Chatting with California artist Karen King (2013)
Rather by accident the work of California artist Karen King came to my attention via her magnificent painting, Richard and Anne. Inspired by a passage from The Sunne in Splendour, Sharon Kay Penman’s epic novel of Richard III, it depicts the then Duke of Gloucester and his future queen, Anne, in a private moment as they attempt to forge their future. This is complicated by Anne’s previous tortured relationship with Edouard, her late husband and son of Richard’s enemy, Margaret of Anjou. They make their way outside, where Richard had
found for them a secluded retreat within a wall of willow and whitethorn; the sky was darkening into a delicately tinted violet and a crescent moon silvered the circling clouds over their heads. It was very quiet. She heard only the soft trilling of the night birds, was becoming aware of the heavy honeysuckle scents of spring. She should have been able to draw comfort from such surroundings; somehow, it didn’t help at all.
Anne begins to speak of Eduoard and just as quickly attempts to banish him and any reminders from their lives. “[S]he felt [Richard’s] fingers on her throat, caressing, tilting her face up to his. She let him kiss her, and rather timidly, put her arms around him as he drew her into a closer embrace.” It is this moment King captures on canvas, interpreting through her imagination the image she sees and all its vibrancy, including that felt by all the senses. Her Richard and Anne stand on a precipice, between the thick tension and surging relief of the moments that follow; not only can this be seen in the figures’ postures, but also felt. The lock of Anne’s hair falling over her cheek mirrors the ease and cascading looseness of her gown, yet the viewer can sense her stiffness and anguish as she leans into Richard. He, only somewhat relaxed, holds her in a comforting embrace, yet his eyes above her head, viewers can imagine, roam their surroundings, as if seeking elusive relief for the suffering she has endured.
Richard and Anne
I had the opportunity to chat with Karen, who so graciously shared with us some of her techniques, inspirations, personal favorites and passages as an artist.
I would like to thank Lisl for giving me the opportunity to have a chat about the painting of Richard and Anne. While I was preparing for this interview I found just by chance a notebook where I had jotted down some notes regarding research for the painting. Chance? I think not. The first page was titled: “Understanding Richard III for a Portrait/Painting.” I had just finished reading Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour and was so heartsick at the travesty that Shakespeare foisted upon the world regarding Richard Plantagenet that I wanted to read more. The first book referenced under the heading was Paul Murray Kendall’s Richard III. I wrote down one of his quotes, in which Kendall references Shakespeare’s play The Tragedy of Richard III: What a tribute this is to art; what a misfortune it is to history. I’d hope that my painting would be seen not so much as a tribute to art, but surely a tribute to the true Richard III.
Could you give us the basic technical information of the painting and tell us how you chose the materials for this particular piece?
The painting is done in acrylics. My pallet colors are Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Yellow Medium, Cadmium Red, Raw Sienna and White. I don’t use pre-mixed colors such as green, orange, purple etc. because I like to create my own. I also never use black. If you’re wondering about Richard’s hair, well I made my own black. I prefer acrylics to oil because I’m not fond of using toxic products such as turpentine, which is needed to thin down the oils. The only down side to using acrylics is that they dry quickly. I keep a spray bottle of water handy to keep my pallet from drying out. I have a mixture of nice brushes (red sable) and cheap ones, which tend to lose bristles. I use the good ones for detail work and the cheap ones when I need to cover a lot of the canvas. When you have a 48 x 35 canvas, as is the case with Richard and Anne, there’s a lot of canvas to cover! I use masking tape to help me keep a straight edge. Really don’t know what I would have done without it on this painting.
I had wondered about the edges and other difficult parts away from them. I’d just assumed it was a dilemma only a non-artist such as myself would think to have.
I’m being constantly challenged by difficulties presented when painting something new. There are instructors that teach technique, but my main teacher thought it best to learn by trial and error. That way I’d know what to do the next time I was presented with the same problem. She also encouraged me to develop my own style rather than create paintings that are carbon copies of the instructor’s style, e.g. Bob Ross. I understand the principal of that philosophy but sometimes I think that I would have benefited by being an apprentice to a master painter and learned to paint the way one was taught during the Renaissance. I really don’t even know if they teach that way any longer. I probably would have been very impatient though. I remember when I first started painting I was given the assignment to pick a very simple object, divide the canvas into six equal parts, then paint the object in different ways in the six “panes.” Well I picked a light bulb. It was very challenging to make a cohesive painting using a light bulb for inspiration. Well after I completed that painting, the next assignment was to paint three more paintings using the six-paneled grid painting as their theme. So I had to paint three more light bulb paintings before I could paint something that I actually wanted to paint! Let me tell you I have not painted anything resembling a light bulb since!
