Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Making the Dorian Gray Paintings

I was commissioned to create the infamous changing painting for the Lifeline stage adaptation of The Picture of Dorian Gray. It was directed by my pal, Kevin Theis, adapted by Rob Kauzlaric, had scenic design by Tim Burch, and lighting design by Kevin D. Gawley. All of them played a role in making the paintings transform onstage. The play was a raving, critical success and I was very proud to be part of the production. As noted in an earlier blog entry, the paintings themselves (which didn't have an off night or a great night, they were the same thing every night) got reviews that ranged from "a sensational canvas" to "the worst thing in the play".

Regardless, folks seem to like the "How Did They Do That?" stuff I put up here and now that the play is over, I thought I would let folks who didn't see the play, see the paintings. I have decided not to show how we made the paintings change in real time. As fun as it would be, it would also ruin the magic AND we're using the same technique in WildClaw Theatre's "The Dreams in the Witch House" to great effect (people have no idea how we're are doing this). That show is still running until December 21st (Go see it!)

So, for those of you who slept through high school English, the painting in this story magically transforms to show the effects of age and life while Dorian Gray remains forever youthful in person. The director wanted the painting to show a more violent vehemence than just decay and age. Now - here are the paintings (Dorian was portrayed by actor, Nick Vidal):

Nick Vidal as Dorian Gray (Photo © 08 Suzanne Plunkett)

First I laid out a grid and sketched in Nick's image on three canvases. After getting a sketch I liked on one canvas, I transferred the image to the other two canvases with tracing paper. There needed to be an initial painting, then a trick one that transforms in real time, and a final painting showing the ultimate effects of Dorian's actions at the climax of the play. The first painting is revealed upstage, very close to the audience. It was then moved up to a second stage platform downstage away from the audience. A curtain was placed over the framed painting as it was placed on the wall. Later in the play, a second transitional painting replaced the first.

Paintings 1 and 2

I worked in parallel on paintings one and two since they needed to look very similar when the second on is revealed from behind the curtain. These were done in acrylics since time was of the essence. I had planned on doing the final painting in oil, but time didn't let that happen. In fact, I delivered the last two paintings in their final form about 15 minutes (maybe 10) before the start of the first preview performance. I'm sure I added way too much undue stress on Cortney and Kim.

Background Test

The image above is actually a photo of the painting with a Photoshop background test to see how to put the darker shades into the background. One of the decisions that had to be made was how much detail to put in the painting. I opted to leave the background clean of imagery to allow the audience to only focus on Dorian's image. It fit with the style of the time period, so I got away with it. One of the issues with theater work is making sure the folks in the back row can see what you are trying to achieve. This can lead to a simpler, sometimes "cartoony" image, but if half the theater can't see your clever painting techniques, then it's not doing it's job.

Final Version of 1st Dorian Painting

The image above is the final version of the first painting the audience sees in the play. While I love the reference photo, reality is that the character is wearing a pin-striped suit and a detailed vest. These added time to the painting, to put it mildly. Below is a detail from this painting.

Transition Painting

This is the transition painting. You can see the areas that get ripped out to reveal a glowing, raw interior to the painting, much brighter than what you see here. Amazingly enough, under the stage lights, prior to the intended reveals these areas didn't show up at all.

Final Painting

And this is the painting that ultimately shows the violence inflicted on Dorian and his victims. Ripping away at the painting by the ghosts of Dorian's victims was the director's choice to show the ravaging effects on the painting. So this one had to reflect the tears in the transition painting before it.

And that is almost the whole story.

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