Pirate Jenny, step-by-step

Be advised, this blog post has artistic portrayals of naked women in it. They’re artistic, elegant and classy, but they’re really, really naked!!

Pirate Jenny

Pirate Jenny, by KilltheHero

A friend asked me if I would paint her. Of course I gladly accepted. An actual commission! What every painter dreams of. Yee haw, and all that celebratory stuff. Of course agreeing is the easy part: I then had to get to work on planning a painting!

A few things about my friend: she identifies as a pirate (among other things, she’s in a group that sings pirate songs and wears pirate garb, and that calls themselves ‘the pirates’), and she loves vultures and magpies. She’s also a new mother.

I had her send me some photos of herself: she sent about a dozen photos, and I was drawn to two of those photos right off. I decided to do two different paintings, in very different styles, and let her choose which she preferred.

I did the first one in a Pop Surrealist style, and called it A Crown Of Magpies. Here’s how it came out:

Crown of Magpies

You may remember from my other blogs that he symbol in the right hand bottom corner, slightly cropped out by my Photoshop crop, is the Sami rock painting symbol for an Akka, a Goddess of birth and motherhood. This painting also taught me that I love painting magpies.

For the second painting I wanted to approach the subject using a very different style and viewpoint: Where the first was Pop Surrealism and was a bust, this one would be expressionist, and would be full-body. While the first painting referenced her love of vultures and magpies, this one would refer to her pirate identity. It would also have magpies, because I may have mentioned that now I love painting magpies. As Joni Mitchell said, life is full of learning.

One of my huge influences is Ashley Wood, who draws Tank Girl and several other comics (http://www.ashleywoodartist.com/). Wood is obsessed with violent soldiers, naked girls, goofy robots, violent soldiers with naked girls, and naked girls straddling goofy robots. ESPECIALLY naked girls straddling goofy robots. When Wood paints naked girls straddling goofy robots, or just naked girls, he uses a very textured background (full of obvious brush marks and clumps); he works from a very dark atmosphere, and uses minimal highlights to get extreme portrayals of form and contour. Often he’ll use a couple of brushstrokes or palette knife strokes to imply form and contour, while using minimal color.


A piece by Ashely Wood: note the use of minimal highlights to get amazing form and contour. Also note the textured background.

I wanted to explore some of Wood’s techniques in my second painting of my friend, specifically the textured background, and his minimal use of highlights to achieve form and contour. I also wanted to emulate his use of brush strokes to imply form. Of course I would also draw from my own style, especially in terms of feel and composition.

Pirate Jenny

Acrylic on canvas, 24×36

Colors used: background; red ochre, burnt sienna, lemon yellow: skin; Prussian blue, unbleached titanium, burnt sienna, titanium white, crimson: hair; Prussian blue, yellow oxide, lemon yellow, crimson: birds; Prussian blue, mars black, titanium white, yellow-green: Also some touches of cadmium red and Windsor violet. I also used Liquitex blended fibers and Liquitex gloss medium/varnish (one product).

Brushes used: large filberts (around 20 and larger), medium filberts (16, 12, 10), small edger.

First I studied the photo she’d sent, a full body nude taken in her gym locker room. I sketched out the figure in willow charcoal, then began painting…

jen 1

I began putting the background in around the sketch of the figure (more on that in a minute) and shading the figure a bit. In the photo my friend had sent, her right hand (viewer’s left) was holding a camera phone; I left her hand unfinished, planning to put a bird in her hand where the phone had been. I began to fill in the figure’s deepest shading using Prussian blue.

I might note that when looking at a subject, especially a figure, I’m looking at beauty, grace, strength, and motion in the figure: but once I start painting, the figure becomes a series of shapes and forms. I guess the artist’s job is to capture the beauty, strength and grace of the subject in his/her rendering of shapes and forms. That’s probably the true job of a figurative artist.

For the background, which you may remember I wanted to texture, I used a tube of student quality red ochre. When I go to the art supply store, I always look at the cheapest student level paints: they come in larger tubes than, and cost less than, the good quality paints. I like to use them for large background areas. I’d bought a tube of red ochre a while ago, and was waiting for an opportunity to use it on a piece that would have a lot of negative background space. I mixed the red ochre with Liquitex Blended Fibers to get the texture I wanted in the background. I also mixed in touches of burnt sienna.

jen 2

Now a little more work on skin tones, getting the highlights done with large, broad brush strokes. I used a very minimal palette: unbleached titanium and titanium white for the lightest tones, burnt sienna and Prussian blue for the dark shadows. I also allowed the red ochre of the background to blend into the figure in a few places. I started the darkest parts of the hair in Prussian blue. Note that I also began shaping the model’s right hand.

jen 3

More brush stroke highlights, and the figure is coming together as I’d visualized it. I also developed the hair. Over the Prussian blue shadow I laid in yellow oxide and some titanium white. At this point both hands need work, but I’ll get to those in a bit. I’ve also added titanium white to the background in preparation for adding some more elements.

jen 4

Time to think about the right hand and the magpie. I really enjoyed painting the magpies in A Crown Of Magpies, though here they would be in a much more expressionistic style. I’ve spent time in the mountains of Colorado and California, and I’ve seen many magpies in the wild. What always strikes me about these birds is the deep black and bright white of their feathers, as well as their iridescent greens and blues. I want the magpies here to simply be hints of shape and color, sort of the way you perceive them when they fly by overhead: a contrast of black and white, with a hint of iridescence.

