I started working as an artist pretty much right out of high school. My ultimate dream was always to illustrate Bible symbolism, with “Have one of your paintings hanging in the Vatican” sitting prominently (and probably unattainably) at the very top of my Life’s Bucket List. In high school, I caught a bit of flack from teachers who thought there was too much religious emphasis in my work, but sometimes your heart is where it is, and the only question is are you going to embrace that passion or ignore it.
I chose to embrace it, even though I don’t get to embrace it as often or as fully as I’d like.
Years ago, I created what I considered to be my masterpiece; an enormous painting heavily laden with Bible symbolism which I chronicled in a multi-part blog series (the final part which I still have not written, good grief, Wendy, seriously) titled “Armageddon“. It was a true labor of love, if ever such a thing existed, and if you haven’t read my blog series about it, please feel free to pop over and enjoy.
Usually religious works are done just for me, with wildlife, nature scenes, and my personal creativity outlet, still-life portraits, building up the bulk of my commission jobs. But every once in a while, the opportunity to create a piece of religious art for someone springs up and I pounce on it.
The commission I just completed was a Lenten Cross. The client didn’t call it that, but after he described, “a cross with purple robe hanging over an arm”, I knew that he was talking about what is commonly referred to as a Lenten Cross.
He also wanted the words “Lord and Savior” written on the cloth, and specified a dark background, but with “a bright light shining on the center of the cross, blazing out like a star”.
That last part made me wince a little bit as I don’t work in oils or with an airbrush, and I was a tiny bit skeptical that I could deliver perfectly blended rays of light using acrylics.
I asked if the goal was a pristinely sawn cross or more of an old rugged cross. Happily he asked for the latter.
To be honest, the most challenging part of this piece was what I thought would be the easiest. “Draw a cross”. Not hard, right? Just two pieces of wood. But when I sat down to actually do it, I realized that I had no idea how to proportion the cross. How wide should the arms be? How much should the top stick up? How much space should be between the underside of the cross-piece and the bottom of the cross? And honestly, when I researched online and looked at pictures, it seemed like there was no set way of doing this. Some crosses were short and fat, others tall and skinny. Some had hardly any room at the top, while others had a top which measured equal to the sides.
Another similar consideration was how to drape the cloth. I decided to go with the traditional drape over both arms and slung down in the front, but how far down should it go? How long should the tails be?
The only logical thing to do was draw SOMETHING and then just modify it as needed.
Quick side note here: Since I’m known to be a strong critic of too much technology, I thought that in today’s painting breakdown I would show you some of the ways that I DO use technology in my work. Because I’m not opposed to technology, I just don’t like how new tech often means the extinction of every single thing that came before it. I prefer to integrate new methods into the old, and enjoy the best of both.
So I laid down some measurements and guidelines for myself, and just went for it. This was the first draft.
As soon as I had something concrete to look at, I knew what needed to be done to fix it.
Now I could picture how a human body would “fit” on the cross; how much room there should be for the head (and keeping in mind that the Bible specifies that there was a plaque above Jesus’ head), and how long the cross would need to be in order to support a full body.
And this is where my computer came in. Yes, I could have just redrawn the cross 15 times, making small adjustments with every draft. But that would take SO MUCH TIME, and why work harder than you have to? Work smarter, not harder. As I said, technology can be a good thing. As long as I’m not using it as a replacement for the skills I’ve spent my life learning, then why not use the resources you have at hand?
This next series of sketches shows the draft progressions, moving pieces of the cross and cloth in, out, up or down digitally by simply “cutting” the piece and dragging it around to see what looked best.
I’ll also include this small gallery of the drafts so you can click through them and watch the changes happen. (Click on the first image to open the gallery view):
As I mentioned, the goal for this cross was to make it more of an “old rugged” style. Now, I considered making it a true “old rugged cross”, basically the crucifixion version of Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree: Spindly, mismatched, and lop-sided. But again, I wanted to maintain a level of realism here. And I just couldn’t imagine Jesus hanging on a cross like this:
It wouldn’t hold a body, so I doubt very much that Jesus’s actual cross at the crucifixion resembled this style. Instead, I opted to age and distress the cross in a more natural way. I achieved this by adding deep grooves and cracks, exaggerating knots, and weathering all the edges smooth.
Next up was finishing the cloth. As you saw in the drafts, I removed the bottom edge of the fabric so that I could draw it in after I added the text: “Lord and Savior”. I don’t have a program that will make curved text, but I did find a few sites online that offer that function for free. The problem with using one of these resources is that you’re limited to whatever selection of fonts they have, and their pre-set arc shapes. From the word GO I knew that I wanted the text to be in Chopin Script, but of course that wasn’t a font offered by any of these sites. I still tried to find a nice script though, and I played with a few different curvatures that were available.
But … technology just wasn’t cutting it this time. So since I already knew exactly what I wanted, I just free-handed the text onto the cloth. Much easier and much quicker.
Perfect size, perfect font, perfect curve. Sometimes the old way really is the best way!
The next day, I transferred the image onto my prepared canvas paper (primed with three coats of gesso and three coats of white acrylic) using graphite paper.
As soon as I finished the transfer, I realized that there was absolutely no reason for me to have traced this much detail at this time. Because once all the parts were based in with paint, all the lines would disappear anyway. I left the template paper taped to my canvas so that once the first coats of paint had been laid, I could flip it back down and re-transfer all the details ON TOP of the coloured base.
