Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

On starting and finishing

2009 . 02 . 20 - Comments / Commentaires (3)

I am not in the habit of painting portraits of people I can’t meet. Learning about the subject myself is just too important to my process.

That said, on a handful of occasions I have made a painting when it was impossible to interview and photograph the person because she-he had passed away. The last time I did so was three years ago with this portrait and, at the time, I promised myself that I would avoid posthumous portraiture altogether since it precludes such a vital part of my process.

In portraying someone who is deceased, I work from photos that I haven’t taken myself. Even when I meet the subject and photograph her-him myself, I’m picky about my source image, so, when I’m working from material I didn’t create and on a face I’ve never actually seen, the photo tends to become all-consuming in its importance.

source image for a painted portrait

photo courtesy of Jeannette

I recently painted a portrait of Bill, who died last spring. Jeannette, Bill’s wife and the person who commissioned me to make the portrait, provided me with countless of photos of her husband—most of them more complete than this one! In the end, I chose to work from this fragment of a face for the same reason that I accepted the commission in the first place: I saw something of myself in Bill’s story as well as in his expression here.

how to paint a portrait

Starting a painting is easy. I’ve never suffered from painter’s block or from an anxiety about messing up the white of the primed canvas because I always have a certain direction to my painting.

working from a photo to paint a portrait

Besides, the energy necessary to begin layering the paint on the canvas is entirely playful and almost arbitrary. I don’t tend to get too caught up in wanting the painting to do something in particular until much later in the process.

how to paint a portrait

As I began Bill’s portrait, the challenge of the partial source image was invigorating. It added to the excitement of starting the painting.

painting a portrait on canvas

I filled in the missing parts of the photo I’d chosen with information I gleaned from other images.

process shot of painting a portrait

His left eye was a problem for me…

how to paint a portrait

...but, at this point, I didn’t try too hard to pin it down.

how to make a face in acrylic paint

In fact, I ignored it for the most part, not wanting to deal with it until I had the rest of Bill’s face a bit more sorted.

how to paint a portrait

It was around this time that the starting energy gave way to the finishing one. I was reworking Bill’s left side and especially his ear.

painting a portrait

Wrapping up a painting is slower than beginning it because, as I get closer to finishing the piece, the act of painting stops carrying me.

Gwenn Seemel painting in her studio

photo by David

Instead of going along for the ride, I have to bring myself completely to the work. I have to be present in a different way in order to finish a painting.

the process of painting a portrait in acrylic on canvas

Working on the face of a man who has passed away is an emotional experience, even if the emotions are, in some sense, borrowed from his loved ones. Here, I was very happy with the painting until I noticed that in my attempt to delineate the structure of his lower face I had made Bill look like he was scrunching up his face to cry.

Gwenn Seemel's portrait of Bill

Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on canvas
48 x 34 inches

I smoothed out the lines around his chin and then I felt as though I’d made a proper portrait of Bill.

detail image of a painting

detail image of Bill

I hope the painting acts as a memorial for Bill and one that reveals all his complexities even though I never got the chance to meet him myself.

- “Encore un mort.”
- Butterfly
- Getting it right

CATEGORIES: - English - Practice - Process images -

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(3) Comments / Commentaires: On starting and finishing

-- Jeannette Gibbons -- 2009 . 05 . 20 --

U rock.

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-- CONNIE VINCENT -- 2009 . 05 . 20 --

I am Jeannette’s friend & knew Bill for nearly 30 years (can that be true?).  I haven’t seen the original of your painting yet, but I can see from these photos that you have captured something of Bill’s kinetic energy.  Bill was always in motion, whether doing work or merely sitting & jiggling a leg.  You also captured the happy/sad eyes.  I look forward to seeing the original when I visit Jeannette in March.

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-- Kate Powell -- 2014 . 10 . 26 --

The idea that he was ready to cry may be an energetic from missing his family . . .  death is very unusual in what it produces!  LOVE this image.

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