The film stars Elsa Lanchester as Mary Shelley in the opening sequence, and as the Monster’s mate — the Bride — at the end.
As the Bride, Lanchester is seen onscreen for a mere 4 minutes of a 75 minute film, but with such a memorable, show-stopping look, she was forever immortalized as the Queen of Monsters in those few 240 seconds.
As an artist, I’ve spent years painting still-life, portraits, and wildlife. One thing I had never painted was anything pop culture related. How crazy is that? I’m constantly mooning over the monster art of artists like Basil Gogos and Jason Edmiston, yet I’d never done any of that myself. So last October, I set out to create a Bride of Frankenstein-inspired piece to commemorate the film’s 80th anniversary. I featured the finished painting in my Halloween night blog post, “A Toast to Gods and Monsters“.
In that post, I said that I would do a follow-up that chronicled the progression of the painting. So here’s your one and only warning: A whole slew of geeky, potentially boring art-speak follows. If you’re not keen on listening to me wax poetic about the who, what, when, where, why and hows of painting, then feel free to skip over the art jargon and scroll ahead to look at the pretty pictures. I won’t judge you. Much.
This is how she looked on October 31, 2015.
But I knew in my heart that she wasn’t quite finished. From the beginning, I had a very specific idea of what I wanted the end result to be.
This was also an exercise is creative experimentation and growth. You see, I’m a creature of habit. I don’t always like to try new things. When I find something that works and works well for me, I tend to stick with it, honing it to make it as perfect as I can. Which is a good way to be, I think, but it does mean that I can be resistant to change. And change isn’t always a bad thing. If we never tried anything new, we’d never know anything.
I envisioned a black and white painting, in keeping with the Bride’s classic 1930s’ monster appeal, with literal splashes of red to give it that Hammer-esque Technicolor edge that I love so much. Bright red lips and splatters of blood-red all over the painting. And lace. Lots of lace. Now, I’d like to point out that I’ve never worked with lace. And the thought of hand-painting ribbons of intricate, gauzy bits didn’t really fit my tight, self-imposed 1-month deadline for the painting’s completion. So I assumed I could just buy some actual lace and treat it like a stencil.
Uh huh. More about that fiasco later.
So as with every painting I do, it all started with an idea and then a photo/drawing. While I wasn’t going for an exact Elsa Lanchester portrait (wanted it to be more Bride-inspired, as I said earlier), I still used this great shot of her for my base.
I wanted to go bold, so I cropped in quite close on her head for the design. The canvas was another experiment: I typically paint on canvas panels. Since I like to frame most of my work, the thinness of canvas panels endeared them to me right from the beginning. But I didn’t want to frame this piece, I wanted it to have a painted edge. So for the first time, I used a stretch canvas. It proved to be very unpleasant to work on.
Let me explain the difference. Canvas panels are nice and rigid because the canvas is glued directly onto a hard board. Stretched canvases are not rigid at all because the canvas itself has no backing. It’s stretched and stapled to a wooden frame, leaving the back of the canvas completely exposed. Which also makes it more fragile, so I’m not really sure why a lot of artists prefer the stretched canvases to the canvas panels. Because of the slack in the canvas, I ended up painting the entire piece with a book underneath so I had a hard base to push against.
Art Tip: If you’re thinking of trying a stretched canvas, also be aware that even the pre-stretched ones you buy at the store aren’t ready to use when you first get them. There are wooden biscuits (which you use to tighten the canvas) that need to be glued inside the corners of the frame. Just prepping the canvas for use took a good hour, and that’s not including the curing time for the glue.
For your viewing convenience, I’ve created a dated gallery you can click through to see how the painting progressed. Click on any image and it’ll open the gallery in slideshow-view.
At this stage, the painting was “technically” finished.
And here is what Bob Ross would call my “bravery test”. Could I really take a perfectly good painting and slap some red lips on it…? Honestly, it was tough. I really, really liked her all in grey tones. More than I thought I would. But, I’ve never been one to “settle” for anything, so…
On went those red lips! And now onto…
Bravery test #2: Lace.
As I said, I’ve never worked with lace before. And if anyone reading this is planning to try, it probably would have worked very well if I could have sprayed the paint over it. I do have an airbrush, but I’ve never learned to use it. And because this is an acrylic painting, a can of spray paint was out of the question because they don’t put acrylic in spray cans. Or if they do, I’ve never seen it and it’s not available up here.
Art Tip: Layering different types of paint is a bad idea. Latex, enamel or any oil-based paint will EAT acrylic. Acrylic is water-based. Oil and water don’t mix in the kitchen, and they don’t mix in the studio either.
This was the layout I initially wanted for my lace. Something very pronounced and bold. But once I started experimenting with stenciling the lace, I realized that this wasn’t going to be as simple as I had hoped.
I had two different pieces of lace. The larger piece was very thin, soft and delicate-feeling, with holes that were pin-prick tiny. The narrower lace was thick and stiff, as if it had been starched, with much more defined pattern holes. In order to even get the paint through the larger lace’s print, I had to water it down so much that it just made a sloppy mess. But the thicker lace posed nearly the same problem. It was so thick that again, the paint still had to be watered down in order to seep through the holes. I was having flashbacks to my first encounter with gold leafing back in 2012. You can read about that epic battle in my four-part series Armageddon: The Making of an Objet d’Art.
If I’d had more time, I would have tried the airbrush. But I didn’t have the time, and not to be outwitted by a piece of cloth, I kept experimenting with paint consistency, brush type, and technique until I finally came up with a workable result. But it did mean abandoning the thinner lace altogether and modifying the layout to something much less dramatic.
