Painting a Puritan

The finished piece: “Misery Imposed by the Self”

A rather somber subject matter, I realise. But when have I ever produced art that isn’t seeped in the morose or the macabre? I ruminated on this painting for a long time. It took over ten hours to paint. Not because the level of detail required was particularly demanding, but because I was indecisive about several aspects of the finished piece. And the subject matter turned out to much more mentally demanding than I ever considered.

With this portrait, I wanted to convey the idea of self-imposed misery. Sorrow induced by one’s surroundings is a relatively simple concept to approach for a piece of art. One need only assess the world around them, interpret the things that make them unhappy, and express that on the canvas. Asking yourself “what are some of the ways that I make myself miserable?” is not an easy subject to explore. For starters, you open yourself up to self-induced gaslighting, and secondly, it’s difficult to objectively ask yourself such a question.

The image of a 17th/18th century Puritan conjures ideas of austerity, celibacy and frugality in extreme abundance. I remember when I learnt about the English Civil War and English Puritanism when I was a kid. The thing that stood out to me as the most extreme measure of Oliver Cromwell’s doctrine was that he banned the celebration of Christmas, and people were no longer to celebrate their birthdays. As a small child I found this idea monstrous. Why would people not want to have fun? Why would people punish themselves in this way?

And so, for my portrait of self-imposed misery, I decided to paint an English Civil War era Puritan. I wanted to convey the misery and hopelessness that his beliefs have caused him. How he has restrained himself from basic human pleasure. How his lack of joy and excitement drain him of colour. That’s why I decided to paint him in black and white. I also had old oil paintings of the period in mind when I made this choice. I remember, when I used to visit Wythenshawe Hall in Greater Manchester, England, there was a huge oil painting that was so dark and cracked with age that you could hardly make the image out. The gentleman in the painting was, as I recall, a parliamentarian during the Civil War.

Although it was rather frustrating to spend so much time on one painting, I feel like these many laborious sessions helped to fuel the overall feel of dispassion that I sought to convey.

Close-up of the painting

Now that this arduous project is over, I’m excited to move onto my next painting!

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