Common Grave: A Painting Project – continued

Part II: The Composition and the Process

As I mentioned in my previous post, a ‘cult of devotion’ developed around the skulls and bones found in the Fontanelle cemetery. It is very much a religious, or at least ‘cultic’ site. And why not? Why shouldn’t all these remains, representing the lives of real human beings, our own ancestors — figuratively if not literally — be accorded some respect, perhaps even veneration?
I’m quite fond of the medieval and early renaissance art form of the altar piece. One of my favorite examples of this art form is the Isenheim Altarpiece, by Matthias Grünewald (1470-1528), presently housed in the Unterlinden museum in Colmar, France.

Isenheim altarpiece, panel depicting resurrected Christ, By Grunewald, retable d'Isenheim - http://www.eldritchpress.org/jkh/gr7.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93700
Isenheim altarpiece, panel depicting resurrected Christ, By Matthias Grünewald. Source: http://www.eldritchpress.org/jkh/gr7.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=93700

Such altarpieces typically depict scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary or the lives of various saints.
Why not instead create a sort of altarpiece honoring ordinary people? One devoted to these unknown dead whose remains fill up a giant cave in Naples? That’s the origin of my idea to create a six panel polyptych. Basically it consists of three pairs of paintings — a double triptych.
In my conception, the square paintings join together creating one central image that is 40 inches across.

The two central panels form one image. The watercolor mock-up shows the layout of the complete composition.

These two square paintings form the central panel, and are flanked by two pairs, each of which consists of a 20×24 inch panel and a 20 x 16 inch panel, thus also equalling 40 inches across.

So that is the basic layout of the piece.

The process.

Having many, many reference photos to choose from, I needed to settle upon a limited number from which to work. I narrowed it down to five different photos I took in 2013.
Creating the paintings involved a somewhat painstaking process of preparing the ground, creating cartoon drawings on newsprint, transferring these drawings onto canvas and then, finally, painting.
This process worked fairly well, but it was time consuming. Numerous interruptions made it even more time-consuming!

The ground:
I experimented with using a colored ground on the canvas, instead of just starting with a white gesso canvas. Yellow ochre was used to create a luminous yet earthy yellow base for the paintings.

Yellow ochre ground applied to canvases

Once all canvases were treated with the yellow ochre, I could begin transferring the cartoons (hand drawn outlines of the images) from newsprint to the canvas.

Working on the cartoon for panel III.
Tracing the cartoon for panel II
Tracing results on the canvas!

This involved a slow process of tracing and retracing the images by hand. Once the outlines were in place on the canvas, actual painting could begin.

Applied cartoons ready for paint!

This is the fun part, and also the scary part. Moving from the realm of imagination to a completed piece in the real world is fraught with difficulties. In their excellent book, Art & Fear (1993), David Bayles and Ted Orland describe this very well. It’s worth quoting at length:

“Imagination is in control when you begin making an object. The artwork’s potential is never higher than in that magic moment when the first brushstroke is applied, the first chord struck. But as the piece grows, technique and craft take over, and imagination becomes a less useful tool. A piece grows by becoming specific. … the first few brushstrokes to the blank canvas satisfy the requirements of many possible paintings, while the last few fit only that painting — they could go nowhere else. The development of an imagined piece into an actual piece is a progression of decreasing possibilities, as each step in execution reduces future options by converting one — and only one — possibility into reality. Finally, at some point or another, the piece could not be other than it is, and it is done.”

Art & Fear: Observations On The Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking. The Image Continuum, Santa Cruz, CA, 1993. pp. 15-16)
Panel II in process

I started with the middle panels, III and IV, then moved to the other pairs.

Panel I, completed in 2020.
Panel V, completed in 2020.
Panel II, completed in 2020

As I write this, panel VI remains incomplete, and my current task is to move it into reality! Wish me luck!

Panel VI, at an early stage of the painting process.