The last drawing! The first subject chosen by my husband – as opposed to my children. My Drawing a Day Challenge concludes with this drawing: Helen of Troy.
Helen had the “face that launch’d a thousand ships” which was Kit Marlowe’s poetic way of explaining that it was a conflict over her that provoked the Trojan War. But before that story, we have the myth of her birth. She was yet another of the many and varied children fathered by Zeus. Zeus was in the form of a swan when he ran into Leda, a mortal woman. Somehow – and I choose not to imagine the scene – the pair mated and some time later Leda laid an egg. It must have been a massive egg. It quite makes the eyes water. From this egg emerged not only Helen but also Clytemnestra and the Dioscuri twins, Castor and Pollux.
There were many suitors for Helen’s hand but ultimately – with some input from Odysseus as advisor to her father, because apparently Helen’s opinion was not sought – she married Menelaus, the King of Mycenaean Sparta. That could have been an arranged marriage version of happily ever after except that Zeus – an ever-meddling biological father – asked Paris, a Trojan prince, to judge a version of Miss Olympus and decide which goddess was most beautiful: Aphrodite, Hera or Athena. Aphrodite won by bribing Paris with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. Paris, therefore, headed off to Sparta to stake his claim on Helen.
Whether Helen was abducted or absconded willingly, her disappearance from Sparta caused a right rammy. Jilted Menelaus gathered his allies together and charged off after his missing wife and so the Trojan War began with its epic siege, posturing heroes, meddling gods, and finally the Trojan Horse. And, of course, everyone on all sides detested Helen by the end of it all because it was her desirability that sparked the conflict. Mythology written by men.
It strikes me that Helen is a figure who propels the plot of ‘The Iliad’ along but who is lacking in dimension as a character with even her motivation for flitting to Troy being inscrutable. My options, therefore were to either draw her as beautiful but vague, a pretty blank, or to draw her almost symbolically. I went for the latter option and focused on the line from ‘Doctor Faustus’ since it has become the most well-known description of Helen. I drew Helen in profile so that her tumble of hair billowing behind her could become waves for the thousand ships her face launched. Except I didn’t draw a thousand of them because that would be ridiculous. I had to do a quick google search to see what Greek ships looked like and I then produced a simplified silhouette of these.
Helen of Troy
So my 40 Drawings in 40 Days Challenge comes to an end. I have very much enjoyed the challenge. It has been a lot of fun to collaborate on an art project with my children as directors and encouragers. They are my number one, two, three and four fans as well as the source of much of my inspiration. It has also been great to feel compelled to draw so frequently and it has definitely sanded the rust off and got me back into the habit of creating frequently. I admit, however, that creating a drawing a day, from conception to sketch to finished piece has been probably too demanding for someone with as much else on their plate as I have had. Happily I was working on a small scale (approximately A5) and was able to develop a system that allowed me to complete the drawings in stages that were snatched between chores and childcare duties but it is not a system I could sustain long term. So 40 Days was definitely duration enough for this particular artistic challenge.
My sons have been delighted with my drawings and I hope that you have enjoyed seeing them revealed each day in my blog. I wonder if you have a favourite? Do let me know if you do.
And now I need to decide upon my next art challenge….
In Greek mythology, Danae was the mother of the hero Perseus. Her father, King Acrisius, had been told by an oracle that his daughter’s son would kill him. To prevent Danae from ever breeding, therefore, he locked her in a bronze chamber. Zeus, however, rampaging and in musth, was unstoppable. He turned him into a shower of gold and impregnated Danae that way. Acrisius was determined, however, so he placed his daughter and baby grandson into a box and cast them out to sea so they would drown. Poseidon stepped in to spare his baby nephew, however, and so the two were rescued. Perseus then did grow up to kill his grandfather. By accident. With a discus. Likely story.
Poor Danae was one of those tragic victims who waft through Greek mythology. Terribly abused by her father, assaulted by a shower of gold, cast out to sea to die, she then found herself persecuted by King Polydectes who tried to force her to become his concubine. It was in order to protect his mother from the King’s advances that Perseus agreed to go on the quest to kill Medusa. In some versions of the story, when the hero returned with the severed head in order to prove the fulfilment of his mission, he used it to turn Polydectes to stone. I’m sure nobody wept.
