Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Phoenix Pavilion Courtyard

The Great Mosque of Xi'an was one of the most peaceful places I visited during my 2019 travels in China. An exciting mix of many cultures is evident in Xi'an, which was once the end of the Silk Road. These cultures came together on the ancient trade route connecting East and West overland from Persia and the Arabian Peninsula to China. 

Built in 742 AD, the mosque is the largest in China. It is situated in the heart of the Xi'an Muslim Quarter (a vibrant and bustling marketplace). The walled courtyard complex surrounding the mosque provides an oasis of serenity in this otherwise chaotic district.

I've created a large diptych painting titled "Phoenix Pavilion Courtyard," inspired by the intricate stone carvings decorating those courtyard walls.

Phoenix Pavilion Courtyard, left panel
Acrylic on Kalamkari fabric
36 x 48 inches

Ornately carved stone walls at Great Mosque of Xi'an (above and below)


Gongshi, a porous limestone rock traditionally placed in Chinese gardens, is featured in the foreground of the right panel (shown below). These rocks, sometimes called Taihu rocks, have been appreciated by Chinese scholars since the Tang Dynasty for their perforations, openness, thinness, and wrinkling.


The combination of sharp angular edges, swirling movement, and round holes in this Gongshi reminded me of flames. Perhaps a reference to the burning bush, the rock thrusts upward toward the right which compositionally balances the peony buds and branch reaching downward to the left.

Phoenix Pavilion Courtyard, right panel
Acrylic on Kalamkari fabric
36 x 48 inches

During a 2018 trip to Kolkata, India, I purchased the Kalamkari fabric used as the surface for these paintings. The cotton Kalamkari was hand printed using carved wooden blocks and natural plant based dyes. 

The stylized floral elements in the fabric's pattern design exhibit the influence of Persian and Islamic art in India during Mughal rule.

When both panels are displayed together, one sees a gradual shift from menacing dark red clouds to a cheerful blue sky coming after the dawn.

Phoenix Pavilion Courtyard
Acrylic on Kalamkari fabric
36 x 100 inches when displayed together

The Phoenix Pavilion, a hexagonal gazebo, is the central focal point of the Great Mosque's fourth courtyard.


I was fascinated with the pavilion's ceiling beams which had been painted in bright colors which have worn away and faded from exposure. I took cues from this weathered effect when incorporating color into the predominantly neutral grisaille paintings.

Below are a few details which show more clearly how the patterned fabric shows through the transparent layers of paint and how the imagery echos the fabric's design. Gold, silver, graphite, and bronze iridescent paints subtly highlight the neutral grey tones.

I plan to display these paintings as scrolls hanging on rods which will allow more of the fabric border framing the work to show. I like the contradiction of a soft fabric scroll having no depth appearing as a stone relief sculpture.

Thanks for reading!

Check out my artwork available at my Etsy storeFacebook page, as well as my Instagram feed.

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Conch Shell Ganesha

A patron recently commissioned a large portrait of a tiny Ganesha figurine. The unusual sculpture was made to look as if it were assembled of conch shells. The conch is a predatory sea snail found in the Indian Ocean. The Shankha, a conch shell used as a trumpet in Hindu ritual, is praised as a giver of prosperity, longevity, and fame, and is an emblem of the Hindu preserver god Vishnu

Detail of Shanka Ganesha

The painting would be a surprise birthday gift for the man's wife who is especially fond of the little Ganesh statue that holds significance for their family. Lord Ganesha, one of the most worshipped deities in the Hindu pantheon, is the deva of intellect and wisdom. Widely revered as the remover of obstacles,  elephant-headed Ganesh is honored at the start of rites and ceremonies.

Together we selected a beautiful Indian hand-blocked cotton Kalamkari fabric printed with natural vegetable dye to use as the canvas. The fabric design features a large circular mandala with delicate floral and paisley designs. The circular motif would frame the icon like a halo and add another large element to the composition.

