“Nihil Est Virtute Amabilius” (Nothing is sweeter than virtue)
Inscribed on the front of the Gage Academy Building
In the fourth year of the Aristides Atelier, students are encouraged to develop a thesis project. This thesis can take the form of a series of works on a theme, or the utilizing studies leading up to the creation of a large work.
The goal of my 2011-2012 thesis was to create a work depicting people I encounter in my life who embody the seven virtues – Fides (Faith), Spes (Hope), Caritas (Charity), Temperantia (Temperance), Prudentia (Prudence), Fortitudo (Fortitude), and Aequitas Equitas (Justice).
Research was conducted regarding prior paintings and literature depicting the virtues, most notably in the Renaissance era, as well as the symbols, colors and gestures associated with each virtue. This research was taken into consideration when developing the composition, as well as the gestures of the various figures.
The work was started with a series of compositional sketches, or croquis, of multi-figure arrangements for the painting. Examples:
Once a composition was selected, it was developed by applying it to a small golden section rectangle. Adjustments were made to the composition based on where elements fell within the golden section divisions.
Note that compositional revisions were made throughout the development of the work, including the final painting stage.
The next step was to establish the scale of the painting. It was desired to keep a golden section rectangle. Golden section ratios that would be closest to whole inches were considered, enabling the use of standard sized stretcher bars. In addition, the size of the figures in the final painting was considered. It was decided to have the painting measure 42 x 68 inches. This size helped the figures to maintain a commanding size and give the viewer a feeling that they just entered the room depicted in the painting.
With the scale of the painting established, the next phase was the construction a perspective grid so that the interior setting of the painting could be established. This was done on a large piece of white foam core with the dimensions of the painting outlined. A single point perspective was chosen for the work, and vanishing point determined. The back wall of the room was determined to be a distance of 30 feet from the viewer. The ratios at this distance translated to 1 foot = 3 inches in the painting. With a horizontal line at the 30 foot mark, and the measurements marked out, perspective lines were drawn radiating out from the vanishing point to the edge of the grid board. For more on this method, see “A Drawing Manual” by Thomas Eakins (Yale University Press, 2005).
DRAWING THE CARTOON
The next stage was to start developing the cartoon for the painting. To achieve this, two sheets of transparent drafting vellum were used, each cut to the dimensions of the painting. The first sheet was overlain on the perspective grid. This was to be the cartoon for the work. On the second sheet of vellum, a golden section rectangle was constructed with compositional, diagonal lines and a golden spiral. Placing this on top of the cartoon enabled periodic checks and revisions to the compositional arrangement if necessary.
The first step in drafting the cartoon began by establishing the interior space -- walls, windows, door, tables, etc. Second was the positioning of the figures in the space. Each figure’s actual height was documented and, utilizing the perspective grid’s ratios, translated to the height they would be in the room at their given position. In the case of seated figures, the height of the chair or stool was recorded, and then the estimated height from the pubic synthesis of the figure (halfway point in the majority of figures) to the top of the head to establish the height of the seated figure. These height calculations were then marked out with vertical lines where the figures would be positioned in the room. These height calculations also determined the size of the drawing of the figure studies.
Figure study drawings were done for each figure in the painting. Each model posed for a 3 hour figure session. To maintain the proper perspective, positioning of the model matched the distance and orientation they would have in the painting. So, for instance, a figure in the painting that was 28 feet from the viewer, and 5 feet to the left of the center line, was positioned at that location to maintain an accurate perspective of the figure.
These drawing studies were then transferred to the cartoon replacing the vertical placeholders.
The models were then brought back for a closer head study drawing, and again for a color study based on the drawings. These studies were consulted during construction of the painting.
As each figure and head study was completed it was transferred to the cartoon. The placing of the figures into the cartoon allowed for additional compositional revisions. In a few instances, it was decided to revise the pose of a figure to enhance the composition.
GRISAILLE AND COLOR STUDIES
A grisaille, or value study was painted to establish the value patterns of the painting.
In addition, color studies were done to establish the color pattern to be used in the painting.
Claessens 13 double-primed Belgium linen was selected for the painting. The linen was stretched and a third coat of oil gesso was added, then sanded. Next, a ground of Winsor & Newton’s Raw Umber (green shade) was applied. When the ground was dry, the cartoon was transferred to the canvas and the drawing inked in using Higgins brown ink. Once the drawing was dry, the underpainting began. The W&N raw umber was used again for painting, essentially, a large grisaille. Whites were added to the skin tones to enhance their luminosity in the final painting. Note that compositional revisions were still being made -- it was at this stage that the dog was added to the composition at the foot of the door.
The painting procedure followed that of the cartoon, starting with the painting of the background sky and landscape, proceeding to the windows, back wall, door, etc. Once the interior elements were established, the figures were painted starting with the figures in the back and proceeding forward to the main figures at the front of the composition.
Nihil est Virtute Amabilius (Nothing is sweeter than virtue), oil on linen, 42 x 68 inches.
SUMMARY OF THE THESIS PROJECT
This thesis project provided a unique learning experience. It enabled me to synthesize the various teachings of my four years in the Aristides Atelier into one consummate work. In addition, it gave me a better understanding and appreciation for the great narrative paintings throughout history.
-Charles Prutting, 2012