I watched a fascinating documentary on BBC Four last week called ‘The Forger Who Fooled The Nazis’. It told the unbelievable story of a Dutch artist called Han van Meegeren, who managed to fool the artistic establishment into authenticating a series of ‘missing’ Vermeer paintings that he had forged. For me, one of the most fascinating parts of the programme was when they showed his technique. This involved mixing Bakelite with oil paint to replicate the tough veneer of a very old painting, sourcing lapis lazuli and even baking the finished canvas in an oven.
The actual paintings were hideous, with none of the lightness of touch and subtlety of a true Vermeer, but he still managed to fool those in the know. After making millions selling the fakes to institutions and galleries, van Meegeren was eventually unmasked and served just one year in prison. After his death he became a folk hero in the Netherlands, celebrated for his audacious crime.
I’ve been recording my own process recently (no Bakelite involved) using time-lapse videos. Here are a series of images and a video, showing the different stages of one of my paintings. Once I’ve drawn out the image onto the canvas with a soft pencil I put a very thin wash of acrylic paint over the surface to fix the pencil and knock back the white gesso. Next, I block in the underpainting with acrylic paint. Using acrylic for the initial blocking-in means I don’t have to wait for it to dry over days, as I would if I used only oil paint.
And so to the best bit: adding all the details, tweaking the colours and refining the overall composition in oil. It sounds straightforward, and it is, sometimes, but more often than not a missing piece of the puzzle throws the whole process. It could be the composition, the colours, the tones, even my mood. For every painting that goes like clockwork there are three that end up facing the wall!
At least - unlike Van Meegeren - I don’t have the added worry of having to pop my finished canvases into a hot oven before persuading important-looking men with beards that my painting is a missing masterpiece by a 17th century Dutch artist.