Freyja, step by step….

As is often the case, this post contains artistic depictions of the nude female form. You have been warned.



Sometimes a painting presents problems. Or maybe I should say, every painting presents unique problems: perhaps there are cases where you just give up and move on to something else; ideally though, you learn and improve your skills by solving those problems. This painting presented a lot of problems, and it took me quite a bit of time and effort to work them out. But I did it, and while no painting is ever perfect, and none really live up to my expectations 100% (or I probably wouldn’t keep painting), I’m pretty happy with the results of this one.

Talking about my shortcomings as a painter may be a bad idea from a business point of view. But I think it’s important to acknowledge that like anything in life, we all have strengths and weaknesses, and we all have shortcomings that we wish to overcome: in the end I finished the painting and I’m happy with it, despite the problems I had painting it.


Acrylic on canvas, 12×36

Colors used: Mars Black, Titanium White, Windsor Violet, Crimson, Burnt Umber, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Cadmium Yellow, Cadmium Yellow Light; Thio Violet (only in the rune and the eye shadow). Liquitex Gloss Medium & Varnish (that’s one product).

Brushes used: 12, 10 filbert, small edger, liner

Let’s start at the beginning. Anyone who reads my blog here, or knows my DA page, knows that I paint a lot of mythic Goddess figures. About a year or so ago, I did a painting of the Norse Goddess Freyja (also spelled Freya or Freja). I was never very happy with that painting: I felt that she did not have the right look for a Goddess of love and beauty. This was largely because I did not capture the look of the model from my reference photo: her features got away from me as I was painting. This was the painting I did a year ago:


Yea, I don’t like it either. However, I do like the dramatic light and shadow play.

So I decided to do a new painting depicting the Goddess Freyja, starting from scratch with a different reference photo. I would keep the dramatic lighting; I would also keep the amber necklace, Brisingamen, as that is a major part of Freyjas’s mythology.

For reference I used one of my own photos, which I had taken during a studio session with model Taylor. Taylor is very Germanic looking, is lovely (and a great, versatile photo model), and is certainly a woman I see as embodying the look and personality of Freyja. Of course I’ve mentioned before that we can not only portray the way deities look in our own minds; we can also ask them if they feel good about being portrayed this way, and ‘sense’ an answer. I sensed that Freyja was OK with looking like Taylor.

Bear in mind, as an impressionistic artist, I was not going for a photo realistic portrayal, but an impression of Taylor’s look.


Taylor studio shoot; Photo by KillTheHero

Every artist has strengths and weaknesses: becoming the artist you want to be, becoming the best artist you can be, often involves playing to your strengths, and dealing with your weaknesses, first by working to strengthen them, and secondly, by acknowledging them and finding ways to paint well despite them. Wanna know my weakness? For a painter who works almost exclusively with figurative art, my skills at drawing the figure are not the best. No really! When I was in art school a few decades ago, I’d be in figure drawing class, working away as hard as I could at drawing the model, and then I’d take a walk around the room and see the work of other artists in the class (many my age or older, and I was an adult when I returned to art school years after my original undergrad work). I’d be both impressed and incredibly discouraged by how great other artists’ work was. Especially in gesture drawings! Mine just really sucked.

I had a great figure drawing teacher who was amazing at describing every step one used to draw a model. He would take us through gesture drawing, skeletal representation, defining features, and arriving at a good drawing of the live model. So I know all of the steps in my brain (I have definitely drawn every bone in the human skeleton a few dozen times)… doing them with my hand is the challenge.

So while, for the last couple of decades, I’ve worked on my figure drawing skills, I also know that when I start a painting, I need to painstakingly work on the under-drawing until I really feel like I have it right. Some artists will correct as they paint—I need to get it right from the beginning. And as you’ll see, even then I have to make corrections and labor over the piece as I paint.

