More light

6th March. Pursuing the ballet theme because I’m beginning to get a feel for the shapes, the colours, and the way light works in backstage/onstage contexts. This time there is no reference photo or painting although I did use one drawing by Degas for the angle of the head.

First few layers. I started with green and blue pastels made fluid with gloss varnish, then pulled out with a damp flannel the general shape of the dancer, this one seated to one side of the stage. Then I blocked in some shapes with white pastel, made a few lines with watercolour pencil in the manner of Henry Moore’s ‘wire frame’ sheep. I find I get a better sense of three dimensionality with this technique.

Once I had some clear figurative elements, I began painting into the shapes with T White, Payne’s grey, and Naples yellow, later washing the whole with alizarin crimson, then burnt sienna to reduce the pink which was making it look rather chocolate box. I’m using a pre-stretched canvas and the difference this makes to the application of paint is quite starting at times. And of course I’ve added a layer of gloss varnish.

This is an imagined model in an imagined scene. As a dancer, I think she owes more to Paula Rego than anyone else – quite sturdy and muscular.

There is a lot of detail to sort out – where her arms are resting, for instance, and the appearance of three enormous toes on the right foot! Those en pointe shoes let nothing escape and certainly not toes. We used to pack the ends with horse hair. That left breast looks like an escapee too.

I need to give her something to sit on and think about how much light there is in the background on the left. The good thing here is that I can wash it into darkness and then pull out some snatches of colour by selectively removing it to reveal the under layers. I’m not sure what’s going on over on the right other than it’s the stage. Perhaps it’s Stravinsky’s Firebird.

My plan is to use quite a lot of wash into the material of the dress because I know I can pull it back out with undiluted T White on a dry brush, taking the strokes from the waist out to the hem.

This is a deliberately blurred screengrab from a video trailing the Ballet Russes 2009 performance of Firebird and the Mariinsky theatre, St Petersberg. It’s the colour and the energy I want for the on-stage image my dancer is watching.

7th March. A few more amendments, some of them requiring amendments of their own!

The headdress needs attention, the dress is in its layering stage, and the stage looks like a furnace. I’ve applied a layer of gloss varnish because that allows me to ghost brushwork onto the surface. Part of my problem here, I’m realising, is that I’m not sure of the story I’m telling so I need to get that clear. Who else is on stage? Where is the footlight area? What about the wings and the corps de ballet? Is the dancer in the foreground a bit player or is she the ice to the other dancer’s fire? Narratives are important.

8th March and I seem to have settled on a narrative which involves waiting in the wings and looking out at spotlights on stage. I had to get rid of the ‘furnace’ and with that went the firebird. This draft is at the raw stage and lacks its eventual direction …

… which flips completely to an icy, reptilian theme. There is a hint of scenery, and some kind of structure that separates this foreground area from the stage. I want to embellish both the dress and the headdress a little, now I know what she is. And I need to make ice of the neck ruff. Judicious application of silver acrylic will help with detail, and perhaps some touches of green. I’d like to find a place for a tiny dot of red and a rationale for it.

Getting a decent photo of something dark that also has a sheen to it is immensely difficult. The stage light filter comes closest to my direct experience of the painting in low light. So which is the art then, the physical object or the modified ones?

9th March. I got into my studio today and couldn’t resist populating it with trolleys and an easel. All on wheels because they’ll need to be moved around when the skirting boards are put in and painted in a few days time. Still – space!

My dancer has moved some way from both Degas and lizard. I’ve swirled wet paint onto dry, pulled parts back where light from the spotlights might catch the tulle, and dotted white and silver into the fabric. Her head, headdress, and ruff are all suspect; guilty of covering up my inability to get the angle of her head right from the start. It looks even less attractive in the photograph so I’ll be tackling that with something opaque tomorrow.

10th March and this is a different person altogether.

Her arms and hands are too big for her face but not by much so, if I can manage those adjustments without throwing something else off kilter, that should be it. I had toyed with the idea of introducing a hand holding a cigarette coming in from the left but I can’t quite bring myself to do it. And anyway, there’s already a mysterious bottle on the floor to the right!

11th March. Legs and feet now too big! Good heavens, the anatomical transformations this woman is going through because, lacking a model of any sort, I’m getting her infrastructure wrong and having to adjust one part after another. Still, it’s practice, right?

I have had those feet all over the place so now I’ve contained them peeping out from under the dress, I intend to leave them alone. I need now to darken much of her face to the left as it would be in shadow, a Payne’s grey wash should do it; then come Hull, Hell or Halifax, that is it finished.

Late afternoon and the light is more blue.
Changed orientation towards the daylight and the tones have more colour.
Best bit – feet, a bottle, and a litter of ballet shoes!

So what have I learned from this exercise? First, have an idea of the narrative – what story is the painting telling? Second, understand where your model (or invented model in this instance) is positioned and how her infrastructure works. Some decent sketches would have helped but no, I plunged in on an optimistic wing. Third, the best things are the loosest – that bottle and those barely discernible shoes (also some of the shapes and marks in the very first layers). Fourth, some things can be fixed but not very well if you can’t ‘see’ the underpinnings and given them appropriate weight in response to gravity. Fifth, this is much smaller than my preferred size so detail is more difficult, but – Sixth, I like how paint works on canvas because transparency behaves differently. Better invest in some bigger canvases, then.


12th March. Cold light of day.

I hadn’t posted this painting to Instagram which is very telling, so today I slapped a coat of primer on it and now it’s drying prior to being scrubbed/sanded down. Then I’ll find a decent reference image that provides a solid narrative.

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