Painting Family With a Story

A new opportunity has sparked a change with how I think about and paint my family portraits. Let me give some context. This Summer 2018 I’ll be participating in the Collaboration and Exhibition Fellowship at the Community Art Center in Wallingford, PA alongside Philadelphia printmaker and teaching artist Martha Knox

Half of the Fellow’s responsibility is to mount an exhibition in the 3000 square foot Duke gallery that will be referenced by the campers throughout the Summer. The other half of the Fellowship is to design and run a collaborative project with the Summer Spree Visual Art campers that is linked to the artist’s exhibit. This will be the second official Summer for this fellowship, although there was a piloted version with Gregory Brellochs in 2016. Last year’s fellows, Jessica Eldredge and Carol Gannon, designed projects based on the theme “Metamorphosis” that dealt with the idea of the shifting appearance of paper through dyeing and collage and paper-making respectively. The theme and collaborative project I have planned will the subject of a future blog post. This post is focused on the progression from representing the figure in portraits to representing an idea.

Adolescent Freedom 10x10” acrylic on canvas (2017)

Grandmom in Kitchen with Flowers 24x30” acrylic on canvas (2016)

Mom 8x10” acrylic on canvas (2016)

On the whole, to fill the 1500 square foot wall space with a cohesive show, I knew I needed more portraits, a few of which are pictured above. When I applied for the fellowship I had ten portraits in the family portrait series and knew I could complete the remaining ten paintings and five drawings by the deadline. Previous to committing to exhibit 25 portraits by June, I had set out to depict the figure accurately so as to learn how to manipulate acrylic paint. 

Painting is a skill that can be learned, and when I started painting with focus in 2016, I didn’t know how to mix colors that could represent all the subtle planar shifts of the face. In fact, I had no sustained formal artistic training. My artistic background is a lifetime of amateur, do-it-yourself activities in all forms, from sculpture to sewing to baking. I was a creator of things in pretty equal measure pretty consistently, and became a generalist of sorts. In fact, in college I graduated with an Art History degree which is a generalist’s heaven. Most subjects are touched upon when considering art movements of the past- religion, math, science, sociology, psychology, history, art, etc- albeit in a more shallow form than if each subject is studied in depth. If I wanted to paint realistically I had to study in depth and focus systematically on learning the skills to paint.

First portrait in February 2016 of Eli as a toddler. I knew I had some work to do to improve my skills.

Back in 2016 I started painting. The first portrait I chose to make was that of my son Eli as a toddler, picture above. The photograph is appealing to me because his chubby face is pointed toward the viewer while his eyes are focused on something behind us. The sun is shining directly on his face and his cheeks and mouth are slightly raised in a squint but his eyes are clear from shadow and shine light brown. The painting I completed did not capture any of these interesting qualities besides the averted gaze. As a result I painted many portraits and landscapes to improve my skills. I painted what I saw, systematically mixing paint each time I made my palette, looking actively at the relationships of line, value and color. I visited museums to study great paintings. 

Photo reference for Cautious Curiosity

Cautious Curiosity 10x8” acrylic on canvas 2018

Then this January, two years after the first portrait, I felt content that I could reliably get the results I was after. Coincidentally the painting that aroused this confidence was another toddler portrait of my son, titled Cautious Curiosity, pictured above. The skin tone is natural and is set against a solid complementary blue background. Select key areas of the face such as the nose, lips and the right eye are painted in sharp focus while the less important areas of the cheek and hair are fuzzy. For the painting, I was drawn to the hands perched against the turnstile while his face is alert and engaged in that direction. The boy is not in a rush to enter but appears to be taking in the scene. My mood influenced the facial expression in the painting. I was listening to political and history podcasts that deal with current events while painting this portrait. As a result I notice more anxiety in the painted boy’s features than the photograph. The eyebrows are bit more raised and the eyes a little more open. Yet I welcomed these changes and decided to exploit this new direction in the remaining paintings needed for the exhibit.

Photo reference for Grandparent portrait

Work-in-progress shot of Big Grandmom and Grandpop in front of Yosemite Falls 12x12” acrylic on canvas 2018

Because of the fellowship deadline, I have planned out a dozen or so portraits ahead of time. I’d like to express specific emotions in the figure of the portrait, as in Cautious Curiosity, or to prepare ahead of time any additions and changes, as in the portrait of my grandparents pictured above. In this painting they are taken from the white corner they occupy in the photograph and placed in front of Yosemite Falls, a place Eli and I visited last Spring and that is one of many National Parks marked for federal funding cuts. Surely I substituted the Georgia Tech lettering on my grandfather’s sweatshirt and inserted National Parks with the emblem in the center. Now, this portrait represents my smiling grandparents while at the same time creating context to their joy- which I have decided will be from experiencing the wonders of nature together.

As a result of this exhibit, I’m working on a dozen portraits and all have a figure removed from the original time and space of the photograph to make a statement. I’m still experimenting with the boundaries of this, and I’m having lots of fun in the process. How does the Oscar Wilde quote go? “Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter. The sitter is merely the accident, the occasion. It is not he who is revealed by the painter; it is rather the painter who, on the coloured canvas, reveals himself.” I may be trying to toy with this idea.

The ViewMaster 12x9” acrylic on paper 2018

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