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Magdalena-A Study in Scarlet

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After several months of labor (while working full time, mind you) I have completed the latest in my series of "icons". This one is something of a contemporary take on the penitent Mary Magdalene...the "scarlet woman"... kneeling and somewhat teary-eyed. Like the rest of this series, this painting is deeply rooted in my love of art history. There are elements drawn from Byzantine icons, Medieval European and Persian book illuminations, Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, early Renaissance painting, and more contemporary painters ranging from Gustav Klimt, Matisse, and Bonnard, to George Tooker. The space is intentionally flattened and distorted (utilizing various conflicting systems of perspective) and the figure itself is simplified and stylized... there are even elements suggestive of folk art and childrens' art/book illustration... a direction I am heading more and more toward. Unlike the other works in this series this is the first instance in which the figure is clothed (gasp!!). The work is quite large: 80" x 42" created with acrylic paint, pastel, and gold leaf. I even employed a bit of neon paint mixed with the acrylic cadmium red light (a trick I had seen used by Francis Bacon) as a means of getting the red to literally "scream".

Thanks for looking.



  1. andave_ya's Avatar
    I can see the artistry behind it as well as some of the elements you mentioned...but honestly she looks like a rather unpleasant woman. She reminds me of that woman in one of the Anne of Green Gables she's smelling "not a bad smell, but an unpleasant odor." I'm not sure if that's what you're going for...but I feel like if I ever sat with her there would be an awkward silence dotted with short, despairing comments.
  2. Gilliatt Gurgle's Avatar
    St. Lukes,
    Very nice!.
    I believe you had revealed a "work in progress" view of this piece sometime ago on the "let out the artist in you thread".
    I'm particularly intrigued by the subtle warp in the diamond pattern above her head, the light play off the mosaics and circular gold leaf inlay.
    I'm about to hit the hay, but I'm looking forward to taking moretime to study the work further.

    Thanks for sharing!

  3. Virgil's Avatar
    Wonderful St Lukes. I think the background pattern does add to the psychological projection of the main character. I think the orange central color does too, though I can't see why that would be. May i ask your thoughts on choosing the orange? My only qualm, and this is minor, is that the strap off to the side is a little too direct, and perhaps just a minor shift off the center of the shoulder would have given the same suggestion. But I'm no artist.
  4. Virgil's Avatar
    Quote Originally Posted by andave_ya
    I can see the artistry behind it as well as some of the elements you mentioned...but honestly she looks like a rather unpleasant woman. She reminds me of that woman in one of the Anne of Green Gables she's smelling "not a bad smell, but an unpleasant odor." I'm not sure if that's what you're going for...but I feel like if I ever sat with her there would be an awkward silence dotted with short, despairing comments.
    Andy, I would take this to be a point of Magdelen confessing her sins, before repentence. I would say she is repentant. You're thinking of a redeemed Magdelena.
  5. stlukesguild's Avatar
    Andave_ya... I 't dispute your interpretation. One thing I've learned as an artist is that once you have completed a work it truly does become something like a child: it makes its way (or not) and you no longer have control over it. This is one of the reasons I dislike the usual questions about what this or that poem or novel "means"... as if a work of art can be reduced to a single meaning.
  6. stlukesguild's Avatar
    Gilliatt... thanks for looking. There is a slight exaggeration of perspective in the upper pattern over her head. The "warp" which is visible in the diagonal line of the molding which separates the pattern from the flat orange/red is actually a result of the pare being slightly warped when I photographed the work. I would certainly deal with this issue when taking more professional photographs for a resume or portfolio.
  7. stlukesguild's Avatar
    Virgil... again, thanks for looking. My initial color choices are usual formal decisions. I choose a dominant color or a family or harmony of colors that I may not have used before or that I have even avoided. I'm thinking yellow and purple will show up soon. My last painting was rather cool... in the blues range... cold even... and so I sought to heat things up this time. I was looking at some paintings by the early Renaissance master, Fra Angelico and I was especially struck by the scarlet robe of his Mary Magdalen, however, I wanted a pose of her on her knees... a sort of supplicant or penitent. As the work evolved I began to push the red-orange (cadmium red light with cadmium orange and hot neon pink). Red, of course has many connotations beyond being suggestive of the "scarlet woman" (Chaucer's red-haired Wife of Bath?). It is frequently used in connection with crucifixions and other icons. On this scale and intensity it absolutely sings and certainly I thought of something like Matisse paintings in which the viewer is enveloped in a large field of red or blue.
  8. Virgil's Avatar
    Thank you St. Lukes. The more I look at it, the more I think the orange holds the hold thing together. Wonderful choice.

