Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art -
Vicki Sullivan, "The Birth of Venus," oil on linen, 150 cm x 90 cm

We discovered the work of contemporary artist Vicki Sullivan when she became a Realism Today Ambassador of the Week. Here, she shares a step-by-step painting demonstration of a figurative painting. Bonus > Read to the end and watch an interview with Sullivan!

Homage to the Birth of Venus: A Step-by-Step Painting Demonstration


Venus: She is born to the world as the goddess of beauty, As she lifts a foot to step off her gilded shell, the winds shower her with roses – each with a golden heart (according to mythology the rose flowered for the first time when Venus was born). The floating roses in the air are symbols of Venus. The ride of a sea-shell puts Venus symbolically important and precious as a sea pearl. A shell was also representative of birth and fertility in renaissance symbolism.

I had been wanting to paint a version of “The Birth of Venus” for quite a while, but my chosen model for that particular project was on a road trip to remote Western Australia, so I put the idea on the back burner for a while as I was busy finishing a few commissions.

Then I was contacted by Grace Farriss, who asked if I would paint her as a version of “The Birth of Venus” for the cover of her upcoming album cover and of course I was thrilled. I have been lucky enough to see the early Birth of Venus versions by Botticelli at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and the Bouguereau version in the Musee D’Orsay and found both very inspiring. My favourite version of the subject is by William Bouguereau (his drawing skills, composition, and skin tones are the height of artistic achievement in my book).

It was also great timing as I had finished my other commissions by then. I had never met Grace before but of course I knew of her father, the main composer and writer for INXS. Grace had written and composed her album then recorded in LA alongside Aria Award nominated producer Tony Buchen and Aria Award winner Leon Zervos, mastering the entire album, which is now scheduled for release at the end of this year.

It was wonderful to meet Grace and collaborate; we had a great connection and it was almost as if we had met before. As I worked on the painting I would listen to her beautiful voice on her recordings and sometimes her voice brought tears to my eyes as I worked. It was very touching and quite emotional.

Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art

Challenges Along the Way

Of course with such a subject there were challenges also. To begin with, I didn’t possess a shell that big! I usually paint from observation so this was a whole new way of working. I photographed each subject separately, combining different images and tying them together within the painting to work together as a whole. I had to make sure the lighting was the same on the three subjects – Grace and my little messenger boys blowing the conch shells – so that the painting would read convincingly. As I mentioned above, the rose is very symbolic of Venus and I grow lots of roses in my garden, which was very helpful when I was painting the roses falling around Venus.

Quite a lot of this process was out of my comfort zone and I realized that it would have been wise to have painted a small colour study first instead of launching straight in, because corrections could have been worked out first on a smaller scale.

I decided to change my background halfway through. Originally, I had included the temple of Aphrodite but I found it quite distracting so I pushed the background further away by making the mountains bluer and therefore softer. That helped give the feeling of distance and simplified the scene and also helped make the eye travel from Venus to the boys and back to Venus (I hope).

Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art
Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art
Birth of Venus inspired art Vicki Sullivan painting demo narrative art

My Colour Choices

• For the sky: Zecchi’s (from Florence) brand turquoise. It is lighter and prettier than any other turquoise I have found. Also, Old Holland rose for the pinks and Richeson cadmium yellow pale and cobalt in the sky.
• For the skin tones I have discovered Lead white and I use the Michael Harding brand for that. It never looks chalky and I love the semi-transparency of it.
• I use Michael Harding Alizarin crimson and Richeson Viridian to make my darkest darks and add a little cobalt to cool the shadows.
• For my lights I use yellow ochre, cadmium red light; I am using Langridge, which is an Australian brand I really like, and Michael Harding Cremintz lead white with a little viridian and sometimes turquoise for the cooler areas of the skin.

Narrative paintings
Narrative paintings
Birth of Venus inspired art
Birth of Venus inspired art

My models for “The Birth of Venus”

I always have a few ideas bubbling away which I am hoping to get onto in the next year. I quite enjoy painting allegories and the Three Graces has been another theme I would love to paint.

My goal is to always improve and keep learning.


Connect with Vicki Sullivan
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Related Article > Realism Ambassador of the Week: Vicki Sullivan