Like most of my blog posts, this post contains depictions of tasteful artistic nudity. Proceed as you will.
Inspiration and imagination are as important to an artist as skill and talent. You might have an amazing skill level, and you might be brimming with talent, but you need a subject to paint! And your best paintings are going to come from capturing an image that you find inspiring, because it speaks to you in some way. After all, if all M. C. Escher did was photorealistic drawings of fish, you wouldn’t know who I was talking about, would you? It’s what he did with those fish that made him amazing.
For some artists inspiration comes from working with a muse model. Renoir’s wife, Aline Victorine Charigot, and her cousin, Gabrielle Renard, served as models for some of Renoir’s greatest paintings. For Manet it was model and artist Victorine Meurent, whom he painted nine different times that we know of. For Toulouse-Lautrec, it was dance hall celebrities and prostitutes. Degas had ballet. For Egon Schiele, it was his sister Gerti, then his mistress Wally, who looked just like Gerti, then his wife Edith, who looked exactly like Wally and Gerti. For other artists it might be a particular animal, or a scene in nature (like Monet and his water lilies). Or, like Margaret Keane, a depiction of pathos and longing.
Egon Schiele’s portraits of (in order, top to bottom) Gerti. Wally and Edith. Can you tell the difference?
For me, it’s mythology, and especially mythic European Goddesses. Anyone who has glanced at my work here, or on my deviantart, knows that I do a lot of paintings based on mythology. I mean a lot of paintings. I thought I’d speak a little about my process of taking a mythic figure and turning it into a painting. Of course you can probably apply my process to any subject.
Name That Goddess
My first step is to decide which mythic figure I’d like to paint. This is often a process of inspiration in itself. When I started painting specific Goddess images as a series, I began with the Goddesses I felt closest to, because I knew their mythologies and lore already. Since my teen years, I’d always felt most drawn to British Goddesses, so I wanted to begin with figures like Mab, Blodeuwedd, and Brigit.
My painting of the British Goddess Mab, one of the first I did in this series. It is much more ‘pop art’ than some of my later paintings.
In thinking about doing a series of Goddess paintings, I began to consider materials. I started the series on some standard sized canvases I had laying around.
Aphrodite, on a standard shape of canvas.
But on a visit to my local art supply store, I found some oddly proportioned stretched canvases, sized 12×36″. As I looked at the 12×36 format, I was struck by the shape of these canvases: they would allow me to focus on vertical movement, and on face, hair and bust. I liked the idea, and began to experiment with those grounds (‘ground’ is what artists call the material they paint or draw upon, which could be paper, wood, canvas, a wall, etc). I liked the results enough to stick with that size for the last few years. Luckily my local store keeps these in supply (always a factor to consider! Don’t start a long term series on a ground or with materials that are hard to find).
Next comes the research phase. The first few were easy, as they were figures I felt very connected to and had researched all my life. For each Goddess, I wanted to find in my research one or two folkloric symbols associated with that figure. Mab has ravens, for instance: it is believed in her mythology that ravens are Mab’s messengers. Brigit is associated with the hare, with fire, and with sacred wells. Blodeuwedd’s name means ‘flower face’ in Welsh, and in her myth she is created out of nine flowers: as the myth goes on, she is later transformed into an owl. So there you go, flowers and owls for Blodeuwedd.
Above: my depiction of Blodeuwedd, showing the nine flowers from which She was formed. Below: Brigit, whose holiday is February 1 (hence the winter scene), with Her sacred fire in the background.
After I ran out of the Goddesses I knew best, I had to start doing some real research.
Myths and Sources
Real research is not always so straightforward. When it comes to Greek and Roman Goddesses, you have a lot of source material. But, much of it is contradictory. Different cultures and communities within these two empires had different stories about Goddesses of the same name (who might actually have been different Goddesses with the same name. After all, how many Annes do you know?). Then you get to British and Irish Goddesses, where you often have very limited and often contradictory sources. And have you tried Slavic mythology? Much depends on whether any of the myths were even written down. And if so, who wrote them down? The winners or the losers? There are many Irish Gods of whom we have a name, and maybe a line or two in the myth of a different God or Goddess, and that’s it. there are also figures like Brigit whose Pagan myths were transformed into Christian legends. Sometimes you just navigate through the material the best you can.
At one point I was really inspired by Sami mythology (which came as a result of doing some research into my family tree, and finding that one of my ancestral languages, Hungarian, belongs to a common language group with some of the Sami and the Mansi/Khanty languages…who knew?). But research on Sami Goddesses is just plain hard to find. You have to dig, slog, and hope to find sources. Much of it is just plain inspiration: of course I happen to believe that mythic Goddesses will speak to you if you listen. That’s just me. So I’ll ask a particular Goddess how She’d like to be depicted. If an idea comes into my head, I listen and accept that that is Her answer.
Sami mythic figure Jabme-Akka. I did a blog on this painting a couple of months ago.
Maybe what I’m saying is that I have enormous respect for, and belief in, the subjects I paint. And that has to be true of any subject you paint, whether it’s human, animal, or still life. You have to love the subject, and foster a personal, nearly sacred relationship with it. Look at Schiele… and Degas, and Monet. I think it’s true of any great artist. If the artist has enough respect and love, and sacred devotion, to their subject, we feel that when we look at the work. It draws us into the piece in a way that craftsmanship alone cannot.
