Painting for the big screen, Tulip Fever

September 9, 2017



Tulip fever has been released after all these years, for reasons unbeknownst to me there is currently no UK release date, however it is now out in US cinemas and most other countries worldwide. I've had to sit on this material since the summer of 2014, but now I can share it. I haven't seen the film so I cannot comment on its overall success. However with the cast, writers, crew and producers involved, it’s hard to see how at the very least it could not be an enjoyable watch. 


Just a quick disclaimer of sorts: the major paintings in the film were done by me (main double portrait, Woman with Tulip, and a Vanitas still life with Semper Augustus Tulip, as well as the head studies for the main double portrait). Pretty much anything else you see was not and I have no idea what liberties have been taken with my work, I’m not saying this is good or bad, I simply do not know. Also the majority of the images here were taken on my mobile phone, bare in my that this was 2014 and that camera phones were not as good as they are now.


Back in April 2014 I received a phone call from Fine Art Commissions, a gallery I work closely with, saying that a film production company would like to speak to me about working with them to create paintings for a movie called Tulip Fever, a Tom Stoppard adaptation of a book with the same name written by Deborah Moggach; The main players being Dane Dehaan, Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz. My initial thoughts were “that’s different” but I doubted  they would be able to accommodate my working practice (I paint from life) and so I immediately assumed this was an interesting non starter. 


I spoke with a lovely woman called Elly who gave me the basic synopsis:


“17th Century Amsterdam, an orphaned girl (Alicia Vikander) is forcibly married to a rich and powerful merchant (Christoph Waltz) - an unhappy "arrangement" that saves her from poverty. Her husband commissions their portraits and during the course of the sittings she begins a passionate affair with the painter (Dane DeHaan), a struggling young artist.” 


What they wanted was for me to work with the script and produce 4 or 5 paintings (3 in the end), the main painting being a double full length portrait of Alicia Vikander and Christopher Waltz. Quite understandably, they had little knowledge of how paintings are made, so it was a fact finding mission as well as a recruiting one. In order to bring Jan (the artist) to life he needed to be believable as an artist. They also needed to show the paintings progressing in real time, which I remember was a major headache for them. 


After that conversation, still thinking this was a non starter,  I was sent the script which I read over the weekend as well as the book. Not my usual read, but I enjoyed both nonetheless and I could see how it could make a good movie.


By Monday I was thinking “ok, how can I make this work?”, I mean how often will you get an opportunity to work in the film industry? 


I sat down and wrote out what I thought I would need, trying to be as realistic as possible. I also made a list of foreseeable problems and possible solutions so as to know what to ask for; a life size fully articulated mannequin for example. 


I figured that if they could get me a minimum of 3 x 3 hour sittings with both Alicia and Christoph that would be just enough time to make strong head studies. If they could then cast body doubles to stand in for them as well as provide me with a life size fully articulated mannequin for everything else, I was confident I could pull it off. This was pretty much the only way I could see myself being able to work on this project. As it is this wouldn't be an uncommon way of working for me, especially when painting busy people. It is also historically accurate; 17th century painting practices were very similar, take these individual Van Dyck head studies from the 1630's. They were connected with the commission of a large painting for the Brussels town hall. The Frick published a fascinating catalogue on this that you can read online here if you wish: 


Van Dyck head studies


To my surprise they seemed to think that this was all possible. One thing about this industry is that I never once had a straight “no” to an idea, anything I suggested was put on the table and investigated, I liked that. 


I had a strong idea of how we could show the paintings in progress. In the past I had used a company called Prudence Cuming Associates of Bond street to photograph and reproduce paintings of mine for clients who want exact copies for different homes, offices etc… or to give as gifts. The quality is extremely high and incredibly convincing. My thought was that as I reached a particular stage in the painting it could be collected, delivered to Prudence Cuming, photographed, reproduced to scale on canvas and delivered straight back to me to continue work. 


A few days later I found myself having a very constructive meeting at Pinewood studios , fast forward through all the boring contractual stuff, and a short period later I got to work. 


