Graveyard Girl from the Dream City completed

I just finished this painting, which I started in late November 2008. It’s called Graveyard Girl from the Dream City and is 11×14 inches, oil on panel. It’s a kind of surreal portrait of an imaginary girl in ornate finery standing in front of a tombstone-strewn night landscape with a dream city background.

For all posts about this painting, see the dream city category. I have a lot more info about this project in the earlier posts.

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City by Airn LeBus. Oil on panel, 11x14 inches, 2009.

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City by Airn LeBus. Oil on panel, 11x14 inches, 2009.

I’m pretty happy with how this turned out, it has a kind of shining dark clarity which I think is unique. Painting on panel and leaving a lot of hard edges yielded a crispness which contrasts with the surreal nature of the painting. It took “too long”, but I learned a lot. A lot of time was spent on the face fixing some issues, and a lot on the clothing which I had not planned out properly and which I changed halfway through. So like many of my paintings, much time was spent re-doing stuff or experimenting / figuring things out. I think painting on panel is more difficult for me than canvas, but I can’t glaze in the same way on canvas so I have been using panel when I am going for harder edges and lots of glazing.

Total time spent on this: about 40 hours painting and 14 hours drawing and planning.

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City (detail)

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City (detail)

On the clothing, I suffered from lack of reference material and the small size of the details. I wanted to do some gold embroidery like in the Ghent Altarpiece but after trying it for a few hours / sessions, I ended up painting over it and adopting a simpler approach. The gems in the middle ended up looking cool but part of the effect was accidental — I wiped off some paint and removed some lower layers by mistake. It made a kind of glow-effect that I kept and built on.

I like the final glazed-over face, even though I initially painted a dead layer that was too dark and it took me many careful sessions to lighten it. I left some parts “too dark” since she looks kind of corpse-like and it fits with the graveyard scene. I’m not quite sure if she is undead, or a ghost, or what. Her eyes follow you around the room though, so that must mean she is still alive 🙂

I glazed vermillion (hue) and yellow ochre over the raw umber dead layer underpainting to get the flesh tone. I also put more opaque white/yellow/vermillion for highlights and to lighten up the underpainting.

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City (background detail)

Graveyard Girl from the Dream City (background detail)

Once I finished this, I didn’t using retouching varnish. Varnish in general can really unify and deepen a painting and just overall make it look way better, but you can’t use a final varnish on an oil painting until it is truly dry; a general rule of thumb seems to be a year. You can put retouching varnish on when it is only touch-dry though, like maybe a week or two after your painting is done. I used to do that with all my paintings but a few of them are still sticky months later so I am going to stop using it. This one would be at major risk for the same thing, since many parts are thick with many fairly oily layers so I am already concerned about drying times.

Switching to mars black has helped, since it dries much faster than ivory black which I was using before. I also started ‘oiling out’ much more lightly after parts were sticky for many days due to too much oil in the oiling out and glazing process. Dust is also a major concern when the painting is sticky like that. Now I very lightly apply oil with my fingers and wipe as much off as possible, again with fingers or very gently putting a paper towel against the painting and running a finger over it to get the excess oil up. Even after a week of drying, rubbing a paper towel over the oiled-out painting seems to remove paint. I usually try to paint very thinly so depending on the color used and oil amount, a week is usually enough time for me to oil out and do another session. I use bleached linseed oil which I understand dries faster than normal linseed and also yellows less.

Who knows about all this stuff though, because scouring the web or books gives conflicting info, and there are so many different combinations of technique and materials which can yield different results. I just read books and search on the web, take everything I read with a grain of salt, and try stuff and if it seems to work I keep doing it.

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