Faced with the challenge of creating a Star Wars themed piece for George Lucas’s book Star Wars Art: Visions, I decided to paint an oil portrait with gold leaf on wood panel of Padme (Queen Amidala). You can see the the painting below.
In that I’d had little experience painting on wood and didn’t know much about how to apply gold leaf, the project was especially daunting. Here’s the story:
1. In the attic of the home/studio of artists Herman and Bessie Wessel (both deceased), I had found an American chestnut panel that had been expertly cradled on the back to prevent warping.
2. On the back of the panel was a note, dated February 1935 and signed by Herman Wessel, revealing that the panel had been prepared with two coats of zinc oxide (zinc white).
3. On the panel surface was a lightly sketched image of Mary and the baby Jesus, as if Wessel had planned to copy an existing Byzantine icon painting. Letting this beautifully crafted and preserved panel continue gathering dust didn’t seem to be an option. Meanwhile, my wife, Carol, suggested I incorporate gold leaf in my piece. About this time, I noticed at the Cincinnati Art Museum (near the former Wessel home/studio) a small but particularly beautiful picture of the Madonna by Dagnan Bouveret. It was gold leafed in the background, and the surface had been carefully incised and lightly hammered to beautiful effect. I suppose the idea of presenting Natalie Portman (Padme/Queen Amidala) as an iconic figure against a circular motif was a subconscious reaction to Wessel’s sketch.
4. Deciding to omit the typical halo, I began searching for alternatives when I stumbled on Renaissance-era mandalas—representations of the orbital path through the sky of various planets over time. This one caught my eye.
5. With a full-sized charcoal preliminary drawing on tracing paper of Padme and a lot of experimentation, I began to get a feel for what would be an appropriate size and placement of the mandala.
6. I then began laying in an image of Padme, one selected from the many choices that Lucasfilms had given me.
7. After researching the various methods of gilding, I decided an oil technique would be best (as opposed to a water/clay bole-based process). That way I could proceed with my usual approach using opaque paints. I settled on an Indian red ground, and began painting the image wet into wet against that background color.
8. When I was ready to superimpose the mandala, I put tracing paper over the oil portrait, deciding precisely where to put all those intersecting circles and how they would juxtapose with the image.
9. I then chalked the back of the tracing paper, placed it on the panel, and retraced the mandala in its final position. Then came the moment of no return: It was time to start incising, deeply scratching through the red ground and into the panel that had been so carefully prepared in 1935. To get an idea what the gold leaf would look like, I had experimented with a small gold panel, which I placed it on the easel next to my portrait of Padme.
10. I treated the areas to be leafed with oil sizing, being extremely careful not to put sizing on any part of the image of Padme. I was so anxious about applying the gold leaf, I neglected to photograph the process! Gingerly placing each sheet near Padme’s profile without getting it into the actual painting require finesse somewhat akin to what I imagine is necessary for highly skilled microsurgery. I used tweezers, metal applicators with pointed ends—anything that could pick up an incredibly thin sheet of gold and get it up where I needed it to go in order to cover the area while lending a pleasing abstraction. I used three kinds of gold leaf, saving the coppery gold for the corners (see the finished portrait at the beginning and end of this article).
11. As a last minute design change, I carefully added a hammered border pattern around the mandala. I accomplished this with a hammer and a nail punch .
12. Here you see the finished painting Padme Respendent With Naboo Mandala, which is featured in the book Star Wars Art: Visions. The original work was purchased by George Lucas for his personal collection.
Carl Samson, a repeat winner in the Portrait Institute’s National Portrait Competition and the first artist to give a live, videotaped portrait-painting demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, was featured in the July/August issue of The Artist’s Magazine.
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