I finished my latest personal work, “English Magic” almost two weeks ago, but I’ve been so busy it’s taken me a while to write a process post. This piece was definitely one of my most ambitious portfolio pieces to date, with a lot of meticulous detail. I set out to create a piece that inspired wonder, and while I’m not quite sure if I managed to achieve that, I think that it does make the eye linger.
“English Magic” was largely inspired by the book Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The book is a 19th century alternate history fantasy in which magic is being restored to England during the Napoleonic era by “magicians”. One of my favorite aspects of the story was that these magicians either learned magic from other magicians before them, or from books. In other words, magic is just a very complicated sort of trade anyone can learn (given they are clever enough), rather than some kind of mystical force that resides within certain individuals and not others. The main characters learn magic chiefly from old books, and their personal journeys of academic discovery lead them to learning new spells and opening portals to other worlds.
I wanted to emphasize this feeling of discovery in “English Magic.” My chief aim was to show a wizard buried in his work, oblivious to an entire world of magic unfolds around him. I spent a good two weeks on this one, in between other projects, working on all the various elements of the piece. It occurred to me that it was really like two paintings in one, which explains why it took me so long. The green upper half was basically an entirely different palette and I found myself working on it in sessions separately from the lower half of the library scene.
The above progress image is from around halfway through the painting. I was struggling with rendering the dancing figures in the middle section of the green area. My initial intent was to make them quite painterly and dreamlike, but it just wasn’t working. I think that in order to really sell the magical green world, I needed to make it hyper-real, rather than blurred and indistinct. After all, don’t most dreams feel very real while we are experiencing them? It’s only afterwards that you realize they are a long ways from reality.
I finally finished the dancers with some more compelling details, and from then on the rest of the painting basically followed suit. Sometimes, there is almost a kind of turning point in a piece, when a decision has to be made: go left or go right. From that point on, the commitment is made and the piece almost finishes itself.