Tuesday 23 December 2014

Faking Vigo the Carpathian (aka Vigo the Butch)

I'd been seeing a lot of inspirational prop work by extremely skilled people and it made me wonder: what can I recreate that showcases the skills I have? Most of my experience is as an illustrator, but the prop community is pretty sharp when it comes to making items that require only a high resolution JPEG and an inkjet, which meant I had to find an item that relied on a hand painted finish for its authenticity. Basically I needed a famous movie painting, something immediately recognisable and unique...

Which led me to Vigo Von Homburg Deutschendorf, Scourge of Carpathia, Sorrow of Moldavia... and star of Ghostbusters 2!

As always I started off by doing my research. It turns out the original painting used in the movie was not actually painted at all, but was in fact a large print of a photograph. The special effects team created a background and had Vigo (Wilhelm von Homburg) pose in front of this under flat lighting to create a composition that was painterly in appearance. The full size photograph was then weathered to appear like a real painting. An explanation of the process, with pictures, can be found here.

Obviously if I was attempting a perfect recreation of the prop this might be the route to follow: make a costume, take a photo... however my goal was to recreate a real painting, as if Vigo had painted it himself.

I decided my first step would be to paint some test pictures to see if I could achieve a reasonable likeness and also experiment with weathered finishes.

A quick acrylic test of my portraiture abilities

This was reasonably successful. I worked with acrylics due to speed and familiarity and used a cheap canvas I'd picked up from a bargain bin at a craft store. 

Whilst I was doing this I also knocked up a quick canvas to experiment with crackle varnish. It took a few attempts but eventually I discovered a product which would create a fine craquelure over the surface of the paint. 

DecoArt's one step crackle varnish

Experimenting with different thicknesses of the crackle varnish

This was all very exciting, but I came to realise: even if I painted Vigo in acrylic eight foot tall, weathered him with crackle varnish, rubbed ink into the cracks... the picture is still only going to be an approximation of an old painting using modern materials. It would lack intrinsic value. To do a really skilful job of this I was going to have to go deeper. 

So I started researching the techniques of master forgers. 

I started with Eric Hebborn, then stumbled across Ken Perenyi before arriving at Han Van Meegren and the marvellous Tom Keating. If you aren’t aware of these guys, I strongly suggest looking them up, they’re fascinating characters. 

According to Toben’s Spirit Guide, Vigo lived from 1505 - 1610 in an area of Europe that would become modern day Hungary. This gave me a good starting point to work out the materials Vigo might have used and how they would have been put together. 

By the 16th Century, the most common support for European paintings was linen canvas. Since it was unlikely I’d find an affordable 16th Century canvas I could scrub the paint from and rework (as Van Meegren might have), I realised I would need to create this myself, but my research suggested that modern linen would be easily discernible as such because it is all machine made. I needed a source of loose weave, hand made linen… thank you internet! :D

But what to do about the stretcher bars? In this area of Europe these would be made from Russian pine, probably in an “H” configuration, but again, it was unlikely I would be able to find any antique wood of the correct type and age that I could salvage, I was going to have to buy new wood and make it look old. I found somewhere I could buy stretcher bars of the correct material and started looking into convincing methods of ageing wood. The down side of these stretchers is they are machine made but hopefully I can modify them enough to disguise this. (Also worth noting that canvas "stretchers" didn't come into common usage until the late 18th Century, prior to that "strainer" bars were used.)

The canvas would need sizing with rabbit skin glue, which is easy to acquire, then the ground would need to be mixed and applied. North of the alps they used chalk mixed with rabbit glue, so I started hunting for an appropriate source of Calcium Carbonate. For authenticity’s sake, I wanted to source as much as I could from the area around Hungary.

Finding information about nails has proven problematic. I can tell you all sorts of things about the history of nails, but of the type used to attach canvas to stretcher in 16th Century Hungary? I may have to take an educated guess… Hopefully nail production methods were fairly standard across Europe, having been developed in Belgium before spreading outwards from there. I have found a source for authentic, hand forged nails in the UK but will hold off for a while until I know if I can get any from the continent.

There have been a number of paintings discredited for using inappropriate pigments given the supposed age of the painting, luckily I found an excellent website that detailed the history of pigments and the colours available in Vigo’s time. I was going to have to acquire pigments and carriers that closely resembled those of the sixteenth Century. 

Tom Keating has done some wonderful videos on how to paint in renaissance styles. They're freely available on Youtube and a fantastic resource.

My main problem was going to be how to dry the oil paints and make them seem convincingly old. Modern oil paints are available in various forms, some of which dry in days, but traditional oils could take months or even years to dry, and even longer than that to develop the fine patina and craquelure of age. There are a few possible solutions to this. The first was suggested by Van Meegren who spent six years developing techniques to artificially age and dry an oil painting (explained in detail in his biography), but perhaps the best source of information for the aspiring producer of faux aged oil paintings is Hebborn's Art Forger's Handbook which contains numerous ideas for making a painting look authentic. 

So now, with all the background research complete, it's time to start gathering materials. Obviously I can’t paint this at its original scale, money and available materials dictate that I will have to produce a more modest version, but I hope that the skills and techniques I use along the way might be educational and entertaining nonetheless. I will keep you updated with my progress. 

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