Because the painting will be hung on dowels as a scroll, acrylic paint was chosen for its flexibility. The paint will not crack when the scroll is rolled. Another benefit of acrylic here is that it can be used on unprimed cotton canvas without causing the fabric to rot as oil paint would.

Making the uniform brown color of the statue interesting would be a challenge. Another concern was how to incorporate it into a fabric which did not contain brown colors. Using mostly metallic colors, I built up transparent layers of paint which allow the fabric's pattern to show through. This adds depth, complexity, and gives the richness of an aged patina.

A detail of the face (above) shows a good example of the kinds of coincidental occurrences I find fascinating while I paint. Placement of forms often coincide or mirror similar shapes in the pattern of the underlying fabric. Here the arching brows happen to fall inline with the alternating blue and green shapes fanning out from the center of the mandala.

A range of shiny gold, copper, bronze, and silver paints were utilized to emphasize subtle difference in the temperature of light and shadows on the form. Hot red copper was used in the shadows as reflected light bouncing up from the ground while a golden color indicates direct light from above.

Teardrop shaped Paisley motifs, visually rhyming with Ganesha's curling elephant trunk, were scattered to move the viewer's eye around the composition and give relief from the static formal symmetry of the image. I realized mid-stream that the parts of the fabric's central circle left exposed are suggestive of the elephant's ears which are absent on the sculpture.

Shanka Ganesha
acrylic on Kalamkari fabric
54" x 45"

I was given rather short notice, having approximately three weeks to complete the painting by the birthday deadline, but was very happy to spend time on this project during the "safer at home" pandemic weeks of April 2020. Working from home all day everyday, it was nice to be able to alternate between teaching emergency remote college classes online and painting.

The piece was completed on time and the recipient was delighted with her surprise gift! The family happens to be relocating to another state in just two weeks and have promised to send me a photo of the painting installed in their new home. I can't wait to see it displayed!

I am open to doing more special projects on commission. Please feel free to contact me with inquiries. 

Don't forget to check out my artwork available at my Etsy storeFacebook page, as well as my Instagram feed.

Sunday, April 5, 2020


Recently I have been working on a large oil painting of Vajradhara Buddha, the primordial buddha who represents the essence of the historical Buddha's realization of enlightenment. 

Vajradhara Buddha
Oil and acrylic on Kalamkari fabric
42" x 48"

While visiting China last June, I quickly became enamored with a beautiful Vajradhara statue in the Beijing Capital Museum's ancient buddhist sculpture collection. You can see much of the collection on my post from October 2019. The expressive gentle tilt of the head and delicate positioning of the hands gives a feeling of inward contemplation, wisdom, and enlightenment. I'd need to paint a "portrait" of the Vajradhara so I could spend a considerable amount of time studying this masterpiece. 

Over the past few years, I've been creating acrylic paintings of stone statuary primarily using neutral grays and browns in a grisaille technique. I was, however, so excited by the vibrant Tibetan turquoise inlayed stones and golden color this statue that I knew this would be the perfect opportunity to return to oils which would allow a richness and luminosity. 


I stretched a hand-blocked cotton Kalamkari fabric from India to use as the canvas. Gold metallic paint was used to stencil ornate designs onto the fabric. I then stained the fabric with washes or acrylic paint to give more contrast, bringing these designs forward.

The fabric needed to be primed prior to using oil paint to protect the fibers from the oil which could rot the fabric over time. Traditionally a white gesso is used as a barrier between the canvas and paint. Because incorporation of the hand-blocked pattern was desired, I experimented with a clear latex paint. Art supply stores have started selling clear gesso, but I have been told it can look cloudy. Rust-oleum Ultra Cover Clear is clearglossy, and also provides UV protection to help keep the fabric from fading.

I was pleased by the way the clear paint changed the look of the yellow fabric, making it look wet. The picture below shows the untreated fabric on the right. You can see the clear paint darkened the yellow fabric causing it to become a deeper golden color which gave it an antique quality that highlighted the subtle parts of the pattern.

