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STILL LIFE WITH A TWIST - Artists & Illustrators Magazine

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I titled this painting “Vanitas” after the tradition of vanitas painting which appears particularly in Dutch 17th century art. This subject was intended to symbolize humanity’s mortal nature and the eventual decay and passing of all things. Nearly all still life painting includes, to a greater or lesser extent, an aspect of vanitas – even (or perhaps particularly) a simple bowl of fruit. Glasses containing alcohol, game cards (life’s folly) and a skull were frequently depicted. I have chosen tarot cards of “The Fool” and “The Lovers” and glasses containing colourful liqueurs which themselves reflect the Fool. It was only while I was working on this piece that I realized I was in fact painting a “Vanitas”, adding the miniature skull and broken pendulum after the rest of the picture was quite well developed. My original fascination was with the reversed and inverted reflections of the tarot card within the two glasses.

My painting has been, throughout most of my career, concerned with the human figure – paintings of people in invented situations depicted with an assortment of objects which I realized, combined with the stillness of the figure, created a kind of still life. Then two or three years ago I began to concentrate more on still life as a subject in itself. I never simply arrange a group of objects and paint them as they are. I rather bring together a combination of actual and imagined things more in the spirit of the surreal.

My work is entirely studio-based, and a certain amount of my imagery is invented. However I do draw a great deal, and I think this has aided my facility to invent. All of my paintings are imaginary compositions, in that the objects depicted were never arranged exactly in that position or in that setting. For instance, I may decide to paint a mask or a bowl of figs and begin with a small drawing of the object. Then I might come across a photograph or postcard of something else, say an insect or a Japanese print which suggests a slightly surreal juxtaposition. Next I will make small compositional sketches, playing with the arrangement of the objects within an invented space, before realizing one of them in a full-size outline drawing, or cartoon. This is transferred to canvas with pastel or charcoal; I draw directly onto paper when working in pastel or conte crayon. Despite my methodical way of composing a picture, I invariably make changes once the painting is underway.

When working in oils I use the traditional method of glazing over an underpainting. Beginning with the fairly detailed transferred cartoon, I work over the whole canvas in opaque solid colour. At this stage I restrict myself to a limited palette of earth colours, just five or six. The umbers and siennas play a major part at this stage of the work, along with ivory black, naples yellow and flake white. With these few colours I can suggest reds, greens, orange, blue and a creamy approximation of yellow. I always use flake white in oil painting because its lead content accelerates drying, as does raw umber. When the underpainting is complete I will have created a muted version of the final painting. This has to be put aside to dry for a while, so I would then usually begin work on a new subject or resume work on something already begun and dry enough to continue with.

Next, I rework the picture using transparent glazes. When oil paint is mixed with a transparent glazing medium the colours appear warmer and richer. Thus a colour such as burnt sienna can produce a salmon pink if mixed with opaque white, or a warm rusty orange if applied thinly as a transparent glaze. Glazing enriches and refines the painted surface, and in fact doubles the colours on your palette.

Detail comes last in my painting, for which I continue to use the glaze medium, perhaps just a touch at this stage. I use fine sable brushes for detail and a mahlstick to steady my hand, otherwise my preferred brushes are filbert shape hoghair. I mix my own glaze medium from damar varnish and stand oil, but you can buy good ready-made mediums. Liquin, an alkyd medium, is a good alternative which has the added bonus of speeding drying.

My influences and loves in art are fairly wide, but my first love is early rennaissance Italian painting and much earlier Roman painting which I have been fortunate to have seen in the original at Pompeii, Herculaneum and in Rome. I also admire the work of Georges de la Tour, Chardin, Balthus, the Surrealists, Edward Burra and Paula Rego, among many others.


Copyright: Jane Lewis 2005/Artists & Illustrators Magazine

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