Engaged and engaging
Traditionally, a portrait painter focuses on getting the subject’s features just right in order to capture that person’s likeness. In my work, I’m more interested in how an individual moves and breathes than in the precise line of that person’s nose. After all, in daily life, we don’t see each other frozen in time, our features perfectly still. We are alive and animated, so it makes sense that a portrait should be a record of the way in which the person carries her-him self instead of a documentation of the exact shape of the individual’s eyes.
To make a dynamic portrait, I must meet the subject so that I can observe the way she-he moves and breathes. But I don’t work directly from life, painting as a person sits for me. I’ve found this method to be a sure way to drain the subject. After all, there are few things more uncomfortable and, eventually, boring than having an almost-stranger examine your every pore for hours at a time! I find that, usually, portraits made in this manner have either a solid and determined expression (if the artist is talented and the model exceptional) or a tired and resigned look (if the chemistry isn’t right). Neither of those options necessarily speaks to who the subject really is.
By photographing a person, I avoid all that. As I take pictures of the subject, we talk about ourselves. We get to know each other, and, once I discover a topic that particularly interests her-him, I press it. I look to engage the subject, because an engaged face is an engaging one.
I take around a hundred photos of each subject. Here are just twenty from my interview with Beth.
While photos can sometimes be revealing and insightful, they are not an end for me. They lack a certain quality that I look for in a portrait, and that is why I turn to paint. Photos are the briefest moment in a person’s existence, and, to me, they often feel that way. With my paintings, my intent is to re-imbue that moment with a sense of time and continuity.
This is my primary source image for Beth’s portrait. I looked mainly at this photograph as I painted, but this image and the final painting are not exactly the same. The photos from which I work are visual notes of my impressions and they don’t contain all the information that I put into the painting.
In the end, I suppose the question should be put to my subjects. Does a photo more accurately represent you? Or does my painting? How and why?