Imagine that you have to do a painting of a model, from life, but the only light sources available to you, in the studio, are some radio isotopes (strontium 90 and caesium 137, for example) and a left over black light that a hippy left behind, which only produces ultraviolet light. What would your painting look like?
This is a pure thought experiment, of course. It’s not really possible to light a human being in that way and paint them. However, it is an interesting notion to contemplate. As a painter, how would you represent a human being lit only by X-rays, or ultraviolet light, or any other light not normally visible?
In my imagination, I began to think about X-ray films. In those photographs, the bones, which are normally pure white in colour, seem to have dark shadows and flesh appears as invisible. The glows and shadows have a very unnatural look about them. I took this as my inspiration and starting point.
Earlier in the day, I had been discussing, with a colleague, the idea that drawing the human form relied on being able to perceive the skeleton (particularly the skull) beneath the flesh of the model and having drawn where the skeleton was, dressing your picture with added flesh. That way, you could form the flesh over a framework and (theoretically) achieve a more delicate and accurate rendering of your subject – particularly their face. It’s an intriguing idea, but it relies on being able to perceive or imagine the bones inside the person you’re looking at. It’s actually very hard to do, in my experience. That’s why I began to think about x-rays.
The solution I arrived at was to paint the lightest areas with dark paint and the darkest shadows with the brightest colours or tones. In effect, it was tone reversal. Paint the shadows as highlights and the highlights as shadows. Reversing the mid tones was less important, but could add to the effect, I thought.
To create the suggestion of x-rays, I painted my canvas a dark, dark blue. That was meant to represent the x-ray film. Then, I chose a ghostly colour palette, creating my lightest tones from a pure cyan blue colour, mixed with varying amounts of pure titanium white, mixed with a little iridescent paint, for extra sparkle.
The paint I used to achieve that effect was actually a Daniel Smith acrylic, called “Duochrome Lapis Sunlight”, which gives an intriguing luminescent effect, but I don’t know if this paint is even available, any more. It comes out of the tube looking white and goes on the canvas fairly innocuously, but it definitely catches the light! I mix it with other paints and pigments to hide he gimmick and subdue the duochrome effect a little.
This is a very cold colour palette, so when the painting was almost finished, I added a few touches of a very light orange (a colour called “Jaune Brilliant”, which I adore) to give the painting some warmth and humanity. It was important to me to suggest that blood still flowed through veins and arteries of the person, in my painting.
Here is how my painting, which I made on Wednesday night, turned out:
The hardest part, in the end, was resisting the temptation to paint shadows dark and highlights with the white paint. I found myself constantly having to consciously think about doing the reverse of that. As I would with any other painting, the last step in my process was to go and add the sparkly highlights, only this time; I was doing it with dark indigo blue black on the brush, not pure white. Painting reverse eyeballs was particularly challenging, as was keeping the bright colours pure, when there was so much (almost) black on the canvas and I was working wet into wet, alla prima.
Technically, the painting was challenging to execute, because of the danger or making mud and because every line had to be precisely placed, not reworked and left alone once committed.
In theory, I should be able to take a tonal negative of the picture, in my computer and the painting should look like the shadows are in the right place, as are the highlights, but I am not brave enough to do so, for fear of disliking the result and hence spoiling my satisfaction with my painting. I’m eschewing that exercise, for the moment.
I suppose another experiment I could try is to substitute highlights and shadows with deliberately chosen colours which would not occur naturally. For example, maybe I could try yellow and purple, for the highlights and shadows, or reverse the two. We’ll see.
Anyway, you know what they say. “Don’t shoot, until you can see the blacks of their eyes!”
Or something like that…