First Self Portrait!

detail of self portrait with Serdar's scarf 9-20-18 web
‘Self portrait with Emily’s scarf’ (detail) watercolor pencil and gouache on paper © J.Hart

I have done very few self portrait in my career: never thought that my face was so interesting. However, while researching portraits, I looked at various artists’ self portraits and was encouraged to do one of myself. Not sure how good a likeness this is, but I feel that it is a good drawing.

 

 

Live vs. Photo (2)

These portraits are again from a photo and from a live sitting (the one on the left from a photo) of a friend who was visiting from Berlin. The one done from life is a better drawing capturing as it does a certain intelligence and characteristic expression of the sitter. However, as Mirka remarked (and she was right!) the drawing makes the width of her face too narrow.

Interestingly, it took me three tries to get close to a resemblance when working from the photo. Mirka’s face is asymmetrical ( actually all of our faces are, but some people are more asymmetrical than others), which I got in the sketch, but struggled with when using the photo. And again, as a drawing, the one done from the photo has an overworked quality which I don’t like.

I’m going to do one or two more drawings of Mirka, this time working from the drawings rather than the photo. Let’s see what happens!

Live vs. Photo

Many (most?) artists work with photos when they do portraits. The advantages are clear: the sitter is not forced into hours of boredom; the artist can draw and redraw the face in her own time; the hard work of going from 3D to 2D has been done by an apparatus. The problem, I find, however, is that there is a tendency for the portrait done in close dependence on a photo to often look “frozen”, stiff, and inhuman!

There is something in the drawing using stereoscopic vision with the breathing model in front of me, that captures the energy and reality of the living person better than a drawing done from a photo. The downside is that sometimes the resemblance slips away (and that can happen, maddeningly, with a slight mistake in the distance between the eyes or the length of the chin or the shape of an eyebrow!).

In previous centuries, the best artists could not only get a resemblance, but they also (amazingly) could retain the image of the person and repeat it from memory! However, part of this skill came about because artists redid work: redrew, repainted, reconceptualized the image, as can be seen in many Degas studies. I was not trained to do this, but I am going to be working this way for awhile to see what I can learn from it. The trick, I think, is to reverse engineer the image in the photo to recapture the vitality of the living model.

My friend Val was kind enough to sit for me recently for the drawings at the top of this post. I usually draw for about 1/2 an hour then take photos of my model. The drawing on the right was done from life; the one on the left from the photo I took during the same sitting. The drawings are, as always, watercolor pencil on paper.

The Daily Practice of Portraiture

Chris with Bonchat
‘Chris with Bonchat’ watercolor pencil on paper 11″ x 15″ © J.Hart

I am going to take a suggestion from Seth Godin and start a daily blog of my portraiture work. I am practicing doing portraits in order to become as skilled as possible so that I can work with live models as well as photos. Also, doing this practice in public will keep me honest and on task!

Today’s drawing is of my neighbor Chris with his very ironically named cat, Bonchat sitting on our balcony in late summer. This portrait got to the heart of their relationship: undemonstrative cat, very loving master!

Although I did this from a photo, I worked to get some of the more interesting and less definitive marks of unmediated seeing. It is also fun to do portraits of friends and family that I know well. The portrait is more likely to be an authentic representation of the person.

More on the difference between working from life and from photos tomorrow!

 

‘The Blame of Portraits’

Martin eyes closed 2-16-15
‘Martin with eyes closed’ oil pastel on board 11″ x 14″ © J. Hart

“For the image of the sitter on the artist’s retina is passed on its way to the canvas through a mind chock full of other images; and is transferred-Heaven knows how changed already-by processes of line and curve, of blots of colour, and juxtaposition of light and shade belonging not merely to the artist himself, but to the artist’s whole school…and, in truth, a portrait gives the sitter’s temperament merged in the temperament of the painter.”    from Vernon Lee’s Hortus Vitae: Essays on the Gardening of Life (1904)

Vernon Lee was the nom de plume of Violet Paget, a good friend of John Singer Sargent, who painted a lovely portrait of her that can be found online. She was an art historian, feminist, and pacifist (1856-1935).

Gilles Deleuze also noted, in his wonderful book on Francis Bacon, that the problem with beginning a painting is not that the canvas is blank, but that it is too full of everything that the artist has seen, which must be let go to begin a new piece.

Why do I paint?

 

Mirka 8-18 watercolor pencilI did a portrait sketch of Mirka, a friend visiting from Berlin; and she asked me why I paint. It has taken me a while to articulate why I paint, but I believe that I do it in order to witness, just to witness the world and the life we live. It is not to pontificate or criticize or propagandize, but to simply record what is not being seen.

This may seem to be redundant: in the age of the iPhone, everything must be recorded, mustn’t it? But the reality is that much is ignored: the musicians and the homeless in the street; the beauty of weeds; the majesty of the trees that tower over our neighborhoods. We don’t really see what the city looks like as a whole, as we experience it in disjunctive pieces: destinations like our home or shops; or liminal spaces like bus interiors and metro stations; or our personal home. We also rarely look for any length of time at anything: neither people’s faces, nor their bodies, nor Nature in any of her manifestations in the city (nor, for that matter, paintings!) .

So there are many subjects that a figurative painter such as myself has available to her; and for a viewer, the focus of a painter’s work appears to be the subject: peonies, portraits, landscapes. But for me, as for many painters I believe, the subject is just one aspect of the painting, just the hook on which equally important concerns are hung. Degas’ ballerinas, Daumier’s laundresses, Bonnard’s dining room tables, or Rembrandt’s self portraits are just the way to open the conversation around what painting can do and how a painter can express herself. And this is the second reason that I paint: it is to witness the act itself as it leaves a record of what was seen and felt.

I was an abstract artist at one point in my life, but infinite variety of forms, color, surface, and subjects in the world drove me back into figurative art. For instance, peonies are beautiful in the manner in which they move through space, react to light, and present structures (the seed pods, variously shaped specimens from single to bomb, buds, etc.) slightly weird and always interesting. Faces are wonderful and difficult as structure, surface, and expression; painting a portrait is rather like a complex juggling act with a critical audience (the sitter)! And people in groups in a landscape almost impossible to capture as the complexity of interrelationships reaches a critical level!

Painting for me is comprised of two necessary components: skill and risk, neither of which alone is sufficient. Most figurative paintings that pass as art today are skillful copies of photographs. They are D.O.A. You can feel that nothing was at stake for the artist, and I can’t imagine anything more boring than spending hours copying a photograph! But it is very hard to move beyond the comfort of skills well honed, and this is where risk is so important. It is, I suppose, the final reason I paint: for the excitement of trying something new, and accepting the risk of failure.