This painting is inspired by a scene from Sharon Kay Penman’s The Sunne in Splendour in which Richard and Anne find a private space, away from the pressures bearing down on both of them, and work through some troubling history. What were some of the thoughts or feelings you had when reading the passage that eventually led to the painting?
What could be more peaceful and private than a priory garden for two soul mates to comfort one another? I was anticipating beautiful moments of shared love and intimacy, but it soon became apparent that as much as Anne wanted to give herself to Richard, she was incapable of doing so because of her horrific relationship with Edouard. My heart bled for Richard as he came to the realization that he and Anne had a long road ahead them. Unable to vent his anger against Anne’s tormenter, all he could do was be patient, and hope that his steadfast love would eventually heal her emotional wounds. Anne felt awful as well because although she loved Richard with all her heart she felt emotionally handicapped. The bittersweet scene touched me deeply. I truly felt their frustration and anguish.
How long did it take to complete?
To tell you the truth I don’t remember. At the time I was taking a painting class once a week for three hours. At that rate I believe it probably took me at least three months.
Is this the first scene to have moved you in such a way? Were there any others (in Sunne or elsewhere) you have brought or would like to bring to canvas?
That is an excellent question! There are quite a few scenes from other books that I wanted to paint, however whenever I really thought about actually doing them, I’d get overwhelmed by the magnitude of the endeavor. I really wanted to paint Ranulf’s marriage proposal scene from Sharon’s When Christ and His Saints Slept. It takes place in a lantern lit barn. Ranulf and Rhiannan are sitting on a bale of hay. She with a kitten curled up in her lap and he with his hand gently tilting up her chin to kiss her. It was such a moving scene but there was no way I could pull it off. Where would I find anything remotely resembling a medieval barn, and even if I could there’s no way that I’d be able to find two willing subjects to pose for me! I thought about finding pictures to use as references, but with such specific requirements they’re very difficult to find even with the Internet at your fingertips. All that being said, I did paint a scene from an Edith Pargeter novel, Afterglow and Nightfall. Here’s the scene (I apologize for its length, but it’s one of the most moving passages that I’ve ever read. Just retyping it almost made me cry):
Lying as it does in a cleft of the northern hills, with the great mountain mass of Penmaenmawr to the east, Moel Wninon to the west and Foel-Fras to the south, the morning sun never enters Aber. But to look out at dawn to the north over the narrow salt marshes to Lavan sands and the sea, that is wonderful. The deepening light first tinted like feathers of doves, then flushing into rose, then glowing like amber, comes sweeping westward from Conway over the sea, to strike in a glitter of foam and sand on the distant coast of Anglesey across the strait from us, as if a golden tide had surged across the sea green tide, and flooded the visible world with light. That was such a morning. The only time that Eleanor’s eyes left Llwelyn’s face was to gaze at the morsel of sky seen through the open doorway, and he divined the last thirst that troubled her, she who loved the sun. If he could not take her where it would shine upon her, at least she might still look upon its beauty from the shadows. He sat down beside her on the edge of the brychan, and lifted her against his shoulder, and carefully gathering the blankets of the bed about her, took her up in his arms. She made no sign of pain, but only a soft sigh and with his cheek pressed steadyingly against her hair he carried her out on to the guard-walk, and the few yards round the stony bulk of the tower to the northern parapet, and stood cradling her as the sun rose, their faces turned towards the sea. There in the open the air was sweet and cool, and below us, beyond the shore road, the reeds and grasses of the marsh stood erect like small, bright lances, every one separate, going down in lush, tufted waves to where the sands began, with a great exultation of sea birds filling the air above. The level sunrays made all the surface of the strait a dance of darker blue in the centre, and the shallows where the sand showed through were the colour of ripening wheat. Along the horizon ran the purple line of the coast of Anglesey, and in the centre of that distant shore was the Franciscan friary of Llanfaes, the burying place of the princesses of Gwynedd. In the morning light it appeared as the distant harbour of desire, absolute in beauty and peace. She lay content in his arms and on his heart, her cheek against his cheek, and her eyes drew light from the picture on which she gazed, and grew so wide and wise in their hazel gold that there was a moment when I believed he had won the battle. He knew better. Very still he stood, not to jar or hurt her and softly still he spoke, of Wales, that she had taken to her heart and that loved her in return and of a future when there would be no need of war, when this land would be free and united and honourable among the countries of Christendom, and kings and princes would pledge peace and keep it, and her child’s children, the descendants of Earl Simon, would walk at large as heroes among their own people, and equals among the monarchs of the world. Her lips moved, soundlessly, saying: “Yes!” It was right that she should take her leave of the world, as she had greeted it in passing, with a cry of affirmation. The sun was just clear of the horizon, and the sky to eastward the colour of primroses, and to westward of cornflowers, when the faintest of tremors passed through her body, and her head turned slightly upon his shoulder, her lips straining to his cheek. One word she said, and this time not silently shaping it, yet on so feeble a breath that neither he nor I could have caught it but for the great silence in which we stood. But hear it I did, and so did he. We never spoke of it but I know. “Cariad!” she said, and her breath caught and halted long gently began again, and again sank into stillness. He held her for a great while after that, but there was no more sound, and no more movement, and that was all her message to him. She did not leave him without saying farewell. Yes! Cariad!
