April 20, 2015

Inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's 'The Little Mermaid,' by Paula Richey, Artist--Giveaway Coming Soon!

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Editor's note: As soon as I get from under student papers, EC will have a giveaway for some of Paula's gorgeous images. For now, enjoy learning about her artistic process.

Hans Christian Andersen had a history of unrequited love and evidently was familiar with on pointe ballet and the extreme physical demands it makes on the dancers, both of which are clearly shown in “The Little Mermaid.” In my painting, I wanted to keep close to his original tale and inspirations, while drawing attention to the overlooked elements of the story.

For this piece, I began by considering her feet. In the original tale, the little mermaid had her tail split in two so that she could walk on land, and every step felt as though she was walking on knives. Her steps are delicate and graceful, and she dances on her toes like a ballerina, though her feet bleed easily. Rather than the clean, magical transformation seen in the Disney version, she has chosen to injure herself and endure the suffering of trying to become human.

In my painting, I outlined her hips and legs in black, but used red to create flowing lines that indicate her calves, heels and soles of her feet. I continued the line beyond her toes to evoke several aspects of her story: her lost tail, her bleeding feet, and also the long ribbons of a ballerina's toe shoes.

Next, I considered her pose. Her shoulders are rounded, and she holds her hands to her heart, cradling her hopes for happiness. But she doesn't slump, and though she's sad and suffering, she is resolute. Even when all hope of marrying the prince and gaining a soul is lost, she still loves him and chooses his life over hers. This is an often overlooked strength, to suffer and suffer and still never become bitter and vengeful. Especially considering that in the usual tales concerning mermaids, they don't value human life at all, and are known for leading sailors to their deaths. But this little mermaid has made her choices, and she owns them until the end. So I've taken care to show her pain, while leaving out sharp angles and any hint of aggressiveness.

Then, her hair. I considered making it red, but decided to distance my work from Disney's Ariel. Besides, black hair symbolizes her sadness and imminent death, while red would have suggested life and joy. The wind plays with her hair, and it's described as wavy, so I depicted it blowing in the wind and used strokes that I would use for ocean waves. Strands of her hair are blown across her mouth, to show that she is mute. 

In the tale, she was rescued and given another chance by the daughters of the air, who send soft breezes to relieve mankind's suffering -- which is an ending that comes out of nowhere, until you consider that wind is everywhere and the story is told very tightly through the little mermaid's viewpoint. Hans Christian Andersen could have broken the narrative viewpoint to explain “spirits of the air,” but this is the mermaid's story, and she chose to spare the prince and die without having any clue that she would be rescued.

There are other deliberate choices I made for this painting, such as her dominant, centered placing, the symmetry of her pose, and floating her in the white space without any other strokes anchoring her to the background. These choices pay tribute to her status as the central character and the way all the action rests on her choices, and even her characterization as a thoughtful, steadfast person who considers all options and, once she has decided on a course, does not stray from it.

My entire abstract fairy tale series is painted on 9" x 12" white paper with red and black acrylics, and with each one I endeavor to say something new about the fairy tales that inspire them with as few lines as possible. Fairy tales are so often brief and abstract themselves, with endless opportunities for reinterpretation. The tropes they play can be limited, usually involving love, royalty, trials, rewards, and some aspect of the fantastic, but within this palette of plot elements there is infinite variety. Similar to the use of white space in a painting, what is not said is just as important as what is said, and when people (usually parents) are absent, their presence is missed. My goal for each painting is to put so much into each line that every time someone sees them, they have the ability to reveal something new. 


  1. Elegant in its simplicity. Beautifully done. Looking forward to seeing more now! Possible title: "The love of a mermaid".

  2. I agree with Gypsy--I love the simplicity of it. It's so very expressive with so few lines, especially the tail/legs. Beautiful!

  3. Thank you both for your kind comments! I'm glad my work accomplishes what I set out to do :)
    Though I've explained a lot of the imagery, she still has a few secrets :)

  4. Nothing new to add, but it is a very elegant and expressive drawing.

  5. Thank you, Somnifer :) I was was very pleased with how it came together. :)

  6. While I adore classic faery tale illustrations, I love art like this... deceptively simple on the face of it, but then reveals so many more layers of meaning the longer one looks...

  7. Thank you, Kathy G :) That's what I hoped to accomplish when I set out. (Sorry, just now seeing your comment) I've heard from Kate that the giveaway was delayed, but she's almost ready now.