Step by Step #2: The Amazing Lobster Boy

Posted on Jan 4, 2015 in art, Art Show, Journal, Paintings, portrait, process, WIP | 3 Comments
Step by Step #2: The Amazing Lobster Boy

 

Another compilation of my process photos, a brief walk-through, and a little insight into my experience. It could only mean one thing….

….Time for another addition of….

stepbystep

Or something.

And now that you have that theme song stuck in your head, I’m going to talk about my latest painting, “The Amazing Lobster Boy” and how it’s not remotely related to the jaunty antics of a happily blended family (well, maybe a little bit since the opening credits take place at a carnival.) However, there was quite a journey that went into making this painting, so that’s what this post is all about.

This particular piece grew into something special and thinking about the process really took me back to my days as an art therapist when the work I produced reflected so much of where I was in life. I made a decision a long time ago that I wasn’t going to be heady about my art. I was going to paint what I wanted to paint, whatever I enjoyed, and what would make me happy. It’s why I primarily dug my heels in creating pop culture art— it allows me to analyze characters I find intriguing and build a piece around them. And that’s what I did with this painting. However, I will admit that I haven’t felt this personally connected to the work in a long time. That’s not to say that my other paintings are devoid of my presence— an artist always leaves a part of themselves in their work— but this one hits home. That might seem silly given that down to the bare bones it’s television “fan art”, but hear me out…

A few months back I was invited to join the Uforge Gallery Member Collective— a collaborative arts community based out of a fantastic local gallery. I was hesitant at first, but I knew I needed to put my anxiety aside and surround myself with other artists. I work with artists every day in theatre, but it’s different when you’re all focused on making someone else’s vision come to fruition and I was desperate to find a community that could help my personal work grow.  So the Member Collective it was.

The theme for our next members-only gallery exhibition was “arcana” with the instructions to choose a tarot card out of the Rider-Waite-Smith deck and recreate it in your style. We were given a 16”x28” panel and told to go at it. Tarot reading was a staple in my house growing up— my mom read cards professionally for a time and she taught me when I was very young (I can’t say I remember much of it now, but thinking back, it’s probably why I was drawn to Jungian archetypal analysis when I was in school for art therapy.) With the assignment in mind, I dug out my old tarot deck, unwrapped it from the silk cloth it lived in, and thumbed through cards looking for inspiration. There was so much potential, but none of my ideas seemed to sit well. Nothing felt right.

After going back and forth with a couple of concepts, a friend suggested I do something from American Horror Story: Freakshow because I could really run with the sideshow aesthetic…and I finally had my aha moment. I know that Freakshow has been far from a fan favorite season, but I adore it because of the visuals. The tents, trailers, muslin drops— there were so many times this season that I’ve though “Oh, I would have loved to make that.” I adore working on sets that have a distressed circus feel— on those occasions, we often get the directive from designers to make pieces feel like they’ve been folded, packed away, and unpacked again. (You can see some of my circus-y themed scenic work by visiting my portfolio pages for Pippin and The Tempest) There’s something magical making a new set that looks like it has the history of a traveling show. Paint chipped away, seams worn down and frayed, scuffs, rust, and grime, all contrasted by bold, bright colors. I love it. So I immediately jumped at the thought of painting a vintage sideshow poster.

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A production photo from the 2013 Broadway revival of Pippin including set pieces I painted when the show first opened at the American Repertory Theater.

I went through the tarot deck again trying to decide what character would be most fitting. There were so many possibilities, but I had to feel it in my gut. I came across the Two of Pentacles and felt a spark ignite. I remembered a scene where Jimmy was practicing his act and he says “For as long as I remember, I’ve been known as Lobster Boy, Son of Neptune, God of the Sea. But my pincers don’t hold me back. Watch me juggle!”

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                                                          (gif set by twistymott on Tumblr)

I liked the idea of a character mirroring the actions of a card while using a direct quote from the show. And it fit perfectly with the circus theme. When I read into the meaning of the card, I thought it really spoke to the character. I chose this card for Jimmy, not because he epitomizes the meaning of the card, but the card stands for everything he needs. (You can read a detailed meaning of the Two of Pentacles here ) Within Jimmy’s arc, he struggles with keeping balance. He juggles between wanting to leave the freakshow to start a normal life and loyalty to his identity as a freak. He juggles between wanting to be a leader but also being completely dependent. He juggles with the potential of who he could be and a damned, drunken existence because of how he was born. He is conflicted and flawed– and the thing he needs most is the strength to balance.

The Rider-Waite-Smith Two of Pentacles as an inspiration for The Amazing Lobster Boy

At the time I didn’t realize it, but the thought of juggling different roles and needing that strength to balance it all was hitting close to home. While I was working on this painting I was faced with challenging deadlines and overtime hours at work, designing and building a window display for a friend’s business, planning Thanksgiving dinner, a family emergency on my husband’s side that required a sudden four hour trek to his hometown, and then a heartbreaking phone call that my grandmother passed away followed by six hour road trip and a funeral Thanksgiving weekend. November was a trying month and I’m grateful had this project to ground me. Jimmy sure as hell couldn’t keep his shit together, but painting him helped me stay intact.

