Saturday, October 22, 2011

Third and Fourth Layers: Mary and Martha

For newcomers to the chronicling of my painting of Mary and Martha, please find earlier posts by date in the column at right.

Again, I don’t really know how to enumerate the “layers” of this painting. With this blog entry are progress photos numbered eight through ten, and a couple of detail pictures. But it is between numbers eight and nine that I actually glaze the entire painting for the first time. So in that sense, the ceiling has only two layers. It may be fair to say that Jesus’ face has four layers by picture ten. Mary’s extended arm may have five or six.

Having worked quite a bit on the figures by the last blog entry, I’d come to a point where I needed to set them better within the space. This will sound like a task that should be done at the sketch stage, and I wouldn’t argue. They were pinned loosely to their place in the room from the beginning, but the space between the figures and the fireplace was empty, and the perspective lines were not really fastidious. I came back to this earlier this week, readdressing lines I’d abandoned for my impatience to draw people. At this time I began limning in the bricks of the ceiling.

The wonderful living room where we shot the reference photos was plaster, masterfully textured in the 1920s. But it was not the plaster-work, but the barrel-vaulted ceiling for which I chose this room, with the intention to turn it into an arch of Jerusalem stone. I found wonderful photos of the Old City, and of Bethany, where this native limestone cobbles everything from roads to gardens to walls to hearths. Our view of the ceiling above our dinner party would be of the narrow ends of wedge shaped stones, the stubs of pie slices inserted nose down and held together by their own weight. I see in some of these photos that the stones are smoothed over, as with plaster or concrete, but not thoroughly. In all

cases, centuries or millennia have textured the construction with wear. It is a challenge of imagination to visualize how a home in Bethany would have looked in the time of Christ.

Trying to arrive at that look will require many layers of paint, glazing, scumbling, and reworking, to create what Leonardo da Vinci called sfumato. He derived the word from the Italian word for smoky, and used it o describe his method of blending. We associate it with his luminous depiction of flesh, but I’m use it here to describe my approach to the haze and shadows that will fill this room.

As I darkened the back wall and began to find where it should meet the floor in the shadows, I decided to add a large urn or water pot in the corner. I’d love to say I had one for the shoot, but I’m afraid it came entirely from my head at the last minute. It’s my hope that it looks ceramic, but I’m afraid it looks more like finely chisled Roman marble. I don’t think they were poor, but I’m positing their most luxurious possessions were for the table. Perhaps I’ll be able to texture the vase later.

On top of this vessel I painted my cat, Porter Rockwell Kitty Cat, who surely must have had ancestors employed in the mousing trade throughout the ancient world. As his role is not mentioned in the scriptural version of the story, I’ll keep him glazed in shadows, and critics who peer that deep can call me sentimental to their hearts’ delight.

The painting then dried for a day while I wore other hats.

Today, at last, I glazed a true second layer, coating the whole canvas with classic medium. It is a muscular job on a painting this size, pushing a carpenter sized brush over the breadth and width, first in a checkerboard pattern, and then in arching strokes across the curve of the ceiling. I stand on a bench to reach the top, waving the whole length of my arm.

The medium must not be so thick or thin as to run or pool.

Then I squeezed about half my index finger’s worth of crimson paint onto my palette, wetted that big brush with turpentine, and began to spread this brilliant, translucent pigment over the whole background. It does not look crimson by the time it is spread thin; it is a wash over burnt umber, which is tan at it’s thinnest, ochre in midrange, and the darkest brown in it’s full body. Crimson diluted against a pure white gessoed canvas would be pink or magenta, but over this umber gradation it becomes red in the shadows and yellow in the light. It is firelight on the walls.

I then returned to lining the ceiling with bricks. It would be more ideal to have finished this in the previous layer, but frankly, I ran out of time. If I had resumed this task first thing today, I would have had to wait another day to glaze the whole with color. If the first layer hasn’t dried enough, a wash of turpentine will loosen it, and it will be destroyed. But it is no great concern to work detail into a wet outer layer.

Last of all, I built some depth into Jesus’ face. (This is ostensibly for color and detail, but since I'm a hack, it's also an opportunity to correct drawing errors.) I will keep doing this to all the faces a bit at a time, layer upon layer. It would be great to be able to ad a layer to all the faces in a day, that they could all have their first layer in the same day, their second layers the second day, and so on, like a class who all matriculated together and graduated together too. But I haven’t enough contiguous hours in a day to do so much at once. At least, not if I wish to have dinner with my wife.

