It was only as I neared the crescendo of this symphony in brown that I realised it looks like the cover of a 1970s cookbook. Appropriately, I modelled it on Chardin. I say appropriately because French cooking seems to have had a stranglehold on Australian dinner parties in the 1970s. For ten long years the middle classes appear to have lived solely off duck a l’orange and French onion soup, interspersed with the occasional fondue party. It is a wonder anyone survived.
I painted this still life in oil on a birch board so I would have an excuse to try Dammar Glaze Medium from Michael Harding. In the past I have just used a linseed oil and turps mixture for glazing. The Dammar Glaze Medium was a revelation; it gives great control with fairly rapid drying but enough gooeyness to blend with no noticeable brush strokes. I even like the smell, though you need a window open or it will knock you out.
There are a number of difficulties with painting a skull. The shape is surprisingly tricky with many subtle shadows, but the two main challenges are: how to make the picture not look like a heavy metal album cover; and what to do with all those teeth.
The resin skull I used as a model for this picture has all of its teeth. I painted all of those teeth in the first draft of the painting, but it looked like a portrait of Donny Osmond. Far too busy. The Dutch masters solved this problem by subtracting a number of teeth, and often the lower jaw entirely, from their paintings of skulls. I followed suit; the effect is morbid, but it works. I suspect this effect was easier to pull off before flouridation of the water supply.
I framed the painting in a weathered wooden frame I found in a hard rubbish pile on the footpath. It seems an appropriate setting for a comment on the vanity of human wishes. The Walkman II in the portrait was a much argued-over treasure in my childhood home, but has languished unused in a drawer for many years.
The manifold conveniences of modern consumer society rest on the shoulders of giants. The invention of ice cream, the discovery of chocolate and the cultivation of tiny wooden handles reach near perfection in the Bubble O’Bill. According to Wikipedia, Bill (or ‘Bubble O’ as refer to him) was invented in the USA, but has been particularly popular in Australia. I suspect this is because he speaks to Australians’ self-image as hard-bitten, no-nonsense, frontier folk; rebels; outsiders. Or perhaps we are just a nation that likes ice cream, especially when it comes in a convenient four pack with a gumball for a nose.
My waistline and extensive dental work are already a testament to my love of ice cream. However, I wanted to do more than just accumulate subcutaneous fat in order to pay special homage to Bubble O. I have done this by painting him in the chiaroscuro manner of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This is what Bubble O looks like when the fridge light flashes on to capture him about to be consumed as an illicit midnight snack; in the morning nothing will remain other than a crumpled wrapper and an ice cream stick that has been sucked dry.
By the way, have you noticed how dirty the fingernails are in Caravaggio’s paintings?