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Pastel study of St. Jerome

Last summer I did something quite ambitious, challenging...something I wasn't sure I could do...something that only after being in Italy for a month in the previous September would rouse my brain to attempt: I decided I needed to do an Old Master study. Up until this point I had done numerous sketches like most artists, but the extent of my practice was mostly visual. I went museum crazy all over Rome in 2010 and in the process I felt like I learned enough to move up to the next level. Somehow, the pastel work I had done made me want to give it a shot.

I had found this image online from my usual research of Old Master Baroque paintings:

Johann Liss - The Vision of St Jerome - WGA13332
Vision of St. Jerome, c 1627

Johann Liss was a German Baroque painter of the seicento, or 17th century, who lived in Venice for most of his career. Having been inspired by Caravaggio and the deep colors of Titian and Tintoretto he blended those styles into his own craft of drama, solid figures and intense color. St. Jerome has been a subject of many paintings since the early Renaissance, and the most famous artist who painted many versions was of course, Caravaggio. What struck me about Liss' version was that instead of sitting alone writing as a scholar and patron saint of librarians— as most artists depicted him— Liss reveals a haunting and tender moment that, although depicted before by artists such as Parmigianino a century before, no one equaled the scope of what Liss achieved. A masterpiece of this caliber, with a Humanistic St. Jerome, muscular and a scholar, was what moved me to attempt this study.

Above is a very loose block-in with my Rembrandt pastels, figuring out the placement of the figure and a rough idea for a color palette. I decided at that time that a tight underdrawing would have made me more self-conscious, and rightly so. I was also noticing the wild background sky that Liss painted and how I could achieve that with my limited range of colors. I felt over my head but I continued anyway, knowing somehow I could get it together.

Despite a few anatomical adjustments, it started coming together smoothly. Here's me working about 3/4 into it with my Sennelier pastels now. The only grief I had was with the highlights on his left shoulder, which I couldn't quite nail down...I think the chalkiness of the Sennelier whites and the paper were not a great match. At any rate, I already learned so much just from the sky alone in how Liss made the colours deep and psychological, even mystical. Since it was a study, I decided to eliminate the angels and the lion he was sitting on, focusing more on the man himself.

The colour temperature went very warm here on my digital camera! I'm working on the drapery of his red robe in this stage, and it proved to be more difficult for me than I expected, as the anatomy was easier than I thought. The one thing I remember the most is my hands completely covered in pastel pigment, especially when I blended the sky with both hands!

This was the near final stage. That orange sticker on the top left is the price I paid for the paper: 25 cents! It wasn't really pastel paper, and I originally intended it to be a quick sketch, but as I really got into the painting I couldn't stop until I had the feeling that resembled something close to Liss. Notice the clumsy drapery. After a few months I noticed the extensor muscles of his left arm were not quite right, and the drapery was beginning to bother me so I did some more refinement.

Study for Vision of St.Jerome after Johann Liss, John Valente 2011

Above is the final version. While I still have much to learn about drapery and tonality within a monochromatic range, I'm happy overall with this study. The chiaroscuro is not nearly as great as Liss, but I wanted it to be cleaner and for my first real Old Master study in pastel I truly learned a lot.


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