I start my main magpie with Prussian blue. This will create an iridescent quality under the black and white.

jen 5

A little more of the magpie.

In the photo my pirate friend sent me, she was sitting on a white tile bench in her gym locker room. I knew I would not include the bench, but I did want her sitting on something. I considered having her sitting on a stylized vulture (the way Ashley Wood’s girls sit on goofy robots). But after some thought, I decided she should be sitting on the pirate symbol of a skull and crossbones. It would convey her identity as a pirate, and create some movement that the piece really needed. It would also compliment the position of her left hand (viewer’s right) which was resting on the tile seat in the photo. I had to fix that hand a bit: I’d drawn it too big. I made it smaller and redefined the shape.

I did not want a realistic skull and crossbones: I wanted a dream-like expressionistic element, though still recognizable as a pirate symbol.

If you’ve read my last few blog posts you know I’ve been reading Pop Painting by Camilla d’Errico. She recommends using a glazing medium mixed with one’s paints; I had some Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish in my studio (that’s one product), so I decided to try blending some into my paints. One thing it did for me was to make my acrylics creamier: this allowed me to paint an area of the skull and crossbones, let it set for a moment, then wipe it with a paper towel, pulling away some of the paint, and smearing some across the background, giving a sense of movement and ‘ghostliness’ to the element. I liked it!

jen 6

Wondering what those white lines in the upper left are? As the skull and crossbones began to take shape, I decided that the upper left corner of the piece needed ‘something.’ D’Errico says in her book “If you look at your painting and think there’s something missing, there is!” and I could not agree more. If you spend time developing a sense of composition, you will “feel” when the composition is ‘off’ or incomplete.

As an artist whose name I cannot remember said in the magazine I was reading last month that might have either been Juxtapose or High-Fructose, making art is about creating problems, and then solving them. Again, I completely agree with…whoever said that. So I decided to leave the painting for a night, sleep on it, and revisit the empty corner the next day. While relaxing, I had several ideas: a series of rectangular columns, perhaps reflected as if in water; a crown of ribbons streaming from the figure’s hair. But in the end I decided to insert Norse runic characters (if you read my blog or look at my work, you know I use runes a lot, and am very connected to these symbols). I would use runes that express motherhood, protection and strength. Additionally I decided there needed to be more magpies. Also, when I returned to the painting in the morning, I realized the nose was a bit off, and had to be re-worked (compare the nose in the shot above to previous shots).

So I began by drawing a curved figure that would hold the runes (above), and on which some magpies would sit. I immediately saw that this curved element added the motion and form I was looking for to the composition. I also reworked the nose, and the eye on the viewer’s left (the model’s right eye): the face was much better now. Still in the expressionist style, but much more like the model’s nose and eye.

jen 7

I added some runic characters, very subtly at first, in cadmium red that would blend into the red ochre of the background. I also began tracing the forms of my magpies in Prussian blue.

As I painted the area, I took out the white lines (they were just for reference) and darkened the runes. I painted the birds with a lot of the gloss medium so they would be a bit transparent, thereby seeming farther away. Here’s a detail:

jen 9

In the very end I added a fourth magpie, and worked on the runes a bit more, placing some lemon yellow behind the runes for contrast. Having put lemon yellow in the background, I also added some to the highlights of the hair. Looking at the overall composition, I decided that the skull and crossbones needed to be carried further into the piece, so I added more of the femur jutting up behind the figure, keeping the element dreamlike and transparent by using the gloss medium mixed with my paints, letting it set for a moment, and wiping the paint up and to the right. Again, this captured the sense of movement through the piece that I wanted, and filled out the negative space very well while keeping the feel of the vast textured red ochre background. Also it helps with depth: when you have several elements in a piece, some need to appear closer and some farther away so that the picture has a sense of depth (this can also be done with shadow and perspective, such as the figure’s shadow cast on the skull). In this case the femur comes out from behind the figure, implying that there is depth behind her. The magpies also trail back to show depth. Between all of these elements, the viewer gets a sense that the perspective of the piece trails into the distance on the upper left side of the painting: the perspective can be seen as a triangle with the smallest point in the upper left corner, and the arms reaching out toward the viewer around the figure.

And here’s the final piece, Pirate Jenny, as seen above. While there is certainly a Pop Surrealist element to it, I feel like I managed to do a pretty good Expressionist piece that conveyed hints of Ashley Wood’s technique while still being very recognizable as my own style:

Pirate Jenny

As always, please ‘like’ and comment. I’m on twitter as @killthehero3 (though I never say much there) and on Instagram as killthehero2 (I don’t say much there either). My DA is kennyfiddler.deviantart.com (I say a lot there). Thanks for looking.





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