The two most compelling visual images to Danae’s story are her being impregnated with the shower of gold and her being cast adrift in the wooden box. Having recently produced a drawing inspired by the latter incident, I decided to draw the former. I drew Danae curled up fast asleep. You may have noted that drawing hands is not my strongest point – hence I have developed my own vernacular for them – so I drew her with her hands tucked under her head. I still had to draw her feet though but managed those. I decided to draw her naked not merely because I am missing life drawing (though I definitely am) but because the nudity underscores her vulnerability both in terms of being mistreated by her father and by Zeus. It also gave me plenty of practice in creating flesh tones, which I did using watercolour pencils. I gave her long flowing hair in order to create a more pleasing composition. Once I had coloured the figure and outlined it with Indian ink using my dip pen, I sprayed gold ink (old school method using my fingers against the bristles of a brush) over the lower portion of the drawing to create the shower of gold.
I am rather pleased with how this drawing turned out, particularly with the composition, and think I might use it as the basis of a lino block print. Watch this space.
By strange coincidence, I was listening to Anais Mitchell’s ‘Hadestown’ on YouTube and the track ‘Our Lady of the Underground’ began playing as I settled down to start today’s drawing which is of Persephone. Persephone (or Prosperina as she was to the Romans) was the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, Zeus’ sister. As the daughter of the goddess of the harvest, Persephone’s myth is unsurprisingly connected to the cycle of the seasons.
The story goes that Persephone was out gathering flowers one day when Hades burst out of the ground and abducted her, dragging her off to the Underworld. Demeter, in her despair and anguish, neglected her agricultural duties so that – while she searched the earth for her daughter – nothing grew and people started to grow hungry. It was only at that point that Zeus intervened and told Hades, his brother, to return Persephone. Hades agreed but not before tricking Persephone into eating a pomegranate. Because she had done so, poor Persephone was forced to spend six months of the year in the Underworld and six months of year above ground. In such a way, the division of the seasons into growth and death is explained.
There was a time when, like Persephone, I found pomegranates to be hard to resist. If In my early teens, if I had some spare change after school, I would wander home via the greengrocer and treat myself to a pomegranate. Then one day as I was tearing into the outer flesh to release all those little seeds of tastiness, two earwigs crawled out of the stalk bit from their nest in the centre of the pomegranate. That ruined them for me for years and years. While I have started eating them again, they are not even in my top ten of fruit any longer. My heart belongs to raspberries and passion fruits. But I digress …..
If my drawing of Persephone looks strangely familiar to you, that is because I was heavily influenced in my drawing by the famous painting by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I have been trying very hard with this drawing challenge to not go in the direction of established imagery (except when I very deliberately did so with Oedipus) and to do my own thing. However, as the challenge draws towards an end, I guess the creative bit of my brain is getting a little lazy. The composition of the arm, with the hand curled around the pomegranate, the green clothing and the dark hair are all, therefore, directly inspired by the Rossetti painting. Let’s call this an homage. I was intending on opting for a colour other than green but as the complementary colour it works so well to make the red of the pomegranate seeds and her mouth pop that I couldn’t resist it. Rossetti knew what he was doing, you see.
Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos of Crete and his wife Pasiphae. Pasiphae was also the mother of the Minotaur which means wee Ariadne had a very interesting half-brother. I bet he helped keep those teenage boys at bay when they were pestering Ariadne in Cretan High School.
Ariadne was in charge of the labyrinth and oversaw the sacrifice of Athenian youths to her ravenous, raging sibling so she must have had some mettle to her. However, when the hero Theseus turned up, Ariadne turned to mush in an instant and assisted her crush by gifting him a sword and a ball of thread with which to find his way around the labyrinth and kill the Minotaur. Mission accomplished, Theseus then took Ariadne away with him, as he had promised to do, but then dumped her on Naxos. There, Dionysus discovered her and married her so she did get her happily ever after in the end. Complete with never-ending wine.
I decided that Ariadne had to be naïve in order to fall for Theseus’ charms so readily and perhaps also lacking in self-esteem given that she was willing to leave her family behind and have her bull-brother killed by the hero just because he made her swoon and festooned her with promises of love and bliss. I, therefore, chose to depict her as being young with rosy apple cheeks suggesting the first flush of infatuation with dashingly treacherous Theseus. She holds a skein of thread in her hand which I drew in silver ink to connote its magical, GPS qualities. I then – in a rush with my drawing – made a terrible error and momentarily conflated Ariadne with Arachne, who was turned into a spider by Athena. I had drawn the spider on her headband and web on her necklace in ink before I realized the error of my ways. Oops. Draw in haste, repent at leisure.
