Brushes and the Empress

There’s been little time in the studio available for concentrating on painting the Empress over the last couple of days, with the demands of my personal life colliding with my work; however, I shot photos of Keziah posing as the Empress, deleted the original face and sketched in a new version that I had high hopes for, leaving the studio last night feeling optimistic that I’d figured out how to resolve the face, but this morning I returned to the studio and was disappointed in what I had done. Back to the drawing board! I have my kids with me this weekend, so I asked Elizabeth to pose for me – she’s already in the painting, but I don’t see any great problem with her being in it twice – so we shot the new photo reference with much more care and attention to the angle of the head, this time more effectively succeeding in getting the angles of her face and the lighting to match that within the painting.

I will have to re-model the neck a little to make the shape just right, and need to check on the shape of the hair and position of the face in relationship to the girl to her left, then I can redo the en grisaille and velatura layers to get the new face up to speed with the rest of the girls.

My students are working hard to complete their own projects as we rapidly approach the end of this semester, learning some tricky techniques with specialized brushes – for example properly using a script brush to create long lines that define shapes – rather like drawing in paint. Because the hair is so long and fine, the brush carries a lot of paint, but focuses the paint into a small surface area, so if you smoothly drag the brush with consistent pressure you can make long even lines. The trick with this brush is simply to keep going in the gesture of making the line. If the line goes crooked, delete the paint and repeat the motion, but don’t stop and go back and forth on the line; this will only make it jagged, which defeats the purpose of the tool. I probably use this kind of brush more than any other, but although I use it to draw line with paint, as I did yesterday to re-render the new face, I’m also attracted to it because with it I can use that long line to make a clean edge that I can soften on one side using a finger to smudge the colour, which is very helpful when creating areas of shadow.

While it seems a little crazy that these eight feet high paintings are largely made using the tiny 00 Silver Script brush in the first picture, which I surely have in my hand more frequently than any other, my next favorite tool these days is my inch wide, two inch long bristle Egbert, which is the correct name for a long Filbert. A Filbert is a round brush that has been pressed on the end of the ferrule, creating a flattened, rounded shape that carries a lot of paint and tends to create a soft edge to the mark it leaves. I use this brush predominantly for large areas of paint, like the cloudy sky and soft blended marble in this piece. I find a flat brush will tend to leave a ridge in the paint at the edges, which I dislike, preferring the mass of paint to stay in the middle of the stroke, where I can move it with greater ease. (A ridge of paint that dries on the edge of a stroke can make life difficult later when I am re-arranging shapes or blending shadows, so I tend to avoid flat brushes.)

My students are also deeply involved in learning to use a fan brush to blend areas of paint very smoothly; this centuries old method of generating areas of delicate shifts from one colour or value to another was used by the great old masters – these young painters are certainly in the company of Rubens, Raphael and Da Vinci as they fan their sable brushes over the surface of the panel. Perhaps they feel their spirits watching them as they work? (No pressure!) I’ll describe how to use this tricky, but invaluable brush next week.

About pearce

Michael Pearce is an artist, writer, and professor of art. He is the author of "Art in the Age of Emergence."
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