My main obstacle was time, there were 6 weeks from the initial phone call to the first day of filming. And all departments had the same challenge with deadline. The incredible costumes by Michael O’Connor were not quite finished, props not quite found, apparently there is only one ruff maker in the U.K. (not that surprising actually when you think about it) and they are extremely time consuming to make. 


The effect on the main double portrait was that I had to work in a piecemeal fashion, which goes against my usual philosophy.


Justin Chadwick (Director) attended my initial sittings with Alicia and Christoph and was very observant and keen to understand my way of working. He also brought the very gifted Eigil Bryld (Cinematographer) to a few sittings as well as Michael O'Connor. I know these sittings had an impact on the choreography of the painting scenes, to what extent I do not know until I see the film. But how Jan (Dane) goes about painting the portraits, i.e painting the head studies at the Sandvoort house and then working on the large canvas in his studio with mannequins and body doubles, that came directly from me. I found this process and dialogue with Justin at that time both stimulating and rewarding.




Alicia was a real pleasure to work with and a lovely person. Very studious and interested in the painting process, it seemed to me that her antenna was up and she was taking everything in. Her Oscar winning performance in the Danish girl came as no surprise, she has something about her for sure, but it’s her work ethic that stood out to me. Take the sittings as prime example, she went into character and acted out her role, which from my point of view was tremendously helpful, if not a little intense as I did not realise she was doing it straight away. What this did was enable me to alter her expression subtly from the vulnerable and scared Sophia in the beginning to the more confident Sophia towards the end of the portrait sittings. It’s a subtle tweaking, mostly in the eyebrow’s and mouth but it is there, something that would have been impossible to do without her. I imagine nobody will ever notice or care about these things, but I care.



I then flew to Berlin with Justin to start Christoph’s portrait.



We met for the first time at dinner the night before the sittings. I found this hugely beneficial to break the ice. Christoph was very nice, although a little sceptical at first about why we were doing this; which was totally understandable given that this was on down time in between a very busy filming schedule. However I stated my case as to why I work the way I do and from that moment on things could not have been better. A charming, witty and intelligent man. The conversations were always stimulating and I found his honesty refreshing.


He actually gave me much more time than I had requested and had good suggestions for his pose, which was essentially what I had had in mind. I knew I wanted his elbow pointing out, a classic pose of wealthy merchants from that period, the elbow pointing out symbolises strength and success, so as to "elbow your way through". This was a time when people could rise from very little to make their fortunes. But it was his suggestion to be just behind Alicia with his hand next to her shoulder, a reminder of his presence. We had a full day of sittings in Berlin and a few more sittings back in London.




Once I had made good progress with the head studies I started transferring them to the large canvas. I massed in the proportions from each sitter in charcoal so I had a guide when working with the body doubles. At this stage the canvas was sent off to be photographed and reproduced. I believe they had 10 copies of each stage so that if Dane decided to paint directly onto the canvas they could have a fresh canvas for the following take.  


Setup for transferring the head studies to the main canvas, essentially sight-sizing. 


Dane Dehaan and ZacK Galifianakis hard at work with my work in progress of Alicia and Christoph in the background.



My body double for Christoph was a wonderful man called Gary McCarron. 



Gary was cast as the closest body double for Christoph. This was a real stroke of luck for me, I am not exaggerating when I say I could not have completed the painting without him, he worked tirelessly standing for up to 10 hours a day in full costume. But it wasn't just the hours, his enthusiasm for the role and his support for what I was trying to achieve made the whole thing tick, so thank you Gary. I relayed his impeccable professionalism back to the film company and they hired him to be Christoph’s stand in for the entire movie; good things happen to good people sometimes. I had wonderful help everyday from the costume department, one of the lovely ladies would be in the studio with me to dress the models correctly and make any adjustments throughout the day, it meant I seldom had to put my palette down. These seemingly small details made hitting my deadline possible.



At this point in the painting (above) we were just days away from filming, luckily the finished painting was not due to be shot until week 2. Notice the ruff Gary is wearing, this was the initial ruff we had for the first couple of sittings with Christoph, however this is not the ruff he would be wearing for the movie, that was not ready at this stage and was considerably bigger which meant I had to leave that whole area blank.  

