progress on blue hervé

The image grows day by day, detail creeping across the panel as I get closer to completion. This will be the last post-in progress of blue Hervé and his beast, as I hope the next will show the finished work.

Below: back where it started

beasts, inside and out

Here at Ty Isaf the weather rages around the house. The winds are bitter and the skies leaden. The cold that I hadn’t quite shaken off after Christmas, has reignited, and my chest is creaky and sore from coughing.

Dreaming of wolves, I’m stirred from sleep by the unearthly screeching of a vixen outside the bedroom window. I think she comes down calling for Jack, but though he’s been known to wake, alert to her allure, tonight he just grunts and snuggles further under the duvet. His breathing deepens and he’s asleep again in moments. But sleep has departed for me, and I lie listening to the vixen’s urgent, banshee cries in the darkness, until I give up and trudge upstairs to the studio at 4am.

The wolf from my dreams is transferring to the panel at the easel, where his pelt is as full of eddies as a restless sea. The fur on the muscles of his neck seems like the convolutions of an exposed brain, which is not what I’d intended and is oddly unsettling. I feel raw, and the drawing takes on those qualities. Every time I excavate a new graze of red oxide from the painting (see yesterday’s post), scratching away at the blue with my slip of sandpaper until the under-colour emerges, it looks like my chest feels!

I need another early night, and one hopefully minus the cries of the banshee.

Maquettes of Hervé and the Wolf on the studio floor

hervé and the negative space

At the easel, a new painting of Hervé and the Wolf is underway, a rather formal work, rooted in shape, colour and texture. The colour is limited to a sea of blue against black with some islands of off-white, though I’m sanding back in places where I want that shock of red oxide under paint, like a bloody graze.

It’s the element of intimacy and touch that drives this piece. The points of contact suggested by the slivers of overlap as the wolf presses into blind Hervé’s neck, and the back of Hervé’s hand nudges the hair on the wolf’s foreleg.

Above and below: transparency, disconnect, the ebb and flow of fur, an absence of gravity and the electrical charge of touch. The oddness of a dream.

I’m obsessed with negative space. Put simply, if the negative spaces aren’t working, I feel an unease close to nausea. At this point I have to keep tweaking and shifting things until the nausea stops. Then I know that everything is fine. If a negative space is a centimetre out… or less… a hairsbreadth (when I was a boy I mistook that phrase as ‘hare’s breath’, which works just as well)… then I have to keep working until I’ve resolved the problem. It doesn’t matter in the least if this drops a shoulder to the wrong place anatomically, or means that one hand is bigger than it ought to be. All that matters is that the negative space stops shouting at me.

The painting started with new maquettes of Hervé and his wolf which I then used to make a number of rough compositional sketches on paper…

… before laying out an underdrawing on panel.

The wolf, quite small as a maquette

 has grown bigger for the painting.

once the maquettes are made…

… then the real work begins.

Finding the compositional forms.


Of course the paintings shall no doubt end up looking quite different, but the maquettes are the starting point.

Verses eight and nine from Callum James poem The Boy and the Wolf

VIII. Hervé Redeems The Wolf.
A blinding alleluia of light
as from the boy
love tumbled,
burst like river-diamonds,
mingling with The
Wolf’s breath,
flooding the grasses, fur,
the snowdrops,
heating the prayer
that made him.

IX. Hervé and The Wolf Together.
That moment hung,
a stopped raindrop,
a never falling leaf
within his soul: quivering.
It abided there.
The Wolf abided
at the centre of him.

Callum James 2004

building a new maquette: 4

The new maquette is finished. I’ve made a number of spare parts for him… various heads and extra hands… so that he’ll be versatile as a studio aid. (The extra hands are hidden on swivelling bars behind the forearms, so that I can switch them quickly when positioning the maquette.) I wasn’t thinking of a particular character while I was making him, but I’m pretty sure now that he’s the blind saint from Brittany, Hervé.

So I’m back in the world of boys and their wolves, and I’m already at work on a series of new compositions.

My last Hervé works were this painting…

… and this drawing, both produced in 2011.

So, on to new work.

le bon pasteur

To my knowledge I’d never previously laid eyes on an image of Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s Le Bon Pasteur until the painting brought me up short last week at the Musées royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique. Turned sideways and cropped…

… I’m reminded of another depiction of a man being attacked by a wolf: my own painting of the blind Saint Hervé, titled Furious Embrace. Interesting that Hervé’s golden head almost exactly occupies the compositional space of the golden-coloured straw hat in the Brueghel painting. Other points of compositional similarity are: the wolf’s paw at the man’s left shoulder: the position of the man’s right leg: an arm stretching diagonally from upper left to lower right.

The Beaux Arts de Belgique Bon Pasteur is one of two versions painted by Brueghel the Younger after a lost original by his father. The other was in the collection of Ernst and Gisela Pollack of Vienna,  from which it was looted in 1942 by the Nazis, and thereafter acquired by Reichstatthalter Baldur von Schirach in a ‘forced’ auction. Recovered by a descendent of the Pollacks, in 2001 Le Bon Pasteur was again put up for auction… on this occasion legally by Christie’s… reaching a price of $688, 000.

It’s likely that The Good Shepherd was made as a pendant to The Bad Shepherd, in which the shepherd abandons his flock as the wolf attacks.

wolf sgraffito

Yesterday I roughly blocked in the new painting. I chose a very limited palette to keep the whole thing coherent: Pthalo Blue (Green Shade), Transparent Red Oxide, Transparent Yellow Oxide, Nickel Azo, Light Ultramarine, Mars Black and Titanium White. Red Oxide for the undercoat. Today I worked up the wolf’s head. Not quite finished that yet, but here are images of what’s been done so far. I’ve used areas of sgraffito to suggest its bristly coat.




I’ll have to keep my head down to complete this tomorrow, but I think it’s going to be possible. Everything seems to be progressing well so far.

the last one

I’ve begun the last painting for my forthcoming exhibition. There are just a couple of days to bring it to completion if I’m to deliver it to the gallery on Saturday ready to be hung next week. Luckily I have a frame ready for it. It’s based on this chiaroscuro Hervé and the Wolf study made a couple of months ago.

Below is the painting at the end of the first day on the easel . Quite a way to go to pull this one together in a very short time. Tomorrow had better be a good day!