Workshop: How to depict a chemical element
Mark Zug completes his project of painting figures based on the periodic table of elements, transforming chemical properties into personality traits
Mark Zug paints a figure based on an element from the periodic table.
My career spent creating fantastical beings for books and games does not scratch every creative itch that I have. One such itch has been my Noble Gases series of paintings, which I conceived nine years ago. In them, I imagined those six chemical elements coming to life as female icons. For every one of those paintings, I took the properties of the element and conceived it in both human and artistic terms.
To start, the palette of all six pieces reflects their respective emission spectra: the colour of light the gases emit under electrical stimulation. Neon emits red-orange, so I had my palette for this character. The names of the gases are based in Greek, and evince something of their qualities; neon comes from neos, or the new. Xenon is from xenos – the strange, or alien, owing to its rarity here on Earth, so for that noble gas I painted an alien physiology. And so on.
The red-orange palette of neon and its theme of newness suggested lava. In fact, Neon was the first piece of the series I completed, but for a number of reasons it was a creative miss for me. I didn’t like it thematically or visually, so I put it away and went on with the rest of the series.
For this workshop I’ll take a fresh run at it. I’ll create a new round of thumbnails not at all similar to any I’ve done before, while keeping the theme of lava as an elemental force representing renewal.
Mark’s an award-winning book and magazine illustrator. He’s also painted card art for Magic: The Gathering and Dune. Visit his website for more examples of his art, including his Noble Gases series: www.markzug.com.
Thumbnailing some possibilities
I decide on black skin and bright red hair for my female character from the beginning, and circle around to my other elements. I want her to be doing something in the composition, rather than looking passive. Finally, I have a good technical drawing to work from.
Transfer the drawing to the canvas
I prepare my gessoed and stretched 24-inch canvas with a layer of oil/alkyd colour related to my final palette – in this case, a pale orange. On this I do a tracing in pencil, using an Artograph projector.
Establish the underpainting and background palette
On this drawing I do a monochromatic underpainting using black oil paint diluted with solvent. I let it dry, then go over it with a semi-opaque layer of wet-into-wet oil paint. I’m painting all the lava areas back to white, so that they will have plenty of brightness built in. This is also the stage where I establish the background palette.
Using paints that bring extra vibrancy to the composition
I give the lava its first colour using cadmium reds and oranges – toxic pigments that I don’t usually use. But in this case, I need their extra intensity. Note how the first cool colour on her scythe-like tool reacts with its warmer underpainting.
Refining the figure’s appearance
I begin the figure’s flesh tones in fully rounded colour, using as reference any images I can find of the darkest people on Earth.
Pick and choose from my reference sources
Do more of the same, everywhere. My reference is omnipresent, and never explicitly resembles anything in the painting.
Pushing the background
In the final stages, I bring the background into sharper focus, give the ash plume some extra definition, and add the diaphanous curtains of falling ash that I had seen in my mind’s eye.
Varnish enhances the painting’s contrast
The last stage is retouch varnish – a 1:1 dilution of damar varnish with turpentine – applied with a hake brush after the painting is fully dry to the touch. This brings back a uniform gloss and deepens the contrast.
Mark’s first attempt at depicting Neon left him cold, despite the red-hot nature of the composition.