Athena Step-By-Step

This post contains artistic depictions of the female nude. And of an owl. Proceed with all due caution.


Athena, acrylic on canvas, 12×36

I’ve tried painting the Greek Goddess Athena several times, and I was never very happy with the results. I even tried approaching her under her Roman name of Minerva. Still not happy. So I left Athena alone for a quite a while, and in time, returned to Her fresh. I am finally happy with my depiction of Her.


Acrylic on canvas, 12×36

Colors used: (pretty much all of them) cadmium red hue, vermillion hue, crimson, orange; parchment, titanium white, payne’s grey; windsor violet, violet; raw sienna, yellow oxide, lemon yellow; permanent green light;  turquoise; bronze, old gold.

Brushes used: small edger, 12 filbert, large filbert.

I began by looking for a reference image that would line up with the look I wanted for this piece. My vision of Athena is both beautiful, and strong and powerful. There are many women in the media who fit this bill, and whose image I might have used; Kim Hill, Kerri Walsh-Jennings, Aly Raisman, Katinka Hosszu, Nadia Comaneci, the list is a long one (and I am only listing strong and beautiful women whose skin tones would match a Greek/European deity: don’t go thinking I’ve forgotten about Laurie Hernandez or Allyson Felix!)… but in the end I decided to base Athena’s body and stance on a photo of Ronda Rousey. It’s easy to find photos of Rousey nude or scantily clad in poses other than those taken during sports events, as she has done many published photo shoots. Here is the photo I chose, from one of her Sports Illustrated shoots:

rousey 1

I like her pose in this shot, and I like the shading, which shows muscle definition but is also soft and feminine; I did not want to capture a portrait of Rousey, but I thought this stance would be a good start. I’d vary the features as I painted the piece.

I used a 12×36 canvas, which is what I always use for my depictions of mythic Goddesses; and as always, I began with a sketch in soft willow charcoal.

athena 1

You can see my sketchbook reference drawings next to the canvas. The face is far from right, but as I said, I did not want to duplicate Rousey’s features, so I left the face unfinished in the sketch. I also did the owl from memory, without a reference photo; I would find a good reference photo later on. Once I had a sketch, I filled in the background with vermillion hue. Putting in the backing color helps me set the tome for all colors of the piece.

athena 2

I used vermillion hue and windsor violet to begin the shading. I intended to clothe Athena, and give Her armaments and gear, but I wanted to create a full body image to begin from. I also began defining the facial features using the shading colors. I made the nose a bit more aquiline than Rousey’s, and the lips a bit fuller and more heart-shaped. I would fight with the hair line throughout this painting.

athena 3

Here was the first pass at the skin tones, using vermillion hue and titanium white. I also began to outline Her skirt.

Athena is portrayed at times as modest and other times as uninhibited, as fierce and wise but also vain. She is a Goddess of battle and of wisdom, tall, strong and intimidating; yet in competition with Hera and Aphrodite, She was willing to present Herself nude, and attempted to bribe Paris (offering to make him king of Europe and Asia) in order to be declared “the fairest” (for believers in mythology, see my footnote on this at the bottom). So I decided that while Athena has no issue with nudity, she would have arrayed herself as a warrior, in a short skirt and Her battle gear. I wanted the skirt to have movement, but also allow Her to move freely in battle.

athena 4

More work on the skin, and a beginning at shading the hair. My amazing, beautiful girlfriend had bought some metallic colors a while back. (She paints copies of illustrations from medieval manuscripts, and many of those have gold leaf or silver foil). I’d never really used these colors in a painting, but as Athena is associated with the sun, and with bronze (battle gear) and gold, I decided to use some of these paints. I began painting her shield in bronze. I also added iridescent medium to a few of the paints.

athena 5

Now I found some photos of Eurasian owls, including the one below, and began the shading. The base layer is raw sienna, with brush strokes that define the feather patterns.


Isn’t he a handsome fellow?

athena 6

Moving the brush with the shapes of the feathers, I did more work on the owl, using earth tones like raw sienna, yellow oxide, and payne’s grey. The owl’s eyes are payne’s gray and orange with titanium white and lemon yellow highlights. I also worked more on the definition of the skirt, using payne’s grey, windsor violet, bronze and white. I used long brush strokes to get the flow of fabric. I continued to define Athena’s battle gear. I used payne’s grey to create the spear and the harness, then filled both in with bronze, titanium white, and windsor violet.

I felt like I needed to fill the background a bit more. I had some gold paint (‘old gold’) in my metallic collection, and I decided to create a solar disc behind Her. I also decided to give Her more jewelry and adornments.

athena 8

For the solar disc I used old gold, then mixed in vermillion hue. When that dried, I laid over another layer of gold. I did this process two or three times. You can see that I also began defining the hair. My GF felt that the hair line was too far back. I would fix that in the final piece. I basically used every color in the painting for Her hair: the undertones are payne’s grey, crimson and windsor violet: over that I laid raw sienna and yellow oxide. I also added crimson and vermillion hue. Over that, lemon yellow. There’s also some payne’s grey in the outer strands.

Comparing the steps above and below, you can see the final touches to the face and hair; definition of garments and adornments; and more work on the solar disc.

athena 8

In the final painting I fixed Her hair line; I went over the solar disc the second (third?) time; I finished the owl; and I fine tuned the face and skin.

From the beginning I knew I wanted to create a feeling of depth by having Athena holding a spear between Herself and the viewer. However, I could not add that element until all else was done. I painted the spear in payne’s grey, then went over it with turquoise. The spear point is gold, brass and turquoise. I also added turquoise touches to the jewelry and adornments. I added gold in a few places as well.

Here is the piece, as seen above:


Thanks for looking; please ‘like’ and comment!!

A footnote on Athena’s mythology: in the case of the Apple Of Discord, it might be fair to think that as a warrior, it was Athena’s sense of competition, rather than a sense of vanity, that caused Her to place herself up against beauties Hera and Aphrodite to be judged “the fairest.” Of course, even though it seems like Eris set everyone up, the whole thing might have been a test for Paris. Robert Graves, one of the greatest interpreters of Mythology that ever lived, believes that the story of the Apple Of Discord relates to an older tradition of the Seven Year King, who would be honored by his community for seven years, then sacrificed to the Gods. This tradition existed throughout Europe, and Viking remains found in peat bogs seem to be the heroes of these rites (including some women: see Patricia Monaghan’s book on this). If this is the case, the three Goddesses would have given Paris the apple, not the other way around, to mark him as the seven year king; his death in the Trojan War would have been the sacrifice that was expected of him for this honor. In time the myth may have evolved into the story we know, (who’s theme is also played out in the tale of Sleeping Beauty: like Eris, it is the Faerie or Witch who is not invited to the feast that casts a spell on Belle/Talia).

It is a good idea when approaching classical mythology to remember that many hands have touched these tales and left their mark, for better or worse: we get these stories from ‘classical’ authors, such as Plutarch and Ovid, who collected them from story tellers, who in turn got them from centuries of storytelling. Writers tend to reshape things to fit their own agenda, as do cultures. It’s also wise to remember that myth is its own language, and must not be interpreted through the lens of modern ideals and morals, or seen as literal truth: myth expresses mythic truth. If you want to look deeper into interpreting myths and ancient tales, I’d suggest reading The White Goddess by Robert Graves, and also looking into Joseph Campbell (who I sometimes disagree with, but he is brilliant).



One comment

  1. Kellianna Girouard · September 2, 2016

    I LOVE this one!!!



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