And so I continue as I am able.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Second Layer: Mary and Martha

I have added color and detail to Mary and Martha, and now to a disciple as well. Additional disciples are being added or reworked.

Painting in oils is classically done in layers. A short version of this involves an under drawing or painting in grisailles, which is all one color—usually gray— and glazed over with final color. Leonardo da Vinci took this to the extreme: the Mona Lisa has as many as forty layers of paint in places, some of them just microns thin.

My method may be unorthodox, in that I don’t have the discipline (read: attention span) to finish the under painting before beginning the second layer. Indeed, parts of this painting are already under three or four coats, and I still haven’t determ

ined where all of the figures will be. In other words, I still haven’t finished the under painting.

It seems I’ve seen large buildings erected where progress at one end is a story ahead of progress at the other end. My canvas is in that state. I’m building on top of the foundation in some areas, and still laying the foundation in others. This is not a structural concern. The classic medium with which I coat an area before working over it again contains some varnish, along with oil and turpentine. This mixture is a time proven combination that allows layering to laminate properly, without separating.

I used to glaze the entire canvas each new day I touched it, but I don’t find this necessary, when I can only rework small parts of a large painting in a given amount of time anyway. It also saves material and expense to only glaze the part I’ll work that day. In some of these photos, you can see the edge of the glazing, as it is shinier. If the photo is taken in daylight, the top of the painting reflects the blue-ish northern light of the studio’s sixteen-foot high windows. Photos taken of the painting after dark are very yellow from incandescent track lighting. I haven’t bought expensive lighting for photographing large paintings, because I have a professional do that for me. That is a complicated art in itself.

At this point in the painting, I can continue to layer and detail the existing figures. But I want more disciples than I was able to gather for the shoot, and I’ll need to model two or three or four more. This I’ll probably do with more simple photography, which I’ll be able to do myself, because these figures will all have their back to the viewer, and will not need significant detail. In other words, the lighting will be easy to manufacture.

Anyone want to want to wander down to Pioneer Square and get draped in fabric?

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mary and Martha: Setting the Table

I can’t say that I’m much of a still life painter. I’m even less of a landscape painter, but that doesn’t really come into play in this painting of Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha.

As I begin copying the table setting from the photo reference, I realize I need to make some adjustments. Because I’ve compressed the perspective of the room, moving the fireplace and so on, I’ve also needed to move the figures closer together. This gives us a much more intimate dinner party. It also means I have to edit out some of the very full table items.

I’ve corrected some previous drawing errors. Martha’s left humerus (upper arm) is shorter now, not only making her less lopsided, but also freeing up the space around the Savior’s hand. She’ll still have that big copper bucket hanging from her arm, but it will be well receded in shadow. I’ve also lengthened her leg, which is problematic because it moves her position in the space. She’s now standing closer to Mary.

I’m still wishing I had more disciples in the foreground, and maybe one in the doorway on our right.

And sooner or later I need to wander over the tracks to the International District/Chinatown, to find some dried fish. It should be tilapia, but as long as it’s the right size, I suppose it’ll be fine. I’ll then hang the fish above the fireplace, cast even more shadows on this beautiful barrel vaulted ceiling.

Oh, and the ceiling needs to be Jerusalem stone, rather than plaster.

The work has just begun.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Mary and Martha Under Painting: Mary

As I mentioned in the last post, I get impatient to add color. This is one reason I don’t do a true grisailles. Today I broke out the cerulean blue.

There are several women named Mary in the New Testament. There is, of course, Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary from the fish drying and exporting town of Magdala near Galilee (Mary Magdalene), and our Mary the sister of Martha and Lazarus, from Bethany on the eastern slope of the Mount of Olives. There is also Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Mary the wife of Cleophas. In Acts there is mention of a Mary the mother of John Mark, and another Mary is mentioned in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, who is probably none of these, since she lived in Rome.

Of all this confusion about Marys, the Mary in this painting is most likely to be confused with Mary Magdalene, and there’s not much I can do about that, other than to advocate literacy. But I should at least be sure that no one confuses her with Mary the Mother of Jesus. As my wife and I selected fabric for the costumes, there was some discussion of giving her a blue dress. This wouldn’t confuse my Mormon audience, or Protestants generally. But I knew that since at least the late middle ages, Mary the Mother of God has traditionally been depicted in blue. It is prevalent enough in my knowledge of art history that I thought it was a Catholic mandate.

But I was wrong.