Christoph's last sitting was just before the first day of filming, his beard and hair had just been tweaked for the 17th century look and I made a second head study of this, along with the new ruff!  Here are both.



Alicia's dress was now ready. Unfortunately for me there was only one dress. Alicia obviously had to have it during filming, which was mostly weekdays and I got it at the weekend. She came for her final sitting straight from the set with her hair and makeup as it would be for the movie; I made the final tweaks to her portrait directly onto the main canvas. .


I had a lovely body double for Alicia however I decided to use a mannequin for the most part when painting the dress because the design in the folds change too often with a live model,  where as with the mannequin I could set it up and work for days like a still life. 


So the following two images show the dress in progress. The first having been laid in from the live model. 



And in the second image you can see my setup with the dress on the mannequin. A beautiful thing to paint. The dress was painted entirely in one weekend.  



This brings me to a funny anecdote that typifies my experience in many ways:


It was the weekend I painted Alicia's dress, I had just set it up on the mannequin with the folds designed to my liking, the props had also just been delivered and were to be collected with the dress on Monday, however I knew I needed every hour of that weekend to paint the dress in one go, so I decided to prioritise the the dress and paint the props the following weekend. So I'm painting away when the door bell goes, I open the door and there is a man standing in front of me holding one single 'Semper Augustus' Tulip, "the last one in the UK and Europe" he says, "it has bloomed earlier than expected!!" (The Tulip features in a still life towards the end of the movie, I hadn't even contemplated the composition of this still life yet, as far as I was concerned that painting was 4 weeks down the line). He handed it over and I put it on the table and just looked at it for a few minutes trying to compute what was happening and what I was going to do about it. In my head I'm thinking "the dress has to be painted this weekend otherwise I jeopardise meeting my deadline... unthinkable. I've already decided the props have to wait... but can the Tulip wait? I'm no Botanist but I would imagine it has an expiry date and there is only one, in Europe, and its sat on my table looking irritatingly fabulous and very delicate".  I decided that all I could do for now was make a good study of the flower at different angles during my breaks from painting the dress, this after all was relatively speaking the only unique part of the Tulip. I also had to try and keep it alive as long as possible so that I could dedicate some more time to it after the weekend, so a ban on heavy footsteps was enforced! It lasted surprisingly long into the following week until one morning I came down the stairs like an elephant and all the petals fell off in one dramatic take. Luckily I had enough information in  the study by then. But you can see how farcical the whole thing was at times. Funny though.


The following weeks I worked hard on bringing the whole painting together. I made a trip to the set to paint in the floor tiles and when I finally got my hands on the props and had time to paint them that's when I could really start to play with the narrative and symbolism.


A quick note about Vanitas paintings: A vanitas painting is a particular style of still life that was immensely popular in the Netherlands beginning in the 17th century, all you really need to know is that these paintings were used to remind the viewer of traditional Christian values of earthly life by reminding them of their own mortality and the futility of worldly pursuits. 


In the painting you have a table with a beautiful persian rug draped over it, it's hard to describe the pleasure I had in painting that rug. On the table you have the scales that symbolise judgement (unfortunately this is quite hard to make out in this image). There is also a vase of tulips. The skull was meant to be on the table however I moved it away from Sophia and placed it on the ground next to Cornelis, casting a shadow dangerously close to his foot. I didn't believe Jan would place such an obvious symbol of death next to Sophia. This is a risk on Jan’s part as the placement of the skull could easily be read negatively by Cornelis, but I felt it was something that Jan could easily explain away as a vanitas symbol and compositional device. The same goes for the fallen petal on the floor by sophia. In the movie a tulip petal does fall during one of the sitting's to which Cornelis comments "first to flower first to fall", but I haven't put this in just because of that scene, although it does help, It is a vanitas symbol; the passing of time, the beginning of the end so to speak. The Jan I have in mind cannot resist these subtle comments as he finishes the painting, he is risking everything here and as scripted his obsession will make him a better artist. Painters have always placed hidden messages into their work, some with great risk, forcing us to read, to speculate, to react; why do you think there is this great fascination with the lives of the artists and not just their work. 



