Way back on June 26th of 2019, nearly 11 months prior to writing this, I posted on the beginning of a large commission painting depicting Prometheus stealing the ‘fire of the gods’. At that point, I had finished the design of the composition, worked out a to-scale drawing, and was just starting the process of transferring that drawing to the 120×60 inch (304×152 cm) aluminum composite panel for painting.
Fast forward to the present, and the painting is finished and hanging in the home of the commissioning client. The following is a brief recap of the painting’s progress, and some final thoughts on the project.
Once the transfer was completed, it was time to begin the under-painting. For those of you who may not be familiar with the term, an under-painting is just what it sounds like…a painting layer that goes under the final painting. Usually this is done in monochrome either in washes of earth-tones or, in this case, in neutral gray oil paint.
Artists use under-paintings for different reasons. Some layer in glazes of transparent color over the top to achieve their final results. Others, myself included, use them as an intermediary stage between the drawing and the final painting…a place to refine the composition, working out the overall value scheme and resolving lighting and form issues.
If you think of the final color layer of a painting as having three dimensions, hue (basic color selection red, orange, yellow, etc.), value (the range of light to dark, black to white), and chroma (the relative intensity of a given color from its pure form through a neutral gray of the same value)…then the underpainting stage breaks that three-dimensional problem down into one one-dimensional problem (the underpainting) and one two-dimensional problem (the color pass…hue and chroma). Not only does this greatly simplify each pass, but it solves several other problems at the same time.
The first is the problem of making changes if something isn’t working. Any change made on the canvas is much more difficult to make than one made in the drawing stage. But once the transfer is finished, it’s too late to change the drawing. Likewise, a change made while working in color is much more difficult to make than one made while working in grayscale. Hopefully, all the big things like the locations of objects, poses of figures, perspective, etc. are fully worked out in the drawing. Lighting and value relationships are harder to work out in the drawing, and an under-painting an excellent place to do that work.
The second is the problem of paint transparency. Not all oil colors are opaque. In fact, many earth-tones and some important chromatic pigments like ultramarine blue, magenta, and viridian are quite transparent. Even relatively opaque colors such as titanium white and the cadmium colors tend to become slightly transparent as they dry…more so if the paint layers are thin as mine tend to be. This means that many areas of a painting may need two layers of paint (or more) to develop the required level of opacity. Since painting in color is so much more work than painting in monochrome, the base layers might as well be monochrome ones.
Anyway, for a painting this large with complex lighting (there is light from both Prometheus’ torch on the right and the daylight scene of Olympus on the left) an under-painting makes things so much easier.
I started with the background:
Then I added the figures working from right to left…Prometheus, the muse of reason and law, the muse of astronomy and navigation, the muse of medicine and biology, the muse of mathematics and abstract reasoning, and the muse of the arts:
Once the under-painting was complete, I gave the client a preview of the painting’s progress, just to be certain everyone was still happy. As I mentioned before, it’s far easier to make changes to the under-painting than the color pass. Everything looked good, so I let the under-painting dry for a week or so, and then started on the color pass.
I began with the background on the right side of the painting…Earth, at pre-dawn…before Prometheus has brought light. Ideally, I would have nailed all the values in the under-painting…but I ended up darkening almost everything in this background scene during the color pass, particularly the moonlit clouds and marble architecture. I didn’t have good reference material for any of this stuff. I had images of a similar piece of marble architecture taken in daylight, multiple photos of cloud layers, rocky cliffs, and valley floors, also daylight images, a few shots of night sky scenes, and memory of moonlit landscapes. Working from all of this information, I did my best to assemble it all into a coherent, believable scene.
Next was the color pass over the marble interior setting through which all the figures are walking. This area acts as the main setting for the painting and as a transition from Olympus to Earth…from daylight to moonlight. I had no reference material at all for this area, and the lighting was incredible complex. The main light source for the figures is Prometheus’ torch…a relatively warm light source on the right, but interior to the scene. The secondary light source is the outside daylight from the Olympus side of the painting. Inside the marble structure, this isn’t direct sunlight, but the cool, ambient light of day provided mostly by the refracted light of the sky. In the real world, the ambient daylight would be much, much brighter than any torch, and if a photograph of this scene were taken, either the daylight side would be horribly overexposed or the interior (let alone the nighttime Earth scene) would be horribly underexposed. While a human observer would benefit from the fact that their eyes would adjust and compensate as they looked from one side of the scene to the other…they still would not be able to see the entire scene at once. For this reason I had to take a LOT of artistic license with the lighting of this interior space and of the figures. My basic approach with the marble was to work from both sides. I painted everything lit by the torch in one slightly warmer color scheme with the brightness dropping off as distance from the torch increased. I painted everything lit by the ambient outdoor light in a slightly cooler color scheme with brightness dropping off as distance from the entrance increased to the right and to the foreground. In the areas of the floor and wall where there were no shadows cast by either light source, I tried to make a smooth transition between the two. In the shadows cast by each light source, I tried to include the secondary light from the other source. In those areas that fell in cast shadow from both light sources, I tried to simulate what reflected light there may be from the surrounding scene. Over the top of all that analysis…I made adjustments based solely on aesthetic judgments, even if they bent or broke the real lighting scheme. It was a complex process, and it required a lot of on-the-fly adjustment. Fortunately, the vast majority of that adjustment happened in the under-painting. During the color pass, I further refined that work and added the warm or cool effects of the light sources.