So back to the subject of my subject: my starting point is to read as many myths about that particular figure as I can find, and decide if there is a common tale or image among them. Though there are many stories of Her, Eris, for instance, is always depicted as creating the Apple of Discord. So when I painted Her, the apple it was.
Eris was something of a transition piece between the pop art style I’d started with, and the more expressionist style I finally settled on. I wanted the colors of Eris to be odd and otherworldly, so I used several synthetic pigment colors, like Thalo Green, which I don’t ordinarily use. I also made her skin grey to show that She is not of this world, or that She is Underworldly. I might also mention that as a photographer, I’ve worked with a young photographic model named Kaitlin, who became something of a muse model. I used her face for Eris’ features.
Caitlin, posing for me with her sister Crystal: I used this photo for the face of Eris.
Sometimes research is comparative. If a Goddess is associated with a particular aspect of a culture or community, say agriculture, and there is little more about Her, I might compare Her to agriculture Goddesses from nearby cultures who I know more about. Demeter and Ceres, for instance, have many common traits.
Beside a symbol or symbols I will use for a particular mythic figure, I begin to sense what colors to use. In some cases it may be obvious. For instance, Aphrodite is a Goddess of love and fertility, so I sense her in pinks and red; Mab is an Underworld Goddess, so I used a good deal of black; Diana is a moon Goddess, so I used night time colors.
Other times it may not be so easy. You may have to make color decisions based on some detail of the piece. Persephone is associated with the pomegranate: I also used a red haired reference model to depict her (Lass Suicide): so I harmonized all colors of the piece to the red fruit and hair:
The Reference Model
So that brings me to my next step. Once I decide on a mythic figure, a symbol or two to identify the figure, and perhaps on a color scheme, I need a reference photo to paint from. I might use a photo I have taken in my career as a photographer, or I might grab a photo off the Internet. I especially like using photos that have been place on sites like deviantart as “stock,” meaning the author of the photo wants it used in artists’ work. I also know that the Suicide Girls modeling website enjoys artwork based on their models (“fan art”), and will post it on their deviantart site, so I feel good about using photos of Suicide Girls as reference. (For instance, my depiction of Blodeuwedd, seen above, is based on photos of Suicide Girls model Quinne Suicide, below:)
If I see a model whose look I like, but who is not placed as stock, I might send her a note and ask permission to use her photo as reference for a painting. I will always include links to my library of paintings so the model can see how I intend to use her image. And I’ll offer to link back to the model when I post the painting on an art site like DA.
And the process might go either way. Most often I will get an idea to paint a particular Goddess, and search f0r an image that suits that figure (for that reason, in addition to my own library of original photos, I keep a pretty good sized collection of potential reference image photos from sources such as the Internet and published pose books). Once in a while, I’ll see a model and say “she would make a great [fill in Goddess name].” For example, I started thinking about depicting Diana, Roman Goddess of the moon and the hunt, when I saw some photos of female archers placed on the web as stock.
Huntress, a depiction of the Roman Goddess Diana.
Painting The Piece
So I have all of my elements together: I’ve decided on a mythic figure I wish to paint; I research Her myths and legends the best I can; in my mind I come up with an idea of what I’d like the image to look like (they seldom turn out the way I imagine, but once in a while…). I find a photo I want to use as a reference.
Then I paint. If you’ve followed this blog for the last couple of months, you know I’ve posted step-by-step examples of how that happens.
Sometimes I’m really happy with the result. Other times not so much. I’ve painted Freyja four times now, and I am still very unhappy with the results: A new Freyja may be among my next few projects. I had to repaint Cerridwen a couple of times, and she’s still not perfect (but better than she was). That’s painting—you learn as best you can from your mistakes, and keep trying. There’s no such thing as an artist who has learned all that she or he will ever learn: there’s always more to learn, something to improve, something to try again.
Sometimes you stand back from a painting and say “wow, that looks awesome.” Of course you may come back to it in a year and say “what was I thinking?” All part of the artistic process. But I like to spend a few minutes basking in the “that looks awesome” feeling!
I’ll end below with an example of scant available research. I encountered mention of a figure called Kimmo in the Finnish epic saga the Kalevala. There are only five lines in the text about Kimmo, who seems to be a cow-Goddess, especially judging from the Bear Of Heaven on Her brow, one of the most sacred symbols in Finnish and Sami mythologies.
There be saw a heifer rising,
Golden were the horns of Kimmo,
On her head the Bear of heaven,
On her brow a disc of sunshine,
Beautiful the cow of magic.
But they are five really beautiful lines! “Golden were the horns of Kimmo; On her head the Bear of heaven.” Wow. Those lines really touched me. So I thought about them for a while. I could not find any other source material on Kimmo. I compared this image mentally to other cow-Goddesses I knew more about. I also thought about Malikki, who is a reindeer Goddess with similar attributes, and about the Bear Mother, who is known in Sami and Mansi/Khanty mythologies. I also considered the colors and “feel” of Finnish mythology. I found photos of highland cows, and of a suitable reference model. Here is what I ended up with:
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