Artist at Work: Marianne Morris - Duke Ellington
(12 Art Work's about Jazz History)
Duke Ellington

had a long, illustrious musical career that spanned over 50 years. In the mid-20s he gained a national profile in the US through his orchestra's residency at New York's legendary Cotton Club. It was here where he honed his skills as a composer… he had to compose a new revue every six months.

In 1927 he became the first black band leader in America with a nation wide audience through his own radio show. He even appeared in films and composed movie soundtracks. His inventive use of the orchestra (big-band) was generally considered to have elevated the perception of jazz to an art form on par with other traditional genres. He was even awarded a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1999. He lived his life committed to his music, and his compositions are are still performed by jazz musicians around the world.


Step 1

Marianne Morris

After prepping my canvas with black I put on the music and get out my white paint pen. I have an album of Duke's Big Band classics… I actually have many Duke albums, along with a good number ones with other artists performing Duke's songs. "Take the A Train" is probably one of my favourites, and it's an upbeat, happy tune that never fails to get me moving. I let myself listen for a bit and get taken up by the music, then start the improvisational portion of the painting. The drips here were intentional… I remember listening to the initial first notes on the piano and thinking… that sounds like a drip!

Step 2

Marianne Morris

Obviously I need more white coverage than I can get with a pen. I get out my opaque white and lay in some textures. I've used a lot of different tools here, most obviously my hands, my favourite fan brush, and a small squeegee. The pen is obliterated in some parts and shows in others. I aim for balance, but I know that if I leave too much black uncovered at this stage, the piece might get too dark. I also flip the canvas around as I'm doing this… at this point I don't know which way it's going to go. I will decide that once I have my drawing done.


Step 3

Marianne Morris

Working with transparent colours, I go over the white trying to keep the feel of the music. I've used the same colour palette as the last two pieces, as I want the entire series to flow together. I've put all my other paints away at this point… since I'm improvising and going for "feel", anything within arm's reach might end up on my canvas.


Step 4

Marianne Morris

Trying to choose an image to work from was tough for this piece. There are so many awesome photos of Duke on the internet. Most of the shots of him as a young man are very posed… it was what was done in that era. I want to focus this series on the early era of Jazz, but I'd like the pieces to convey something of the musician's personality. I found a few recorded performances from his later years, and went through the process of taking screen captures to work from. After getting the basic pose down I divided up his face into planes for light and shadow… the bone structure doesn't change over the years, and from this I can use the other photos to make a younger version of Duke sitting at the piano.


Step 5

Marianne Morris

I add my guidelines for the figure over my improvised background. I can see there are parts that will need to be lighter or will end up looking like strange indentations in his body. At this stage I have to use experience for what to do going forward… if I don't take a critical look and make my corrections here, I will end up having to fix it later.


Step 6

Marianne Morris

Here you can see what kind of corrections I've made. I covered those big black marks in his head area so that I will get a more rounded form. I also lightened up what will be his forward arm to get my depth looking correct. I went back to my paint pen in the piano, because I had covered up a bit too much of my line work, and I feel like the pen better represents the way the notes fall when he plays. I also lightened up the background a bit… the background will be dark like the other pieces I've done, but I don't want it oppressively dark. The music is fun, and I want that represented.


Step 7

Marianne Morris

The white is covered with transparent colour,. Keeping in mind that his face is going to be in shadow, I laid down some blue in this area.


Step 8

Marianne Morris

I've cut out a mask made from my final drawing, and overlaid it on the painting. I'm satisfied that for the most part my colour choices are going to work, so it's time to go ahead and paint in my figure. I use painter's tape to keep the mask in place, and go to work on the background.


Step 9

Marianne Morris

Using white and a large, stiff brush, I paint around the mask. I don't cover my colour completely. I want some of it to show through to give that area a bit of interest. I'm going for the look of stage lights behind his body, so I've used a dark blue around the back of his head and neck to make the form. I want there to be an edge, but I don't want it too obvious.


Step 10

Marianne Morris

The top edge of the piano doesn't go quite far enough into the space to work compositionally, so I use a piece of masking tape to extend it. I also make a little correction on the top of his head… the light area needed to go a bit farther back to get the form how I want it.


Step 11

Marianne Morris

To get the feeling of the stage lights I have to get the background a little lighter still. I have a lot of visual textures going on that I don't want to loose, so I keep my paint thin and try to add in a bit more texture in some areas. I don't want it too busy, but I don't want it boring either.


Step 12

Marianne Morris

Here I'm thinking I need to push the background back into space, so I do that by toning down the colour saturation. The orange I'm using mixed with my dark blue make a lovely brown tone that I use to glaze over the background space. The colour underneath gives it variation and interest, but the area is more unified.


Step 13

Marianne Morris

Using a piece of white chalk I draw in the basic forms of my figure. Here's where I have to get a good look at what might not work. There are a couple areas, but i'm not really sure, so I'm going to go ahead and start, and fix whatever I decide needs fixing as I go along.


Step 14

Marianne Morris

I lay in my initial highlights and some shadows to emphasize a few edges around his hand and arm. I want it to be obvious what's going on using a minimal amount of form… more of a suggestion in some areas, while keeping the focus on the hands, face and keyboard. These I will fully render.


Step 15

Marianne Morris

I've realised here that the shape of the nose is off. It looks too sharp, and if I want it to look like him at all I've got to fix it. There's also that dark spot over his ear that's going to recede and look like a dent in his head. That's got to go.


Step 16

Marianne Morris

I overlay colour on the white I just put down. I like to build up the form in layers, leaving the final bright highlights to put in at the end.


Step 17

Marianne Morris

His arm looks freakishly thin. I cover up the dark shadows to more fully render the sleeve of his suit.


Step 18

Marianne Morris

I've fixed up the shape of his nose, and am continuing to build the form of his face. The hands and piano are looking pretty good… I won't do much more there. But his face needs a fair bit of work.


Step 19

Marianne Morris

Using white and dark blue I build up the form with highlights and shadows. Colour comes after, right now I'm just concerned with form. The blue will keep the face from getting too hot. Sometimes I'm ok with using a lot of yellow and orange in the skin tones, but I think for this one I'd like to keep it a little less intense. He looks pretty icky at this point, but I know when I layer over the colour it will be ok. This is what I call the "ugly stage" of a painting…. Every painting I do goes through an ugly stage, and thats where it's the easiest to abandon a piece. I've learned through experience that I just have to keep going and it will right itself. It can be a bit disheartening, but I'm not about to give this one up.


Step 20

Marianne Morris

Colour is layered over the face. He looks much better already. That heavy shadow in his sleeve is bothering me, so I start the process of fixing it.


Step 21

Marianne Morris

I layer on some yellow and transparent brown to warm up the face. I'm using brown mixed with dark blue for the shadows and to add in details like his eyebrow and moustache. I actually never use black once I'm past the initial starting stage… I find it deadens the colour. I like to have dark tones with some colour and variation to them.


Step 22

Marianne Morris

Here I think I'm done and I sign the piece. But am I?? I take out the other pieces I've completed so far and line them up… something is still not quite right with the colour, and there's that orange blotch under his arm that is drawing my eye down and out… I really need to tone that down.


The Final Art Work

Marianne Morris

When he's sitting beside Ella and Louis I can see that there is not nearly enough yellow here to blend with the previous pieces. The wonderful thing about transparent acrylics is that I can glaze over a few areas, changing the hue without mucking around with the value. A bit of yellow glaze and he's blending in perfectly. Duke can now be wired and photographed, ready to join his contemporaries on my wall.


THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME

Marianne Morris
Limited Prints
Limited Prints