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A New Portrait

Ever since my grandmother Frances passed away I have been thinking about her portrait. I knew I would do one at some point when I felt ready. Ready in this instance means that she stopped appearing in my dreams. It has been a year since I've seen her while I've slept. People look different in heaven. It skews my ability to represent them as they were before. I'm not trying to weird you out, it's simply how it is with me.

It is impossible to show how I go about this portrait without revealing quite a bit about Frances, and of course, myself as well. Tant pis. We'll try to bear it.

I will post photographs at the end of a painting session to show progress with some mention of the decisions made along the way. It is my hope to demonstrate the mental exercises an artist goes through, a few practical techniques of putting paint down, but most of all, the amount of time it takes to create something in paint.

I chose my panel back in the summer. I glared at it for a few weeks. Then I painted it solid red and overlaid it with gold and I was satisfied once it seemed to be glaring back at me. This wasn't a random decision. I admire the craftsmanship that goes into the creation of icons, the saints, and the painting traditions of the Orthodox Church. The religious aspect is not lost on me either. Now why would I choose this is as my start?

My subject and panel

The truth is, Frances is someone I admired, bordering on idolatry. Even when I reached adulthood and could see that she did indeed have flaws, I didn't love her any less. It seemed appropriate to start with a gilded surface on a wooden panel with a more vertical dimension than might be considered standard, to convey how I admired her.

Recently I had a young artist ask me if there were tricks to getting proportions right. Absolutely. Measure. Everything. My panel has a 1:2 ratio. I taped off my photograph of Frances so that I was looking at the same proportions. Then I marked my half points on both the photo and the panel. Fortunately I only have to double my subject. On the panel I simply placed a rubber band to show the midpoint. On my photograph, a piece of painter's tape. The top edge indicates the center line.

Now the paint. Every time I begin a portrait, I have to remind myself that a figure won't look like a person for awhile. I mark, as accurately as I can, where I want things to be. Remember that the top, taped-off area of the photo has its own center and that corresponds with the center of the top area of the panel. Looking back and forth between the photo and the painting surface keeps me grounded. I think of the photo as a kind of map.

Some mustard paint with a dab of primary blue.

Now the lower half. I moved the painter's tape up so that the lower edge showed the midpoint again.

Use whatever works and try not to make it too complicated.
A little gesso mixed with gold paint was used to mark a few highlights. She already has some attitude, a presence, and some weight in her stance. I think it's a good start.

Where I stopped today


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