Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Greek Myths and Golden Goddesses...

Did you read "Tanglewood Tales"  by the American author, Nathaniel Hawthorne, when you were a child?

I was obsessed with this book of Greek Myths, especially the terrifying picture of the chimera, that dreadful 3-headed monster, attacking Bellerophon on his winged horse, Pegasus.  And the picture of Odysseus with his magic flower which protected him so Circe couldn't change him into an animal.  All these stories sunk into my soul just like the fairy tales we learn when we are little.

Later, as an adult, as well as painting, I studied sculpture, architecture and ancient pottery.  All this was Greek and Roman, of course, but it wasn't until a few years ago that I had an inspirational experience and all the stories really came alive to me!

The British Museum in London put on a very important exhibition of Greek gold jewelry from the Classical Period, 2500 year ago.  There were 200 pieces of these marvellous treasures on show from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the British Museum.  The first time they had ever been shown altogether like this.

I went to it expecting it to be interesting... I left absolutely stunned!
It was so beautiful... so fresh... so exquisite.
Before my eyes my goddesses came to life!
I couldn't wait to paint them in their jewelry, their diadems, their earrings, their armbands, with bracelets, necklaces and rings.  I use lots of 22 carat gold leaf in these paintings and I embellish many of the giclees with gold leaf too.

So I started with Artemis the Goddess of Hunting and the Moon who the Romans called Diana.
She was a most important goddess, being the guardian and protector of forests, woodlands and all the little wild creatures within them.   

I wanted my paintings of goddesses to be a little mystical, different from a painting of a model sitting in front of me - and I also wanted the jewelry to really sparkle!  So, I evolved a special technique...

First, having primed a large canvas with glowing white, I floated pools of paint across it, 2 or 3 subtle colors, tilting the canvas so the colors flowed and mixed as I wished; yellow ochres, venetian red, burnt umbers.  Then I left it to dry.
Next I drew my goddess and her bow in a strong line.  I had made sure when I made my first sketch that I had good top-lighting so that she would come alive, just by painting the light as it fell on her figure.  This is very much how Caravaggio would have worked, although he usually had a black background.

I had a wonderful time building up the jewelry with impasto and applying gold leaf and then painting the delicate detail into the gold with burnt umber - a very satisfying experience.
I painted her with a superb armband, bracelets, a swinging gold tie necklace and lion-headed earrings, and I showed her with her bow, proud and beautiful...

click here to see Aphrodite on Brenda's website

Then I painted Aphrodite - the Goddess of Love, who the Romans called Venus.  I wanted to give a magical quality to the birth of Aphrodite as she rises from the foam of the gold-leafed waves.

I shaded my canvas with ultramarine, cobalt and cerulean blues and built up the decorative waves and foam with impasto and delicately enhanced and gilded them with golds and platinum.  I painted the goddess herself very freshly, with no alterations to keep the feeling of spontaneity - to do this I had to do lots of preliminary studies so I knew exactly what I was going to do on the canvas.

Then came the most delicate part; her gauze scarf and the golden jewelry.  As the Goddess of Beauty and Love she is wearing some of the most exquisite designs that the ancient Greeks and Italians ever created.  Her necklace with tiny hanging seed-like pendants is matched by bracelets and earrings.  The earrings are especially intricate from their shell-like bejeweled centers hang a golden boat shaped pendant with tiny chains dangling from tiny flowers ending in seed pendants, to follow the necklace.

Finally, I gave her diaphanous scarf golden classical decorations and let it float up into the sunshine.

click here to see Circe on Brenda's website
I next painted Circe, standing by her golden gates on her magical island.  Of course, Circe isn't really a goddess, she's an enchantress, and her story is a haunting tale of spell-binding love.

Visually there are several important points in this painting - the ornate wrought-iron gates, the shadows and her eyes.

I have always had a special interest in wrought-iron.  As a teenager I would get up extra early and bicycle over to the blacksmith's forge to draw the horses waiting to be shod.

There were plenty of equine candidates for my sketch book as the milk was still brought by horse-drawn carts in that part of England then, and all those horses had to be shod every two weeks.

There were enormous shire horses that pulled the ploughs standing patiently waiting for their huge hooves to picked up by the brave blacksmith!  Not to mention the elegant thoroughbreds that the local Colonels rode out with the hunt and all the little girls' ponies too.

I would watch the blacksmith make horseshoes and intricate wrought-ironwork for balustrades, balconies and gates while I sat on the half-door sketching, well out the way of all those restless hooves.  He taught me some of his skills and helped me make a garden table with pretty scrollwork decorating it.

Although I became a painter, not a blacksmith!, I have always loved beautiful ironwork and am spoiled living in New Orleans surrounded by the wonderful examples of wrought and cast ironwork decorating the French Quarter and the Garden District.

The image of Circe seeing Odysseus for the first time gave me a great opportunity to design these rather mysterious gates, based on the ones outside my home, but with added details and an enigmatic little golden face guarding Circe's domain.  My model waited by those gates for a very long time indeed, until the sun was just right in the sky to cast the shadows that I had in my vision for the painting.

Circe's jewelry is rather simpler than the goddesses.  The square glass beads in the bracelet would have been cast and finished with fine hand grinding - a technique often used in the ancient world.

Sketch in Charcoal for the painting of Eros and Psyche
The next painting in my Greek Myths and Goddesses series is going to be "Eros and Psyche".

A wonderful legend where the hero and heroine rescue each other at the end - a little bit like the scene at the end of "Pretty Woman" but set 2500 years ago.

It is the first of these stories and has inspired many others, such as the fairy-tale of Cinderella.  Eros is the God of Love and Psyche whose name means "Soul" becomes immortal when they eventually reach their happy ending together.

I am painting Psyche in Eros' embrace, his arms around her, her face turned up to him, his great wings encircling her.  Here is my first charcoal sketch - I'll let you know when the finished painting is ready...

No comments: