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Saturday, March 23, 2013

I'm Sorry Mister Volkmann, It Still Isn't Me.

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. 
I just do not like this formal portrait of myself that was painted by Mister Volkmann when I was fifteen; it isn't me. I didn't like it so much that as soon as I was left alone with the painting, I changed the eyes, the hair, the mouth and would have worked on  the skin tones and the dress, if I didn't have to get it back over the piano before my folks got home from their evening out.

--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 young girl who mostly wore jeans and sneakers and her father's shirt with her hair in a pony tail was fancied up and put in a staged setting, in a fixed pose with fixed lighting.  All that 'fixed' produced  a stiff painting devoid of animation and any real likeness of the young girl's personality or character. But then how could Mr. Volkmann have discovered the girl's personality when he only took three  photos of the same pose from the same position while her parents, his patrons, did the talking. He never observed her by herself  in a natural state. He didn't spend enough time with her, or the camera to find the truth of Linda at fifteen years old, his subject.The subject is all important in the success of a portrait, not the people who are picking up the tab.

 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 think a gestural portraiture is the today style. I think a gestural  painter should be an excellent photographer and a people person --someone who likes to chat  and get to know their subject and above all puts them at ease.  That can be accomplished better while sipping coffee at Starbucks, strolling in the park, the zoo, the museum or just sitting in the garden talking, browsing and shooting photo after photo after photo  till the subject  totally accepts the camera as part of the face of their new found  friend.

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.


  1. Beh,comunque è un bel quadro:-)
    Bello il tuo auto ritratto a matita.
    Ciao,buona domenica!

  2. Very deep, Linda. I'm not a people person generally, and as you know, I am the world's worst photographer ... so I guess I will give portraiture a miss in this lifetime! Nevertheless I found your analysis totally fascinating, and your self-portraits -as always - brilliant.

    Skipping back to our history topic. I am finding that part of history between the US being a new colony and then an independent country really fascinating. I confess I had never fully appreciated that the US & Britain were at war with each other twice. I had sort of run your 'Revolutionary War' into the Sea War, making them one. When of course the dates alone should have told me that they couldn't have been.

    I have started a book that deals with 'Roosevelt & Churchill's relationship'. I hadn't realised that at the beginning they had detested each other.

  3. To my eye, the portrait looks classically elegant, the sitter very self confident and serene and the hands are very well done. To read about the portrait from the subjects point of view is fascinating.

  4. Great post Linda!
    Such wonderful words and more insight into who you are!
    I agree with Susan! Classic work! Also fascinating to hear your point of view on the portrait and the process!
    I love both self portraits you posted! I love the bold colors in the first one!
    I am so happy you are now a cancer survivor! More than happy, thrilled!
    Keep on blogging and sharing your art with the world!
    Your art buddy!

  5. Toch doet het schilderij mij wat misschien voel ik je eenzaamheid bij het zitten op de stoel dank je dat het je wilde delen met ons lieve groetjes Danielle

  6. Well, in defense of Mr. Volkmann, were many artists painting "slice of life" type paintings back then? You sure looked good! I do understand about not liking a portrait. A boyfriend had a painting of me done from my graduation picture. There was something really wrong with it, I had to turn it to the wall. It was well done...but something was so off with it. I guess you felt the same, so much so that you tried to correct the painting (what chutzpah!) I wound up throwing the portrait of me away! Great your drawings