Saturday, May 2, 2015

Portrait Painting Process

                  Cedar Lorca Nordbye looked at the Memphis Artist Portraits series on my tablet before an art lecture. He said to me, "Why is it that in some of the portraits you seem to really capture their soul?" I didn't quite know how to answer.
                  Your features take on aspects of your personality, your worldview. Certainly you should not judge people by their appearance, but the fact remains that parts of your face are absolutely the result of decisions you have consciously made.

David Hall, Memphis Artist Series, 2013   
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                  In this portrait of the artist, writer, and teacher David Hall, his eyes strike the viewer as knowledgeable, but trusting of other people. This is conveyed by the lack of tension in the eyebrows as well as the expression of the lips. It is almost as if he is saying, I know maybe I shouldn't trust people (there is some tension around the mouth, the beginning of a grimace), but I do anyway.

Hamlett Dobbins, Memphis Artist Series, 2014  
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                 Now, there is tension around Hamlett's eyebrows. His eyes are overshadowed at their tops by these brows. It conveys a sense of protections that he has built up around himself - of course I am not criticizing. When I paint a portrait, I first try to find the beautiful aspects of any subject I choose to take on- and I'm not talking just about their features. In Hamlett's eyes I sense (and this is also informed by my reading of his work) a deep, hidden, truth, the "secret garden" referred to in Lolita, a metaphysical beauty all the more valuable and intense because it has been protected from random scrutiny. He won't bring it out into the light and allow it to become everyday, pedestrian. I hear him say this

Girl in White, 2013
 Oil on paper
12 in x 12 in

                  It's hard to say what you see in children, because they are ever-changing, but in the portrait of a girl in white that I painted you see absolute trust. You rarely see this type of trust anywhere, even in children - and the photo was taken the first day she came to my class, by the way, This trust is a major personality trait of hers at that time and has little to do with my abilities as a teacher. Not only does she trust you, as Dave Hall does, but her smile indicates that she thinks you will make her happy, or she is sure she will cheer you up; in any case, you and she will do fun things together.

Mary Jo Karimnia, Memphis Artist Series, 2013   
Oil on canvas
16 in x 12 in

                  Now that I am writing this, it occurs to me that one of the main themes of my portrait painting practice is trust. When I looked through all of the photos I could find of Mary Jo Karimnia, as well as the photos I had taken of her, I was very unhappy. Oh, she looked beautiful and happy in most all of them; I just couldn't find one where she trusted the photographer. I searched and searched until I found a photo taken of her on vacation by one of her children; this provided the eye expression I needed to make a great portrait, and I used other photos to paint the right lighting, posture, and hair configuration. So it occurs to me that what I define as beauty also has to do with revealing one's inner self; it is difficult or impossible to paint a great portrait of someone when you do not know what they hold dear. For Mary Jo, she holds her family close as the most precious thing.
                  I suppose the answer to Cedar's question is that sometimes I appear to have accurately interpreted a person's belief system, either because they try to make this clear (through their art or in another way), or because I have some insight into them. This is of course what I strive for in every portrait I paint. But belief systems can be fluid, and are often inexpressible in words. A truly great portrait painting is always the result of a relationship or an openness between the artist and the subject.

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