The secret lives of everyone else
Sometimes I think I became a portrait painter because I’m socially inept. You might think I would become a landscape painter or some other kind of artist who is not, by definition, required to meet people, but the hole in my social skills is in a very specific place. I enjoy meeting people, but not in that chit-chatty networking kind of way. I like asking the more personal questions. I like learning about another individual and really getting to know her-him, even if it’s only for the space of an hour.
And that’s why I built my portrait-making process the way I did.
I never work from photos provided by clients. Instead, I meet with the subject for an hour or so and photograph her-him myself. I try to make the photo-session as painless as possible, and, to get the subject’s mind off of my incessant shutter-release, I ask her-him questions. My standard queries start out rather childish (but, in a way, very revealing):
If you could be a kind of flower/shoe/car/nut, what kind would you be?
What’s your favorite color?
This particular subject loves the color aqua, and, as you can see, her preference makes all the difference in the painting.
Every bit of information that a subject gives me goes into her-his portrait, though the revelations don’t always manifest themselves quite as obviously as color preference.
With the following questions, I’m looking for the less-tangibles that will also be a part of the portrait:
Who knows you best and how would that person describe you?
What’s something about you that people generally miss when they first meet you?
I’m always especially interested in the answers people give to these more demanding questions—mainly because I can’t even begin to answer them myself…
After years of asking the same questions of many different people, I have discovered a few fascinating patterns among the individual permutations. I won’t pretend that I’m conducting a sociological study and that my results are hard science (unless my portraits can count as my final report!), but that last question in particular seems to provoke a common answer. More often than not, my subjects tell me that other people don’t know how silly they are. It’s the one thing that people most often miss about each other.
I love it! I mean, I’d probably love it more if I got to see everyone’s playful goofiness for myself, but, as it is, I’m happy to know that people in general are apparently sillier than they might first appear. If nothing else, it takes the sting out of that suit-and-tie scowl on the streetcar when you know that the grump will get home and wiggle his ears for his kids.