Virgil Elliott's 'The Wizard'

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Virgil Elliott's 'The Wizard'

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005

Mike wrote:

In honor of your birthday, perhaps you could share some thoughts on the drapery in this painting: I really like the drapery, very well composed and sculptural.


Thank you, Mike, you've made my day. Well, let's see, that was twenty years ago, but I remember it pretty well, so here it is: I had just painted several paintings in a row that were very smoothly rendered, most of female subjects and delicate mood, and I felt I needed to swing the pendulum as far to the other extreme as possible, to avoid becoming locked into too narrow a niche. So I came up with the idea of doing an essence-of-masculinity painting, a wizard exercising his great power, and expressing his enjoyment of it at the same time. Lightning as the light source would provide the violent contrasts of light and dark appropriate to the subject, and also tie in with the other paintings in which I had included the light source. I took this on as a challenge long ago, when everything else was becoming too easy, and since then it has been a recurring theme in my work. It's harder to paint light sources convincingly than to paint objects, and with that in mind, I began to paint fires, candle flames, the sun, stage lights, and, with Allegory of Power (aka The Wizard), lightning, as challenges beyond the ordinary run of subject matter we see in paintings. So it all fit. I found the model I had in mind, hired him, and had my (now ex-) wife make a wizard robe for him to wear. It was maroon in reality, but when I painted it I changed the color. Most of what is in this painting is imaginary, in whole or in part, though I did have the old fellow pose for me standing on a sturdy table in his back yard, facing the sun, while I drew him quickly with charcoal and chalk on grey paper, but the sittings had to be short, because the pose was difficult to hold for very long at a stretch, and he was somewhat feeble in his old age and advanced stages of alcoholism. I executed a head study in oils, very quickly, and several charcoal-and-chalk sketches and studies, all to serve as reference when I painted the big canvas.

It took me two weeks to execute the large painting, beginning by drawing in charcoal on a canvas primed with white lead, using the reference studies and sketches to guide me. The hands are my hands, observed directly while I drew them in charcoal on the canvas. The facial expression is a composite of the model's face and my own, observed in a mirror, because the old fellow never quite got it right when he was posing for me. So my ex-wife considered that painting a self-portrait, even though I was only 39 or 40 when I painted it, and did not resemble the model at the time. She recognized a side of my personality in it that was very familiar to her, I'm sure. She became my (second) ex-wife right around that time.

The wizard robe is composed of patterns of shadow, middletones and stark lights, intended to read the way things read when lightning flashes, toward which end I left out or suppressed reflected light in shadow except where I felt it was needed to help distinguish one form from another or from the background. When lightning flashes, our eyes do not perceive the reflected light in shadow the way they do normally. I changed the color of the robe to suit my concept for the picture, and added the red-violet cuffs from imagination just to give it a bit more color. As I said, there is more imagination than anything else in that picture.

Sometimes I think I did all right on that painting, and other times I get the urge to repaint it because I know I can do it better now, but so far I've resisted the urge to redo it. An artist goes out on a limb when he works from imagination, and has to rely more on what he knows and on his artistic sense than on what he sees. I think it's something artists need to practice, even if the results suffer somewhat, in some ways, over work done from direct observation, because we make discoveries that way that can expand our range.

Most people think my Wizard is supposed to be Moses, though why Moses would have been at Stonehenge does not seem to occur to them. I was thinking more along the lines of Merlin, without the corny hat and props normally seen in depictions of wizards. I wanted the pose and the expression to get it across. Maybe I should just rename it Moses. It isn't the best painting I've ever done, but it is distinctive. Some people like it better than my other works. I suppose I should respect that, and leave it as it is.