The bluebirds of happiness

This week I'm celebrating the sale of my trio of bluebird danseurs. They're flying off to the USA to live happily every after. Thank you to my new collector! I can't wait to see how you frame and hang these.

 Trio of danseur paintings inspired by the bluebird variation

Bluebird Danseur I, II, III (oil on canvas board, 2021)

Here's a little bit more about the inspiration and origination of this series.

Bluebirds in fairy and family tales

Bluebirds are often considered symbols of happiness and hope. They feature in folklore and fairytales from around the world. I know of at least two bluebird appearances in ballet repertoire.

The first is the infamous Bluebird and Florine pas de deux from the final act of The Sleeping Beauty. The pas de deux is based on characters from the French fairytale L'Oiseau Bleu (attributed to Madame d'Aulnoy) who attend Princess Aurora's wedding. The male variation is considered one of the most demanding male ballet solos in the classical repertoire. My next life reincarnation wish is to be a professional danseur so I can perform this (currently that seems more achievable than getting fit enough to perform it in this life – lol).

Oil painting of stylised danseur mid-assemblé

Bluebird Danseur III (2021)

The second is a UCT ballet school production of The bluebird of happiness that was performed in Cape Town in the early 1980s. My (very young at the time) sister played the title role. On stage with her in the leading male role was Jack Wyngaard. Shortly thereafter, Wyngaard joined what was then CAPAB Ballet but – like many talented dancers of colour in the 1980s – left South Africa to dance overseas. Internationally, he is best known for his performances with London City Ballet. 

I was too young to watch my sister's bluebird but her childhood affinity and love of bluebirds was infectious in the best possible way. I loved the feathery headdress she had from the production and suspect that part of my love for painting blue feathers stems from her costume. 


Bluebirds in my art

Bluebird danseur drawing in ink

Bluebird danseur sketch (fountain pen, 2020)

Bluebird danseur drawing in ballpoint

Bluebird danseur sketch (ballpoint pen, 2020)

My first few bluebird danseurs developed as sketches during an inktober52 drawing challenge (this was before the inktober scandal, I stopped participating after that). One of the prompts was blue and, as I was doing ballet themed interpretations of each prompt, the bluebird was an irresistible choice. I experimented with fountain pen and, my favourite drawing medium, ballpoint. Soon thereafter, I adapted my ballpoint sketch into a danseur painting as part of my feathered dancers series.

Jeanne-Louise holding a small blue painting of a danseur painting in a feathered style

Jeanne-Louise with Bluebird danseur feathered dancers series (oil on canvas, 2020)

I'm slowly building more confidence for painting and sketching male dancers. I find danseurs more challenging than ballerinas because I paint dancers based on my own understanding of my body. I paint how the dance and music feels to me rather than what I think it should look like. I mostly use my own body as a reference if I am trying to figure out an anatomical detail (usually hands and shoulders are the most challenging details). The creative process doesn't quite translate in the same way when I'm doing male figures. I'm trying to move beyond my rather narrow frame of reference, and am grateful for the occasional commission to study an individual dancer. However, I also don't want to over-research a pose, for fear of losing the sense of movement, so a lot of practice goes in to trying to feel the movement with my hands and finding the right pen, brush or tool for the job.

My artist's mannequin, on the other hand, is more readily adaptable than I as a reference for male figures. However, it's a rubbish model for all those wonderful bluebird leaps because it has no sense of tension and extension in its limbs. Never mind the lack of shoulder muscles and unarticulated hands with no digits.

In early 2021, I was inspired to revisit the bluebird variation using a slightly more geometric approach to the study of form. This was the starting point for the trio that has just sold.

I explore stylised, geometric dancers every now and again because I really like early twentieth century sculpture. In particular, I find the interplay of abstraction and figurative, geometric and organic shapes in Brancusi and Moore mesmerising. My danseur trio took on a life of its own as I explored the degree to which I could combine angular form with feathery brushstrokes. The third danseur, the one mid-assemblé, is my favourite (perhaps all the different versions of this moment that I have attempted have built a better understanding of it).

The second painting in the trio, the one with the leg in retiré, was particularly feathery. The feathers were so much fun that I decided to extend this approach to a larger work featuring both the Bluebird and Princess Florine. I set my easel up outside in the sunshine and played Tchaikovsky's score on repeat for this one. This was one of those paintings that I displayed in my livingroom-cum-studio for some months trying to figure what was missing. I kept trying to add little bits of contrast but didn't want to fiddle too much. Eventually I realised that he needed a bit more muscle on his thighs. And then I added some more dramatic stage lighting to give the painting its finishing touches. 

Textured oil painting of Bluebird and Florine pas de deux

Bluebird and Florine (oil on canvas, 2021) 

More recently, I've revisited the bluebird variation in a series of paint sketches and greetings cards. These take the stylisation of costume, form and movement a little further and explore mark-making. The smaller studies primarily use brushes but some of the larger ones were created with a range of repurposed tools (including a plastic fork).

Greetings card with bluebird danseur figure mid-leap

Bluebird danseur greetings card (acrylic, 2021)

There are also loads of bluebirds in my ballettoons collections. The animal toons, in particular, provide a great challenge of finding the sweet spot where both the essence of a ballet moment and that of a particular species are captured. Loads of fun to create but at the same time really good practice for improving my understanding of the male figure so that I can paint more danseurs. I know there are lots of you out there who would like to see more danseurs as well as some creations that don't reflect the binary gender bias that pervades the ballet world. Watch this space ...

Stylised paint sketch of danseur in bluebird costume

Bluebird danseur (acrylic on canvas paper, 2021)





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1 comment

I might still have that headdress in a box somewhere.


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