Next I tackled the color pass over the Olympus daylight background scene. This was much easier, both because daylight scenes are so much more familiar and therefore easier to make color choices for, and because I had good photo references of cliffs, architecture, rocks, and grass to work from.
The final step in the color pass over the background (non-figure elements of the painting) was the foreground rocks on the right and left. These are largely made up based on multiple reference photos of rocks, grass, lichens, etc. under various lighting conditions. Once again, the under-painting played a huge role in trouble-shooting these areas and thereby simplified the color pass tremendously. I also made use of some transparent color glazes in these areas, and there are large sections where the under-painting details still show through.
With the background complete, it was time to focus on the most important part of the painting: the figures of Prometheus and the Muses. This stage required by far the most time and work…nearly as much time per figure as it took to complete the entire background.
Rather than walk through each figure separately, I’ll say a bit about the process of painting the figures and then post images of progress on each.
In addition to the fact that the human figure is much more complex to paint under even the most ideal circumstances than are stairs, columns, rocks, or skies…the figures in this painting were also subject to the same complex lighting situation as the interior marble architecture: warm light from Prometheus’ torch on the right, dropping off to the left…and cool light from the sky on the left, dropping off to the right.
While I built a full set of stairs for the model for the muses to stand on (one woman modeled for all five muses) and I did my best to light my models correctly when I took my reference photos…there was only so much I could do. I took photos of each pose at multiple exposures from over-exposed to under-exposed so I could adjust the light and shadow side of each as needed…but I couldn’t simulate the ambient light from the sky very well indoors, or get the models as far away from the light sources as would have been ideal. I also had to work with the camera’s limitations under the high contrast, relatively low light conditions of the photo-shoot.
Each figure had its own set of lighting challenges as I tried to make trade-offs between the two light sources, and between maintaining a believable overall lighting scheme and having everything important be visible. All this white painting a scene that is actually physically impossible from a lighting standpoint. Again, I did quite a bit of this work in the under-painting stage, but came across multiple situations in the color pass where I decided to change a lighting decision I had made. Not all my decisions will stand up to rigorous lighting analysis…but they were carefully considered…and where conflicts arose, I tried to give aesthetics priority over analytics unless it really broke the believability of the scene.
As with the under-painting, I made the color pass over the figures from right to left.
It also might be of interest that I made use of transparent glazes while working with the hair of all five muses (in addition to some opaque color in the highlights etc.) and while working with the colored shawls of several of the muses.
Finally, once all the flesh-tones, colored pieces of accent drapery, and props for figures were in color, I made the color pass over all of the white drapery at once, adding color to the reflected light as well as the appropriate warm or cool casts to the highlights depending on where they were in relation to the two light sources.
Once that was finished, I spent a day or two making touch-ups to various little areas of the painting and adding my signature to the bottom right corner…
…and then came the long sleep before varnish. I gave the painting nearly two full months to dry…which amounted to much more time for most of the painting, and then carefully applied a light coat of varnish.
And here is the final result: ‘Fire of the Gods’ 120×60 inches, oil on aluminum composite panel.
You can see details on the main gallery page here.
Finally, after renting a truck to take the finished painting to be professionally photographed (for the purpose of making prints later), I carefully packaged it up for shipping to the client.
If you’re curious, under the packing blankets and stretch-wrap the painting was first wrapped in a layer of glassine (a coated paper which resists adhering to the varnish and reduces any friction which might scratch the surface of the painting during shipping and handling), and then covered on the front and all four edges (the sides of the painting are painted as continuations of the scene on the face of the panel…this piece is designed to hang without a frame…and the bottom edge, which will be visible from downstairs in the client’s home, is finished in gloss black) by a layer of 1-inch thick, dense foam insulation paneling. I used a private driver/vehicle rather than a commercial shipper, so there was no need for a crate. The painting traveled alone in the back of a cargo van.
Final thoughts? This was an incredibly complex project from the very beginning. It went through multiple changes during the development of the idea and the drawing process. I went through many different models and costume changes…involving multiple photo-shoots…resulting in multiple full drawings of each figure before I was able to even complete the final drawing for the painting. It was a ridiculous amount of work spanning over a year and a half from first sketches to installation. The process was incredibly frustrating at times, but, overall, it was a very rewarding experience, and I am so proud of and happy with the final result. The client is happy too, which is enormously important, since without client patronage I would never be able to afford to take on a project of this size.
I put a lot of thought into every detail of this painting from the objects each muse is carrying to the poses and expressions of each figure, even to the overall flow of motion from the left side to the right as the group of figures moves from Olympus to the stairs descending to Earth. My hope is that future viewers will be drawn in to the scene and find enjoyment and meaning as they explore each detail and connect it to the overall composition. The overall theme of the painting…that the creative, rational capacity of the human mind, the ability to study the world, learn to understand how it works, and use that understanding to better human life ‘IS’ the “fire of the gods”, is what makes humans human…is one I am passionate about, and for that reason I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to try and articulate that theme on such a grand scale.
Will I take on more commissions/paintings this size and complexity? Probably. I love working on them, and I love having completed them. But not for a while. I’m very much looking forward to working on some smaller, simpler paintings and exploring some other ideas and themes.