I had forgotten how easily the buttery oils glide over the treated surface. Applying the paint was so easy and fun in comparison to the way this raw fabric resists the application of acrylic paint.

A visit to the Small Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi'an ( built between 707-709 during the Tang Dynasty) provided the inspiration for the spinning circular motifs and floral elements that were added next.

Small Wild Goose Pagoda, Xi'an 707-709

Though people are no longer permitted inside the pagoda, a museum is housed in the smaller building pictured in the foreground of the photo below.

The ceiling of the museum building featured large wooden beams painted with intricate designs.

The color and zigzag patterned border of the fabric I chose was reminiscent of the background of the ceiling designs. 

I added a thin, transparent glaze to age the brilliant blue, white and turquoise spiraling wheels with the look of years of grime.

The use of the same cobalt and robin's egg blue on the leaves seemed a surprising choice for the leaves in the floral designs.

Medallions present in the pattern of the hand-blocked Kalamkari fabric were allowed to replace some of the jewelry on the statue and float freely, playing in space.

Sometimes it is hard to decide when an artwork is finished. Though I intended to add more to this painting, it is telling me to stop. 

Time to start the next new work!

Don't forget to check out my artwork available at my Etsy storeFacebook page, as well as my Instagram feed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveau at the Paine

Coming from a Slovak family very proud of their heritage, I grew up hearing much praise for the Czech artist Alphonse Mucha

Zodiaque (Zodiac), 1896, detail

I've always appreciated the accurate draftsmanship and ornate style of his Art Nouveau illustrations, but have rarely had an opportunity to see his lithographs in person. Therefore, I became very excited to make the drive to Oshkosh when I learned the Paine Art Center and Gardens had an exhibition of Mucha's work scheduled. The show far exceeded my expectations!

Rêverie (Daydream), 1898
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
Variant 4

Rêverie (Daydream), 1898, detail
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
Variant 4

Alphonse Mucha: Master of Art Nouveauan exhibition of selected works from the Dhawan Collection, is at the Paine Art Center and Gardens through May 10, 2020. 
*Update:  Paine will be closed March 16 - April 8 in response to the risk of COVID-19.

On the day I visited, elaborate floral arrangements filled the gallery and grand mansion with alluring fragrance during the "Rooms of Blooms" concurrent event. It was truly the perfect environment to experience this amazing artist's images of beautiful women surrounded with intricate floral elements.

Têtes Byzantines - Brunette et Blonde 
(Byzantine Heads - Brunette and Blonde), 1897
Color lithographs on paper

Monaco, Monte-Carlo, 1897
Color lithograph on paper
Variant 1

Featured prominently at the gallery entrance are four versions of Mucha's first poster created for Sarah Bernhardt's play Gismonda. Comparing variations in the design and coloring of these pieces engages the viewer. 

Gismonda, 1894 (above left)
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

Sarah Bernhardt, American Tour, 1895 (above right)
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

A delightful detail of a dog reading appears to the right of Gismonda's feet in the original 1894 poster but was eliminated in the later versions.

Gismonda, 1894 (detail)
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

The metalic gold ink on this hand-colored lithograph of Bernhardt's haloed frontal portrait supports the icon-like quality of the image.

Sarah Bernhardt, La Plume, 1897
Hand-colored lithograph on paper
Variant 1

Seeing the black and white proof next to the hand-colored lithograph, one is able to fully appreciate the structure of the drawing and also the impact of the added color.

Sarah Bernhardt, La Plume, 1897
Color lithograph on paper
Black and white proof

Lefèvre-Utile, 1904, a portrait of Sarah Bernhardt in a complementary pink and green color scheme, is my favorite lithograph in the exhibition. I found the naturalistic treatment surprising when compared to the other pieces in the show.

Lefèvre-Utile, 1904
Color Lithograph on paper

The complex pastel coloring seems to have been created by layering many transparent hues. Sarah's soft, pretty face lacks the crisp stylized contour lines characteristic of Mucha's graphic style in the other posters of the actress.