While the dark blue dress or mantle actually dates to the Byzantine era (circa 500 A.D.) denoting an empress, some northern masters (Rogier van der Weyden, Hans Memling, Lucas Cranach, Jan van Eyck) depicted her in a red robe. Red is also associated with royalty, but also portends suffering, possibly foreshadowing the suffering of her Son. Raphael always gave her a red robe with a blue mantle. Eastern icons often showed her in a greenish-blue inner garment, with a red outer garment.

We wanted the sisters from Bethany to be dressed with slight differences from one another. I thought it would be okay to give her a blue head wrap, but not a blue robe, to avoid comparison to the more prominent Mary.

But I had another symbol up my sleeve. I thought it would be great to have Mary loosen or drop her head covering, as she sets aside her women’s role to sit with the men. I see now that having her do that, the cloth no longer looks like a head covering. It’s a mantle— a blue mantle, like the Virgin Mary’s. How confusing.

A Jewish friend who was going to model as a disciple in the photo shoot, but ended up having to cancel for scheduling reasons, agreed to look into some traditions for me. He emailed a friend of his who is an observant Jew, living in Jerusalem. I wanted to know if Jewish women would have had their heads covered indoors, with male guests in the house. The reply came back after the photo shoot.

Indeed, I learned, the women would have their heads covered, and so would the men, but not for reasons of modesty. “We cover our heads to remind us that there is always something greater than ourselves; that G-d is over us.”

We took no shots with Mary’s head covered.

I’m going to take the position that she is caught in a moment where she has forgotten herself. She was attending to the expectation that she and her sister serve their guests, but at some time became engrossed in what was being discussed, and sat down. In the process of making herself comfortable—too comfortable, in Martha’s opinion— her head covering has slipped back. I’m using some artistic license, of course, but I think it fits with the message.

When Martha complains about Mary neglecting her duties, Jesus quiets her, saying that “Mary has chosen the better part.” The message is that the things of the Spirit are ultimately more important than temporal necessities. Elsewhere in the Gospels, Jesus breaks with tradition repeatedly to excuse lapses in strict observance, where greater moral lessons can be taught.

That’s my rationalization for my scholarly errors, and I’m sticking to it.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha: Embellishing the Under Painting

This is the third installment in blogging the progress of painting Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha. If this is your first visit, read the first post here, and the second one here.

I suppose if I’d been classically trained, I’d do the under painting all at once, and the next time I touched the canvas, it would be with a glaze of classic medium, and the second layer would be underway. I suppose I might also do that if I had classical discipline, and spent a good ten hours on the under painting at once, or if I properly prepared a complete sketch or cartoon, and knew where everything was going when I began the painting. As it happens, I’ve been noodling at it a couple of hours one morning and some more another afternoon, after doing marketing tasks for the business of painting weddings. So the under painting evolves day by day, and yet still is just the first layer.

Except that I can’t help refining the figures already. I’m already laying in some tertiary colors as I whittle away at Martha and Jesus’ profiles. I think I can get away with this so far, because there isn’t much paint on the canvas, and I haven’t used much medium. But to build a better painting, I need to have patience and sketch out the whole thing in tricolor before layering flesh tones of the principle characters.

I’m using three or four different reference photos for Jesus, but his face is coming from just two of them: the smile from one and the angle from another. Martha comes from many more photos than that. The perfect expression comes from a photo with all the wrong body gesture, another has her hair in front of her face but has wonderful energy in her arms, and so on. I’m still undecided on Mary. I love the shots where her face is in profile, but I prefer her shoulders turned out more. There’s a wonderful highlight on her nose in a shot where her head is turned the wrong direction. But that highlight couldn’t possibly appear when her head is turned the right way, so I can’t use it. The loss is painful to me.

Should I sketch the still life, the table setting, when I’m still considering adding disciples who weren’t in the photo shoot? Might I end up putting one in front of the table, and burying my work? Most likely I will add someone on the left—Doubting Thomas, using the model that posed for him in the painting ‘It Is the LORD’. But I want more than that. I meant for this to be a crowded house.

And I need another yarmulke.

But all I can think of is flesh tones. I can’t wait to glaze cheeks with carmine, glisten the bridges of noses with lead white, and flush carpal veins with manganese blue. What I really, really love, more than anything else, is painting people.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Underpainting: Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha

In the process of creating a large painting, after the photo shoot, there is a lot of editing to do. The photographer delivered 1.5 gigabytes of images. I search through these, looking for the right facial expression for Mary, the right hand gesture for Martha, the right smile for Jesus. I’ll put them all together on canvas.

