It's a lonely life...that of the necromancer, er freelancer

A blog by a designer and illustrator, for designers and illustrators which may contain musings on art, movies and random weirdness.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

The Ipswich Mermaid

When I was in high school our drama department did a performance of Peter Blackmore's play "Miranda". If you are not familiar with this work, it is a comedy about a London doctor who goes to Cornwall on holiday and is captured (or rescued) by a mermaid who talks him into taking her back to London, disguised as an invalid patient. She takes up residence in his flat, much to the consternation of his wife, and proceeds to seduce every man in sight, which leads to a lot of humorous complications. It was made into a movie in 1948 starring Glynnis Johns. (Google it).
In both the play and the movie version Miranda is a "full-time" mermaid  (no "Splash" style, leg-to-tail-conversions) and gets around by either being carried, or pushed around in a wheelchair.
The girl who played Miranda in our high school version, was a lovely girl named Denise Brockelbank, who had beautiful long, dark, crinkly hair, (which she inexplicably cut just a few weeks before the show went up, forcing her to wear a wig, but that's a story for another time). The vision of her as a mermaid, sitting in a beautiful dress, in a wheelchair, was an image that has stuck with me for many years. This was pretty much the flashpoint for my interest in Mermaids. A few years later, in college, I  did a marker drawing of my impression of that vision. The face and hands of the mermaid were courtesy of an Italian fashion model in an issue of Vogue. The stylized hair and dress were the result of an art-school obsession with Alphonse Mucha.

Over the years, I kept coming back to this image again and again. I always wanted to do something more with it. I kept kicking around the idea of a painting. I even had my wife pose for me.

Finally, I decided to get off my butt and actually finish some projects that have been hanging around (in my head or otherwise) for years. The first inspiration came when I saw this old postcard of the lighthouse in Ipswich, MA, my home town. You can read more about the lighthouse here:

  Ipswich has always held a special significance for me. I grew up in Ipswich and have many fond memories of visiting Cranes Beach.
The original lighthouse was moved to Edgartown on Martha's Vineyard in 1939, so it was long gone before I came on the scene, but I knew about it because the lighthouse keepers house, which our church used to rent for summer events, didn't burn down until the 1970's, and I had actually been in on several occasions. I now had a definite place to set the mermaid in.
The next inspiration was coming across this old advertisement for wicker "invalid chair".

Now I had something to put the mermaid in. The original play was written in 1948, and was set in the late 40's, but there was something very appealing to me about the Victorian time period, especially since the lighthouse would have been gone by the 1940's. There is something more magical about the fashions, and also the modesty of the period. You could believe that a mermaid might have an easier time concealing herself as an invalid in a large "invalid chair" and keeping her tail under a long Victorian dress. Who would know?
I looked for an appropriately-styled Victorian dress. I was going to keep most of the original sketch, if I could, but having an actual dress in mind would be more helpful. I found one online. Now I had a dress to dress her in.

I was ready to start painting. I took a 8" x 10" canvas and started to rough in the painting. I pretty much stuck with the overall look of the original drawing that I did back in college, but I adjusted some of the details.

The next step was adding in more detail and enriching the color.

It quickly became apparent that the hair was too stylized to work with the more realistic background, and that the hands were really large and strangely positioned. I found the position of the hands appealing for some reason in the original sketch. They seemed to reinforce the vulnerability of a mermaid stuck on dry land, but they were way too big, and as my wife pointed out, it would be "painful to hold you hands like that". I had my wife pose for me just to try it out and see.
We came up with a more realistic, and less painful-looking position.

I repainted the hair, and the hands. I added in gloss highlights on the tail, the eyes and the water. Sprayed it with varnish, and framed it in a white wooden frame.
Here is the final painting.