    Hey, what's with the fingers on her right hand. That's a curious arrangement.
  9. The Comedian's Avatar
    Nice! I'm no art critic, so I cannot comment with any highfalutin' prose here St. Luke's, but I can say that I enjoyed the works very much and am greatly impressed with your abilities.
  10. stlukesguild's Avatar
    Virgil, you observant old dog! You caught me red handed. I must admit it. The hand was my nod to Dr. Spock... true trekkie as I am.

    Seriously, I simply used the hand pose in the reference that I was working from... although I may have splayed the fingers out a bit wider... wishing for a broader form... and also emphasizing the triangular space between the fingers pointing upwards.

    It is somewhat difficult to explain visual design or composition. It is perhaps not so clearly or rigidly structured as it is in a traditional poetic form such as a sonnet or a musical form such as a sonata or fugue.

    Generally, the goal of the artist is to create a focal point... the center of drama (rather like the climax in a narrative of work of music)... without so overpowering the surrounding area that the viewer looks... and boom!... is done with the painting. Rather there is an effort to guide the eye around the painting and to harmonize the painting as a whole through the use of repetition of forms, shapes, colors, etc... and harmonic relationships of the same.

    I'll attempt a simple formal breakdown of this painting. The top and the bottom patterns... for all their visual "noise" somewhat cancel each other out and become framing elements sandwiching the screaming red and the figure between them. Near the center of this field of red the woman's face with the contrasts of her dark eyes and dark hair against her pale flesh becomes the obvious focal point.

    The eye then begins to move around. As Westerners we tend to "read" a painting much the same as we read a book: left to right. This the diagonal of the floor, and the top molding which frame the red field (and which are echoed by the diagonal of the arm and the floor checkerboard all lead the eye to the corner:

    The eye then jumps to the huge contrast between the gold trim and the black of the doorway/void and is led downward where it is coaxed across to the contrast of the black on the checkerboards and led up the curve of the arm of the figure across her shoulders and back to the face:

    Essentially the eye is led around and around and this spiraling motion is reinforced by the circular mat on which she sits which is echoed by the curve of her shoulders and the line of her gown:

    Of course these composition structures are not something that one is necessarily fully conscious of from the start. Initially they may be but the result of intuitive responses... shifting an angle here or there or moving an arm slightly... adjusting a color just a tinge... because it doesn't look quite right. Neither are these compositional structures a measure of the merit of the work. There are endless poets who were capable of writing "perfect" sonnets that were also perfectly boring. In the end it is up to the audience who decides whether something resonates with them or not.
  11. TheFifthElement's Avatar
    I had to look at these at home Stlukes as for some reason the pictures don't show on my work computer. I think it's a stunning picture, very bold and striking. I love the emotion in the face of Magdelena and the strange perspective to the whole picture, the blockiness of the colour and the striking backdrop. Like Comedian, I don't know anything about art but I do think your pictures - both this one and the previous ones you've displayed on the blog, are stunning.
  12. Virgil's Avatar
    Thank you St Lukes. Your arrow diagraming is a real treat. (You're the John Madden of artistry. ) It's a pleasure to talk to a real life artist!! The more I look at this, the more I'm loving it!!