Very interesting article from the newsletter of the Portrait Society of America:
Portrait Society of America
Capturing More Than A Likeness
By Michelle Dunaway
“Faith of a Child-Portrait of Autumn” “Portrait of Aurora”
Recently, I’ve been pondering the idea of what constitutes a portrait in the fullest sense. There is of course the obvious, that it’s a painting of a human being, more specifically a particular person and their exact likeness. As the artists and the technicians, we are with paint, breaking down the face into a series of shapes, drawing, color harmonies and values to create a semblance of form and capture a likeness…but there is so much more.
We are painting not just a person, but a particular person at a particular time in their life…someone living and breathing, not just a series of shapes and forms but a person who is in a state of “becoming” and traversing this life. There is something fleeting and beautiful in that to me. Not only are you, as an artist, painting a transitory moment in time, but you are capturing a person experiencing that moment for the first time and imbuing the painting with your journey and attentiveness as an artist at this moment in time in your life. It is truly a wondrous thing to freeze time in such a way, that a longing glance of a subject can be turned into a series of readable shapes preserved in paint. As an artist it makes me excited just thinking about it and propels me to not only paint steadily, but to pay attention to life as it’s moving around us.
I became very aware of this recently when painting a portrait of my mother. As I was painting her, and even in the planning stages as she visited my studio for several days, what came to mind in a personal way was not just memories and the history we share, but a quite surprising moment of realization. A new awareness of connectivity between the artist and subject, whether the subject is personally known or not.
My mother, who I am very close to, had never been painted by her daughter before. At 76 years old, knowing everything about me very well, she and I were having a new experience together …a moment in time where she was not only having her portrait painted for the very first time, but was also being painted by her own child. I studied her face, wanting to capture her eyes, not just in form, but to capture what I always see when she looks at me, a kindness, a mother’s love, a spark of her personality as a bold and elegant creative woman. Her hands, that I have seen creating art since I was a little girl, are aged and multicolored now with veins that she was self consciousness of, but as I expressed the joy of painting them, not just the emotional aspect and memories, but from an artist perspective, she expressed to me that she began to see herself differently. I told her, “I love painting your hands and the veins especially, it was one of my favorite things to paint because of the beautiful colors and movement of form. They are so beautiful to me not just as a daughter, but as an artist.” It not only made her see the beauty in her own hands, but made me see differently as well, thinking that the next time I paint a strangers hands I will be more aware of the history that exists there. That the story that is held within the nuances of the hand are as expressive as the face in many ways…they tell a story of a life lived.
So here’s the thing I realized…every time I set out to paint a person, even though I paint all the time and have painted countless people, it is always a new experience for both the artist and the subject. This is a unique moment in time and it deserves our full attention. Every time we stand at the easel and attempt to capture someone, whether it’s someone we know well or we don't know at all, there is a connection.
There exists a silent conversation between artist and subject that takes place in paint. This moment will never exist again…except to live on in the painting and so I want to imbue that painting, not just with a likeness, but a sense of that connection and a sense of breath and aliveness that I see in another human being. I’ve found that in the lay in stages, yes, it is necessary to think like a technician and get those shapes and drawing, creating a mosaic of color and breaking down the form into abstract shapes to create a likeness. But then, the intention needs to shift, to go beyond capturing just form and open myself up to the moment of connection and creativity with another human being so that I can be aware and see what I truly want to capture.
Usually in the finishing stages there is a tendency to want to control, to “get that thing we are after” as an artist. We desire to progress the painting into completion while simultaneously preserving earlier effects in paint and not losing the freedom and freshness of the initial brushstrokes. In the past, it is at that 3/4 of the way through that I used to get controlling with my painting and frustrated trying to “get it”. A friend once told me “We get frustrated only because
So now when I am approaching the finishing stages of a painting, I see I must do the opposite…it is not the time to be controlling, but to slow down and spend more time looking, more time noticing what is essential. Really taking the time to be in a space of allowing yourself to see what is important and imperative to the painting…and often even editing out details that are unnecessary to the story you are telling in paint. It is now in that last 3/4 of a painting that I open myself to connecting with the subject and really just see them, not just as an artist sees, but engage them as one human being to another. Yes, still observing with a critical eye but seeing as more than just an observer, but as a participant with them in this moment of creating. Looking for glimpses of who they are in their eyes and seeing beyond the mere shapes that make up their eyes to that place where we connect as people. I believe that to paint that sense of life and presence within the eyes we must be aware of it and connect to it in the painting session. It would be easier if it existed in a paint tube or in a particular technique, capturing that sense of life within the eyes, but it wouldn’t be as rewarding. After all, we long to paint because we are captivated with life itself and those of us who paint people are enchanted with those connections we experience with another person. It makes logical sense then that we must kindle that connection in order to paint it.
I’m a huge fan of Sargent, he is perhaps my favorite painter of all time and all of his portraits are magnificent, but when I gazed upon the painting of his teacher Carolus Duran, in person, the eyes just mesmerized me. He captured more than just anatomy and technique, but a sense of who that man was that he knew so well. They are almost haunting in a beautiful way…I see not just what Duran looked, like but how Sargent saw him in the way he painted those eyes. It is something to aspire to in our portraiture and it is available at any time during the painting session with the model…the ability to allow the connection with another human being. To venture beyond just observing them, but to really see them and who they are, even if it’s just a glimpse. What you glean in those moments of intentional attentiveness will find its way into your painting in the most beautiful of ways, because it not only transforms the painting, but it transforms you the artist.
As Einstein once said “The mind once opened to a new idea never returns to its original size.” Every connection we have with another human being helps us to be better artists, whether we are actively painting or not… attentiveness is an artist’s greatest tool. It is available at any moment…you may not always have your brushes with you, but your ability to observe and connect with those around you is always open to you.