A Mediaeval Tale
I had been looking for inspiration for a panel to submit for Master Craftsman for a while. Last September I happened to visit the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and found the inspiration I had been looking for. I had never previously paid much attention to the Old Masters, but the museum and its art are truly beautiful, and I was enthralled. In particular, I found myself mesmerized by the paintings of Rembrandt and by the beautiful light, highlights, and details in his brush strokes. His paintings took my breath away, and I found myself wanting to know more.On returning home I experimented with recreating some Dutch portraits, and knew I wanted to do something like this for my panel, but I wanted to create something of my own, something different. (There was also the difficulty of tracking down costumes and backdrops that would be suitable, outside of the Netherlands) Then it occurred to me that England’s history at a comparable time was rich in its own imagery and that right on my doorstep there were many examples of medieval architecture. York and Skipton were both important in the Medieval history of Yorkshire and I live between the two. And it meant I had the opportunity to learn something of the area’s history.When I looked at medieval art, I found English medieval imagery consisted largely of two-dimensional drawings with nothing of the realism I had so much admired in the Rijksmuseum. I decided to bring the Dutch Masters to England and apply something of their style to English heritage to bring that era to life.
There were several significant aspects of the Dutch and Rembrandt style that I wanted to incorporate.Light would have been from windows and candlelight, and often rooms were dark and gloomy. There was little use of light to separate the subject from the background, and not until Caravaggio was there the concept of using shiny surfaces to reflect light onto subjects for paintings. Separation was achieved using colour, texture or perspective. Also, although Rembrandt is famous for his lighting technique created by the window layout in his studio, I was surprised to discover a great many of his images, as with many of his contemporaries, were broad lit, and this included portrait of ladies.Also, Rembrandt used light, detail and contrast to direct the eye towards the important part of his subjects. It is said that Rembrandt could not paint hands. but he made them ill-defined to draw attention away from them and toward the face. He also used bright highlights to depict jewellery, fabrics and fine details. His subjects were painted with warmer tones compared to cooler backgrounds and backgrounds themselves were flat, lacking in detail and contrast, and painterly. Paintings had a low range of colours and a narrower colour space than modern photographs. Mixing paints could not provide pure black so painterly “black” is more of a muddy brown black. Artists used the red, yellow, blue colour wheel, and many pigments were very expensive, for example purple. Colours and the placement of objects in paintings often had symbolic meaning in Dutch paintings, often religious or allegoric.In designing and processing my images, I tried to use the colours, styles and restricted pallet that would have been used at the time.
I enquired with several museums and manor houses and found I was unable to use strobe lighting with the old furnishings, and that without lighting, ambient light levels were too low to shoot with a model. In any case, I knew I did not want sharp backgrounds or to shoot on a “set”; for the models to look as if they were in fancy dress in a modern photograph. I wanted an old fashioned, painterly look to my images.I decided to photograph various locations and use the images like digital backdrops in an artistic way, to create unique “fantasy” sets for my subjects. I wanted the images to look like paintings, by recreating the painterly, indistinct backgrounds of Rembrandt, using a hint of surroundings to provide context and suggestion of the characters’ story. So I embarked on something of a medieval pilgrimage. I visited Ilkley Manor House, the deserted village at Wharram Percy, Otley Manor House, Skipton Castle, Bolling Hall, Townley Hall, Barley Hall, Micklegate and Monkgate Bar in York, York City Walls, the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall, and Bolton Castle. I talked to a lot of interesting people, ran into a ghost at Bolling Hall that drained my battery, (as apparently, he or she had done to many photographers before), and even got invited to join a historical re-enactment society.I photographed, using tripod and long exposures where necessary, a range of doors, windows, furniture, castle walls, wooden and slate floors, and medieval furnishings, to create a library of resources to use. I also discovered lots of fascinating history too. Who knew that Lord Clifford of Skipton Castle held out for 3 years as the last Royalist stand in the North against the Roundheads? Just before Christmas in 1651 they rode in full armour and colours down Skipton High Street to their surrender. What a sight that would have been and what a wonderful photograph it would have made – but it did seem a bit beyond my resources to recreate!
I studied contemporary images and read about medieval life in order to come up with stories in the shots.. The period covered is the late medieval from the fourteenth century to the middle of the sixteenth, including a couple of the early Tudor fashions and characters. This medieval period was rich in colour and, for the wealthy, very ornate. I used theatre costume and hire companies which provided detailed replicas of original costumes. I was careful to avoid fancy dress type costumes that are readily available but look inauthentic and modern. Most of the characters are portrayed by friends, colleagues, and fellow photographers; anyone who had the misfortune to know me and had a certain “medieval” look. Nonetheless, they seemed to have a lot of fun dressing up and seeing themselves as never before! We even hired a suit of armour – an accurate replica of the Duke of Clarence’s armour (brother to Henry V) worn at Agincourt in 1415. The chain mail itself was almost too heavy to lift let alone with the armour.The models were shot in studio on a grey background using a 150cm indirect soft-box to give very soft shadows, soft even lighting and gradual transitions in the shadows, and a fill light behind camera that was bounced off a white wall behind to give a very soft fill to the shadows and avoid a catch light. On some of the shots, I used a slight graduation to the backdrop with a third light if the costume was particularly dark.To process the images, I used parts of different background shots composited together and transformed to create “sets” that fit in with the character and the light, and to create the impression of a three-dimensional background around the subject. After inserting the background, I reduced the opacity to 9-15%, to leave only a hint of the surroundings and then added various textures to create an indistinct, painterly feel, with low contrast and detail.I used curves adjustments to dodge and burn the subject while keeping contrast on the background low and then added some detail with Topaz Adjust Fine Detail to some areas of the subject to enhance the details in a similar way to Rembrandt’s technique.I choose Hahnemuhle Fine Art Baryta 325gsm paper which has a clear texture and a slight gloss finish which enhances the shadows and closely replicates the finish found on the oil paintings of the Old Masters. Choosing suitable mats to frame the images was difficult as most looked too modern or bright for the style of photograph. Many of the Dutch paintings in the Rijksmusem are framed in dark plain wood which help the shadow detail and colour to show up well, so I decided on a dark mat in keeping with this style.I shot a variety of ages of characters and costume styles ranging from peasants to Kings, jesters, doctors, ladies and gents, servants, children and even animals. My horse is wearing the livery in the King’s colours and fulfilling his lifetime ambition to be a destrier (warhorse), and my friend’s dog was keen to be a mistress’s companion.I had fully edited around 5 shots of each character and choosing the final selection was hard, but my final selection tries to balance poses, colours, and characters to give a cohesive but comprehensive view of the Middle Ages in a colourful tapestry. I hope I’ve successfully created little vignettes that represent the variety of the medieval period in all its magnificence. Helen Walker