People are forever asking me if I paint "on my back"? I always say that neither the great Michelangelo, nor the humble me paint lying down, although Charlton Heston did in the movie "The Agony and the Ecstasy". Here is an extract from Ross King's book "Michelangelo and the Pope's Ceiling" which I take to jobs as my answer to "The Question".
"At any one time there could have been five or six men on the scaffold, a couple grinding pigments, others unfurling cartoons, still others at the ready with paintbrushes. The scaffold seems to have provided a commodious and convenient place for all of them to work. As it was clear of the vault for the whole of it's span by about seven feet, it allowed them to stand erect as they worked. Applying the Intonaco or spreading the paint simply required them to lean slightly backwards and extend their arms upward".
Contrary to myth, then, Michelangelo did not fresco the ceiling while lying prone on his back unlike the picture lodged solidly in the public mind. This misconception stems from a phrase in a short biography of Michelangelo called "Mihaelis Angeli Vita", written in about 1527 by Paolo Giovio. This describes Michelangelo's posture on the scaffold, Giovio using the term "resupinus", which means "bent backwards", but the word has frequently, and erroneously, been translated as "on his back". It is tiring working with arms up in the air! I do wear a (charming!!) neck brace, purchased at a surgical appliance shop, much to the amusement of the shopkeeper, and this prevents serious damage to my neck.
I would always hope to have an empty room to work in so that I can access all parts from the wheeled scaffold tower that is necessary. Planning permission would only be relevant if one were (heaven forbid!) planning to paint over an historic ceiling. Before I start, I ask that a local Decorator prepares the surfaces for painting. He would sand the wood if it is excessively "hairy", and seal it. Then I can give the infills some background colour, and colour the beams. I use "Flash" paints, made by Lefranc and Bourgeous. Flash was created in 1955, and was one of the first modern alternatives to traditional art materials. Its characteristics allow the artist to regain advantages of ancient tempera. It can be diluted with water, is opaque, and is waterproof after drying. Flash colours are very matt and cover well, they are recommended for use in mural decoration, fresco and ancient matt painting restorations. I use Charcoal to draw with and am glad that I need to wear glasses for my work, as they prevent some of the dust from going directly into my eyes.
I deal with the beams next, working out and painting the background colours. Then I draw up and paint the strapwork and lettering. The treatment of the beams gives structure to the whole work. Having consulted with the Clients, made notes, and put aside reference of the figures and devices that they especially wish to have included, it is then a matter of getting on with it. I start at one end and work my way along, all the time thinking about how each part will read in the whole unfolding composition, and distributing the images so that they balance and compliment each other. As I always say, it is basically one huge painting! I plan what I am going to put in each panel and would expect to have at least one special "thing " in each. For example, a figure, an animal or maybe a grotesque, and then use the many possible ways of linking these. I enjoy the rather mad devices used to do this and the wonderful bold and cheeky shapes that seem appropriate.
We contacted Jenny after seeing an article on her work in the Telegraph, I kept the cutting thinking it may come in useful one day and sure enough two years later Jenny was knocking on our door.
The original plaster ceiling in our house had been lost many years before when the property was in poor condition. We were left with the timber boards and beams supporting the room above, we decided that the solution was to paint the ceiling based on the design that we had seen at Crathes.
We visited the property with Jenny and took a series of photographs for reference, Jenny was then able to recreate a similar design that incorporated many of the elements that we liked in the original. We did not want a straightforward pastiche so Jenny was able to personalise the finished ceiling without detracting from the authenticity of the whole. We included portraits of our children in the faces of the cupids, a unicorn and the family crests from my wife's family, my own and that of the Gordons, for this house was historically a Gordon home. She even included a thistle (with much arm twisting!) and a mermaid to remind us of our proximity to the sea.
Jenny works alone (with Charlie the dog) and rarely stops for a break even at weekends. This commission was a large one and took a couple of months although it can take less or more time depending on extent and complexity. Needless to say we are delighted with the finished product and miss Jenny and Charlie now that they have returned home.
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