Hephaestus is the Greek god of blacksmiths, metal, fire and volcanoes – the latter from his Roman name, Vulcan. He worked on his blacksmith shop inside the volcanic Mount Etna, crafting the weapons used by the other Olympian gods. If there is a cool bit of armour or weapon in a Greek myth then it’s likely Hephaestus made it.
In some versions of Hephaestus’ story, he is the son of both Zeus and Hera but in other stories he is the son of just Hera because she created him alone as revenge for Zeus giving birth to Athena (out of his head) without his wife. In many versions of the story, Hephaestus was then rejected by Hera because of being a cripple and she threw him out of Olympus. Dionysus returned him to Olympus.
Hephaestus was married to Aphrodite who famously cuckolded him with Ares, among others. Hephaestus captured the canoodling pair in a chain net he had fashioned and then dragged them to Olympus to become a spectacle in front of the other gods. Hephaestus, however, was not beyond his own running around, fathering children with various nymphs.
Hephaestus’ symbols are the items of his craft: the anvil, hammer and tongs. I built those into my drawing by having him clutch the hammer in his fist and I made the hammer and tongs tattoos on his muscular arm. I drew him wearing his oval cap and the protective leather tunic of a man who works with hot metals and burning coals. I chose to ignore his lameness (which might have been the classical world’s allusion to the arsenic poisoning common among metal workers) and instead focused on his strength, giving him a powerful, muscular arm and a broad neck. There’s not much mirth in Hephaestus’ mythology so I gave him a somewhat solemn, steely facial expression.
Iris was the Greek goddess of the rainbow and also acted as a messenger to the gods because she could travel from one end of the world to the other and travelled speedily with the wind. Indeed, she was married to the west wind, Zephyrus.
I feel quite lucky to have drawn Iris today since it led effectively to a simple line drawing with a quick brush of watercolour stripes over the top. We have a cinema trip and a restaurant dinner with six kids as a birthday celebration today so I would not have had time in my schedule for anything more elaborate. In classical art, Iris is depicted either as a rainbow or as a young winged girl. I decided to combine both in my drawing. I painted the spectrum stripes from the top to the bottom of my paper so that the rainbow cut right through and across the figure. I then gave her silvery wings since the word “iridescent” is derived from Iris’ name. I don’t have iridescent ink so silver was the best I could do.
The sirens were a group of dangerous women in Greek Mythology, using their song to enchant and lure sailors to their deaths by drowning them. When we vacationed on the Sorrentine peninsula back in 2006, we were told that the rocks between the bay where we were staying and the island of Capri were the home of the sirens. Thankfully we didn’t run into them. There is a strong history of drowning in my family history – it’s the leading cause of death after war and tuberculosis – so I wouldn’t fancy my chances up against a siren. I am pretty sure lots of Mediterranean islands lay claim to being the home of the sirens in the hope of enchanting and luring tourists. Not to their deaths.
The sirens feature in some of the major myths. In the story of Jason and the Argonauts, for instance, Orpheus whips out his lyre and starts playing it in order to drown out their song. Orpheus’ music was more beautiful than their song so the sirens were defeated. Take that! In The Odyssey, Odysseus decided he wanted to hear the siren’s song so he had his men bind him to the mast of his ship – so that he was prevented from diving into the water when the sirens tempted him – while his crew plugged their ears with beeswax.
In classical writing and art, sirens were part-human-part-bird – rather like the harpies –perhaps because of the connection to bird song. Despite their hybridization, they were considered to be beautiful, sensuous and seductive. Think “sexy sparrow”. No? Me neither. I, however, decided to not take my drawing down that classical route. The original sirens have become conflated with mermaids so I decided to draw a mermaid. This was for two reasons: firstly, it avoided me all but repeating my harpy drawing; secondly, I have been meaning to draw or print a mermaid for quite some time now so I thought this drawing would be a good starting point for working on another mermaid some time. I drew her with lots of curves to reinforce the idea of her sensuality but I added the skull and bone at the base of her rock as an allusion to her deadliness. As a creature of the sea, I used a blue and sea-green colour scheme. I enjoyed drawing her so I do hope I find time to create more mermaids some time soon.