On a three-week trip that Susan and I took over Christmas and New Year to New Mexico is a perfect case in point that illustrates the process of getting to know your subject and how it both enriches one as an individual as well as informs the larger work that results in the studio from the studies and photographs.
For the first two weeks we rented a north-lit studio a few blocks from the main square of Taos and painted a steady stream of people from the area. Here’s a photo I took of Susan and Sherri McGraw painting a wonderful Pueblo Indian woman named Rhoda in the studio/apartment we rented.
Yes, it was fun painting and a valuable experience to study the colors and values from life for the larger studio paintings we’d later tackle back home; but the most important thing, by far, was the emotional connection we established with the people themselves.
There’s nothing like spending three or four hours painting someone, hearing their stories, later having dinner at their house, and even going to the Pueblo at midnight for a bonfire celebration, and then shivering through a traditional sun-rise ceremony that has occurred annually for a thousand years.
You might think I’m exaggerating, but I firmly believe that these are the emotions that make the studio portraits from my references more than mere technical exercises. When you get to know a person, a culture, their struggles, dreams, family—it intensifies your desire to portray them as real people, rather than mere models for a painting to decorate a wall; and the best portraits convey this sense of humanity as a result.
|Pueblo Boys, 60x30", oil|
My goal in doing any portrait is to convey something characteristic about the subject, both through their unique features, as well as the objects of clothing and surroundings which accentuate the sense of who they are inside. I feel that the entirety of the painting is the portrait, and not merely eyes, nose and lips.
And here’s a larger studio painting I did from some photos I took of her after we finished painting in the gallery. I could try and describe what I was attempting to convey about Janira, but my hope is that the painting does a far better job than I ever could in words.
|Janira Cordova, 60x30", Oil|
So spend the time getting to know the people you want to paint. You will have your horizons expanded, even some of your assumptions challenged, but you will certainly grow as a person and an artist—and hopefully share those insights with the rest of us through your paintings. Isn’t that the point of being an artist, after all?