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June 2011

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Painting the Magnus Crucifix


Well, trying to paint like Durer or Grunewald is truly a humbling experience.  it goes without saying, I still can't paint like Durer or Grunewald, but I certainly learned a whole lot!  I only wish I could have been a real apprentice in one of their studios and studied with them.  

Here is a quote from Odd Nerdrum, a wonderful 21st century painter who lives in Iceland, and who paints like a modern Rembrandt, speaking of his own inspiration from the past: 

"We are responsible for those who come after us.  Most of my friends are dead.  They lived here and there in history - in this mass of years.  My friends - the years between them and me - are like the distance between planets.  Timelessly we mirror each other, my friends and I.

We are timeless if we dare."

At times as I painted this picture, I felt as if Grunewald were standing over my shoulder, giving me advice.  "What do you think I should do here, Master Grunewald?" I would ask, and he would make a kind and gentle suggestion.  Durer, on the other hand, told me I was a stupid woman who couldn't paint, although he admitted I could draw just a little.    

After doing the grisailles of the figures, I spent a good deal of time fiddling with the background scene.  It is based mostly on some cruciform landscapes scenes I found in Netherlandish crucifixion scenes.  I originally planned to make the background lighter, with a mostly blue sky, like in the earlier Netherlandish pictures and in Durer.  However, after I painted the figures and colored them, they just didn't look right against the lighter background.  They really needed the darker background to stand out, once I had made the  commitment to Grunewald's costume colors.  I hated to cover up all the little details I had painted but I had too. 
The Virgin is wearing one of those big German bonnet headdresses under her veil.  Oh, and the photo is a little bit off , so the cross looks slightly crooked, and it's not really.  Hmm, and the photo has also cut off the bottom of John's foot, which is in the picture, and also a bit is cut off at the top.   Not sure about the color, either.  It looks a little washed out.  OK, I'll have to make a better photo.  

My palette consisted of Peach black (a black made from burnt peach pits!), Mars black, Titanium white, yellow ochre, raw sienna, burnt sienna, Ultramarine blue in the Virgin's gown, but as I said, I think it's too bright, raw umber and burnt umber.  No bright green - I used a wonderful color, green umber, which is a marvelous dark green.  Plus a mixture of black and yellow ochre, which makes an olive green.  Lots of Terra Rosa which is a natural earth red and quite bright.  I used a tiny dab of Grumbacher red, as a substitute for vermillion, at the very end to do the blood on Christ's side.  That was the only modern color I used except for the Mars black, (I really should have just used the Peach black, but I only had a tiny tube, and the Mars black is virtually identical in color and handling properties) and titanium white instead of lead white.

I painted the figures of the Virgin and St. John first.  The skin tones are mostly white and yellow ochre and red earth tones with a gray made from black and white as needed, plus raw sienna.  I mixed a skin tone a little on the bright side and went over the skin area first, then glazed in layers of warm shadow.  Then I mixed a lighter skin tone and scumbled paler tones on top of that.  I painted the loincloth on Christ in black and white with admixtures of umber in the shadows and I think a bit of blue in the highlights.  I glazed the background with black and Ultramarine a number of times to get the desired degree of darkness.  I sanded off areas to get the sun and moon on either side of Christ, and glazed and scumbled with reddish and ochre tones. 

I used a medium made of 1/2 linseed oiil and 1/2 copal varnish on most parts of the painting.  The copal was especially useful in areas where I needed tight detail, because it keeps the paint from spreading (if you don't get mineral spirits on the brush).  For instance, in painting the lettering on the sign I used copal medium mixed with black paint, and thinned to the desired consistency with a bit more linseed oil.  I didn't clean my brush with mineral spirits while painting because it would cause the paint to spread. 

The main problem I ran into with the copal medium was it caught dust and bits of hair and fiber from the air and I had to rub these off.  In between layers, I smoothed the paint, if needed, with linseed oil and rottenstone (very fine pumice powder) rubbed with a cloth or the fingers, and then wiped off.  I also sometimes smoothed away brush marks in wet layers of paint with a soft dry brush after finished with the day's work.  When the whole picture was finished I went over it with a couple of layers of the copal medium and smoothed it with rottenstone and a lot of rubbing. 

I used a variety of brushes, from a 0 or smaller for the fine detail to larger sable brushes for glazing large areas.  I used a large soft brush to pat down painted areas.  

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