Now there are ways of dealing with being bad at figure drawing. One way is to trace. But I’m using a 6 inch photo on my computer screen to paint a 36″ painting, so tracing may not work. Another way is to project the image using a projector. I don’t own a projector, frankly because I’m afraid I would use it all the time and get really lazy. Hey, I spent five or six years in figure drawing classes (with a great teacher), and a couple of decades applying what I was supposed to learn there. Dammit, I’m going to draw figures the old fashioned way, and if I’m not good enough to do it, I’ll just have to get better! I do use careful measurements from my reference photo, and translate them to the size of my canvas (I also took math in school).

Anyway, here is my final under-drawing, which I fussed over for a couple of days:

freyja 1

Not awful. After all my fussing, I felt like I’d captured the look of the model. You can see where, in correcting the drawing, I moved the nipple.  I next tackled the first stage of shading, using a wash of black paint combined with the willow charcoal I had used for the drawing:

freyja 2

Now I began laying in crimson in shaded areas, used crimson to define the lips and nipple, and used burnt umber to fill in the eyes. I used black to define the slightly open mouth, fill in some outlines, and begin to develop the eyes. I mixed crimson with black to block in the background. A dark background area would help with the dramatic lighting I planned to use. While I would paint many layers over this phase, having an initial unified color scheme helps harmonize the painting from the beginning.

freyja 3

At this point what I have is a basic drawing of the model with rough shading and the first areas of color. I’ve heard several artists refer to this as the ‘awkward stage’ or ‘clumsy stage’ of a painting: nothing looks just right yet, and there are large areas that need enormous amounts of work. The willow charcoal has become a mess. All of this will get painted over in time, but this sets the stage, as it were, for the steps to come next. This is also a good time to step back and assess the piece: does it look like the model? Is the composition right? Are all of the elements in the piece balanced? (Of course in many paintings, like Pirate Jenny which I discussed last time, I don’t add many of the elements until after the figure is done).

Nothing says dramatic shadow like windsor violet. So I began painting the areas of major shadow with that color. These areas of shadow will be gone over several times:

freyja 4

You can still see above where I made corrections to the drawing. I had to fuss with the proper placement of the shadow cast by the rib cage: as you’ll see, I would work on that area again and again throughout the process of this painting (remember what I said about my figure drawing skills…).

freyja 6

Now (above) I began blending the skin tones. All of the skin tones are a mix of titanium white and crimson, with windsor violet for shaded areas. I also used Liquitex Gloss Medium and Varnish to smooth and blend the tones. I go over the skin tones again and again, blending layers, using more white to achieve highlights, a mix of white and crimson for midtones, and blending in more crimson or violet to get the darkest tones. I don’t really have an exact percentage of white and crimson—I just mix until I feel the color is right. In many areas it takes time and finesse to get a seamless gradient from one tone to the next. Adding lighter, transparent layers (using the Liquitex medium to help achieve transparency) over the existing layers helps get a good look and texture of skin.

Note: If you want to read a great text on blending skin tones, I mentioned that I was reading Pop Painting by Camilla d’Errico: I recommend this book for her advice on skin tones and paint blending. (Bear in mind that she mentions using Holbein products so much throughout the book that I suspect she has a sponsorship from that company). My link above is to show you the book, and is not an endorsement of any particular merchant: buy or borrow the book from whichever merchant or library you normally use! (That applies to my link for the Liquitex medium as well).

At this point I stepped away and let the paint dry overnight. Returning in the morning, I decided that I did not like the way the model’s right eye (viewer’s left) looked. It just wasn’t angled right. Looking back over the photos here, I think it looked OK in my original drawing, but as I added layers of paint the angle changed, and the feature got away from me. So I made her a temporary pirate (a non-historic stereotype, by the way, gotten from Barrie’s Peter Pan…historically, if a pirate lost an eye, they would be given a larger portion of the loot and set ashore at the next port…just so you know) and took the major step, at this point in the piece, of redrawing the eye. This meant I’d need to match all of the colors and shades to the other eye, and to the area I’d already painted around the eye. This would be a major pain in particular anatomical places.

freyja 7

Titanium white is opaque enough that it covers pretty much anything. Arrggh. 

Notice above I also began to shade the hair, using burnt umber and burnt sienna for the darkest areas. I painted over the background with straight mars black. I decided black was just more dramatic. The crimson is still under there, and while not immediately discernible, lends its hue to the black background. That is a characteristic of applying paint: your under-painting will tone your final painting in very subtle ways.

