Monday Morning Art School: working from your imagination

Lockdown is a good time to work from your inner landscape.
Heart of Darkness #1, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Today’s exercise is in converting words to images, and the text I’m giving you is the opening paragraphs of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
For your convenience, I’ve made a text file of these opening paragraphs, or you can read the whole novel on Project Gutenberg. This is a complex novel; it’s about madness and sanity, at once a condemnation of colonialism and yet conventional for its time in its racial views.
Conrad was a sailor in the French and British merchant navies, starting at the bottom and working his way up to Captain. He spent three years with a Belgian trading company running the steamer Le Roi des Belges on the Congo River, experiences which formed the basis of Heart of Darkness. Le Roi des Belges was, of course, King Leopold II of Belgium, then operating his infamous Congo Free State. Conrad met and befriended the humanitarian Roger Casement in the Congo. Both men initially thought that colonialism would be good for the Congo; both soon realized their error.
Heart of Darkness #2, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
The opening scene of Heart of Darkness is serene, contrasting with the choking, awful mystery of the main story. “And this also,” says the narrator, “has been one of the dark places of the earth.”
A few years ago, I was experimenting with monotyping. I did three iterations of the opening passages of Heart of Darkness. In the end, none of them fully reflected what I thought I felt about sitting in the cockpit of a boat as darkness falls. I was imagining I’d make something more along the lines of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s Nocturne: Blue and Silver – Cremorne Lights (1872). Yet I trust my subconscious, and Whistler’s nocturne doesn’t have the undercurrent of destruction that rides at anchor even at the beginning of the book.
How do you paint from a text without training as an illustrator? Read it and follow your feelings, not your rational mind. What about the text fascinates you? Twenty years ago, I was interested in the water and the blue light of dusk; today, I’d probably be more interested in the cast of characters assembled on deck.
Heart of Darkness #3, monotype and pastel, by Carol L. Douglas
Once you’ve read the text, without looking at anything else, start to sketch. Make a drawing from your own internal source material: your mind. Don’t worry whether you’re doing a good likeness or not; that can come later. Worry more that you have caught the sensation that the words invoke. Think about the interplay of imagery on the page, and the abstract arrangement of lights and darks. Facts are the least-important part of the process at this point.
When you have a sketch that feels right, you can then assemble some reference material online. Go lightly here. I could not, for example, draw the cockpit of a cruising yawl without looking at pictures of a cruising yawl. But don’t get too dependent on that reference material. Look at it, perhaps sketch it out to memorize it, and then put it away. Be subservient to your original idea, not to photos.
I chose this bit of literature because I like its watery imagery, but you can do this with any written text that strikes your fancy. I did a similar thing with Jerusalemwhile in quarantine in Argentina. The important thing is to find something that resonates with you now, and see where it leads you. I’m interested in seeing the results.

Saying goodbye

Portraits of the dead are difficult, but they’re also satisfying and meaningful to paint.
Reunited with Jesus, by Carol L. Douglas

Occasionally I have the opportunity to do a portrait of someone who has shuffled off this mortal coil. These are the most difficult portraits to paint, because there are never good reference photos available. You’re changing angles and planes, guessing their height and weight, and dealing with terrible flash or shadows. Yet these are the best photos the family has.

It’s no wonder that they often feel overworked to me when I’ve finished; I’ve struggled to invent a structure from a snapshot. However, if Hans Holbein the Younger could paint his magnificent lost portrait of Henry VIII from a pattern, I’ve got nothing to complain about.
This infant died after birth, and all his mother had was a very blurry snapshot. It’s, unfortunately, the only photo I have of the painting.
Despite the technical difficulties, these reflections on mortality are among my favorite subjects. They’re a comfort to the survivors, who struggle to find meaning in their own personal disaster. They force me to draw from my own painting and drawing experience. Can I draw a plausible hand or foot with no reference photo at all? Most importantly, they’re thought-provoking.
Death is the deepest question facing mortal man. We all will die someday. That’s absolute. What will it be like? Where will we end up? Will we see our loved ones again? Will we work, or sing endlessly? (Will singing feel like work, or will I be able to belt out a tune like Kate Smith?)
The subject of this portrait passed away last summer, much too young—my age, in fact. Her daughter-in-law sought a way of comforting her husband on the loss of his mother, of reassuring him that her final destination was, indeed, Heaven.
This is someone I knew very well: my sainted Aunt Mary, who died the day before her sixtieth birthday. It’s a portrait of her servant’s heart.
I’d intended to concentrate on the figures and scumble a vague background. However, I’ve been thinking about angels for months. Angels are not cute putti or disembodied beings. They’re vigorous workmen in the Kingdom of God. It seemed like a good opportunity to paint them and think about what Heaven might be like. My deep subconscious apparently thinks that it’s a bustling kind of place.
For those unfamiliar with traditional Christian imagery, here’s some explanation: Jesus has a seat at the right hand of God because, in the Biblical era, that meant an honored guest shared eminence and authority with his distinguished host. But he’s relaxed enough to come down from his throne and welcome an individual to heaven, just as he was comfortable coming to earth to share our human struggles.
Only one person in this portrait is deceased. He’s dancing with his elegant and wonderful wife, in the Pennsylvania woods he loved so much.
The lamb on his seat-back is the Agnus Dei, the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” The figure to the right of God is the Recording Angel, mentioned by two Old Testament prophets. The orb in God’s hand is not a strictly Christian symbol. Its origin is the plain round globe held by the god Jupiter. This became a standard symbol of power in the post-Roman world. It came into Christian iconography through the Salvator Mundi. God’s outfit is quoted directly from God Inviting Christ to Sit on the Throne at His Right Hand (1645) by Pieter de Grebber. The floating cross on which the Throne of God sits is my own idea, although there’s certainly “nothing new under the sun.”
All this sounds very Catholic, and for good reason. During the time when Christian symbolism was evolving, the Catholic church was the only game in town. I was concerned that it would be too much for a modern client. It turns out that the recipient of the painting was raised as a Catholic. These will be familiar images to him. It’s just another example of how “all things work together for good for those who love God.”