Here I am painting portraits. How did I get here? This is not my art…. or is it? That song is about the passage of time and how it just zips by sometimes, and then we stop and ask ourselves; how did this all happen, and is this really me? When I look around my studio lately, that’s what I am asking myself. I wasn’t always aware that I was making so many decisions until I look at how much has changed within my work over this last year. In hind-sight I understand so much about each decision I was making and how those choices developed the artwork I am creating today.
My paintings have evolved over a span of time and not overnight and not with a single decision to do so. I did not wake up one day and choose to embark on something new. In fact, I have been pushing portraits to the back of my head for years. On some level I have been selfishly preserving portrait painting…because I love painting and drawing heads and faces, and I believe I was afraid of what would become of that joy if I approached it in business. With that said, maybe you could say this year’s Closer series has been my way of dipping my toe in to test the water, but even still, not intentionally was I entering the portrait game.
It started with an impulsive urge to render the human head….and so I followed it aimlessly. 'Act now and think later’ is my rather laid back approach to art anyway and so this was no different. And then, painting my own children was an easy decision and one I gave almost no thought at all. I just grabbed an oil stick one day and started drawing. My mind had begun to picture a loose, underdeveloped drawing in a further developed painting. The crossed face that serves as a grid for artists to proportionally place facial features was a key element, but rather than layering on the actual facial features, I allowed the cross to represent the face. This was a technique I have used before in figure drawing, but applying it to a large scale oil painting was new and experimental for me.
So I waded into the water. I was ankle deep and still cushioned by the abstract, vague and loose depiction which to my surprise resulted in a very recognizable so called “portrait” of Lelia and Sonny. This was a comfortable place for me to take on portraits. I was confident that I wasn’t losing my recognizable painting style. The portraits remained undefined enough to render my usual markings and allowed my color palette to carry over from my non-objective abstracts. It was a completely organic and unforced transition….the only thing I changed was the subject matter. But, I was still interested in digging deeper, and that meant finding a place for features and figuring out the challenge of how to incorporate the realism without losing myself. How can I apply facial features and remain loosely abstract and “me”?
I have the most innate love for painting and drawing certain things and the head/shoulders is one of them. I’ll try to explain it, but there is something mysterious and intriguing about certain features, and all I want to do is recreate them with my own hands. This is about to sound strange….I’ll have to agree, but maybe it will help you to embrace something seemingly weird. You never know what great things are hiding under fear. This list describes some of the inexplicable things that I love about working with the head, shoulders and face.
-The shape of the head/skull. I love the feeling of holding an infant’s heavy head in my hand and noticing the boney curves of the skull.
-The hairline. I love cowlicks and hair parts… I love hair cuts and styles. In the simplest form these take on geometric shapes.
-Cheek bones and the apples of the cheeks. It’s like the back to basics of painting the tones and hues of the round ball in Painting 101.
-The angles and lines in the collar bone and shoulders. These linear and angular bones give me control of the composition of the painting. Like arrows pointing you where to look.
-Gentle curves like the upper line of the upper lip and the crease in the eyelid. I also love to define the white of the eye around the iris rather than vice versa. It’s like a tiny version of the way I wrap the whole subject in a white painted background.
The decision to follow these fascinations felt uncomfortable at first. I quickly dismissed that reservation and chose to trust my heart and follow this white rabbit of an idea. Once I sat back to reflect on this unfamiliar work I began to understand my need to get this stuff on paper. Throughout my writing, I have continually referred to my hand and heart working together. In the beginning I don’t try to understand why I want to paint what I paint, I just do it and seek out the reason later. I can give credit to my mind for making certain preliminary and necessary decisions, but the creative work is done when I let go of the analysis and fear in my head. The resulting painting tells me more about myself than I was aware of, and in this case, these bowed heads were talking to me.
There is intimacy in the zoomed-in perspective of the paintings in my Closer series. The abstracted turned down heads speak about an inner sense of discretion and self-awareness. The multiple head abstract paintings are a nod to relationships and the various ways we find connections with others. It only takes one common thread to create a bond. Whether it’s sisters, friends, a mother and daughter, a husband and wife, the abstract portraits are less about the physical traits of the subject and more about unspoken feelings and connections and the heartfelt emotions we relate upon. While the abstract feature-less paintings represent intimate characteristics and feelings, the portraits containing facial features bring attention to what’s less discreet but maybe overlooked.
I have faith in knowing my purpose as an artist is to bring light to the magnificent things God has created in us and for us. Although so much of my work is abstract, I paint from the most honest and heartfelt emotions and observations, and later, I write about them giving total abstraction intention and purpose. In this same way, I am unapologetically intrigued by these human features and the sentiment behind them, and as long as my heart is leading me there, I’m going to follow it. My head wanted to talk me out of chasing down an uncertain direction, but I am mesmerized by the mystery of what my heart wants to show me.
There is an answer to ‘How did I get here?’. This is my art…. and it is not as far off as it seemed. All my work has been created from the same love of looking carefully at color, line, shape, value, texture, as well as, emotion. Artists are the most observant people, and that’s what’s compelling us to create. I notice the form and volume in cheek bones, and a swift line in the hair, and the unique way facial features are arranged, but I am also captivated by traits behind those visible characteristics. Many artists have painted a beautiful heads, but I am discovering ways to paint what's in the heart.