A painting a day: #28, Fresco

I knew when I came up with Sketchbook that I wanted a self-portrait as a companion to it, to echo its text: “What is the essence of a place? (It’s different from its fame.)” The self-portrait text would read, “What is the essence of a person? (It’s not her face or her name.)” Not the most profound writing, but I wanted to evoke a mood of contemplation about travel and how we begin also to rethink ourselves as we reform our notions of the world.

For my historical-art inspiration, I looked to ancient frescoes on the Aegean island of Thera (also known as Santorini or Thira). I loved their bold colors and the crackled effect of age on the plaster, and I thought their faded appearance would add to the pensive feel of my self-portrait.

I made a preliminary sketch with the aid of a mirror. Afterward I realized that most (if not all) of the figures depicted on the frescoes of Thera are shown only in profile; when I’d imagined my head-on portrait, I was remembering a different fresco, from Pompeii, which also has a beautifully thoughtful feel, but is in quite a different style. Whoops. But I kept the sketch, because a profile portrait wouldn’t suit what I had in mind (not to mention I have no idea how to draw a profile of myself!).


I filled in the portrait with bold, fairly flat colors, in keeping with the style of the frescoes, and then added a pale and somewhat mottled background. I was planning to adorn the background with a crackle pattern, so I didn’t do much else to it (aside from swabbing at some sections with white gouache). In retrospect I should have experimented more with making them look aged, the way I did with the spattered paint on Sketchbook.


I knew the cracks would probably come out looking stupid, and they did rather. I tried to copy the look of the frescoes, but all along I had a very strong sensation that I was working with a bad Photoshop filter: my cracks don’t look organic, as if the painting were breaking naturally; they look like, well, like me trying to make a piece of paper look “cracked.” Erik commented, “I think your brush needs to be smaller, or else the paint needs to be lighter.” He’s exactly right. Actually I had both those thoughts even while I was painting, but I was in a little bit of a rush and didn’t want to take the time with a superfine brush… or, apparently, with figuring out just what precise shade of brown to use.*


So my Fresco doesn’t look so much like a fresco. It’s more of a rather floaty, cartoony self-portrait (in which I unaccountably set my eyes too far apart). But I think that’s all right too. It fits the mood. It’s funny how this page is coming out so much like a children’s book, or something in that vein — even though it’s all based on centuries-old artwork.


I don’t want to say that there is something essentially childlike or cute about the way I see the world, because those words carry connotations I don’t like… but I do think it says a lot about me that, under my pencils and brushes, the Bayeux Tapestry, an Italian Renaissance mural, Da Vinci’s sketchbook, and now these ancient frescoes have come out looking so soft, colorful, friendly, and whimsical. And it wasn’t on purpose!

I have no idea how the next installment will look. I’m not even sure where I will position it on the paper. “Reading” logic dictates that I’ll have to put it on the left, underneath Epic, but I’m toying with the idea of following visual logic instead and putting it under the self-portrait. We’ll see.


*I don’t know if this is just me and other artists have some tricks I don’t, but I find it tremendously difficult to paint with a really truly super-fine brush. Not because it requires such precision — I’m comfortable working in small spaces and on tiny details — but because the bitty size of the brush means its fibers can’t hold much water. So almost as soon as it’s wet, it becomes dry again, and you’re constantly having to re-dip in paint. And given human (especially my) impatience, that also means you have to fight extra hard against the temptation to take “shortcuts” by putting a LOT of water on the brush, because that won’t do anything more than just drip or bead onto the paper when what you want is a hair’s-width line. Bottom line: It’s really difficult to control the water/paint mixture when using a tiny brush, and that makes it very frustrating to use such brushes for anything more than, say, painting the eyelashes on a miniature portrait.