Composing a Painting Part 1: Research

I gave a major painting commission in progress. It’s on a big canvas and will depict Jörmungandr, the World Serpent, attacking a Norse ship at sea. My client is very open to artistic interpretation. So, the planning begins!

Admittedly, I’ve struggled getting started. Im hoping that documenting my process will be both informative for you the reader and keep me on track for making progress. This commission doesn’t have a set deadline, but I hate sitting on a project without making headway.

Step one for my, after negotiating price all the essentials, is researching my subjects. I have two major challenges with this painting:

  • Creating my own unique look for the mythological World Serpent
  • Depicting the Norse ship in a historically accurate fashion.

My client is a history buff, so the accuracy of key elements balanced with a unique vision that stays true to the mythology is very important. That in mind, I began searching images that help me develop and brainstorm ideas. I started with venomous snakes, then moved to sea snakes, then into more intimidating looking fish like swordfish, lancet fish, and angler fish to see how their shapes and structure could influence my designs.

A collage of images for study.

Next, I started sketching. I started with fluid lines to get a feel for forms, then moved to something more realistic looking specifically at head to neck connectivity, shadow, and head structure. I did some close studies of smaller details like scales, fins, eyes, and teeth as well. I haven’t quite gotten an idea of what I want in each spot, but I have a better vision of the beast after doing this.

Some sketches studying my subjects.

I then did the same with the ship. I read in particular about The Oseberg ship discovered in 1909 and how those ships were built and sailed. I particularly like the shape of these dragon-headed longships because, to me, they feel very iconic. These were also used for long voyages, so it’s the perfect vessel to find something terrifying in the middle of the sea. These I sketch too, getting a feel for how they might have moved, sat in the water, and been powered. Thankfully there are reproduction vessels that I can watch to see how they move comparatively.

This is a critical step for every painting I create. It’s why they take so long, honestly. Do you use a process like this for your visual or written art?

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