Step by Step: Painting Rabbit Hole

 The third painting that reached the finishing stage in my series of images for next season was the illustration for David Lindsey-Abaire's Rabbit HoleThe play will be directed by my longtime friend and theatrical colleague David Pera and won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. 

Actress Cynthia Nixon earned a Tony for Best Leading Actress in a Play in the Broadway production and in 2010, Lindsey-Abaire adapted his play for the screen starring Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhardt. Both productions received critical acclaim.
Rabbit Hole centers around a family's reaction to the untimely death of a four year old boy. At the center of the grieving process is the boy's mother, Becca who is trying to deal with it by erasing her memories of him. Her actions are troubling to her husband, sister, and mother. Also stepping forward during this time of trauma is the 17 year old student who accidently hit Danny with with his car causing the boy's death.
The title of the play comes from something the 17 year old says about writing stories about creating "rabbit holes" in Danny's memory. Since much of the play's core is focused on Danny's death and Becca's choices, I wanted the image to reflect sadness and loss. I felts the tone of the piece should be captured in cool tones like blues and grays. The other concepts I worked with in sketching ideas was depicting a "hole" to imply a type of emptiness, void or despair. Then ther were the ideas of a "ripple effect" emiting from the loss of this child and how the mother is trying to erase memories of him. One early sketch I did focused on the extreme close-up of a woman's eye with the pupil serving as the black void and the ripple being the blue color of her iris.
While I was referencing images to use I found these great somber images of Kate Winslet and Viggo Mortensen. I thought rather than do an extreme close-up, it might be better to show the sadness of the parents and connect them with this void falling between them. Within the void I wanted to place the image of a four year old boy.



STEP 1: In going from the sketch and idea process to starting the actual painting I usually begin by preparing the canvas. There's sometimes a bit of experimentation and then if it doesn't work out I follow my instincts in being improvisational. An effect that I wanted to use on this one was a chipped paint/ crackling effect that I've used before on some sets. The first part of this process is to use a gloss paint on the surface and then cover that surface with a glue. One those are dry a thinned flat latex is applied and since the paint doesn't have anything to absorb into, it shrinks and cracks when it dries. Well, that's the idea anyway. However, I had never tried this on canvas before so it didn't really work.  Because I had prepped the canvas with a deep blue and metallic black spray paint for the undercoat, I decided I would manipulate the white colors I had mixed for the top coat. To create a worn and erased looking effect for the surface to depict the parents on I used a toothed putty knife.  It's become one of my favorite uncoventional tools. As I use it, I shape the area that I want to use for the hole/void area.


STEP 2: Next I go for my reference photos of Kate, Viggo and a child from a catalogue to use for this suburban New York family. I sketch them in using graphite on the upper left and lower right corners of the canvas. I want to keep the tones muted and the lines sketchy so it gives them the look of being faded and somewhat "erased" themselves. I add blue washes to add dimension to them and white pastel chalk to work in some highlights.


  STEP 3: After the parents are sketched in I go to work on my image of Danny. I find a different catalogue image of a four year old with longer blonde hair. As I have doe a lot for this series, I sketch his image in charcoal pencil on a 12" x 12" piece of scrapbooking paper that has a warm tone with writing on it. The color of the paper with the writing work well for his skin tones and hair color. I add white to bring out his shirt and cool washes for shadows and his sweater vest. I go wish washes of a more tan/gold tone for his hair and khaki shorts.


STEP 4: I cut out the image of the boy and place it into the center of the void and collage it in place. To create the "ripple effect", I cut out ripple sections of the same paper that I drew him on and collage those into the image radiating from the hole. I notice that the ripple and void are kind of obscuring the image of the father and decide to paint over him. This focuses and simplifies the image to being more about the mother and son. In the lower right corner where I painted out Viggo, I create a continuation of the character Becca's body. The placement of the boy disappearing down the "rabbit hole" now seems to be over the mother's heart.

  STEP 5: Finally I add more details of shadow and light to bring out the two subjects. Every once and a while I drag my putty knife across the image to create a rubbed or scratched away effect to the illustration. Looks like all I have left to do is hide the exclamation mark, and this one is done. This one was a lot of fun because it involved some experimentation and some interesting changes of game plan. The beauty of art some times is that there's not really a right or wrong and as I often tell people "mistakes in art are fixable."

Well, stay tuned to our Chicago Street Theatre blog because I've got about six or so paintings to go and you'll never believe which one I got done next! See you Next Time.

 -Posted by Eric Brant, Illustrator