This passage moved me deeply and I really wanted to capture the sense of tragedy. What I couldn’t capture was the beauty of the sunrise depicted by Mrs. Pargeter, for I’ve never been to that part of Wales to see it for myself. But I did try to get a feel as to what the area looked like by using Google maps. I also found pictures of the area on the Internet, but I could never get a true picture in my head. It also occurred to me as I was trying to compose the picture that Mrs. Pargeter was describing what they were seeing and so doing, does not involve the figures at all! So I had to combine the two; the figures and what they were seeing. In the end I think the figures are the true focal point of the painting and the sunrise had to suffer for it, All in all I’m pleased with the colors I used and never tire of looking at it.
A magical thing happened though after I hung the painting up in my living room. One afternoon I was sitting across the room from the painting and happened to glance up at it and caught my breath. A beam of light from the setting sun was shining on the figures and it seemed as if they were lit from within. Yes! Cariad! So, Lisl, is there a favorite passage from a book that you’d like to see painted?
Well, with some exceptions I generally tend to see moving pictures in my mind when passages evoke images. For example in Sunne the night before Richard’s first battle, Penman describes his facial movements in one particular instance, and I remember being struck by how easily I could see the exact movement of expression in his eyes and face based on her words. It’s an expression I’ve seen many times before in real life, but it’s the sort you never really stop to comment about. I was amazed at how such a small moment, an “insignificant” movement could leap out at me. I think it was made significant because, strange as this may sound, helped me to see more into this Richard.
I find it interesting that when you read you see moving pictures in your head. Don’t you love the way Sharon can describe facial expressions? There is so much subtlety in describing human emotions that it takes a very special author to bring the character to life; make them so real that as you said, “helped me see more into this Richard.” Writing, painting and music are very similar, in that when done well, evoke emotions that touch the heart.
Oh, I totally agree. Even small details can move hearts. Tell us about your Anne’s hair. If I recall correctly, it was described in the book as chestnut, yet you painted a rich red. How did you come to envision Anne in this way?
As a writer, have you ever had a chapter you were writing take on a life of its own? Your careful outline, suddenly gone astray? Well that happens with painting as well. I believe that I began to paint Anne’s hair a rich chestnut, but when painting the highlights I got carried away turning it red. I let it be because I liked the way it looked, knowing that I could easily change it later, but as the painting progressed I found that the color worked with the painting as a whole.
Close up, Richard and Anne
Also, I’m very aware that Anne should have been wearing a headdress. In fact I wanted to paint a headdress lying on the cloister wall, seemingly carelessly cast aside in the heat of the moment, but my art instructor at the time advised against it for she felt that it fought with the overall composition, so I left it out. The painting and the way it came to be is a bit reminiscent of the Pre-Raphaelites, whose work was influenced in part by Romantic poetry.
There is a great deal of detail in your painting, yet it is much more subtle than in most of the PRB’s works. Is there any particular influence in your artistic background that informs this piece?
As a teen I discovered Botticelli. I loved his linear style of painting. Fell in love with his portraits of young men. If you look at Botticelli’s Madonna and Angels, they are just exquisite, very ethereal and captivating. Later on I discovered the Pre-Raphaelite movement and became a fan of Sir Edward Burne-Jones. I wasn’t surprised to find out that he was influenced by Botticelli! If you are familiar with Burne-Jones’ work, it’s very linear as well. Lately though I’ve been drawn to the Pre-Raphaelite artist J. W. Waterhouse. I have this fantasy of someday having the means to buy an old Tudor Style home in the English countryside where each room’s focal point and inspiration is a Waterhouse painting. We can dream can’t we? I believe that my style is a combination of Burne-Jones and Waterhouse. On a side note, the only painting that I’ve ever sold was a study I painted of the head of Venus in Botticelli’s Birth of Venus. I always found that pretty ironic. Lisl, do you have a favorite artists, or movement?
Well, I must confess I am not very artistic, and growing up tended to run into information on movements that really did very little to inspire me. (Sounds terrible, I know.) However, in high school I read a lot of Arthurian literature and simultaneously discovered the greeting card companies’ attraction to paintings by Burne-Jones and others. They were simply magnificent and the styles completely captured me. I loved Keats and tried to imagine “La Belle Dame sans Merci” brought to canvas in a similar fashion—which was a departure for me because my entire life until then had been spent focused on words. I happened to mention this to my English teacher, who possessed a treasure trove of books, and she showed the Waterhouse to me, which delighted me to no end.
