The Eye of the Beholder, or, Gilding the Lily

Being a part-time artist can mean months or years doing no art at all.  Time spent producing art is usually 100% about producing art, but time spent working isn’t so productive.   What with rapid fire communication available to anyone who can fog a mirror, it’s odd how devices intended to improve productivity produce so many unexpected emails, cold calls, queries and “urgent” missives that entire days become totally unproductive.

So it was with some envy I watched my daughter drawing an impressive picture of Stubbs’ Whistlejacket for a school project last year with uninterrupted absorption.  Thus spurred from artistic lethargy, I decided it would be a good exercise to do likewise.

iP4_ 1020 To thwart laziness I decided no session should begin unless I was prepared to add at least 1000 small lines to the picture.  Soon I was busier than an Israeli bulldozer crew and came to regret using a throwaway scrap of card, having never thought it would amount to anything:

iP4_ 3551Once back into the habit of evening drawing I found an old sketch I liked and tried to scale it up into a worthwhile picture, with the aim of flattening the planes of the body in some kind of new style:

iP4_ 3060I soon reached a dead end, but in the meantime had read about something much more interesting: the work of Maxfield Parrish, a fantastic American artist of the early to mid 20th century.  Parrish was the most reproduced artist in all America’s history, devising an ingenious technique layering transparent oils on a brilliant white background.  To avoid the colours appearing dead, each was sealed with a transparent varnish; the finished work reflected light in a jagged course back from the white through the layers as if via numerous infinitely thin panes of stained and transparent glass.  The irregular course and slight parallax of the returning rays gave his works a glowing, lifelike quality.

I thought this worth exploring and began a portrait based on a photo of the late Ruslana Korshunova, a beautiful Russian model who lived in Manhattan.  I found her story very moving.  Thrust into the limelight because of her youth, her stunning, cat-like eyes and her fabulous long tresses, she’d been ripped off on the way up by some agent to the tune of half a million dollars.

Too young to take legal action in America, while still working hard and appearing on every magazine cover imaginable, Ruslana made it known to close friends her intention to bide her time and sue the agent after turning 21.

iP4_ 4102

In a letter by Parrish to a friend he mentions Alizarin Orange, a colour supposedly abandoned in the 1930’s as unstable. I found someone in America who still makes it by hand, and it’s an amazing colour – when thin it appears yellow; overlaid with pale blue it turns an other-worldly shade of green which matched her eyes

Devoted to her mother back in Eastern Europe, to whom she sent money every month, and exceptionally proud of the long hair for which she was nicknamed the Russian Rapunzel, Ruslana threw herself into her work.  Neighbours and friends remember a happy and carefree girl despite the trials of the fashion industry and a brush with a religious cult; a few days prior to her 21st birthday, the doorman to her apartment building recalled her cheerful, chatty return from an evening out with an ex boyfriend.  So far, so good.

The next day she was found in the middle of the road outside her apartment (which was several stories up) with all her hair roughly chopped off, her neck broken, and puzzlingly, about seven meters from the side of the building. Not only had she cleared the distance from the building wall to the kerb, some five or so meters and long enough to warrant its own rain proof awning, but cleared the nearside lane, and landed in the middle of the street.

iP4_ 4119

2/3rds finished, some reflectivity can be seen; Parrish was clearly a man of great patience, as some of his works were vast in scale. He completed murals, notably some for Gloria Vanderbilt, which filled a ballroom

Police called it suicide.  Perhaps, as in London, they discourage investigations into Russian mafia killings.  Nobody dares testify, and repercussions to all will be unpleasant.  A contract must have been put out stipulating she never reach 21.  Whoever did the deed, having incapacitated her, presumably sheared her hair off as proof of their handiwork.  How anyone thought she could have leapt (through construction netting) the distance an Olympic jumper might have covered with a gale behind them and a running start is something only Manhattan’s police can explain.  And why a bright young girl with the world at her feet would ruin her looks and fail to even leave a note or contact her mother was inexplicable.

It seemed a chance to try and portray a moving story, so I started with the aim of entering the finished product in the 2015 BP Portrait Prize.  I wanted to make her look into the eyes of the beholder as if asking: why?  The finished work was 20 layers of colour and 20 of varnish.  The chemical stench made a mask necessary most of the time but worse still, on applying, I found BP, perhaps in response to slews of photo-derived images, mandated the artist to have personally met the sitter.  Likewise the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition decided they could struggle along without me, so it remained an experiment; in twilight I found her gaze so disturbing I retired the picture out of sight.

RA image_2The next job enabled an attempt at gold leaf, something I’d considered adding to the Michelangelo fresco.  Gold leaf is actually quite cheap – you can buy 60 sheets of it at a time.  The sheets of genuine gold have been hammered so thin they make tissue paper seem like carpet.  It’s such fragile stuff that it flies around in response to static from your hands, and if someone in the next room exhales it flies away, but there’s nothing like it for reflectivity.  Giotto and the ancient fresco masters used it for the “glory” – the halo surrounding their religious icons but how they managed to work it with such dexterity is hard for me to understand.

