Painting Shakespeare: Truth, Mirth, and Turmoil

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Taking up from where the recent Sonnets for Advent series finished comes this post by painter Richard Lance Russell:

This painting, “Number All Your Graces,” was inspired by these lines from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 17:

“If I could write the beauty of your eyes
And in fresh numbers number all your graces”

by Richard Lance Russell

I love creating paintings from the Sonnets because they, like all great writing, create powerful images in the mind’s eye, allowing me to translate those impressions to canvas.

It was in school that I, like many people, first encountered Shakespeare’s work. I was compelled to read the plays with little context or explanation. The differences in syntax, vocabulary, and idioms were difficult for me to get past. But then I sat in a theatre, watching the stories unfold onstage, and all that distance between myself and the text melted away. I understood the plot. I cared about the characters. I got the jokes. And I discovered the appeal that Shakespeare’s work has had for centuries.

by Richard Lance Russell after ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’

Without a background in Early Modern English and Shakespeare studies, reading the Bard cold can be daunting. But I now know that the work has value which makes it worth the effort. I paint scenes from Shakespeare because I love them, but also because I think I can make a play more accessible by creating an iconic image that captures a theme, a character, or a powerful moment from the play. The image then becomes a gateway through which the reader can approach the text with enough knowledge to feel oriented and enough interest to motivate them to further explore the work.

As I created the paintings in my Shakespeare exhibit: “Truth, Mirth, and Turmoil” hosted this year by the Utah Shakespeare Festival, I was struck by how similar painting is to staging a play. I had to make many of the same decisions I would have had to make in order to put the play on the stage: casting, costuming, lighting, and set design. In addition, I had to consider how best to control the viewer’s attention, tell something of the story, and capture what I saw as a crucial moment in the text. My painting technique is a combination of the influences of modern art and traditional academic representational painting. I strive for realistic proportions, colours, and perspective while still valuing the paint itself: its texture, shape making, colour variety, and translucence are important in my paintings.

This style of painting allows the image to be appreciated on many levels, just as Shakespeare’s texts themselves can be. The plays are first stories and characters that make us laugh or cry, but there is also beauty in the words, the meter, and the imagery. Similarly, this style of painting can be appreciated as an image alone or for its simple representation of the text, but it can also be valued for the elements that make up that image: the design, the colour, and the brushstrokes.

For example, “’Tis Mine and I Will Have It” depicts Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. While many of the pieces in the exhibit are narrative, this piece is a portrait. I wanted the painting to have a distinct focus on the lone figure with the knife.

by Richard Lance Russell

There is no background to speak of, Shylock’s face is presented in profile, and the viewer’s eye is drawn by long strokes down to the knife: representative of the desire with which he is consumed.

Contrast it with “Kiss Me, Kate,” where I tried to capture the fun give-and-take relationship in The Taming of the Shrew between Katharina and Petruchio with the gesture of them pulling against each other. The strokes are short and directional, the colours varied, and the background details add a setting for the story.

by Richard Lance Russell

In “Farewell, Farewell! One Kiss,” I wanted to focus on the tenderness that makes Romeo’s parting from Juliet particularly poignant, while including darker undertones that suggest some of the tragedy to come. The sword lends a sombre note to the scene, and the elaborate window in the background suggests the soft romanticism that also underlies the play.

by Richard Lance Russell

Similarly, when designing and painting the culminating scene of As You Like It, to convey a sense of freedom and openness I used a bigger canvas, 20” x 30,” and set the scene in an open meadow. The meadow stretches expansively around the dancers, their energetic movements hopeful of things to come. The gestures in this piece, from the Duke’s clapping to the clasped hands of the dancers, are indicative of the joy at the end of the play as the characters embrace their future and leave the forest behind them.

by Richard Lance Russell

In “What a Noble Mind Is Here O’erthrown,” Hamlet stands alone bearing the weight of his thoughts.

by Richard Lance Russell

Lady Macbeth is likewise a solitary figure. The light in “Will These Hands Ne’er Be Clean?” is an important element of this piece, as it works both visually and metaphorically. Both Lady Macbeth’s hands and her deeds are illuminated by the single candle. The swift and loose strokes in the background are indicative of the turmoil within the character.

by Richard Lance Russell

Why are contemporary images of Shakespeare’s work important? For some of the same reasons that Shakespeare’s plays are still being produced centuries after his death. Because painting styles change, and what people see as iconic changes with every generation, images from previous eras don’t always facilitate understanding; on the contrary, they can create distance rather than connection with the plays. In the same way that many productions set the plays in the present in order to highlight the story’s applicability to a modern audience, I use contemporary painting techniques in an attempt to reintroduce Shakespeare’s timeless themes and texts to today’s viewer.

Find out more about Richard Lance Russell’s work by clicking here.

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Sandi Forsythe

    What a nice article, Paul. I would love to see his paintings. Sandi Forsythe

  • Paintings

    so lovely paintaing its say its right romantic view

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