Vanitas paintings are about the shortness of life, and the futility of hanging on to things that change or disappear over time.
Sounds kind of grim, doesn’t it? “Vanitas” comes from the Bible, Eccesiastes 1:2, which makes the point about futility in a few short words.
Vanitas paintings were all the rage in 16th and 17th century Netherlands. By including such symbols as snuffed candles, hourglasses, broken dishes, spoiled food, dice, purses of gold, and especially grinning skulls, they reminded the worldly, wealthy Dutch that the care of the soul is more important than money.
Although the fashion for vanitas faded, the theme, ironically, did not. Cezanne painted many skulls. Van Gogh gave us a skull smoking a cigarette, proving that a vanitas can have a sense of humor. Many artists working today have also tackled vanitas, which brings me to my project:
Amaryllis Vanitas, in Process
A vanitas painting reminds us that everything we own and touch, including our bodies, will be used up, aged, broken, and lost. Because all who live experience the pain of loss, the vanitas theme can also encourage us to show one another compassion.
The amaryllis and the skeleton are obvious symbols, but what is that samurai doing? For me, he embodies the will to live and to protect life. He faces the skeleton with the attitude of a warrior, recognizing death in order to live with honor and courage.
I also get a strong message from the amaryllis bulb, which (with luck) will flower again. It tells me that that impermanence and death are necessary to the continuity of life.
A technical note:
Mixing red paint with white or other colors to depict the lights and darks can produce inconvenient pinks, oranges, and purples. For the amaryllis blossoms, I used an under-layer of vermillion, an earthy, orange-red, to map out the light and shadow areas. Later I went over the dried vermillion with thin layers of transparent crimson, to bring the color to a vibrant red.
In the photo above, the front blossom on the left is still vermillion. The rest of the blooms have their first crimson layer. Thanks to George O’Hanlon of Natural Pigments for this crimson-on-vermillion technique!
To see Amaryllis Vanitas in person, don’t miss this show:
Fragments of Time, September 2 – 30, 2016. Opening September 2, 5 – 7 PM
Location: Leah J Peterson Gallery, Alaska Pacific University, 4101 University Drive, Anchorage, Alaska.
In addition to this piece, I will be showing 3 other recent works. Please come have a look!
Want to watch the progress of this painting from start to finish? Follow this link to my newest video on YouTube. Get your popcorn, it’s 10 minutes long.
Being a working artist has its joys and challenges, but, through it all, your support and encouragement sustain me. Thank you so much for being my audience.