Categories: Poetic License

VICKI WALSH: Forensic Illustration Meets the Renaissance

Article by Chi Essary

Vicki Walsh’s stark and meticulously rendered faces are sure to leave an impression. Each accident of the flesh is painstakingly depicted. Although the likeness is exact, her work is something beyond portraiture. Her subject may be the face, but more the topography of the face—she is almost mapping each contour and crease.  No detail is idealized, and for that reason she rarely accepts commissions. If the nostrils don’t match, that is how she paints them. She feels the standard beauty ideal gets in the way and people complain they don’t like their hair, their eyes, etc., and it makes the painting more about idealizing the subject than about what she is actually seeing. For this reason, she is careful about whom she asks to paint, and she warns them beforehand of the hyperrealism that might not match their ideal self. Walsh’s former career as a forensics medical illustrator can be felt in the meticulously drawn face she shows me in her studio. To this drawing she will add 50+ layers of thin glazes of color, letting each layer dry before the next layer is added. It is a long process, but the results are worth the wait. The glazes let light pass through like a stained glass window, giving her paintings the glowing luminosity they are known for. In her painting class at Lux Institute where I first met her, she impressed on her students the importance of not using canvas if we wanted our paintings to have longevity. Using the original Renaissance technique, she affixes cloth muslin to a wood board, using rabbit-hide glue she boils in an old coffee pot. Up to eight layers of gesso are laid down over the muslin and sanded to a smooth finish, giving the painting a firm base that won’t crack the final painting, as canvas is so notorious for doing as it expands and contracts with the temperature and humidity.

If the panel should fail or get damaged, the muslin can be removed and re-glued to a new panel. This interest in Renaissance techniques extends to her choice of oil paints as well. Walsh uses Rublev oil paints, historical reproductions of pigments made with the same ingredients used by the old masters. Their Azurlite blue is made of crushed Azurlite crystals mixed with linseed oil; the blue-green crystals are visible under magnification. The Natural Ultramarine is made from crushed lapis lazuli stone; the Yellow Ochre is sourced from quarries in northern Italy. Each pigment is crafted in five-gallon batches, just as it was in the Renaissance, without additives or waxes. For Walsh, this is the key to getting her skin tones to glow with their distinctive rich earth tones. When students ask for help selecting colors for faces, Walsh selects these natural pigments, cautioning them against cadmium pigments invented in the 1800’s because the synthetic pigments give the skin an unrealistic hue. Her paintings may have a stark contemporary feel, but they are created with the warmth and knowledge of the Renaissance old masters.

To see more of Walsh’s work please visit her website at and to learn more about Rublev oil paints you can visit

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