Rusalka, Step-By-Step

Per usual, this post contains art that represents the artistic nude figure. Proceed armed with that knowledge.

rusalka 2

Rusalka 2, Acrylic on canvas, 20×24

A few evenings ago, my one-true-love turned to me and said “you should paint a Rusalka.”

“What’s a Rusalka?” I asked.

“It’s a Russian water spirit, you moron,” she said lovingly. “Don’t you remember you edited a blog post for me all about the Rusalka?”

“Oh yes,” I said, not remembering at all. I secretly went back and looked at her blog post, which it turns out  I had edited… it’s here, and it’s very good.

So I decided to paint a Rusalka, which is a Russian water spirit. I began with some research, in addition to the excellent research my one-true-love had done (which, by the way, I had edited: did I mention that?). As with many legends and Faerie lore, the tales of the Rusalka change with time and by region (Russia is a really big place). In older times, Before the Roman/Byzantine empire introduced Orthodox Christianity to Russia, the Rus and Slavs were generally Pagan. (the Sami, Mansi and Khanty were, and to some extent still are, Animistic). In those times the Rusalka was seen as a water sprite who would dance in the fields in Spring and bring water to the newly planted crops. In Christian times, the vision changed: many contemporary tales say that the Rusalka is a girl who drowned herself, usually for unrequited love. In many of these tales, the Rusalka will seduce young men and drown them while making love, much like the Greek Siren or the British Jenny Green Teeth. The Rusalka is also said to spend a lot of her time brushing her hair (an action typical of a sexualized Faerie legend). Her hair is said to be always wet, and strewn with water vegetation: in some stories her hair is red, in others it’s green.

My first image was this one, in which I concentrated on her haunting eyes, and her damp, vegetative red hair:


But I did not feel like I was “done” with the subject. I had started with two different visions in my head, and I began a new painting right away.

Rusalka 2:

Size: 20×24 canvas

Colors used: background: Prussian Blue, Violet, Payne’s Grey, Lemon Yellow; figure: Unbleached Titanium, Titanium White, Crimson.

Brushes used: a large Filbert (maybe a 12?) for the background, and a small Filbert (10) and a tiny angled Edger for the details.

Much of the time when I start a piece, I begin with the figure, and then develop the background. But I had a very strong concept in mind for the background, so I began with that.

rusalka 1

Prussian Blue, Payne’s Grey and Lemon Yellow represent the flickering light of the forest: Prussian Blue and Payne’s Grey begin to define the water.

Next I began to define trees, river banks, and the moon, using Violet and Lemon Yellow…

rusalka 2

More definition, building up the forest and the water. I also created a yellow “glow” of moonlight in the area where the Rusalka would stand, and began reflecting this in the water:

rusalka 3

I let everything dry for a few hours. Now it was time to add the Rusalka herself.

For the Rusalka I wanted a very stark look, defining her figure in light and shadow. I almost wanted her darkest areas to disappear into the background. Using an old photo in my archives as a reference, which had the hair brushing I wanted, I began by defining the lightest areas of her figure with Unbleached Titanium. I also placed her hair, arm and pubis in Payne’s Grey as reference points:

rusalka 4

This was ghostly enough that perhaps I could have stopped here: I might have if I were painting a ghost or a Banshee. But I was painting a Rusalka, so I began defining the darkest areas with Payne’s Grey:

rusalka 5

Note the blue-ish quality of Payne’s Grey when it is applied very wet and “rubbed in” with a filbert brush,  then pulled out slightly with a  paper towel or sponge (sometimes called a scraffiti technique). You can see this around the diaphragm and abdominals.

I let that dry thoroughly (acrylics dry quickly; maybe an hour is sufficient) and began the details of her hair, facial features and highlights, all with Crimson and Prussian Blue.

rusalka 6

And the final painting, as seen above:

rusalka 2

I’ve been developing more of a KillTheHero online presence. Here are some ways to follow or contact me:

Twitter: @killthehero3

I should probably mention that all of my art is for sale.

Thanks for looking; please “like” and comment.



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