Lefèvre-Utile, 1904, detail
Color Lithograph on paper

The rhododendron in the foreground of Lefèvre-Utile looks so painterly that I was almost fooled into think the lithograph was an oil on canvas.

Lefèvre-Utile, 1904, a detail of Rhododendron 
Color Lithograph on paper

La Toscaan 1898 poster for a play by Victorien Sardou at the Theatre Sarah Bernhard portrays the heroine holding a large bouquet surrounded by a border of abstract swans.

La Tosca, 1898 (detail)
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

In La Samaritaine, a poster for another Bernhardt theater production, Hebrew lettering set into a mosiac background allude to the biblical story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Sarah played Photina, a girl from Samaria who encounters Christ at a well and converts to Christianity according to the biblical account of John.

La Samaritaine, 1897
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
Full image (left) and details (right and below)

In another biblically themed lithograph by Mucha is Salome, from L'Estampe, the artist presents Salome as a dancing gypsy.

  Salome, from L'Estampe Moderne, 1897
Color lithograph on paper

Job, an advertisement for cigarette papers was Mucha's best known poster. The femme fatale's ecstasy hints that smoking with these papers will be this pleasurable. An angular monogram motif used as a background pattern and the zigzag border contrast with curvilinear swirls of hair.

Job, 1896
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

It is my assumption that the same model was used for Salon des Cent, XXme Exposition (20th Exhibition), a poster created a year later. 

Salon des Cent, XXme Exposition (20th Exhibition), 1897
Color lithograph on paper

For Vin des Incas, a poster designed for a coca-based tonic, Mucha researched "Incan" imagery. The male figure is based on a Mayan stele at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City

Vin des Incas (Wine of the Incas), 1897
Color lithograph on paper
Variant 1

In an advertisement for local breweries, the Meuse river is allegorically portrayed as a goddess crowned with poppies, barley, hops, and other beer ingredients.

Bières de la Meuse (Beers of the Meuse), 1899
Color lithograph on paper

Three vibrant red poinsettia blooms feature prominently in the foreground of  Le Rubis (Ruby). I enjoyed examining the large preliminary drawing shown beside the colored lithograph. 

 Left: Le Rubis (Ruby), 1900
Color lithograph on silk 
Right: Preliminary drawing for Le Rubis (Ruby) 1900
Pencil on paper

La Fleur (The Flower) 1897
Color lithograph on paper

Six highly detailed architectural drawings are included in Paris 1900: Austria at the World's Fair, 1900, a poster Mucha created for the Exhibition Universelle (1900)

Paris 1900: Austria at the World's Fair, 1900
Color lithograph on paper

Paris 1900: Austria at the World's Fair, 1900 (detail)
Color lithograph on paper

Paris 1900: Austria at the World's Fair, 1900 (detail, Oesterreich - Reichhaus)
Color lithograph on paper

Mucha designed a twenty-plate hardcover portfolio of prints published in Both Czech and French. The cover of the Czech version shown below features the allegorical figures of Bohemia and France.

Praha-Parizi (From Prague to Paris) cover for 1900 World's Fair, 1900
Lithograph on paper

Exhibition booklet for Exposition Universelle, 1900
Color lithograph on paper

An elegant Parisienne dressed in the fashion of the day is the focus on the Exhibition booklet for Exposition Universelle. A vista of the Pont Alexandre over the Seine can be seen in the background. The image ultimately became the cover of the Menu of the Official Banquet of the Exposition. The design was also used three years later as the 1903 Christmas cover of the weekly magazine Paris Illustré shown below.

Paris Illustré, Christmas Issue, 1903
Color lithograph on paper

Mucha's Symbolist imagery is fully revealed on an 1896 Christmas publication cover, L'Illustration Christmas Issue. A winged woman places a shroud over a corpse as disembodied hands pull at the left side border.

