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Bernadette Soubirous of Lourdes, a 14 year-old peasant girl, saw visions of a lovely lady in a grotto by a river in remote France in 1858. Despite public skepticism, Bernadette held stubbornly to her belief that her lady was real. The Catholic church, after a lengthy investigation, accepted her visions as genuine. Bernadette later joined a convent in Nevers, France, died there, and was finally canonized in 1933 by Pope Pius XI.

I first learned of the story from the movie "The Song of Bernadette" starring Jennifer Jones. I wanted to make a painting of my concept of Bernadette.

I see bernadette as a miserable, sickly child who lived an extremely difficult and painful life. Perhaps she wanted a way out of it and saw someone who existed only for her and no one else. Her certainty and stubborn persistance was so compelling that she convinced a nation to believe in her visions without really trying.

For my painting, I needed a model for Bernadette herself. Here is a Photo of the actual person, taken a number of years after her visions stopped. I did not use her real face because I wanted something more expressive.

I also did not want to copy the movie by using Jennifer Jones. Frankly, I felt that she was too pretty.

I wanted a mixture of homeliness and innocent beauty, and when I found and snapped a picture of a girl that seemed close to what I imagined, I started doing sketches of her as bernadette.

I then hired a model who resembled the original bernadette from one of my art groups, posed her as my main character, photographed her ( digital of course ) and did more drawings, combining her face with my earlier drawings.

She was close, but not quite. I wanted her to be a little prettier so I found an actress in a DVD movie which I snapped still frames from and then mixed her into my character and finally found my Bernadette.

For the setting I decided to have a rock wall behind the girl, but I wanted it to represent the background pain and torments of her life (and ours), so it would be filled with hidden and not so hidden figures depicting suffering. One of my inspirations was August Rodins "Gates of Hell" which shows a complex tapestry of tormented figures. The centerpiece for the gates of hell was a man sitting, resting his head on his hand, lost in agonized contemplation. Later, the figure, as a separate statue, became Rodins most famous work, "The Thinker".

The back wall of the grotto, consisting of mossy, wet stone, was to be shaped like part of a skull. I have a small sculpure of a human skull which I photographed and combined with another photo of a huge boulder on the beach at Hammonasset. This gave me a starting point for the texture of the grotto wall behind Bernadette.

I used a technique called informal subdivision to compose my picture. It consists of dividing the canvas into irregular rectangles and then drawing diagonals, which then serve to define smaller rectangles. You then place your centers of interest either on places where several diagonals cross, or along major diagonals. I started with my skull background and my main character, then drew enough subdivisions to provide an interesting network of "hot spots".

Now I needed my "Gates of Hell" figures. I collected a number of rather disturbing and horrific images from various sources and used Photoshop to fit them into my rock-skull background. I positioned them, rotated, and scaled them to fit into the composition and line up with the various diagonals and other guides.

I used layers to balance out the values and printed a master image, then projected that to a sheet of tracing paper, then transferred the cartoon to a primed panel. From then on I worked in oils from my printed reference pictures.

Here is the finished painting.


Do you recall how I invented my Bernadette character from a conglomeration of images, models and imagination? When I brought the finished painting to my friend Peggy Mock who owns a framing shop, her first comment was "Hey that looks like Samantha." I said "Samantha? You mean there is someone who looks like this?" Peg told me that Samantha was the daughter of one of her customers. I happened to be working at the frame shop the next weekend when Peg called me to the front of the store and there was a girl who looked more like my fictional made-up character than I believed possible. I had my digital camera with me and I asked her to sit and look up as if she was seeing the most beautiful thing she had ever seen and took her picture.

She was absolutely perfect. If I had known she existed, I could have saved myself a lot of effort.

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