Thinking is the biggest mistake an artist can make. It ruins paintings--knocks the life right out of them, Intuition is squelched by education, a lifetime of looking at art and the judgmental attitudes that developed over years from doing so. But sometimes it's necessary to stop and take a step back to move forward with conviction. These last weeks--indeed this whole season--I stepped back to think about portraiture--photography--portraiture and photography--and why I'm so stubborn about following this difficult course at this time of life, instead of rolling with whatever pleases me? I've chosen to tackle a genre that challenges my skills. I've chosen a difficult path. The formal portrait of me hanging in my bedroom is the painting that has triggered all this brain activity. I see it everyday and everyday I just keep thinking that painting is all wrong.
|Me at fifteen. I hate the portrait, but it taught me|
what I like about portraiture and how I think
portraits should be painted.
--And I still don't like it. as it hangs in my bedroom. Every time I look at it, I think that it is not what a portrait should be. It seems I have my own ideas.
It was done from a photograph taken with a flash (no,no, no, never), plus a couple of sittings forty five minutes away from home, on a Saturday morning, at the artist's house, where I sat in a ratty chair in a stiff pose, for an hour, while my confirmation dress hung on a hanger hooked over the top of a door. Mister Volkmann had taken the dress to get the color right when he took the three Polaroid photos of me in that chair in my mom's living room. In my opinion, then and now, he missed the color by several shades and his miss is a source of irritation. It was a lovely warm, true pink. Worse: He also missed me. There is no personality in this painting.
Now, a bit wiser, I know Mister Volkmann's shadows were not dark enough, (an error a lot of us make), and the flatness of the forms can be attributed to his use of a flash, which shortened the depth of field and washed out the dress. In addition, the artist's brushstrokes, his personal touch, are indiscernible making this a fine example of the kind of portrait I do NOT want to do. A portrait should show life, the life of the subject and the artist. This subject looks uptight, maybe even a little upset? That's because she was.
|Self Portrait, colored pencil sketch, 2008|
Cancer Victim with Pearl Earring is how
I think of this drawing. This was
done prior to my choosing portraiture
--prior to getting back to painting. I was smiling, but not.
A day-long photo-shoot is the best fix and preparation for a portrait that has life and personality, a gestural portrait, the kind of portraits I want to paint. On the commission level: A morning, an afternoon or two, out and about with the subject shooting them every which way in a variety of lighting situations and settings will produce enough images to produce a painting with life--personality, character, without the need for studio sittings where self consciousness inhibits the sitter who has never sat before. For the hell-of-it gestural portraits: Watch out family members, friends, diners or shoppers at my favorite haunts. Camera ready, I'm on the prowl for paintable subjects involved in life, with a spark in their eyes and their cheeks creased. The eyes tell it all-- the mouth follows. (When I fixed the eyes and the mouth on Volkmann's portrait, I softened them up. The eyes were hard and the lips were pursed, (I wasn't having a good time in that studio on that Saturday morning when I should have been making plans with my friends). I added a livelier glint to the eyes, elongated the lashes, puffed up the lips, (without a drop of Botox), and messed up the hair as much as I could without drawing my mother's attention to the fact the painting had been altered. There was a careful varnishing session weeks later ).
|From the date and my expression, I can see I've never been|
a fan of winter.This quick pen sketch, too, was done
for this blog before portraiture became important.
I am totally convinced that the camera is the portrait artist's best tool for catching the moment, a fleeting second in which the subject's character is revealed .* She needs nothing more than a complete understanding of f-stops, ISO settings-- the amount of light and the speed of the light coming through the lens/aperture--and can manually manipulate those according to conditions and effects. I am totally convinced the gestural portrait artists must know their camera, their subject and not rely too heavily on painting from life in the formal stage set in their studios where everything is nailed down to facilitate a dead-on, likeness--especially when painting children and teenagers.
And that's what I've been thinking about these last weeks--the how of the gestural portrait business. Mister Volkmann should have taken me out for a cherry Coke. He should have owned a real camera-- every artist knew the Polaroid color was too blue and unreal. He should have taken many shots, (50 at least, if not 100) from all angles in a number of settings where the subject felt comfortable. He should have spoken to me, HIS SUBJECT, the person who ended up with this portrait hanging in their bedroom fifty seven years later. Should-ofs aside, the painting does have merit. It made me stop and think and verbalize my objections and convictions.
*NOTE: When I was going into the fashion modeling business, I spent a whole day with the photographer I hired to make my photographic composite, the brochure you left with the agencies and department stores. We traveled all over the city to various charming sites with various outfits for changes depending on the circumstances. We also spent a morning in his studio shooting different looks in different attire under the lights. I don't know how many shots he took to get the final ten we selected for the brochure, but given the time we spent, it was in the hundreds. Why would the preparation for a portrait with a longer lifespan be any less? It shouldn't be. Photography is a form of sketching. No doubt.