The photographer noted that to get all these elements right in one photograph would have taken eight hours instead of one or two. It also would have taken real actors. Photography on that scale is exhausting. I know this because I used to sublease my studio from a commercial photographer— and he mostly did tabletop, or product shots. Occasionally he worked with child models for catalogue work, and although professionally experienced, they inevitably broke down in tears after a few hours of work.

As a painter, after the shoot the labor has just begun. I don’t discard any of these photos at this point; I may come back looking for some detail that has yet to occur to me. I initially pick a dozen and print them at 8 ½ x 11, and post them in the studio next to the canvas. At times some printouts will actually get taped to the canvas for closer examination, using a low tack artists’ tape, of course. Later, I’ll need to zoom in on detail, but I may just do that on my laptop, setting the computer on a stool where I can see it and poke at it.

In some cases, as with this year’s Recognizing Jesus, a complex perspective necessitates a pencil drawing transferred to the canvas using a cartoon (as defined back in Michelangelo’s day). But with this painting, as with most, I do not do a pencil drawing, other than marking the canvas at various measurements I’ll want to remember. I begin with a four-inch brush from Home Depot, as if painting a house. I squeeze some burnt umber onto my palette, dip my brush in thinner, and wash the whole canvas until it is a light, sandy brown. I spend some more of that umber, drawing out the perspective of the room with the big brush. The surface darkens as I begin to fill in shadows, and with looping approximation, rough in the location of characters. This room has a lot of shadows, so by now I’ve spent a lot of umber. Eventually I’m drawing with a smaller brush— a one-inch flat.

To correct and refine my drawing, I pull out light areas with turpentine (or citrus thinner, at this stage, because it costs less). I bin to add highlights with Naples yellow, and eventually titanium white. The first real color I add is Venetian red, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I don’t mean just in my explanation. I get ahead of myself as I paint. As I begin drawing the figures, I’m impatient to begin coloring them. I want to paint the faces, the robes, Martha’s arm. I’m loving Martha’s arm. It establishes the energy of the whole composition. But I still need to lay out the whole layout. Figures may still move; it would be a waste to spend too much time on a face, and then need to move it. I did this already with Jesus’ face. You see it here about four inches to the right of where I first put it. Martha used to be bigger, too. I may yet move the table. I’d like to have more disciples than I was able to get for the photo shoot.

There’s just so much to do.

There will be as many as a couple dozen layers before the painting is done, each built upon the under painting and successive layers, a medium of Damar varnish, stand oil, and turpentine glazing the whole.

And I’ll keep the readers of this blog apprised with regular installments.

Monday, October 3, 2011

"And He Shall Have Power to Crush Thy Head"

I have some catching up to do; this blog begins in 2011, but I have several paintings of religious narrative and symbolism, completed mostly after 2005. This was the first of them.

In Genesis 3: 14-15, the Lord has just cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden, having declared their new state of mortality, and given them commandments. He then turns to Lucifer, and keeping with the metaphor of the serpent, declares, "on thy belly shalt thou go all the days of thy life; and I shall put enmity between thee and the seed of the woman, And thou mayest have power to bruise His heel, but He shall have power to crush thy head."

This painting illustrates not a moment in time, but an event that transcends time. This image depicts one of many scriptural metaphors for the Atonement of Christ. As we all have a snake in our lives to put underfoot, this painting is my testimony that all our weaknesses may be overcome through Jesus, through His grace, and by subjection to His will. It was not only my intention to depict the power by which the act is accomplished, but also the peace which comes thereby, as signified by the Savior's right hand, raised to calm the troubled couple behind Him, on their path through mortality.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha

As much as I would like to start this blog with essays about each of the religious paintings I’ve done to date, I think it makes more sense to start with what is on the easel now, and catch up later with explanations about earlier works.

On September 17, we did a photo shoot. I say “we” because it is a joint undertaking to create the reference photos from which I paint.

The artist’s discipline of painting figures has a long history. In antiquity, that is to say, ancient Greece and later Rome, the tradition was established of observing live models while sculpting or painting, as it produced more lifelike art than when the artist worked solely from imagination. This was abandoned for the better part of a thousand years, during what we now call the Dark Ages, as Christianity found the practice unholy. The Renaissance dusted off the practice, and reestablished values of excellence in depiction of the human form. In the 19th century, as these artistic values were becoming less fashionable, some who held true to realism began to use a new technology to help them depict the figure: photography. Thomas Eakins taught his students at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts to photograph models and work from these pictures to save time and modeling fees, and during the Golden Age of American Illustration, it became the standard method for illustrators like Norman Rockwell.

