The eyes of a portrait are one of the most mythologized aspects of a painted face. If painted just so, they’ve been known to follow a viewer wherever she-he moves in front of the portrait. They’re also extremely expressive—down to their dilation—and can effect the audience in alarming ways. But the single most important choice a portrait painter can make about the subject’s eyes has to do with where the painted eyes will end up looking.
When the eyes of a painted face look out—instead of up, down, or to one side—the viewer automatically perceives the face’s expression as more intense, simply because that expression appears to be about the viewer or directed at her-him. In this way, a flirting look suddenly becomes a connection between the painting and the viewer and a more troubled one turns into concern for the audience.
This portrait, here in its beginning phase, is part of a pair. The other half of the diptych avoids eye contact while this one requires it.
The two portraits depict a couple: Bill, who is deceased, and Jeannette, who is still very much alive. That, in itself, might be a good reason to show Jeannette engaging with viewers and Bill looking down, but there was more to my decision.
The matching portrait of Bill had to show his face fully frontal. That choice was a matter of available source images but it also stemmed from the complications of portraying a person whom I’d never met in the flesh—there’s a certain fudge-ability in a straight-on portrait which does not exist in a profile or a three-quarter view. Since I was showing Bill’s face fully frontal and at nearly four by three feet, I couldn’t have him looking directly at the viewer. At that scale, the look would have been far too intense.
Jeannette’s portrait, on the other hand, could not be straight on.
A fully frontal composition makes it difficult to show a sense of space around the painted face and I was keen on giving my subject room to breathe.
Beyond these compositional choices, this painting was strangely easy to make.
It is only in looking back over the process images that I realize what it was.
As I worked on Jeannette’s portrait, it was especially vague and colorful, but I never felt lost or uncertain of which marks to make next.
And that’s got a lot to do with the painted eyes.
When I think about it, most of the paintings whose eyes directly engaged with me were easier to paint.
Maybe it’s because I felt like I had someone working with me to finish the painting? I’d like to think so!