It has been a loooong time since I did a painting with a black background. Five years, to be exact, as the last one was my still-life self-portrait, “A Portrait of the Artist at Twenty-Five“, and I actually painted that background itself two years earlier in 2012. Despite the fact that many of my earlier works have all-black backgrounds, I had forgotten what a huge pain in the neck those are to work around. Visible finger prints, smudges, pin-hole size spots that you missed which you can’t see until you spray clear all over the piece right at the end…
But, I pushed through, and in the end, remembered why a black background is worth all the pain.
Once I had all the base colours down and to the proper opacity (2-3 coats), I retraced the details and started slowly adding the first shadows.
As always, when determining where to start, I work from back to front in regards to the “plains” of the painting. The tails of the cloth are what’s furthest to the ‘back’, so that’s where I begin and work forward from there.
By the end of the day, I had all the preliminary shading done on the cloth.
Now, I didn’t really need to do anything to the drape of fabric yet considering that it was going to be the last piece of the painting I would work on. But sometimes it helps to see how things will shape up, and since it wasn’t that much work, and chances were that my future burst of light wouldn’t totally cover up the shading, I did just a very small amount of work on it.
After I deepened the shadows and added highlights to the fabric, I started on the wood of the cross.
There are probably 2-3 layers of shading.
The wood still needs one final darker layer of shadows in the deepest crevices, but first I paint highlights.
And the final step for the wood — the darkest shading. You can see this mostly in the knot holes.
Before I could move on to the front of the draped cloth and text, it was time to tackle the part I was dreading… the beams of light. I wanted them to look like they were coming right out of the center of the cross, but not completely cover up all the painting I’d already done. I gave this part of the painting a lot of thought, and I started considering that acrylic paint wasn’t my only option. I set out to run some tests.
Aside from acrylic paint, I had three other options: Chalk pastels (what I was leaning towards), watercolour pencils, or white charcoal pencil. And I didn’t think of the latter until I had tried everything else first.
I tried applying the acrylic a few different ways: Dry brush, watered down, and then finally, laying down a hard line and trying to blend it out, but the result was too rough. I’m sure with more work I could have built it up and blended it out into something nice, but that seemed like a lot of unnecessary fussing, not to mention a risk that I would mess up the paint underneath it. I really liked how the chalk pastel blended out so soft and smoothly, but it was difficult to build up the opacity. The watercolour pencil I tried both wet and dry, and the results were terrible.
I decided to use the pastels, but after testing their durability with my clear protective spray… they were simply not going to work. They actually just disappeared completely. Add another “con” to the paper I was using for only the second time (the first time prepared this way). I’ve used the pastels and clear spray before on special custom envelopes that I send to some of my friends, and never had a problem. But envelopes are straight paper — they have a level of absorbency which gives the pastels something to grip to rather than just sitting on the surface to be easily rubbed away when sprayed, which is exactly what happened with this ultra smooth, now zero absorbency paper.
Then I remembered the white charcoal pencils, and specifically a chalkboard sign I had made a few years ago for my friend’s wedding. I used both the white charcoal pencil and plain chalk, and when sprayed, the plain chalk vanished completely, but the white charcoal was fine. So I tested it on this paper, and eureka, it was perfect. It had the opacity of acrylic, but the blendability of pastels. And it held up fine under the spray.
Now that the rays were done, I was finally able to finish up the cloth.
I wasn’t sure if I should make the text a part of the cloth, like it had been stitched on, or let it be its own layer, standing out from the cloth. So I tried it both ways.
I painted the letters, and then shaded and highlighted the cloth going right through the writing, which is how it would look if the text was embroidered directly onto the cloth. Annnnd I didn’t really like it. Which was fine because the creases in the fabric needed to be painted fully if I was putting the text over the top. This just meant that I had to repaint the text after the fabric was completed.
And there it was!
I thought the letters needed some highlights to make them stand out more, and I nixed the idea of adding a drop shadow. I was so pleased with my finished painting, and yet….. for some reason it just didn’t look finished to me.
The problem area was right where the rays of light started. I felt that something more was needed. I toyed around with the idea of adding a few different things, but ultimately I realized that the solution was much simpler — the light just needed to be more concentrated right in the center. So I added more white and a few extra rays.
NOW it looked finished.
This was such a refreshing painting to create, as religious works are few and far between. One last painting tip: If you’re going to be clearing your work, take photos and scans first. I use a satin not glossy spray, but even so, it creates a sheen over the painting which is terrible for reflecting light in a scanner. Not every painting even needs a protective spray (I often don’t spray paintings done on canvas paper), but because this piece had charcoal and not just acrylic, it definitely needed some protection.
This painting came together very quickly. I began the work on March 11 and signed my name to the finished piece on March 21. A ten-day turnaround is pretty good, I think!
One final side note: I did slip one small piece of symbolism into this painting. I had ideas for a lot more, but I had to remind myself that this was a commission and not a personal piece. I used three pegs shaped like an inverted triangle to show how the two pieces of cross were held together. The three represents the Trinity, and the triangle pointing downward (as opposed to one pointing upward) represents God reaching down to man. Which is exactly what Jesus did by sacrificing Himself on the cross.
Yeah, no one asked for symbolism, but hey, like I said at the start, sometimes your heart is where it is. And my heart is in exactly the same place it was all those years ago. I don’t call myself “WendyLovesJesus” for nothing. †