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

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.

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.

 

Lost time…

Claire de Lune for Painter's Progress 6-18-18
‘Claire de Lune’ Peony Watercolor pencil on paper

I just took a year off from painting, at a point in my life when I really don’t have that much time left!! I didn’t mean to stop the work, but a series of difficult geographical moves left me without a studio in an unexplored part of America.

It is always detrimental to an artist to find the physical environment in which she works compromised. This is especially true for someone like me who, as an ADD personality, has only the most tenuous hold on discipline and forward momentum! When I had to close up my studio in the Belgo Building in Montreal and then chose to move to my daughter’s apartment in Dallas, Texas, I had thought to continue my floral and portrait work in Texas. Unfortunately,  I found the loss of the Botanical Garden and my Montreal tango community very disorienting. It was as though, with the loss of my muse and my audience, I also lost my train of thought!

Without the distraction of a whole new planet to explore (and Dallas was like another planet!), I hope to get back on track with my painting during the next five months in Montreal. Happily I am back in time for peony season. This will be the third June that I will be sketching in the Botanical gardens. This time I will be using the watercolor sketches as the basis for paintings. The big challenge with this is how to maintain the spontaneity of the sketch in the oil painting. And my struggle continues to discover my unique ‘voice’ within a traditional subject matter.

The one useful thing that came out of the yearlong pause, was that, upon my return, when I unpacked my studio, I realized that many of the drawings and paintings I had done in the past four years were not worth keeping! So ruthlessly I threw tore them up or painted them over! (The noise you hear in the background is my friend André screaming “noooo!”). But here is the thing, after a year away from the work, it is very clear which pieces work; and which don’t, which have the germ of future directions, and which are simply going over the same tired ground. The laws of minimalism and sustainability apply here as well as everywhere else in my life!

I am looking forward to continuing this blog, The Painter’s Progress. I expect that doing my work in public, in front of you,  my readers, will keep me honest. As always, your feedback is my inspiration!

Flowers & Fans

white-rose-peony-webwhite-peonies-1-web

 

During this past summer in Montreal, I had the pleasure of spending hours in the Botanical Gardens when the peonies were in bloom. I did a series of sketches using watercolor pencils which, as the name suggest, are colored pencils that act like watercolors when water is added. The drawings were done on a heavier weight but smooth tooth mixed media paper. The sketches will be available soon as prints.

Not all artists work from Nature, but I like to start with more realistic botanical drawings and then use them for references for looser, more abstract paintings. With these I have chosen to paint a series of fans using acrylic paints to which glaze can be added to create a watercolor effect.

I’m just starting this series so I have not yet decided on the type of fan or the look I want. This first paper fan is small (about 10 inches when open) and takes the paint well. The inspiration for doing fans comes from the fan pieces that Edgar Degas did in the 1870’s. (The fan below is Degas’.)degas_fan_dancers_1879_0