There are some beautiful black and white photos in existence of Michelangelo’s Pieta; I used one as a reference and only added one colour, a very faint trace of rose, to the umbers and white.  The qualities of the photo and the sculpture itself are so powerful that anything other than basic colour would be superfluous.. gilding the lily, so to speak.

iP4_ 3523iP4_ 3558I kept up Parrish’s technique and ended up with about 15 layers all told.  The light reflecting on the gold seemed impressive enough so I gave it to the local church, where I was gratified to find they placed it behind the altar and directly beneath a stained glass window which made the halo glow in quite a fabulous way.  The added advantage being, from that distance, all the mistakes were completely invisible.

iP4_ 3777Doing these layers is really time consuming.  Each one must dry completely, and then the varnish on top – a century old resin mixture I found, again, in America, with a dreadful, choking stench – needs the same time again.  If a layer retains any moisture at all, the next layer causes the underlying one to wrinkle and curl in a truly ugly way, requiring not one but two layers be carefully sanded off with a great loss of time.

Despite every precaution tiny hairs and specks of dust embed themseslves continually, making fine sanding necessary each time.  To speed it along somewhat I covered the pictures with tin foil and left them on radiators, but eventually decided this painstaking technique was better left to patient craftsmen far removed from emails and mobile phones.  If you’re going to be an artist, you really have to give up spending 8 hours a day working on something else!

iP4_ 3352For an attempt at my first pleine aire I began a small oil at a friend’s villa near Lisbon.  I started on a promising, sunny day, where crowds of exotic insects drawn to the reflective white canvas found my skin more welcoming still.  At least the picture progressed, until the sky became overcast and begat a howling thunderstorm which blew the easel over and threw all the paints and brushes in the mud.

Clutching the canvas under a shaded tree with a spare one as umbrella only encouraged the rain to drive harder until the ground was a running quicksand.  Working on an incline is a bad idea in these conditions as water rushes downhill toward you in a torrent, carrying gallons of filthy water and more exotic insects.  A work emergency meant I cut my stay short.  C’est la vie.

iP4_ 3498Painting outside is all very well, but one needs a certain stoicism which is beyond me.  So I cheated, and finished it at home.  She loved it.  But this was in February, and I haven’t painted since!


About iain carstairs

I have a great interest in both scientific advances and the beauty of religion, and created about 15 years ago with the aim of finding common ground between the scientist and the believer, and to encourage debate between the two sides.
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10 Responses to The Eye of the Beholder, or, Gilding the Lily

  1. Rich Vetter says:

    What a great talent, and, the informative background….well done.

    • thanks very much! Actually I was gratified when, having some photos taken for the BP show, the photographer immediately asked, “can I keep a print?!” And I ended up making a signed limited editions print of the horse, ready for a future exhibition. Mighty oaks from little sketches grow!

  2. Ryan says:

    This is a beautiful article. Thank you.

  3. John Douglas says:

    Good article Iain.
    I had never come across Maxfield Parrish before now but when I googled his paintings I spotted one which looked familiar and, sure enough, it was the inspiration for this album cover-

    That technique of layering over pure white was something my art teacher showed me, although she didn’t mention where or how she discovered it. But, we live and learn on a daily basis; that’s what we are here for!

    It’s no surprise that the Royal Academy would prefer to struggle along without you; their Professor of Drawing cannot draw, their Professor of Painting cannot paint and as for their Professor of Sculpture…. well, that makes it a hat-trick of artlessness. That goes a long way to explain why the art world and art teaching are a sad reflection of the times in which we live.

    • Parrish was such a character! He got he idea for those gorgeous blue skies from Arizona, where he went to recover from a nervous collapse, and typhoid or something equally drastic, early in the 20th century. Apparently after this he stopped using umbers for his background shadows and turned to ultramarine blue, which appears in his shaded areas. You’d not see skies like that nowadays even in Arizona, more’s the pity.

      He was no fool either – he did calendars for the Edison company, I think it was, and someone worked out that millions of people saw the Edison name every day because of his popularity. He also cut a deal after doing illustrations for biscuit boxes where he’d get a cut when anyone ordered a poster copy of the lid. He became really wealthy, which was unusual for an illustrator, so that he could afford to stop doing “girls on rocks” and just did landscapes, because he enjoyed it. He had this fantastic technique for doing leaves, which I still haven’t worked out; they look like a repeating pattern but they’re all different. When he wanted to put people in his pictures he’d draw them on card, and glue them to the picture, painting layers on top as before.

      Scandalously he fell in love with the family nanny and they eventually moved in together, but he never admitted it publicly due to his religious sensibilities. She remained with him until he was in his late 70’s but he said it’d be wrong to marry her, so he never did. Eventually she married someone else. He’d make models of houses, castles,props etc, as reference for his illustrations.. quite a craftsman.

      I’m sure all you say about the RA is true – but I’m still determined to be in a gallery one day! I guess I’m going to have to accumulate some consistent work first, which will take time, at this rate. And doing outdoors work in the UK at the moment is hopeless as the skies are blotted out 19 days out of 20!

  4. John Douglas says:

    “When he wanted to put people in his pictures he’d draw them on card, and glue them to the picture”
    Ha! That’s another one of his techniques I have used without realising it was his.
    I think I like this man 🙂

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