I love the Arthurian Legend myself and I never cease to marvel over the magnificent art and superb literature that it has inspired. When I was in high school I read the book The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart and just fell in love with her version of Merlin.
I am still in love with those books.
Of course I read the next two books that followed and found myself smitten with one of the minor characters she developed for the series. I would literally daydream about going back in time and meeting this character. Well eventually I put my daydream into words and wrote a complete story about me and this character. One day in my art class I mentioned my story and one of the students suggested that I try to get it published. I told her that it wasn’t possible because I used Mary Stewart’s story as a base for my story. Her character was one of my main characters. She then suggested that I write to Mary Stewart to see if she could give me permission to use her character. Well I did just that, not expecting to her hear from her. About two months later I get an “air mail” letter from Scotland in the post and could not believe that Mary Stewart sent me a hand written reply! She was extremely nice about it but, unfortunately her publisher advised her against my request. I wasn’t too disappointed because I really don’t think that I’m that great of a writer and even if she had given her permission, I doubt that it could have been of interest to any publishing house. I have a small story somewhat related you may find amusing.
The Crystal Cave was actually on a list of books we were required to read the summer before school started. I was in my “don’t-tell-me-what-to-read” phase and resisted. I thought I knew all I wanted to know about Arthur, and my mother despaired, but she bought the books anyway. One day when cleaning my room I picked one up and gazed at the cover illustration of a strapping and rosy-cheeked Merlin—he even had reddish hair. Or it may have been a teenaged Arthur. In any case the image intrigued me so much I began to skim through the book. I remember placing the cloth on the floor and sitting there as I actually began reading. That moment re-directed my life. Speaking of direction, Richard and Anne are located away from the central spot in the painting, and there is not much view to the sky, which is described magnificently in the passage it depicts – is there a statement within that choice, or intent to use these visual cues to signify mood or other energies within the scene?
Regarding the composition, I’m very fortunate to have had some very good art instructors who’ve taught me a lot about composition. There’s a mathematical formula called “The Golden Mean” which will tell you precisely where to place the focal point of your composition. Strangely enough, it’s not the center of the painting. There are also ways you can move the eye around the painting in a way that leads the viewer to the focal point. If you look at the cloister wall at the right hand side of the painting, it leads the eye to the figures. Also notice how the arch above the figures leads the eye to them. Remember earlier when I talked about the difficulties involved in painting a scene from a book? Well, this scene is not an exact replication of the scene from the book. The scene takes place in a priory garden with an arbor. When I sketched out the figures in an arbor, I just couldn’t get the feeling I wanted. But I knew that priories had cloisters so I used my artistic license and went the with cloister setting.
Perhaps this scene is a last embrace, their last moment alone before they have to return to the hall after they left the garden and walked through the cloisters? When I made the choice of the cloisters, I chose a setting that gave me very little opportunity to paint a beautiful sunset. Perhaps I’m not meant to paint sunsets or sunrises for that matter. I was hoping to get the feel of the beautiful sky in that little bit you get to see through the arch. I remember that there was mention of a sliver of a moon, so I enjoyed putting that in there along with the pink tinged clouds. I also liked the way the dark cloister roof and walls contrasted with the brilliant blue sky and clouds and the subdued colors of the cloister garden, giving the viewer a feeling of dusk. Do you find it easy for your eye to move around the painting?
I do, and your reference to “The Golden Mean” brings back some memories of art history class. I recall being astounded at these techniques, because I thought artists were these talented people who simply painted something and there it was. Beautiful at the first. Looking at the painting again, it is as if the arches not only lead the eye, but perform a double duty in actually framing the top of the painting. There also seems to be what I might call a “balance” to it. A framing seems to work at the bottom as well, but without a lot of detail to distract from the figures of Richard and Anne. Emotionally there seems to be much around them not necessarily seen by the eye.
It is very gratifying to hear your comments, Lisl. Such a lot of love and hard work went into this painting that it’s very satisfying to know that someone else can see and feel its meaning. Being an amateur, I always fear that my efforts will be seen as corny and simplistic. Your appreciation of this painting inspires me to keep painting.
How would you describe this painting to someone unfamiliar with Sunne in Splendour or Richard III?
Oh my. This is the best question of all for this would give me the opportunity to enlighten the viewer whose only exposure to Richard III has been from Shakespeare. First of all I would highly recommend that they read The Sunne in Splendour. But if they balked at reading the book, I would tell them of the real Richard, his unfailing loyalty to his brother Edward, his courage and valor in the battles of Barnet and Tewkesbury, and his brilliant administration of his duties as Lord of the North. His motto says it all “Loyaulte Me Lie,” Loyalty Binds Me.