L'Illustration, Christmas issue, 1896
Color lithograph on paper

Christian Brinton wrote about Mucha as a Symbolist artist in an article outlining the artist's exploration of mysticism in an age defined by science and technology.

"Alfons Mucha and the New Mysticism" in The Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 69, 1904
Color lithograph on paper

A series of Masonic symbols line the left edge of the cover for Mucha's illustrated book, Le Pater. The book was the culmination of a project in which the artist offered personal reflections on "The Lord's Prayer".

Le Pater (The Lord's Prayer), 1899
Color lithograph on paper

Otcenas (The Lord's Prayer), 1899
Book cover for the Czech translation published 
in a very limited edition of only 120 copies

A cover for a humorous bi-monthly magazine Cocorico, printed entirely in deep blue suggesting an evening scene in the city of Paris, features a charming coquette with curling hair, and crescent moon shapes.

Cocorico, December 31, 1898
Blue monochrome lithograph on paper

La Plume (The Pen or the Quill), May 1897
Color lithograph on paper

A nearly monochromatic theatrical poster for a play starring Sarah Bernhardt as the male lead in the title role of Lorenzaccio, has a background of intricate Italianate designs. Looming overhead is a sinister dragon symbolizing the evil that will destroy Florence.

Lorenzaccio, 1896 (detail at right)
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen
Variant 2

Zodiaque, designed originally as a calendar for the printer F. Champenois of Paris, quickly found a wider audience as a decorative panel, an advertisement for British toiletries and French soap, and a billboard for a store in Tours, France in nine variations.

Zodiaque (Zodiac), 1896
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

Vintage Candy Tin, Whitman's Salmagundi, ca. 1920
Lithographed tin

Drawing for a Book Illustrations
Pencil and watercolor on paper, undated

A levitating female embracing a bunch of grapes appears on a menu designed for wine distributer Moët & Chandon in a campaign for their high quality champagne. 

Menu for Moët and Chandon Champagne
Color lithograph on paper

A poster designed in 1898 for Le Grand Cie, the maker of Bénédictine, an herbal liqueur, shows two women pressing flowers into books to underscore the variety of herbs that comprise the secret recipe for the liqueur. A landscape at the bottom shows the medieval Abbey at Fecamp. 

Bénédictine, 1898 (detail at right)
Color lithograph on paper

Nectar, 1902
Color lithograph on paper

Mucha worked for the biscuit manufacturer Lèfevre-Utile for many years designing not only posters, but biscuit wrappers and containers as well.

Lefèvre-Utile Flirt Biscuits, 1899 (detail at right)
Color lithograph on paper

Drawing for Lefèvre-Utile Biscuit Box
Gouache and ink on paper

Lefèvre-Utile Label for a Biscuit Box
Color lithograph on paper

The Slav Epic, 1928
Color lithograph on paper mounted on linen

In Allegories of the Months, a suite of black and white lithographs designed in 1899 for the satirical periodical Cocorico, each month represented a particular quality. 




A few of the books, illustrations, and bank notes designed by Alphonse Mucha that were displayed along with other artifacts and photos in other parts of the museum can be seen below.

Slavia Mutual Insurance Bank Policy, 1907

Zlata Praha (Golden Prague), 1918 (on wall behind floral arrangement)
Ink on paper

Photograph of Alphonse Mucha

Photo of one of Mucha's models

Indian Chief, 1908
Oil on canvas

Les Chasseurs d'Epaves (Shipwreck Hunters), 1898
Book cover and color illustrations

Ilsée, Prinzessin von Tripolis, 1901
Book with color lithographs

Mémoires d'un Elephant Blanc (Memoirs of a White Elephant), 1894
Book cover and color illustrations

Thank you for reading about this beautiful exhibition. I am so glad that I was able to attend and hope this post gave a sufficient facsimile of the show for friends who might not be able to. 

My next post will highlight some of the permanent collection housed at the Paine Art Center.

Don't forget to check out my artwork available at my Etsy storeFacebook page, as well as my Instagram feed.