Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Oil Painting Pompeii on Canvas: an Art Evaluation

An oil painting with perpendicular structures such as this scene of Pompeii poses the issue of perspectives. Getting perspectives right can cause the artist to get sidetracked. Surrounding areas such as the sky could be in danger of being overlooked. This challenge was faced by Elizabeth Murray when painting this scene of Pompeii oil on canvas.

About Pompeii the City 

Pompeii by Elizabeth Murray: Oil on Canvas
Pompeii is located near Naples in Italy. The town was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, burying its occupants within a pyoclastic flow. The town was rediscovered after 1,500 years and the buried remains preserved, creating a tourist attraction. Only a ruin remains.

Perpendicular Lines of Pompeii 

The painting style reminds me a little of De Chirico’s scenes in the repeating arches and shadows and the muted color of the sky, although the paint handling is softer than De Chirico’s style.

Perspectives on Buildings
Great handling of perspectives is evident here. The columns are vertical and the supporting struts recede to a vanishing point that makes sense, as can be seen by the image overlaid with dark lines. Some paintings featuring straight lines can look rather draughtsman-like, but is not the case here. The columns appear soft, almost rendered by pastel and shadows appear to melt into the sunlit areas. As the artist is a beginner, is a great achievement.

The only (slight) issue is the arches in the foreground appear to lean forwards. This is because the arches (including one in the background) aren’t quite symmetrical in formation and apex of some appear too far to the left (see close up images). This problem is minor and can easily be fixed.

High Detail in Buildings 

Getting Arches Symmetrical
This painting appears to be completed with a limited palette, for the muted colors. This provides the ideal opportunity to explore textures. In this vein, the artist has requested tips on getting high detail in the buildings. A good way is to apply paint thinned with a little linseed oil from a fine bristle (number 6 or 3) over the base color. A sable may not possess the robustness required to deal with the rough surface of canvas and may not get into the weave.

Erosion can be suggested by smudging out the paint slightly and applying fine marks on select areas as guided by the photo. Oblique sunlight can bring out the imperfections in the stonework. Applying neat white (with perhaps a tiny dab of burnt sienna to create warm highlights) can be ‘skimmed’ over the palest areas of the columns to really bring them out. The same treatment can be used for the darks.

Pompeii City near Naples
Skimming an uneven paint layer can suggest the erosion of old relics, particularly on canvas. Depth of tone can be achieved by deepening the darkest areas of the monuments, but only on select areas as revealed on the photograph. Exacting detail, such as the carvings on the uppersides of the columns could perhaps be dealt with on separate sessions. A painting featuring lots of detail can be completed on several session, an hour or so each. Never try to rush detail in a bid to complete the painting.

Finding Great Images of Pompeii 

Illustrating detail on buildings requires one thing: a clear photograph. This allows no guesswork when applying the paint. Textures and pigmentations can be clearly seen and copied. If something doesn’t work right, the paint can be smudged off with the corner of a rag and detail can be reapplied on top. This is the beauty of oil paint.

Challenges in Painting Buildings and Skies 

A large part of the composition consists of the sky. If much time and energy is spent upon the buildings, the sky aspect can become overlooked. This can result in a rushed looking sky or one that appears empty. Although this is not really the case here, the artist has expressed dissatisfaction with the sky. The answer is to foresee such a problem before spending too much time on foreground detail. A painting that features large areas of sky requires forward planning.

A Painting with a Large Sky 

The artist does not have to use the sky shown in the photograph if it is unsatisfactory. I have used the sky from another photograph. A painting can be created from several photos. Ensure the following when substituting the sky in a painting: 

That the light hits the clouds from the same angle as the other objects within the scene (ie, from the left or right or from above).
That the sky appears to be of the same time of day (ie, evening or afternoon).
That the sky exhibits similar weather conditions (sunny or inclement).
That the sky could inhabit that portion of sky (ie, it is no good sticking clouds at the zenith onto a horizon). 

How to Find an Interesting Sky for Painting 

Look for an interesting sky. I like skies with textures, such as mackerel sky or cumulonimbus. A simple sky can be interesting, such as a mostly blue sky with a few wispy cirrus clouds. Clouds with definite tones (lights and darks) could be used to echo the textures of the buildings. Rather than change the sky in this painting, I would start afresh, as the soft clouds add contrast with the rigid lines of the monuments.

Further Tips on Oil Painting Related to this Article

Drawing perspectives on buildings
The main oil painting techniques
Painting interesting skies

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