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.

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