I first started by working out the composition and general color scheme with a sketch and thumbnail.

I was anticipating that the most challenging part of of painting “Lobster Boy” was portraying the ectrodactyly condition of the character’s hands without making it look as though they were just poorly rendered. I could have exaggerated the hands completely by painting actual lobster claws in a similar vain to some old sideshow banners, but I decided for a more subtle approach by keeping the shape of the show’s prosthetics and letting the text help tell the story.

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A vintage sideshow banner with an exaggerated portrayal of a Lobster Boy

Once I had my composition idea set, I started collecting resources. Screen captures, promotional images, fonts, and pictures of vintage posters. I also had my husband pose so I could have a clean reference for the position of the body. I hand drew all of the elements I wanted to incorporate, scanned them in, and worked out my final composition to scale in photoshop.

I even drew inspiration from the show’s scenery

The wooden board I was working on was 1/2” ply, so before I could paint I needed to treat it using some of my scenic art tricks. Using joint compound, I lightly skim coated and sanded the surface in order to fill the grain before priming. In order to make a painting look convincingly old, numerous layers need to be built up.

I started by basing the whole background in by scumbling orange, yellow ochre, and burnt sienna. I wanted the finished piece to have rust seeping through the paint, so I used a reactive iron paint in places and rusted it with a combination of rust activator and vinegar. Using a crackling medium, then painted over it all with my base yellow latex house paint and let it dry. Once the background was grungy enough for my liking, I sealed it with a matte spray sealer to ensure the rust wouldn’t affect further layers on top.

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I transferred my line drawing onto the board and began to paint.

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And paint.

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And paint.

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Building up the background, I integrated more crackle medium to further the effect of layers of paint chipping away. To finalize the whole aging technique, I used a wooden block to apply thick layers of the base yellow paint in places and then aged the whole thing down with a drippy brown wash.

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I really wanted to capture Evan Peters’ likeness and so I paid special attention to the face. I always start loose and build my layers tighter and tighter. His eyes are super intense, so I ended up futzing with them a lot in order to nail down the right gaze.

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Last, but not least, I used a gold metal leaf for the pentacles and an oil-based paint pen to draw the pentagrams in. So voilá!

LobsterBoy2015MediumI’ve been blown away with the kind of reception this piece has gotten so far and it really makes all of the work worth it. I was especially nervous about unveiling this one — probably because of how personal it became to me — so just seeing how people have been enjoying it has really put all of my apprehension at ease.

The Arcana show at the Uforge Gallery runs from January 9th, 2015 to February 1st, so anyone in the Boston area should definitely check it out. There is such an amazing collection of contributing artists and I really can’t wait to see all of the work together in a set.

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As for “The Amazing Lobster Boy”, I’ve finally set up a home printing station and launched my own Etsy store to sell prints! If you would like to purchase a print, you can find it HERE in my new store!

3 Comments

  1. Brooke
    January 5, 2015

    The process of distressing always fascinates me! I have so much trouble distressing things I make enough – I always seem to stop too soon. I think it’s easier to distress something someone else made, so I am in awe of your ability to do such a lovely job on something like this.

    I admit I have only seen a few of the first season episodes of this show, so I don’t completely get the reference of your piece, but I really love the overall look of this painting! I think you did a wonderful job achieving the feel of an old traveling show. (I also showed this to a friend who loves American Horror Story and he was impressed with your art as well.)

    So sorry you had such a stressful November! What a perfect and productive way to deal with stress though!

    Reply
    • Heather M
      January 8, 2015

      Thanks so much for your comment. I’m so glad you like the piece even if you don’t fully understand the reference. I think that’s what I like so much about this particular painting– it somewhat transcends the realm of “fan art”.

      The trick with distressing is layers and planning. Most people think a little sandpaper will do the trick, but that’s not always the case. As you can see, I based the whole board in with orange, the mindset being that want it to look like rust peeking through the cracks. It’s not something you generally notice in the final stages, but little things like that can make a difference with the overall realism. Something I learned when doing faux marbling (and I think applies to a myriad of faux finishing effects) is that as soon as it looks like a brush touched the surface, you’ve lost it. You want to approach natural effects in way that doesn’t look like it was purposeful. That’s why I let vinegar pool on my iron paint, water drip, paint cake on places and peel in others. It’s all about a controlled chaos.

      Hopefully stressful 2014 makes for an easy breezy 2015! If not, then I guess bring it on! 🙂

      Reply
  2. Chris
    January 12, 2015

    Thank you Heather for sharing your art and your writing. I’m so glad you joined our collective and you have really contributed to a fantastic show! Keep up the wonderful work.

    Reply

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