In considering the eye, I decided I needed to finesse all of the features. It was starting to move away from looking like Taylor. This is exactly what happened a year ago with the last Freyja painting. Either Freyja was not happy with my paintings of her, or she was telling me I needed to work on some of my skills. I decided to believe the latter. Part of this fussing with the eye, of course, is due to the angle of the model’s head: her head is leaned back, and she is looking up and over her shoulder. I knew this when I selected the photo. It’s a challenging angle to capture. But I do love a challenge (sometimes. Other times I’m a lazy jerk).

freyja 8

Better eye! Mind you, you’re looking at attempt number 5. Hey, acrylic is a very forgiving medium. If you don’t like something, paint over it! You can’t do that with watercolor…

I still need to finesse the features, work on the hair, and get the rib area and the shoulders better before I can move on to her creepy magical jewelry. Below I’ve worked on the hair, the nose, and the left shoulder a bit—none of it is there yet.

freyja 9

For the hair, I laid strands of various yellows and a bit of white over the burnt umber and burnt sienna backing. I would go over these several more times to get the feel of Taylor’s thick, multi-toned hair. Working with the light yellow is tricky, because if any darker paint underneath is still wet, the light yellow will turn to green. You can see that this happened on the line of the eye on the viewer’s right: that will need to be gone over (though I plan to keep developing the entire head of hair). At this point the hair is taking on the thick look of Taylor’s photo, and maintaining an impressionist style.

freyja 10

I finally have the eye and the other facial features the way I want them: the rib area still needs work. For now I begin to visualize Brisingamen, Freyja’s amber necklace. I also noted that in the photo Taylor was wearing a pearl earring: to echo Brisingamen, I gave her an amber earring in its place. Amber is a clear resin, and has a very interesting texture: in some ways it’s a lot like painting eyes. There are areas of highlights, areas of dark patterns, and areas of transparency. Amber is challenging. I started by creating the amber shapes with a dark under-painting of crimson.

Throughout this piece I used a limited palette: almost everything has some windsor violet and some crimson in it: even the hair, which is all earth tones and yellows, has violet and crimson in a few places (violet in the darkest areas, crimson as an accent). I like the way the palette ties all of the elements of the piece together.

I once read a book on color theory in which the author suggested that once you determine the major color of your painting, you should mix a tiny drop of that color into every other color you use. He said this will harmonize the entire color palette. I don’t really do this, at least not purposefully, but I guess that in using the two major colors in nearly every feature, I kind of do follow that author’s advice.

Below is the finished piece, as seen at the top of the post. After the last pic, above, I worked more on the hair, the shading of the nose, the amber of course, and the rib area. Note that I added more dark shading to the hair; I straightened the shading on the side of the nose to match the reference photo; I worked a bit on the lips; and I worked on the rib cage. I also added another element: the Fehu rune (also called Feoh), which is the first runic character in the spelling of Freyja’s name. The rune stands for wealth and cattle, both elements tied to the idea of fertility and blessing.

In adding the rune, I experimented with a few colors: at first the rune was white, but that detracted from the face of the figure; then I tried some darker colors. Then a tube of Thio Violet caught my eye. I had not used this color anywhere in the piece, but I decided to try it on the rune. It worked perfectly (the tube also spilled a vast amount of paint on my leg as I opened it, a sure sign it was the right choice). To harmonize it, I added some eye shadow in thio violet to Freyja’s face. I feel like that worked. Here is the finished piece:


Note that the ribs are more developed, the features are “finessed” a bit, and the area of the collar bone is better defined. In all I feel like I overcame the issues that come up for me when painting, and managed to make this piece look just the way I wanted it to look. That is an aspiration any painter holds: keep working past your limitations, and don’t let yourself ‘slide’ on areas that are challenging for you. Remember that improvement does not come in a grand epiphany: it comes over time, with effort and consistency. I feel like I’m a much better painter now than I was in art school, and I’m a better painter now than I was a year ago when I painted Freyja the first time!

Thanks for looking. Please “like” and comment.


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