Before quitting university to pursue my like, dream of being an artist, man, I had the good fortune to be exposed to some srsly awesome Victorian poetry in my second year English Lit class when I was nineteen. Considering the fact that in Canada the legal drinking age for cheap boxed wines is nineteen, the bohemian experience of midnight Victorian poetry reading with the promise of a hangover was all mine. Yesssss.
If, like me, you like Victorian art, you should probably read Victorian poetry. The two were hopelessly intertwined. It was commonplace for painters to seek out inspiration in the work of poets, and vice versa. If you are an illiterate boor, the deeper meaning of Victorian paintings will always elude you. That English Lit class served me well in contextualizing Victorian art. It also taught me how inbred the art scene was back then. For instance, you may know Christina Rossetti, whom I sometimes call Christina Ricci, as the extraordinarily talented sister of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and who during her lifetime was regarded as the best living woman poet. If you don't, she did in fact model for him several times, so you know her face even if you never knew she existed, making you complicit in the Victorian ideal that a woman be seen and not heard. Oh snap.
Gosh, how much talent can one family hold? And how bad must the sibling rivalry have been? Another side effect of studying Victorian poetry was it gave me some direct inspiration. Christina Rossetti wrote a famous poem called "Goblin Market." Quintessentially Victorian, it reads like a fairytale about the strength and tenacity of sisterly love. And don't worry. When I say it's classically Victorian, I do mean that green people are adequately represented, and there is an abundance of pseudo-sexual imagery, and in general you are left feeling slightly uncomfortable--which is funny, because it means that a child of the 21st century is more repressed than a Victorian spinster. After reading it I thought, gee willikers, there's a painting: the message about how the world may bruise you, break you, or sicken you, but a sister's love and support will see you through the worst of it. I'll just go ahead and leave the goblins out.
Below is a original illustration from the poem, which I found recently after finishing the painting. It illustrates my favourite part of the poem: "Golden head by golden head/Like two pigeons in one nest/Folded in each other’s wings..." Lily and Laura sleep side by side, one tormented by nightmares of freaky green people, the other protective.
I had a hard time thinking of a pair of models who could play Lily and Laura. But I'm nothing if not patient. I watch paint dry for a living. Meanwhile, since moving to Vancouver Island I have had the chance to reconnect with an old friend. The shame was that our reconnection was kind of stilted. I had some crapola on my platter and I felt like my life was so ugly I didn't really want anyone from my past to look at it. Eventually we finally met up, and that's when I found out she had gone through some serious crap too--although if it were a contest she probably took gold. In the span of a few weeks, she had lost both her father and suffered a major break up--which in turn necessitated a serious recalibration of short-term and long-term planning, and caused her to search wildly for a new place to live. In the span of a few weeks, her life plan, support network, and daily routine was turned on it's head. Luckily, her best friend since teen years stepped up to the plate and reached a protective, sisterly arm around her. For several months Morgan lived in Molly's basement apartment, where they shared the same bed because there was only the one. I felt terrible for Morgan, ashamed of myself for living only and hour away and not knowing any of this had been going on, and duly impressed with Molly. I imagined Morgan with troubled sleep and Molly wakeful and worrying. And as that image crystallized in my head, I realized I had found Lily and Laura.
Early on I had the idea that I wanted their hair to be a dark mass that bled together in the dim light. I wanted to emphasize their physical similarities, especially colouring, so that people would think "sisters."
Towards the completion of the drawing I received the criticism that the hands were kind of flat and formless. Fair enough. Referencing some anatomy books, I sketched some notes onto my own hand and was able to fix them up. By the way, I would like to point out that the artists who paint really beautiful hands, HAVE really beautiful hands. Tara Juneau and Kamille Corry seem to fart out beautiful hands in their paintings. People like me are unfortunately impaired.
Knowing the painting would be dark, I primed with a darker tone than normal.
I laid in the background first for a frame of reference. I wanted it to breath and move, dreamlike. I bounced between brush stroke and smudge, impasto and scumble. And if you tell me it's against the rules to impasto darks I will come to your studio and knock over your taboret.
Just like that.
The hair had to be subtly different. Same value, but a little warmer. Brush strokes observe the movement of the hair.
The sheets are Rublev Flemish White by NatPig, yo. Thready, thick, and kind of like something I'd like to scrape off of a cinnamon bun and eat. Painting with Flemish white is a sensuous experience. It's almost as loaded and awkward as Victorian poetry.
I kept those hands nice and simple for this first pass. One interesting benefit of working with an umber heavy palette is that your colours dry so rapidly that you can't nitpick.
Painting those faces went very quickly, thanks to big bristle brushes and a narrow chromatic range.
Painting these two girls required some problem-solving. When someone lies down, their whole body collapses in on itself--their shoulders hunch, their abdomen curls up, and they seem to shrink in appearance. Meanwhile, their limbs seem to flatten out and grow thicker and their face also slides over, thanks to gravity. People often lose their likeness in this pose. While painting these girls, I made some executive decisions: I did my best to correct the facial slouch--mostly by re-centering the mouth and jaw. I also elongated the necks, arms, and torsos--by a small but necessary amount. The goal is to restore some of the lost likeness, not to create a mannerist aesthetic.
Aaaaand... first pass done.