Details, details – but important ones, like getting the lighting on all objects from the same place. My reference material had lighting from which ever place created the best image, and it is sometimes difficult in the throes of painting, to retain your own light source. The silver Cup was particularly bothersome, so much so that I took my camera to Chester searching for big Cups with sideways lighting, collecting some funny looks at the same time.
Then there was the cane medallion in the chair. If I painted it meticulously, it would look “tight” and anxious – overdone, careful. But I couldn’t leave it as a blur, since the rest of the painting was more defined. Moreover, the weave was interesting, hexagonal, though not clear from the small pencil drawing I used as reference. Even the World Wide Web was unable in my inexpert hands to provide me with a usable reference. Then I remembered a cane table basket. I studied it carefully, put it away, very nearly closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and “went for it” – mission complete.
I finished the painting of St James’ Garlickhyde, making Martin’s arm the right length in the process. In the beginning it was too long, his fingers would have reached his knees if it had been straightened; then I overcompensated. Finally I got my husband to pose with an appropriate scarf draped to represent the robe. Thereafter I added some lettering to the Cup and tufting to the carpet. Only the hands and faces to complete now. This was a matter of inching up to the desired effect, a dab of paint, followed by a lot of thought. then another dab.
Well, neither Holbein nor Alma-Tadema need to lose much sleep over me, but I have so enjoyed the effort and have learnt so much about composition, colour, relative size, lighting, reflections, faces – eight months of rare delight.
What to put on the floor was a real headache. The original pale colour left the images floating, lacking gravitas as well as gravity! I tried the rich crimson of the carpet in the photos of the liverymen, but while the background colour worked all right, the gold patterning made the floor take over the picture. In any case it had little real connection with the boys, their belongings, or my original idea for the painting. In desperation I turned to Holbein again, and found my deliverance. I would keep the tiles already under Martin’s dresser, and add the “turkey rug” that Holbein had draped over his dresser. Thus is the circle completed.
Both figures have had a lot of work done – Martin has his chain back, and his posy has flowers; Brian’s rod has a cork handle and carriers for the line, while his fly box, a more reasonable size now, hold some of the flies he marked as being to his liking. His wellies are standing on the tiles (altogether more appropriate than on carpet) and the perspective lines of the grouting help to give a little depth to the picture. “Vanity Fair” has its classic full leather binding, sitting on top of Brian’s “Ascent of Man”, an accident of size and colour, not a wry comment on Human Progress! The score on the chair is closed – I would have liked to show it open showing the music but the silver rose would not have shown up against the white paper. Martin’s left arm is still too short!
Where do ideas for projects come from? out of thin air often, but this one has a clear back story. It is a tale of two visits, one to an exhibition of paintings by Alma-Tadema in Liverpool, and the other in London, attending the Winter Service of a London Guild.
The Liverpool exhibition was an eye opener. Alma-Tadema is a master of textures, his furs dense and soft, his silks airy, his flowers newly picked. Crucially, some of the pictures on show were unfinished, and looked a bit like my finished ones! They sparked an interest in emulation, something I would never have considered if he hadn’t shown the way.
The Winter Service was a very different experience, all robes and ceremony, friendship and laughter, but it gave me a possible subject. A passing glimpse of the Master and the Honorary Clerk reminded me of another painter, Hans Holbein, and his painting, “The Ambassadors”. It shows the two gentlemen, beautifully dressed, surrounded by objects, many of them set out on a sideboard, which demonstrate their interests and enthusiasms.
So, I had my subject and my goal. The canvas is 50 inches x 70 inches – it needed to be at least that size if I was to have a chance at getting a likeness. I didn’t hold out much hope but it would be silly to tie my hands at the outset.
The first problem was sighting the figures on a canvas of that size. I have a projector, so I used a postcard reproduction of “The Ambassadors” to indicate where and how the figures stood, tramping back and forth across the studio with the canvas to get a clear image of the right proportions for this seemed to be at the edge of the projector’s range. Still the detail didn’t matter, and I had placed my figures.