Vapors: An Interpretation of Bouguereau’s Nyphaeum

It’s my pleasure to bring you an oil painting demonstration from none other than Sadie Valeri, who is known for her evocative paintings that are suggestive of the female figure. In 2018 Valeri was invited to participate in a project with American Women Artists and the Haggin Museum; Sadie chose William-Adolphe Bouguereau’s painting of 13 nude nymphs titled Nyphaeum, to be her muse for Vapors.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -
Left: Vapors
Right: Detail of Nyphaeum

This week, Sadie shares a detailed step-by-step oil painting demonstration that shows how she came to create “Vapors,” including her sketches, her color choices, and the surprising baking supply she used to complete this work.

Have you ever created a painting that paid homage to a specific work? If so, tell us about it by commenting below!

Yours in art,

Vapors: An Interpretation of Bouguereau’s Nyphaeum

By Sadie Valeri
Sadie Valeri is also on the Advisory Board for Realism Today

American Women Artists invited me to participate in an exhibit they arranged with the Haggin Museum in Stockton, California. Artists were invited to create a painting inspired by a painting in the collection of the Haggin. I chose Bouguereau’s Nyphaeum.

Fine art paintings -
Nyphaeum by William-Adolphe Bouguereau

I wanted to explore a new, expressive way of painting that also had a connection to my more well-known works, in which I use crumpled wax paper to compose dynamic still life compositions.

I had already done a quick sketch of an idea I wanted to try: Depicting human form with just wisps of translucent drapery implying the form. In fact, although at the time I did the sketch I had not yet heard of the exhibit, I had used Bouguereau’s Venus figure as the basis of the sketch. (Keep reading for the oil painting demonstration)

Drawing and oil painting demonstration, Sadie Valeri -

Of course the sketch came to mind when I saw the museum’s Bouguereau, which uses the same model pose as in Bouguereau’s Birth of Venus, and the exhibition seemed a perfect opportunity to try out my idea that had been percolating.

But I did not yet know how to execute this idea as a painting. My wax paper paintings are usually highly rendered. Each painting takes me many months to complete, and it can take up to 10 very thin layers of oil paint to achieve a high degree of realism.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -
“Venus,” oil on linen, 16 x 20 in. by Sadie Valeri
Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -
“Art Nouveau Embrace,” oil on linen, 20 x 26.5 in. by Sadie Valeri

I needed to apply another way of painting — a direct, alla prima method — to my familiar subject. To assist in the transition, I started with some quick one-day and two-day sketches of crumpled wax paper. I twisted, sculpted, and suspended the wax paper to a curtain with thread and needle. This way the paper looks like it is moving and floating, but it remains stable enough to study.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Next, I spent several days on a more developed study, experimenting with a figurative, gestural feel for the wax paper.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

After I explored painting the abstract wax paper shapes, I returned to the Bouguereau and spent a few days on an 18 x 24 inch study of the Venus figure combined with some of the wax paper elements. Unlike my pencil sketch, I did not want the figure to look “wrapped” or “dressed” in the veil of drapery. I wanted the figure to emerge as an optical illusion from the drapery.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

After this series of studies, I felt ready to design the final painting. I chose to focus on two of the figures in the Bouguereau painting, and so I started with just a simple 9 x 12 grayscale study with a limited palette on mylar.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Then I began a series of increasingly abstract sketches on mylar. First I just blurred and simplified the forms, and in later sketches I worked in elements from the wax paper forms I had suspended on the curtain.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

After a few sketches I came up with a design I felt would work well for the final painting.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Next was the most challenging part of the process. Working from several sources at once (the small oil sketch, the original Bouguereau painting, and a collection of suspended wax paper forms) I created a detailed line drawing on an 18 x 24 drawing board.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

When I was happy with the line drawing, I drew a grid to enlarge the drawing to the size of the final painting, 40 x 30 inches, on a large sheet of translucent drafting film.

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

Next I scrubbed burnt umber oil paint on the back side. Lining up the front-facing drawing carefully on my linen panel, I then traced all my lines again to transfer the oil paint to the linen panel. This way I could be sure to get an accurate drawing set as a structure for my painting.

Oil Painting Demonstration

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

This is a shot of the transfer process for one of the smaller sketches:

Oil painting demonstration by Sadie Valeri -

For the first layer I painted a transparent underpainting, working with a mixture of raw umber and chromium green oxide. This layer helped me quickly establish an overall value pattern for the composition, without spending a lot of time on details.

Opaque layers, by Sadie Valeri -

The next layer is an opaque layer, using a limited palette plus white to completely cover the surface and develop the forms.

Art studio, Sadie Valeri -

Because I had done so many studies and a detailed preparatory drawing, the final painting came together fairly quickly, under 10 days. I built up several layers to refine the forms and deepen the shadows. In some areas I painted the shapes with crisp edges and sparking highlights, and other areas I allowed to dissolve into soft, misty forms.

Art studio Sadie Valeri -

Artwork Sadie Valeri -
Vapors, oil on linen, 40 x 30 in.

A note on my palette colors:
For the first opaque layer, I used Williamsburg quinacridone red, chromium green oxide, and Rublev lead white.

Palette colors by Sadie Valeri -

For the rest of the painting, I added Williamsburg Indian yellow and raw umber to the palette.

At the start of each painting session, I used these pigments to mix up two rows of values, one cool string and one warm string.

I did not use blue or black pigments. The raw umber with a touch of Indian yellow allowed me to build up rich near-blacks in the background in a few layers. If I were painting more naturalistic color, I would have added an ultramarine blue. As it was, the range of values, warms, and cools this palette is capable of were all I needed to create this painting.

Color mixing by Sadie Valeri -

About the artist:
Sadie Valeri is a nationally recognized oil painter and art instructor based in San Francisco. Her paintings have shown at prestigious galleries across the United States and have attracted significant honors, including First Prize for Still Life in the 2010 Art Renewal Center International Salon. Her work has been published in dozens of periodicals and books, and has been acquired by prestigious collections, including the New Britain Museum of American Art. She is the founder of Sadie Valeri Atelier, an art school offering realist painting and drawing classes to 150 adult students weekly.

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  1. No, I haven’t specifically paid homage to another artist’s work, but all of my paintings pay homage to Jaspher Johns. In a poem he said ” Take something. Do something with it, then do something ELSE with it.” Turning that creativity screw one more time is so difficult, but so rewarding.

    • What a wonderful quote! It sums up what I’ve heard so many teachers say over the years. Thank you for sharing, Susan!

  2. Sadie is American Women Artists’ Esteemed Guest Artist at the Haggin Museum’s upcoming show “Full Sun: American Women Artists Illuminate the Haggin Museum.” Her painting was done specifically for this show. Each participant was asked to paint or sculpt an original work based on one of 11 paintings selected from the Museum’s 19th-20th Century art including works by William Merritt Chase, Rosa Bonheur, Albert Bierstadt, and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, among other notable artists. The show opens August 2 and runs through September 16, 2018. AWA is truly honored to have Sadie’s remarkable painting in this show.

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