First, I needed to secure the lace to the canvas to try and keep it still and close to the surface. The painter’s tape didn’t quite do the trick, so I also ended up stapling the lace to the wooden frame. You can also see what I mean about the stretched canvas being thin and fragile.
I used a medium-sized, medium-density stippling brush, and added as little water to the paint as possible. The key here was to use a small amount of paint, stippled directly up and down, never at an angle, and not allowing the edge of the bristles to actually slip under the lace even the tiniest amount.
Also, I realized very quickly that using a brush, there just wasn’t going to be any “perfect” imprint left, so all that mattered was getting the basic design transferred onto the canvas. I did a lot of touch-up and finishing after with my finer brushes. But this was still a great time-saving technique and a good alternative to slaving over entirely hand-painted lace.
While it certainly wasn’t the dramatic gauzy lace curtain that I had envisioned obscuring my Bride’s face, the toned-down version still added a bit of visual interest and texture to the painting, so I was pleased.
I had the title of this piece picked out before I started painting it. A simple “The Bride”, with the tagline, “All is Vanity”. I toyed with writing the tagline in Latin, a language that I’ve always loved to dabble in, but my non-Latin-reading father was quick to point out that something everyone could read might be more appropriate since this was 2015 and not 1415. Spoilsport.
Not every painting needs a formal title. Sometimes they call for one, sometimes they don’t. But I am a big proponent of signing, dating and titling paintings on the front, where they are forever visible to everyone viewing them. So I designed a little title card-type vignette, the style inspired by the old glamourous Hollywood marquee.
I had a difficult time deciding on what colour to make the letters. At this point I was still hung up on whether or not my planned red splatter/spatters were necessary. I mean, I knew it was necessary. It was the driving design feature of the piece right from the start! But once again, I was scared. Scared that I might ruin what was already “good enough”. So as I was debating text colour, I kept the possibility of “more red” in the back of my mind.
Technology is a big help when trying to make this kind of decision. I used my computer to test out a variety of colour options.
Eventually, I decided on a plain old gradation of black. Easy to read, and complements everything.
For the time being, the painting was complete and ready to be featured in my Halloween post. It was going to take time to work up the nerve to “finish” it.
I set up the painting in my studio, right next to Don (my Mystic Seer) and I looked at her every single day for the next 8 months. I liked the painting, but … it just wasn’t finished.
Finally, this past June, I decided that I couldn’t live with that unfinished painting a day longer. It was time to follow my own advice and stop settling for a mundane, mediocre piece of art.
It was time for more testing.
Whether you prefer the term splatter or spatter, making those graphic droplets of paint is not as easy as it looks. Once I got the hang of it, it wasn’t too bad, but I found myself having to scour the internet for video tutorials on how to get bigger drops, how to get longer drops, and why the paint wasn’t coming off my brush!?
Splatter/spattering is a one-shot deal. You only get one try with this kind of effect. But I still wanted to do some testing. So I covered my Bride painting with plastic wrap, which effectively protected it from my test paint while still allowing me to see how the finished effect would look on the painting.
It was a great idea. Worked like a charm!
I did two tests, wiping the paint off in between. Then before I lost my nerve, off came the plastic and splat! Spat! Splat, splat, spat! I tried to keep the red to the edges — attempting to mimic the framing I had originally wanted to do with the lace — so I cut a clean piece of plastic to protect her face and went to town tapping my brush and carefully adding a few drips, streaks and smears.
This might sound funny, but this exercise was strangely liberating! And if you had seen my studio after I was done, you’d realize just how liberating it had been.
There was red paint E-V-E-R-Y-W-H-E-R-E. It was all over the desk. It was up on the window sill and covering everything that was ON the windowsill. It was all over the window!! It took me longer to clean up all the red over-spatter than it did to test the technique and finish the painting. I was scrubbing my things for hours. O_O Why I didn’t think to completely cover the area I was working in, I have no idea. “I’ll just be careful” is probably what I was thinking. (I’m sure a lot of parents will also attest that that’s not a reliable life plan. ;P)
But it was worth it. It was all worth it. On June 26, 2016, “The Bride” was finally ready to take her vows — she was a finished painting.
She is, in a sense, meant to be a type of vanitas painting. Vanitas paintings contain elements that illustrate the juxtaposition of life and death. Often, these paintings feature a skull and flowers, showing that life is fleeting and vanity is short lived. The term “vanity” in these instances is often symbolic of earthly desires, pleasures, possessions and anything we treasure. But vanity can, of course, be used in the more literal sense, which is what I’ve done here — depicting a woman and her physical beauty. The point of a vanitas painting is really to make the viewer more aware of their mortality, and what questions mortality more than the story of Frankenstein and his unholy, undead creations?
So here is my painted Bride, in all her un-dead glory. Still maintaining her beauty in a typical vanity pose, surrounded by lace — a delicate, feminine fabric that we often associate with actual brides. But death and decay is setting in, the effect heightened with the muted grey-tone colour palate and deep, dark shadows of her face; the spark of life left in her represented by the red lips and the blood spatters. But all is vanity. All that is beautiful is destined to die and fade away.
There’s no question, it’s all a little morbid. But death is just a reality of life. Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave? No one. Even Edgar Allan Poe felt the inexplicable draw of the vanitas topic. From his essay, “The Philosophy of Composition“: “Of all the melancholy topics, what, according to the universal understanding of mankind, is the most melancholy? Death — was the obvious reply. And when is this most melancholy of topics most poetical? When it most closely allies itself to Beauty: the death, then, of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”
Beauty and death. Death and beauty. I think these two fundamental denominators are so intrinsically linked because really, could we truly recognize and appreciate beauty if there was no death?
I’ll leave you with that thought.
Until next time, unpleasant dreams . . .