Still from the film with the Double portrait hanging in the background. 



I don't think about past painters anywhere near as much as I used to when I was a student, I find it get’s in the way of being present in my own time. However an opportunity presented itself to have a crack at the past, with all the bells and whistles and ruffs etc… and the thing that frustrates me a little is that I'll never quite know if, given the proper time and full use of materials, I could have pushed it closer to what I would consider a sophisticated level of painting. I am hopeful however that through the lens of a very good cinematographer, he has managed to visually finish the painting for me and achieve the things I would have done given just a little more time. 



The artistic collaboration with Dane Dehaan was certainly the highlight of this project, we worked hard and had a lot of fun in the process. He spent a great deal of time in the studio observing me work and learning how to handle paint himself. I think it was highly beneficial to him to see the amount of work both physically and mentally is required to make a painting.  


His first charcoal drawing was pretty damn good, he surprised himself I think. His mark making was very confident, of course he was mimicking, he was acting, but it struck me that often students struggle in the beginning especially with confidence. He didn't have that fear in him. To get his hand used to applying paint and holding his palette I would have him do things like paint the background on the main painting, the initial layers that is, staying well clear of the portraits! (no offence Dane).


Working closely with Dane helped deepen my understanding of the artist I was attempting to realise as well as the script. I felt I had to take part ownership of Jan (the Artist) to compose the paintings correctly and I don't think I would have been able to make natural painting choices had I not had a thorough understanding of the source material.


I found him to be very astute, a studious actor and artist. His work ethic is solid and his hunger to challenge himself is what I think will keep him interesting in years to come. We became firm friends and remain so. 


Watching the monitors on set and seeing his character come to life, recognising some of my own mannerisms, the way I hold my palette etc... this was one of those memorable moments in life. As was watching Christoph and Alicia for that matter. All uber talented individuals, yet surprisingly different in there approach to acting. 


The rest of my involvement was spent on two painting's, "Woman with a Tulip" (Alicia holding a tulip by the window) which can be seen in this still from the movie. Unfortunately I cannot currently locate my images of this painting and it's development but when I do so I will update this section of the blog. The painting was never finished for reasons I will not go into, reasons that were out of my control. 


The other painting was the main still life of the Semper Augustus Tulip (possibly called Admiral Maria in the film), which at first appears to be a Vanitas still life, but is actually an allegory of Jan's story, a self portrait. I'm not sure if I can explain this painting without completely ruining the film for anyone who is going to see it. Therefore my thinking is to update this section in a few weeks. However here are some close up shots. (Apologies again for the poor quality of the photographs.) 







The night I had dinner with Christoph in Berlin he pointed out something to me that influenced my thinking throughout this entire process. He said that in the end the paintings I make for this movie will be “mere props”. Justin was quick to assure me that this was not the case (to give him credit I think he really believed that at the time and I appreciated his defence). But Christoph wasn't being offensive, far from it, he was actually being kind, a clear warning out of respect for a fine artist who has no experience of the industry. His parents were set and costume designers at a time when you had to be able to draw, they were artists and he knew that If I were a sensitive artist going into this with lofty ideas, think again, they will be props and treated as such and he was right, of course, and I was thankful for his honesty.


This helped me to be less sensitive about the finished paintings post production. I own the head studies of Christoph and Alicia, but the film company has the main paintings. I have no idea where they are and will likely never see them again, they may be damaged beyond repair or not exist at alland that is ok. let me explain why.  


That conversation with Christoph led me to develop a concept that in the end saved me from myself. You see usually when you make a painting you know that it will hang somewhere in the future, it may hang in many different locations in its lifetime as a physical object and there is a romance in that. This situation was different, these paintings were made to exist in a fictional environment on screen to create the illusion of reality. It is not the physical painting that is the finished artwork but the painting filtered through the lens and seen on a screen. That is it’s permanent exhibition space.


































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