Painting takes time.
Painting is a process of applying paint and then responding to it, and sometimes it takes many months of doing absolutely nothing to the painting in order to get it right.
This is a portrait of Bill. Ten days before I took this photo of the painting, the subject had turned 100 years old.
I was hoping to get Bill’s portrait done sooner rather than later.
The painting was a gift to Bill from my father to celebrate his special birthday…
...and I wanted to finish it within the year.
But, as I worked on it, I began to realize what a challenge the portrait was going to be.
Profiles are good for capturing precise features…
...but they make capturing mood and expression—breath and movement—very difficult.
What’s more, the quality of light that I was looking for was a subtle effect…
...and Bill’s lovely white hair was almost too contrasty for it.
So the painting sat in my studio for over 7 months, from the October 2008 with the previous process image until May 2009 with this one.
Sometimes I hid the work behind stacks of bigger paintings.
Other times I had it in plain view so that I could stare at it and try to figure out what to do next.
When I finally put paint to the canvas again in May, the background started to look interesting…
...but I was still having a lot of trouble with Bill’s face.
I blamed my troubles on the brightness of his hair…
...so I washed it over in gray.
That inspired me to go over his whole face in swathes of translucent color.
I was working with the canvas flat on the floor, pushing around puddles of watered down paint—something I usually do more of earlier in the process.
The painting looked like this when my dear friend Megh came over in mid-June. She is one of a handful of people who watches my work carefully and often sees what’s going on in my process better than I do. She said of Bill’s painting: “it’s so soft!” Though she said it nicely, I remember behaving apologetically about it; I was embarassed by the piece as it was. I put it behind another work and steered our conversation elsewhere.
When I did take the painting out a month later, the first thing I did was try to impose structure on the portrait with hard white lines.
But it was only by modulating the softness that Megh had pointed out that I finally found Bill.
The best paintings don’t start out the way they finish: they’re layers upon layers of discovery.
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