Sketches and Photo Reference for the Magnus Crucifix Project

I don't know how much detail will be visible on these scans and photos but here they are anyway: 

This is the first charcoal sketch for the Christ figure in the Magnus crucifix.  It is the actual size of the panel, 30cm x 45.5 cm (12'x17 3/4".  Here is the second sketch: This is the sketch based on the crucifix statue in the church.  

Now, here is the third sketch which I used and which had elements of both: 
It was done on tracing paper which I like to use for preliminary sketches because it erases easily and can be laid over other elements of the composition to see how it fits.  I decided at some point that the head on the Christ figure was too large and that he looked too young but at this point I was OK with it.  

Here is a close-up of the third sketch which may be a bit blurry:
My main concern at this point was not shading but simply getting the anatomy right.  The hardest thing was the hands, of course.  I learned a lot while doing these photos and sketches about how the Renaissance masters must  have posed their models.  It appears to me that in the Netherlandish crucifix paintings the models might have posed holding onto some sort of peg arrangement, which naturally the artist didn't paint in.  The model might  have been standing on a ladder or something that gave them a seat to balance against.  Otherwise, the pose is impossible to hold.  IMHO, anyhow.  

Here is the photo reference for the knees and feet:    I would love to show all the photo reference but I don't want to embarrass my extremely obliging models who made me promise never, never to publish pictures of them half-naked on the internet.  Only my closest friends know who those legs belong to and he said this was OK but I may not post anymore than this.  

By the way, I hope I do not offend religious readers with my somewhat offhand approach to the sketches of Jesus Christ.  Through the drawing process, I became detached from any religious meaning and more focused on the anatomy of the models, fabric folds, etc.  I don't mean to be disrespectful.  But the drawings became simply drawings of human beings in various poses. 

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Trying Again to Post Images

 OK, this is the Karlsruhe Crucifix by Matthias Grunewald, about 1515 I think.  [Later note:  It is from 1526, his last work].  Grunewald was some colorist, wasn't he?  In spite of this, sometimes his drawing is tortured, by which I mean a struggle for him.  This in no way detracts from his ultimate greatness.  

Leafing through a book of his paintings, the robes worn by his models are the same from painting to painting, and become increasingly worn and torn as time passes.  And after using this painting as a model, I believe that it's painted almost entirely in earth colors, with little or no vermillion or lapis.  The blue of the virgin's gown is dark, possibly just a bit of azurite with black glazes.  I don't know.  I used ultramarine which was way too bright and I had to tone it down with glazes of Mars black.  The orangey red is easily imitated with glazes of red ochre or red earth, such as Pozzouli Red.  It's not vermillion.  He must have been very poor when he painted this.  Apparently he fell on hard times in later life due to religious conflicts with authorities which dried up his patronage.  In spite of this, the colors glow. 

I based my composition on the Karlsruhe crucifix, but it is much larger than my painting.  I'll have to check on the dimensions.  [The Karlsruhe Crucifix measures 195.5 cm x 152.5 cm.  My panel is 45.4cm x 30cm].  

Here is another Grunewald crucifix that is somewhat smaller [This painting is from abou 1513 and measures 75cm x 54.4 cm so it is still a bit larger than my panel] and has a more comparable level of detail:    Well, you can't see much, but the faces have less detail.  The robes of the female figures have less fully-realized fabric folds, although St. John's robes are beautifully rendered, and the armor of the saint on the right is highly detailed.  

I'm going to my studio tomorrow and pick up some stuff, including all my preliminary sketches and the photos I took. 
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Success!! Learning to Upload Images

 I think I know how to upload images now.  Let's see:   
This is a drawing of the Virgin and St. John.  St. John is in his underwear because I needed to figure out where the body was under the clothes.  I erased the figure of Christ on this drawing because it wasn't the right size.  It's just graphite on good quality drawing paper, the same size as the panel.  I know you can't see a lot of detail on this, so I'll scan the individual figures when I get a chance and show them close up.  

Well, I thought I knew how to upload images.  I just tried to upload a color image of the Karlsruhe Crucifix and it wouldn't go.  Ackk. 


