Monday, June 23, 2014

A Poison Tree: Part I (and an auction, suckas)--SOLD

Posted by: Kate

A couple of years ago an idea for a painting took root.  A lot of my paintings take several years' germinating.  At the time I couldn't think of the right models, but as I waited and the idea grew, two children in my family also grew until one day I realized they would be perfect for the painting.  Which unfortunately positively reinforces procrastination.

I'm going to change things up a bit and show you the finished painting first:

On the left, Paul reaches for an apple while Emily watches from the right with a gimlet eye.  If you recognized the boy, kudos.  He was also in "Huntsman and Herdsman."  And you might recognize Emily from a little head study I did years ago.  And you might also recognize a big sprinkling of influence from Jules Bastien-Lepage, whom I am all over at the moment.

The inspiration for the painting came from "A Poison Tree," by William Blake:
I was angry with my friend; 
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe: 
I told it not, my wrath did grow. 
And I waterd it in fears,
Night & morning with my tears: 
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles. 
And it grew both day and night. 
Till it bore an apple bright. 
And my foe beheld it shine,
And he knew that it was mine. 
And into my garden stole, 
When the night had veild the pole; 
In the morning glad I see; 
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
Totally.  Killer.

My own interpretation of the poem is, I know, quite different from what Blake intended.  Personally, I read it as kind of a dark nursery rhyme-cum-cautionary tale.  Nursery rhymes back in those days were pretty brutal anyways.  Ever read the cautionary tale about Little Suck-a-thumb who had his thumbs snipped off as punishment for being unable to keep them away from his mouth?  No?  My parents read it to me.  But they were also the sort of parents who assured me there were no bears in the woods when we were camping, just crazed axe-men.

To me, the poem cautions us against bottling up our resentment; better to let it out. This is why Dave punches a United Airlines employee in the face every time we fly. If we keep it to ourselves, and allow our hateful thoughts to take root, they will grow large and unmanageable, bearing toxic fruit.  Because it sounds to me like a children's rhyme, I chose to use child models.  Emily, who can put on a piercing dark glare when she wants, plays the role of the cultivator of the poison tree.  And I cast her brother Paul as the hapless apple-eater because our siblings really are our first friend-foes in the world.

I left the photo shoot dead certain that I didn't have a single good photo of Em, but luckily, somehow, there was one picture, and one picture only, of exactly the right facial expression.  I pieced together her body and hands from other photos.

I decided to put Paul next to Emily to make it easier for me to keep them the right size in relation to each other.  I was drawing from my computer monitor and things could have gone south very quickly.  I didn't have room on the left side, so here he is on the right.  By the way, the real hero of the photo shoot that day was the mother of the two kids.  The reason Paul is reaching upwards with so much convincing gesture is because his mum had mindfully brought a package of M&M's with her and she held them out to Paul until I was able to capture the perfect shot.

On the left, a vellum colour study.  On the right, a larger, more comprehensive colour study on primed paper.  I changed all of the greens in the landscape from acid hued to blue-green, plus I added a giant blue mountain in the distance and house and barn.  This early incarnation also saw more apples and a watering can, but I nixed these later on.

Pass number two on the larger colour study.  Colours have been more carefully considered.  I am now ready to bring out the big guns and get to work on the painting proper.

After toning the panel, I carefully drew a grid in vine charcoal over the surface.  This grid is still visible  in places (above)  although the first colour wash is partially completed.  I used the grid to scale up a smaller drawing of the composition, less the figures.  The figures were carefully traced from my original drawing and transferred with the oil transfer method.

I planned to paint kids' clothing in such a way that the paint layers "breathed" a little and the tone underneath whispered through, so I did a tester area on Paul's shoulder.  I found that the tone was a little too light.  Where it showed through, it jarred against the values of the sweater.

So I toned Paul's clothing with two different dark umber washes.  I did the same with Emily's clothes.

I just can't get into painting unless I make a real mess for myself.  Once I do that, panic or something else sets in and I quickly set everything straight.  So I always start off by laying down some horrible mud.

