Lethbridge 10000 Art Award Category Winner

I’m stoked to announce that my painting ‘Vanitas or Valhalla (Barbarian Selfie)’ is a Category Winner in the 2016 Lethbridge 10000 Small Scale Art awards. Oil on canvas, measuring 24″x14″, my piece sold before the finalist exhibition opened, but will be on display from June 11-19th at the Lethbridge Gallery, Paddington. The complete list of 2016 finalists and their works can be viewed HERE. There’s nothing quite like seeing them in all together in the gallery in all their tangible glory, so if you’re in Brisbane come and check out the show!

Conceptually, ‘Vanitas or Valhalla’ is the product of musings on my Norse and Highland ancestral DNA (I recently had my genome mapped – so cool!) colliding with my contempt for the passivity and indifference intrinsic to our ‘comfortable’ modern lives. A typical vanitas skull (complete with fly), epitomising the emptiness of material living, drawn eye-to-eye with my romantically barbarian self – an ambassador for the beautiful truth of mortality and what it means to be fully alive.

Directly below is a little behind-the-scenes clip showing all that went into making the painting – much of it before paint even touched canvas. Fur, feathers, clay, tooled leather, etched aluminium, canvas, oil paint…. and a little blood, sweat and tears. Further down the page are more detailed descriptions of the processes involved in making the headdress, along with some painting progress shots and hi-res details of the finished piece.


A huge thank you to the Lethbridge Gallery team – being part of this year’s finalist exhibition has been so much fun. The level of professionalism and overall calibre of both the gallery and this event never fails to impress.

Designing & Making the Barbarian Headdress

Antlers and Leather band

I sculpted the antlers using Jovi air drying clay over a wire armature, sanding them smooth once dry. I sealed them with Atelier acrylic varnish before painting an acrylic troupe l’oeil antler texture. I finished with corresponding patterns in both gloss and matte acrylic varnish to help further the illusion of natural texture.

My design for the leather band is a mix of traditional viking, celtic and art nouveau styles and symbolism. I traced the finished design onto vege-tanned hide and hand tooled the pattern into the leather, finishing with a mix of brown leather dyes, antiquing medium and sealant.

Etched Metal Comharradh

Comharradh (pr. Co-harr’gh) (pl. comharraidhean, pr. Co-harr’gh-een) – Gaelic word for mark, sign, character, feature, hallmark, impression, signal, omen, portent, seal, vestige, token, stamp.

I etched my two celtic knot comharradh from aluminium in bath of saline sulphate etch, using Tamiya model acrylic as the resist medium. Once etched I domed them using a ball-pien hammer and sandbag, then polished the high-points and muted the recesses leaving an aged/antique aesthetic. (For anyone interested, I wrote a guide to my saline sulphate etch process a couple of years ago – it’s HERE).

The design itself is a traditional Celtic Shield knot or Quaternary Celtic Knot. A Shield Knot  is shaped as a square or appears to be a square within a circle. It has several variants, but its uniqueness lies in its four distinct corners. The Celtic Shield or Quarternary Knot is an ancient Celtic symbol of protection, it was placed near ill people or on battle shields for warding off the evil spirits or any other danger. The symbol can also depict or indicate balance or wholeness as symbolised by the coming together of the four directions (East, West, North and South), the four elements of nature i.e. Earth, Fire, Water and Air, or the fire festivals of Celts i.e. Samhain, Beltane, Imbolc and Lughnasadh. Some interpretations believe it may also be an indication of the treasures of Tuatha.

Construction and Finished Headdress

Designing, stitching and gluing the sprays of feathers was one of the most time consuming parts of construction. The feathers are predominantly rooster and pheasant, with a handful of blue mallard feathers and a couple of goose feathers I customised with Copic markers. The centre-piece was modified from an inexpensive piece of costume jewellery – turquoise set in tibetan silver (nickel/tin alloy). The fur was re-porposed from an old possum-fur hat that I’ve had since I was a kid (I swear I just heard all the Aussie’s cry, ‘A what?!’  Well,  I’m a kiwi, and we don’t just make hats out of them, we make pies out of them too! Saving our beautiful native bush and fauna from the destructive possum militia is a bit of national pastime where I grew up. They do say ‘waste not want not’…).


With finished headdress, skull in hand and Gustav Skarsgård’s ‘Floki’ as my makeup inspiration, I setup and shot the composition with two softbox rim lights and a beauty dish. With the beauty dish on the left at 45º to accentuate the rich colours and textures of the headdress, I relied on the rim lights to create the dramatic effect I was after on the face, hand and skull.

Putting Paint to Canvas

Below are a few painting setup and progress shots, along with some high-res details from the finished painting…

Bare Bones

Fun fact: The skull I hold in my hand belongs to Romeo, my life size medical-grade skeleton. He’s not averse to losing his head on request. His very same handsome cranium can be seen in ‘Romance is Dead’ an earlier self portrait painted back in 2005…


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