I’m the type of fellow who can get bored doing the same thing for too long. I also find when drawing or painting that a frustrating problem is easier to solve if you let it sit for a bit and come back to it. You can look at it with a fresh eye and you’re less likely to make stupid decisions when you’ve cooled off a bit. So, while painting the clipper ship commission that I posted about recently, I also started working on a mermaid as a way to take breaks.
It wouldn’t be much of a break from oil painting if I started another oil painting. So the mermaid would be watercolor (sortof). I’d been meaning to order some Arches paper from Utrecht, but not knowing I’d want to start this painting until the day of, I wasn’t in a hurry and didn’t have any suitable watercolor paper. So, I just did the drawing on a sheet of regular drawing paper. I wanted to show a moment of decision when the mermaid, having received a potion from the Sea Witch that will make her human, resolves to use it. It is a big decision that will require sacrifice and provide an uncertain future, so, it is supposed to look a little ominous and she a little melancholy.
I got my reference from the great and vast internet. Usually for something like this, I’d prefer to shoot my own reference, but I didn’t plan this in advance, and had to settle for Pinterest and google. That can, of course be risky if you don’t play it right. Just yesterday, I was dropping off a painting at the Harris Fine Arts Center at BYU, and among some works hanging there, I assume from a freshman drawing class, I noted an image that I have definitely seen before, probably in National Geographic (it kind of destroys your credibility as an artist when it looks like you just copy other peoples photos). That being said, I’d be very surprised if you could correctly identify any of my internet reference sources. That isn’t just because my sources are obscure, but because when I create a piece I have an idea, and usually thumbnails or sketches of what I want. Then if I can’t shoot my own reference, I look for images that can inform my work and fill in the details I need. I usually use reference from the internet to help me accomplish a piece I’ve already planned, I don’t plan a piece based on the reference I find.
While drawing I ran up against another little quandary. I haven’t ever imagined that mermaids would actually wear clothes. They are fishfolk and fish don’t have a lot of use for clothes. I also felt that adding shells or something like that would automatically introduce her into our system of morality. And wearing only shells she’d probably fall nearer the skanky end of that spectrum. Initially I imagined that I’d just use the age old tactic of long hair to cover her chest. I tried it and didn’t like the result. It kind of ruined the balance and composition. So, I finished the drawing with the hair on only one side. When I was done, I asked my wife what she thought. She said she liked it, but pointed out that even if they don’t worry about clothes in mer-culture, there are kids from human culture, who’s parents are deciding what values of modesty etc. to teach them, who follow my instagram and other social media. That was a valid point. I gave in and determined to do two versions. The authentic mermaid version, and the approved for all audiences version. I traced her torso and added shells on a separate paper, intending to paint those as I painted the main image and digitally combine them later.
When the drawing was done I mounted it on a panel using matte medium. I painted several layers of transparent washes until I came to a point where I was of two minds. One of my minds said “I like this, it is kind of high key, but you should keep it.” my other mind said, “If you are going to put that on your blog or website, people will want deeper values and more contrast.” Lucky for me, modern technology lets me have my cake and eat it too. I photographed it, and continued painting digitally so that I could keep the original how it was.
When I digitally paint into a traditionally started piece, I tend to use similar methods to the traditional medium I started with. In this instance, that meant several additional transparent layers.
Being finished I’m glad to have all three versions—the original, the digital and the digital with shells. Hope you enjoy it too.