Looking more presentable an hour later, but still needing a couple more passes.  I am averse to spending too much time noodling around for a likeness during round one.  If I get too "precious" with my work early in the game, I will pussyfoot when it comes to making major changes later on.

A start on Paul's face.  His forehead is very high and wide because I like to model the whole forehead first and then place hair over top.  Paul has wispy hair and his scalp is very visible through his curls, so I have to be careful to avoid a sharp transition between forehead and scalp.

First pass on hands.  I kept them very simple and architectural at this point.  Painting into a wet background is the only way to nail edge quality, so I worked some tree trunk colour around the fingers.

Suddenly Emily is looking human thanks to a second pass on the face.

Wonderful, dense, woolly texture achieved with the help of Impasto Putty by Natural Pigments.  Unfortunately they don't make this anymore because it's too stiff to put in a tube, and anything that comes in a can will eventually dry out.  This doesn't bother me, but there were complaints.  People.  Stuff is supposed to dry up in the can a little.  The very idea that artist materials should have an indefinite  shelf life is a very recent concept.  Do you go into the grocery store and look for some magical coffee creamer that never expires?  I always tell myself that if something dries up before I use it, I wasn't painting enough.  Rant over.  I do still have half a can left.

Crumbly ribbing achieved with the help of Rosemary Ivory Long Flats.  They have a tight, precise point and a firm springiness.

By the time I worked my way down the sleeve, it became apparent that Paul's forearm was about a centimeter too long.  So I painted out his hand so that I could redo it properly.  If you zoom in on this picture, you can see how the tone underneath shows through the sweater.

Now, I'm just going to take a minute to brag.  I made the cloak that Emily's wearing.  It's 100% wool with wine-coloured lining and it has a detachable hood.  Plus, I jerryrigged the pattern out of two existing patterns.  I know.  But hold your applause because I need to show you how I painted this bastard.

First of all, I got the drawing of the plaid shapes out of the way.  Simply using white paint, I accurately drew out the lighter bands in the plaid.  I also laid down the dark value of the dress and stockings.  This is important to help me gauge the correct value of the cloak, since I don't have any background colours to help me.  All my background colours will be conceptualized anyways.  In order that the dress kept its value and didn't sink in, I added Epoxide Oil liberally to my paint mixtures on my palette.

The idea of painting that cloak gave me the willies.  Like bare feet on communal yoga mats, it was one of those things that would make me silently scream when I woke up in the middle of the night and thought about it.  I carefully premixed my colours, added a bit of Epoxide Oil to saturate the colour fully, linseed oil to increase flow, and then I got to work.

 It went surprisingly well.

And, just like filing my income tax return, it ended up not being so bad as my imagination made it out to be.

Up for auction:  "A Poison Tree (Preparatory Sketch)."  Because you don't have to wait until Christmas to buy your spouse a present that's actually intended for yourself.


  1. Absolutely stunning work and wonderful to read the back story, bravo! You've set up my day, shame I have to spend it behind a desk.

  2. Beautiful work. Thank you for sharing your process and inspiration. This brings momentum for my own work as is much appreciated.

  3. fantastic classic painting, hard work, detail preparation, quality sketches.
    I love your work, thanks for inspiration

  4. I loved reading about your process, Kate. Thanks for sharing this. It's an amazing painting!

  5. Hi, first off, I would just like to say, wonderful work. I'm straight trash when it comes to doing art, but I definitely appreciate it and like looking at art. You pretty much nailed it.
    Now for the actual reason I stumbled upon your blog: I'm a sophomore in high school and I'm writing an inquiry on William Blake's A Poison Tree. For the inquiry, I need a primary source. I was wondering if you would mind if I used your art as the source? And also if you had a specific way you would like me to cite it?

    Thank you for this very long and drawn out comment. Fantastic painting, and I look forward to hearing from you.

    1. Sorry for not checking the comments sooner. Go ahead and cite my work however you like (and I don't have any idea how one cites a painting anyways, so I don't have a preference how you do it). Keep in mind that my interpretation of the poem is a bit different from how it was meant to be read.