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A Few Thoughts on Using Photographic Reference

I am still trying to upload images.  In the meantime, I've been thinking about using photographic reference for my paintings.  I find it unavoidable, as much as I would like to only use live models in my studio, drawn with a silverpoint pen on prepared paper, then transferred to the panel with pouncing.  I would do this whilst my apprentices ground my paints, sanded my panels, and swept up the place.  Not in this lifetime, unfortunately.  
So I used photographic references of models I took myself for the Magnus Crucifix.  

I didn't do any tracing at all.  I simply taped the photo reference to my drawing table and "eyeballed" it to create a drawing.  I wasn't trying to get a perfect facial likeness.  I also got my model, who conveniently lives in my home, to pose from time to time for hands, fabric folds, etc.  but those were just quick studies.  I made numerous photocopies of my own figure studies for the Virgin, St. John, and Christ in many different sizes, and used these photocopies to work out my composition.  Getting the figures the right size was something that couldn't be changed later on.  

I then made a more finished final drawing which I photocopied on regular paper.  I put graphite from a pencil on the back of the photocopy and taped it to the panel.   Then I used a hard sharp pencil to very lightly transfer the drawing to the panel.  Then I carefully patted down the graphite marks with a kneaded eraser to lighten them still more.  Then I wadded up the photocopy.  After the drawing was transferred, I first went over it and cleaned up the details, then made some changes here and there.  Then I went over the drawing with ink.  At that point, I was done with modern techniques.  

I thought seriously about using pouncing to transfer the final drawing to the panel.  I mean, I know how to do it, and I've done it before, and it works OK.  I chose not to because pouncing is way messy, and I was afraid that my lack of expertise would result in poor reproduction of the details of the drawing on such a small panel.  Even transferring with graphite loses a lot of detail.  

Using photo reference to aid in painting a highly realistic Renaissance painting is a necessary concession to the modern pace of life.  From time to time, you may make something by hand, or decorate it by hand, but some things just take too long.  I'm about to turn 57, and if I was ever going to finish this piece, I had to use some modern techniques at the beginning.  

As anyone out there read David Hockney's book Secret Knowledge? It is absolutely fascinating.  He asserts that many European painters, from the time of Van  Eyck on, used projection devices to achieve their near photographic results.  Hockney is a painter himself, albeit a postmodern one, who uses photographic reference, and reading his book was like having a productive conversation with another working artist. He obviously knew what he was talking about.  Of course, a lot of art historians have their panties in an absolute wad over Hockney's book.  One of these days, I want to make a mirror projection device such as Hockney describes and draw some portraits using it.  Maybe in silverpoint!  On prepared paper!  I have some in my studio!

In mundane life, I am also a working professional artist, and I also use photographic reference from time to time, and I know what it can and can't do.  It can't draw the picture for you.  You can't "trace" a photo and get a photographic result.  All you can do is use the photo to indicate certain landmarks on the face and then let these landmarks help you draw an accurate likeness.  Or you can "eyeball" the photo, and trying to work around photographic distortion, use it as you would a live model.  When using photos for portraits, I will use the photo to show the line between the lips, the bottom of the nose, and the upper lids of the eyes, with a mark on the bottom of the chin and a general outline of the head.  This, I can assure you, does not a portrait make.  Photos are only a tool.  You still have to learn how to draw.
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Current Project: The Magnus Crucifix

About three years ago, a friend asked me to paint him a crucifix "sort of like Durer."  We agreed on a price for the piece and I began to think about how to paint it.  I had no idea it would turn out to be the most difficult piece, period or otherwise, I had ever painted. OK, time passes and I poke around in books, thinking.  Years pass. I realize, if I could really paint like Durer I'd be famous already.  I'll never be able to do this, and why did I ever think I could?

I don't think anyone understood what I set out to do:  not copy a painting by Durer or anyone else, but attempt to paint a picture as if I were living about 1500 in Germany, a student of Durer or some other German painter of the time.  I showed "Magnus" examples of German paintings of the late 15th and early 16th century:  Durer [1471-1528] and Grunewald [1470-1528] especially.  He didn't like the Grunewald Christ, tortured and covered with cuts and bruises, and he didn't want an emaciated, Gothic Christ like the Netherlandish painters would have done.  

