Exercise: Creating mood and atmosphere

richard2-final-acrylic-low res

Abdication scene from Richard II played by Fiona Shaw in 1995: “I give this heavy weight from off my head.” Acrylic on paper, 30 x 39 cm

Having done some sketchbook work on characters from Shakespeare plays, I had a clear vision for this exercise. My aim was to paint a portrait of Richard II, as played by Fiona Shaw in 1995 at the Cottosloe Theatre. I chose the abdication scene and studied a video  to identify a particularly expressive moment in which the King raises his hands to his head to remove an imaginary crown. “I give this heavy weight from off my head.”

The King’s expression of pain and despair communicates the betrayal he feels.” It’s a poignant and emotional scene played with great pathos by Fiona Shaw. It’s a terrific bit of drama and also a fascinating moment in theatre history in which a leading male role is played by a woman.

I tracked down a video on You Tube of Fiona Shaw talking about playing the part which attracted both acclaim and criticism in large measure. She enjoyed the irony of one particular critic who pointed out that the King would never have had a black person in his court while totally ignoring the fact that the King wouldn’t have been a woman!

This for me has been the most enjoyable of the figure painting exercises so far. I felt truly engaged with the subject and enjoyed  bringing the arts of theatre and painting together.

Have you achieved what you set out to to do?


A4 sketchbook prep watercolour

I feel  the final painting expresses the emotions I had in mind. I worked from a video still which was slightly grainy – this was probably to my advantage as fussing over unnecessary detail causes me to overwork my paintings. The colour palette is on the whole devoid of rich ‘royal’ colours which suits the subject. However, I added a little gold to the fingerless gloves to echo the absent crown. A few dabs of red around the eyes help to speak of distress and betrayal.

I am reasonably satisfied with the way I’ve applied the paint (using brush and credit card). I’m beginning to use the paint slightly less sparingly which is working for me.


Video still

The final portrait is a reasonable likeness of Fiona Shaw – more so than my prep drawing in which the face was elongated (although quite I liked this).




A more powerful image with a hard crop

What might I do differently?

I might perhaps have put less detail into the robes in order to pull attention to the face and hands. I could have been bolder with the shadows and created a semi abstract image. Or I could have cropped to face and hands to create a much more powerful image (see left).

Potential subject for Assignment 5?

I’m not unhappy with this portrait but I  believe I could do better. I’m also beginning to feel that a series of portraits of Fiona Shaw in character as Richard II could be a good theme for my Part 5 assignment. I’ve searched Google images and can’t find any painted portraits of Shaw as Richard II… it was such a stunning performance and such a significant moment in theatre history that I would like to try to rise to the challenge.

Source material: DVD – The National Theatre 50 years on stage

Also see:
Sketchbook Shakespeare – Richard II
Sketchbook Shakespeare


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