Thursday, May 29, 2014

Portraits and Figures


Here's a brand new piece--a triptych of portraits of a recent lovely model.  I like this very much.  The portraits are accurate (mostly), and I really enjoyed capturing the light on the skin with mixes of gold, crimson, umber, orange, and, as usual, ultramarine.

Been thinking a great deal lately about the work I do, as ever, specifically concerning portraits and figures--or rather, the portrait and the figure, those two constants of the western tradition in art.  I love painting both, but for different reasons.

Portraits capture the specific individuality of the sitter.  As I've said before, nothing is clearer than the fact that our brains are incredibly wired to recognize faces.  They have to be, evolutionarily, I mean.  We have to recognize our tribe members, and we have to know who's a stranger.  From those factors derives a great deal of the blessing and curse of life, I think.  From the painting perspective, the responsibility is to capture the likeness.  My model spoke proudly of her "crooked smile," which made me look, which made me see that yeah!  That is the special feature of her face--a beautiful kookiness in her expression.  That is what I would try to capture.  I hope I've gotten close, especially in the portrait on the right.  There's a wonderful truth, a secret in fact that I would guess all portrait painters know: in facial features, it is precisely the distinctiveness, not the universality, of the face that makes it wonderful.  I wish every person who worried about her nose or his chin could see with the painter's eyes and know that those "flaws" are precisely what make her or him beautiful.

But what's the difference between the portrait and the figure?  There are figurative elements in these portraits--the bare shoulders, for instance.  But no, these are portraits.  I know because of my feelings and my approach in painting them.  I think of it as the difference between universal, platonic beauty and specific, worldly beauty.  Faces live in the realm of the latter.  Again, my focus as a painter is on the specialness, the distinctiveness of the face--capturing what makes her her.  Her eyes, her nose, her hair, her lips, her chin, her shoulders.  This work is a labor of love, endlessly interesting, certainly.  I could do tons of it.  In fact, I am beginning to hatch the idea of doing some commission work, painting portraits of children and so forth. 

So painting portraits is interesting, gripping even.  But painting figures is sublime.  Even as, in painting a figure, I certainly am striving to capture the distinctiveness of this body before me, something else has happened when the natural figure has entered the room.  I certainly mean the naked figure (not nude): the human being in possession of her numinous body, allowing her skin and flesh to be sculpted by light and shadow, revealed in a profound act of generosity to the artist's gaze.  Something big happens, some bid for universality and the eternal: something Platonic.  With a model I have called it "channeling the goddess" or said that now I'm no longer painting her--I'm painting her beauty.  That would be the beauty that she is given, that she carries, that perhaps she cultivates but does not own, in the sense that a great singer is ultimately given her voice as grace rather than creates it herself.  None of this is to violate the model's autonomy.  Her beauty is hers to do with as she wishes, to conceal or to give as the sacred offering that it is.  "Offering," with all its religious connotations, would be the word I would use.  I hope that when the model makes this offering, we can together collaborate in celebrating that offering in the act of painting.

I have made a decision, for the time being at least, no longer to work with models who aren't really up for the project of figurative painting.  It was an interesting journey toward this decision.  Because I like to work with people in my community, I have been in the habit of deferring largely to the wishes of the model with respect to working-in-skin.  I do wish to capture models' personalities by painting portraits, and I will do shorter (cheaper) sessions that are just portrait sessions.  I like painting clothes too and capturing the personality and the, well, zeitgeist as revealed by fashion and all that.  But ultimately I am a figurative painter, one guided by the numinous, sublime vision of the revealed human body.  I know this fact precisely because I know very well the sadness, the grief of working with the shrouded figure.  I recall my first ever time visiting a life-drawing class.  I walked into the room and looked for a seat, vaguely aware that there was a pillar of light in the middle of the room.  When I finally got myself seated and situated and looked up, the pillar of light turned out to be the model, and the light seemed to emerge from her (I swear I have seen bodies actually give off light).  Each shift of her posing seemed to me a shift into a new face of God.  How can you be content working with the shrouded figure when you know that what's being shrouded is perhaps literally divine?

Well, perhaps I will do far less work with models this summer than in other recent summers.  That's OK. 

Can the two genres of art, portrait and figure, mix?  Well, one can try.  I do love painting what I call the bust portrait, including the chest and body.  "A woman and her breasts" would be a crass way to put it.  Breasts being so profoundly distinctive, so different from woman to woman, so possessed of, well, personality, it is very much the case that painting them is more like painting a portrait than it is like painting a full figure.  But does the bust portrait enfold some of the numinousness of the figure?  Yes, for me it does.

Does my distinction--this contrast between the specific beauty of the portrait and the eternal beauty of the figure--ultimately fall apart?  Yes, of course.  What I am talking about here is more an artist's mood or temper than anything "real" in the face or figure.  And the mood or temper shifts.  But there's no question that there is no greater subject than the sublime human figure, for me at any rate.  And so that's where my focus will lie.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

New Figure: Experimenting with Contrast and Wet-in-Wet

I like this piece quite a lot.  It's pretty experimental.  I deliberately chose a photo that was heavily shadowed (the original is very dark across most of the model's face and figure; I've lightened it up).  Then I went at it deliberately trying to use a luminous grey made of contrasting colors--starting with the face, which was a mix of lavender and orange, sometimes mixed, sometimes separately glazed.  Ultramarine (my crutch) and orange, together with more lavender, were used heavily throughout the rest of the figure.  The darkest stretches and the fine detail, as usual, were tricked out in ultramarine, and ultramarine and lavender together made for some of the bolder expanses of skin.

The other major shift forward for me in this one entailed the use of a lot of wet-in-wet.  For instance, the dark left flank has a lot of muddled color--an orange base and then purple and ultramarine mixed on the page.  I have definitely trended in the very safe and OCD-ish tack of glazing wet-on-dry.  Building up layers of color lets you control to a high degree--but as legions of watercolorists will point out, you thereby lose much of the special magic and mystery of watercolor as a medium.  Isn't watercolor beautiful precisely because it "flows"?  Too much glazing definitely kills the flow.  You wind up with paintings that look like oils, which is a virtue if that's what you want, and often that IS what I want.

Here I faced two technical challenges.  The first was of painting a figure that's pretty pale-skinned.  Pale skin to me is very beautiful, but it doesn't give the paintbrush much to bite into.  What color are shadows on a pale body?  They're not a darker brown red or whatever.  They're just, well, dark.  So you have to seize the opportunity to make something interesting out of those dark expanses.  The second problem was of deciding how dark to make those shadows.  As I said, I opted for more freshness and lightness than was in the photograph--going for greater interest and definition.  

I like the piece, as I said.  I hope it honors my model and her gorgeous figure.  She's a ballet dancer and profoundly, movingly graceful in her moving in and out of poses.