Last month I finished the second work in a new series of paintings I am calling Portents. The first piece I did was “Their Refinement of the Decline” (which I documented in an earlier blog post here) The composition for that painting was inspired by a painting of the Tower of Babel by the Flemish renaissance painter Pieter Bruegel. In my second work, I again looked to Bruegel for inspiration. This time I referenced a painting attributed to him called “The Fall of Icarus”. This depicts the Greek myth of Icarus who attempted to escape his imprisonment on the isle of Crete using wings his father had made from feathers and wax. Icarus ignored his father’s instructions not to fly to close to the sun, and the sun’s heat melted Icarus’ wings, causing him to plunge into the sea to his death. The myth speaks of hubris or failed ambition.
In Bruegel’s painting you see an expansive landscape of daily life. In the foreground, a farmer plows his field, a shepherd herds his flock, and off in the distance, ships sail the open sea. Scarcely visible in the lower right corner of the painting is Icarus plunging into the ocean. His tragic death seems to go unseen by all.
Out of sight, out of mind.
I see the same thing happening today. Currently we do things that are proven to contribute to global warming and yet few of us seem to be heeding the warning to change our actions. Hence my reason for undertaking this painting. My original idea was to portray a vast urban landscape with people busily going about their daily lives, while off in the distance beyond everyone’s attention, lay a burning oil rig.
I began by comping my idea in Photoshop. I haven’t done this with previous paintings but I felt a digital comp would help me as I knew the composition was going to be rather intricate. Once I had settled upon a layout and color scheme for my work, I started the underpainting.
I chose to emulate the composition of Bruegel’s painting, with the foreground elements sweeping along the lower left corner of the image, with an expanse of water beyond.
Next I began blocking out the shapes within the landscape. At this stage things are quite loose and undefined.
Here I have begun the laborious process of defining the massive crush of traffic along the freeway. On the one hand I enjoyed painting all these cars but it was also torturous. I knew once I could get through it, the rest of the painting would be smooth sailing.
By this point I had decided against making the smoking element in the distance a burning oil rig. It felt to specific to last year’s tragic spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and I was finding it too difficult to pull off convincingly. I instead decided to make this element into something far more enigmatic, a smokestack poking out of the ocean belching black smoke into to the sky. This conjured up all sorts of theories as to what could be hidden underneath the water and what could possibly be going on. Adding the dramatic clouds to the sky helped give the painting some punch, but at this stage, the smoke still didn’t feel right to me.
I finally resolved the smoke filling the sky. After addressing some minor details in the foreground this image shows the finished painting. It may look very detailed but if you were to view it up close you would see that it is actually painted rather loosely. I wanted things to look a bit “wonky”. I can’t say it lives up to the vision in my head, but then again, I don’t think they ever do.