Problem:  Durer, although he did several woodcuts of Christ on the Cross, never did paint a crucifix in color [exception:  Adoration of the Trinity, which shows the figure of Christ vastly foreshortened, hanging in the sky with enormous feet.  So he painted one, but I didn't really like it].  

The other German painters of the time, including Cranach, painted some truly awful crucifixes, including one of a horrible fat bishop kneeling in front of a tiny Christ figure, under a sky which appears to be about 10 feet off the ground. 

And I didn't feel up to tackling a crucifix with too many figures milling about, soldiers on horseback, etc, even though Magnus would have loved that.  But I know my limits.  I got online and printed out every crucifixion scene I could find from 1450 to 1600.  In 1450 the Jesus figures are wiry dudes who look like long-distance runners.  By 1600 the Jesus figures are beefy and muscular, standing in relaxed contraposto.  Who would I ever get to pose?  I don't know anyone who works out enough to be the 1600 Jesus.   All the men in my family are pretty Goth looking.  Durer's figures seem about in the middle. 

This was my first problem:  finding a suitable example for the figure of Christ, and find someone to pose.  I ended up getting a nameless someone to pose for me by getting up on a ladder and stretching his arms out.  He complained mightily that the pose was impossible to hold and painful to boot.  However, with his long arms and legs and extreme slenderness, he made a super perfect Gothic Christ.  Too Gothic.  I looked over the photos and tried to figure out if I could muscle him up a bit -- send him to Julia's Instant Gym, as I call it, to make him a bit more Dureresque. 

Finally, I gave up, and got another man to pose for me, who had more bunchy defined muscles.  But when I looked over those photos, I realized his arms and legs were short!  He didn't look like Jesus at all!  I felt embarrassed -- I had talked two grown men into undressing and prancing around my living room in their undies, and I had nothing to show for it.  I went to the nearest Catholic Church, Our Lady of Perpetual Help, not to seek forgiveness, but to take pictures one Sunday afternoon of the life-size crucifix over the altar.  Due to the low light, the pictures were blurry, and the figure seemed stiff, like a statue.  Because it was a statue.  Drat.  I put all the pictures away for a while and went back to my books.  Drat.

I already had a gessoed board on hand that I intended to use, about 12''x18", one that I had gessoed a number of years ago.  It was a bit on the narrow side, and as I looked through several books, including a book on Matthias Grunewald, and another on van der Weyden (a somewhat earlier Netherlandish painter, but I figured a German painter could easily have seen and been influenced by him and  I needed van der Weyden because he painted oom boodles of crucifixes), I found a couple of very simple compositions that seemed to fit the bill proportionally.  A van der Weyden crucifix showed St. John and Mary standing in front of the cross, a cloth of honor handing on a wall behind the crucifix.  The composition is very shallow.  And a Grunewald, the Karlsruhe Crucifix, seemed almost to copy the van der Weyden composition of almost 100 years earlier, although with a deeper field.  Maybe I could change the figure of Christ into something more Dureresque, and use the composition of the Grunewald or the van der Weyden.  I began sketching with this in mind.  

I got out all the photos I had made of all three would-be Jesuses.  The ones of the first young man were the best by far so I went with them for the time being.  There was no question of getting anyone to pose live for me for the length of time it would have taken.  I made a simple, charcoal drawing, very gestural, of one of the photos, not trying to add muscle.  Then I decided I didn't like it so I made a more careful drawing of the crucifix in the church.  I used an anatomy book to carefully define every muscle group.  It took quite a while to realize that the reason the statue looked stiff was that it was too relaxed a pose, as if the person who posed had been standing casually on the ground with the hip in contraposto and the arms outstretched.  On the other hand, the photos I had made looked positively tortured.  I made a third drawing, using the defined muscles from the statue and adding them to the earlier drawings of the young man.  I redrew it several times until I felt satisfied with the pose.  Not perfect, but better.  

At this point, I was still going back and forth about what painting to use as my main inspiration for the composition.  I finally settled on the Grunewald. 

Well, more tomorrow when I figure out how to upload pics.  I'll check on measurements too.   

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