painting alice in wonderland

Illustration J. Tenniel - Alice

I've never met someone who doesn't know the story of Alice in Wonderland. It suffices to say that she's a pretty popular lady. I knew it from childhood stories and (of course) Tim Burton's film "Alice in Wonderland", but up until a few years ago I'd never gotten round to reading the actual book.

So, I got myself a beautiful illustrated copy and sat down with a cup of tea, high hopes and plenty of time. I soon noticed that, the further I got into the story, the more annoyed I became with the characters in Wonderland. Poor Alice, I thought, when is somebody going to give her a straight answer?

It may sound silly, but I secretly wanted Alice to step into her big girl shoes and show this crowd what she was made of. It was this feeling which eventually spurred me on to explore Alice's character in a painting.

In this blog post I'm going to share the process I went through for the painting. I'll show you progress photos and I'll share my thoughts and decisions. With it, I hope to shed some new light on the evolution of a painting and highlight the fact that it can take a long time to arrive at a simple result.

It all started with the illustration you see above, made by John Tenniel (taken from the book "The annotated Alice"). The reason I chose this particular one is because I like Alice's posture in it, particularly the position of her hands. I love to draw hands, but they're tricky to get right. This illustration offers potential, because her hands are placed in such a way that she can hold something.

I started by making a sketch of Alice on a large sheet of primed paper. When I sketch, I never measure the scale or the proportions. I actually like it when parts of the drawing turn out too big or too small. Little imperfections can be attractive, it makes a drawing (or a body) more interesting to look at.

Because I already had a strong feeling for what colors I wanted to use - browns and yellows - I started painting straight away. Below you'll see two progress shots, the first one was taken after about three sessions, the second one after about eight.



I wanted to create a disharmonious scene in which Alice played the anti-hero. You can see blood on Alice's apron and on her hands, which suggests she was involved in something a bit, well, unsavory. Alice however doesn't seem perturbed in the slightest! The caterpillar's the only one who seems upset and it's not really clear about what (apart from the angry crocodile).

As you can see, quite a lot of work went into this painting. Nevertheless, as it progressed, I couldn't help but feel a growing sense of dissatisfaction. Something about it just didn't sit right with me. I decided to put the piece aside, wash my brushes, and let it simmer whilst I focused on other work.

I can't remember when I got back to it, but I think it was a good few months later. I had an exhibition coming up and my plan was to do a series of works on fairy tales. I decided to start afresh and traced Alice on a new sheet of paper.


This time round, I covered her hair with a swimming cap. I've got a long-running, inexplicable adoration for swimming caps and for some reason, I felt Alice could use one.

In her hands, I drew a small white rabbit, which looks a little unhappy to be at Alice's mercy. This new version pleased me no end! I felt that Alice and the rabbit were enough to get my (visual) point across, there was no need to add any further characters.

I again had a very clear idea for the colors I wanted to use (I almost always do, the colors come before anything else): English red and a dark, rather old fashioned blue. I decided to start with the blue sections.

Alice Painting Progress 04
Alice Painting Progress 05

A lot of time went into Alice's stripey stockings. It was important to me to get them right and, until this very day, I always feel a sense of satisfaction when I look at her stockings. Because this version of her was more in line with the image I had in my mind, the painting process went quite smoothly. The only challenging aspect was getting the background color right. You may be surprised to know that reds and blues can be tricky to combine.

Alice Painting Progress 06

Alice Painting Progress 07

The photo above shows the painting just before I finished it. After that photo, I made some last-minute changes to the background color and the little white bunny, et voila, my incarnation of Alice was done.

The result is much calmer than my first version of Alice. I like the fact that she looks very solid and serene, and that the white rabbit is at the center of the composition. Visually, it's quite a simple piece to look at, yet the process wasn't all that simple.

As Mr. Stojanovic puts it:

"the most complicated skill is to be simple"



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