind moves leaves.

In the studio: total peace. Amelia is waiting for her feet to be attended to, and there’s a field of flowers waiting to bloom. Terry said she plans to come over to work on her canvases today, so I’m looking forward to her company. She’s an excellent painter.

Amelia’s face got the attention it has waited for, and I’m pleased with the way it’s going. She’s going to look great now. I’ll let this layer dry thoroughly then continue laying down the layers of the flesh over this much improved base layer. She’s ghostly white right now, and will get more solid flesh as the layers build, but here’s the foundation.

I’ve been pondering the depth of Amelia’s name, reflecting that the pronunciation of her last name divides into “Air” and “Heart”, so it seems that her mythical status is supported by her identity. She really is the elemental representative of the air.

I added a layer of zinc white to the rocks. Zinc is a very transparent white, so it’s great for jobs like this, where I want to keep the colour and texture beneath it coming through. With the remaining paint I added a knifed layer to the Justice painting, which is now nicely textured.

The work’s beginning to pay off now, with the various layers starting to work together to unify the painting. I added a bit more texture to the jacket, but I think I’m really done with it now. Time to move to getting that face right. I’m getting interested in the desert, which in this painting has now been transformed into a spring flower field by the introduction of the air to the earth, while the fire burns with phosphorescent glow in the air. (I guess I need to figure out how that’s going to work too…) I might need to go and find some night flowers and set up a light to get some sense of the way this would look.

Amelia is developing well. My ideas are changing all the time at the moment, and I’m really enjoying the developments. Having painted the sky in, I got into the next unifying layer of raw sienna over the landscape, and added some of the sky’s Prussian into the yellowy paint, making a very pleasant green layer that has transformed the desert into a spring landscape. I’m really enjoying this, as it suggests that the combination of elements, or conjunctio, has begun to produce it’s resulting amalgamation into an alloy. So I’m intrigued with the potential for a progression of time in the landscape – after the hermit, Amelia, as the elemental air comes to visit, bringing transformation to the barren landscape.

I’m very pleased with the outcome of the work I put into the coat, which is looking very rich now. I worked with some Prussian Blue to deepen the shadows and define a few edges, buttons and tailoring, then added a logo to her shirt. Obviously there’s a ton of work to do to the features of the face, feet and hands, and I expect to move onto those areas fairly soon.

I plan to begin producing my own essential oils pretty soon, and I’m also quite interested in the idea of getting serious about making my own paint if I can produce very pure oil and resins. I’m not convinced that the time that I would need to put into this endeavor would be cost effective considering the studio time I probably lose, but it’s certainly something I want to do at least once.