I’m blessed to have friends who are willing to model in exchange for drawings or prints, but I can hardly abuse their kindness by asking them to sit repeatedly for long hours. There are some good friends who have done this, but for smaller, less complicated canvases. Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha needs several models, as did my painting It Is The Lord. The latter also required the use of a boat. Photography saves a lot of time.

Jesus in the House of Mary and Martha has been on my mind more than a year. The location for the shoot presented itself when I wandered into a real estate open house in the neighborhood where Jane and I attend church. The Mediterranean style home had a barrel vaulted ceiling, which I imagined would fit well in a stone home in Bethany. (I’ll add the texture of Jerusalem stone later, from other reference.) The couple who were selling the home were gracious enough to allow us use of the room for a couple of hours.

My wife Jane makes our costumes. For the sunrise shoot for It Is the Lord, shot from a dock on Lake Washington, she also made breakfast for the crew. This time, however, breads, fresh fruits, and nuts were part of the set, and even better, the homeowners invited us to stay and join them for a barbecue they were hosting for friends later that evening.

You see how these events can turn into a bit of a production.

My first sketches for a painting simply develop the concept. I subsequently do sketches specifically to communicate to the crew— the models and the photographer— what I want to communicate in the painting. The following paragraphs are from my lengthier email to them, explaining my motives, and my view of the characters. So this is the story of Mary and Martha according to Sam Day.

The story comes from the Gospel of Luke, 10:38-42

Jesus is visiting His friends Mary and Martha, and their brother Lazarus. As is pretty much always the case when Jesus eats dinner in the Gospels, there are disciples there to share the table and conversation. We don't know how many people this might have been, or how large or affluent was Lazarus' house. Elsewhere his death is described as being mourned by "many of the Jews," so I infer that he had some means, or at least some influence or position in the town.

Martha and Mary have been cooking, but Mary has stopped and sat down with the men, at the Master's feet even, to listen to the conversation. Martha gets between her and Jesus, speaking to Him rather than her. She complains that Mary has "left [her] to serve alone," and asks Him to command Mary to help her. Jesus is gentle in consoling her. It is not a rebuke, as tradition holds. He simply adjures her to let Mary stay. His pronouncement does place a value on spirituality over worldly concerns, but not so much as to tell Martha to stop what she's doing. If Martha stops, the house doesn't eat. Jesus is often depicted scolding Martha. But His "Martha, Martha" does not have the tone of Jan Brady's "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!" It is calming, cooing.

Many Christian women identify with one sister over the other. I've been married to one of each, and I know the Lord loves them both.

In the past couple of years, multiple LDS speakers have addressed the differences in these sisters, both in the Church's General Conference and in The Ensign, the Church's magazine. They have pointed out that Martha, too, was a woman of faith and testimony (See John 11:20-27 ), as was Mary. But some artists have depicted her as somewhat bitchy. I want to show her frustration, but not as anger. She loves the Master, and she loves her sister. She also loves to serve. More than that, she's driven by her personality to do it. She cannot stand to see a task neglected, nor suffer the unpunctual. I imagine she is a worrier, perhaps a bit anxious, but also a take-charge, can-do woman. She holds the tribe together.

Some have seen Mary as somewhat of a layabout, never really into the housekeeping anyway. I see no foundation for that. I, too, am a person who is easily distracted, which is not the same as lazy. I think she was spiritually moved by what she overheard, stopped to listen, listened long enough to sit down, and then became engrossed. I want to depict her with a pot or a water vessel, or some unfinished errand. She has put the utensil down. Her headdress is loosened or thrown back. She turns in surprise at Martha's interjection, with a mixture of emotions. There may be a slight hint of apology in her expression, but not annoyance. I do not see her as petulant, recalcitrant, or defiant of Martha. I see her as torn between duty and love. She loves Jesus, she wants to hear his words; she loves Martha and feels obliged to help serve. And who's to say she doesn't love that too? Her personality is also one of focus, even obsession— but her focus is on doctrine, and worldly necessities are the interruptions to her. In the cartoon version, her thought bubble would say "Oh! —I didn't realize how long I've been sitting here!"

I want to show that each woman has both strengths and weaknesses. Perhaps what is a strength in one arena is itself a weakness in another.

I then continued with a short history of other depictions of the subject, including Vermeer and Rubens, and analysis of what I feel could be improved on when I retell the story. But I’ll save that for a later blog entry.

I’ll also post pictures of the painting as it progresses, layer by layer.

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