Monday, November 16, 2020

Why I Make Portraits the Way I Do

The process I use for making portraits is designed to connect me with my subjects. If possible, I begin by doing a photo-session with the subject(s), then I download some songs recommended by the subjects, and put them on repeat in my studio. I choose a good photo from the session, and lay out the portrait using my handy projector, before setting up my laptop beside my painting wall and getting going with the real drawing work. I use graphite, I scribble, I cross-hatch, and if desired by the person who commissioned the work, I use gesso. There's not a step of this process that is dispensable to me, and I thought I'd explain why. 

The reason for doing a photo-shoot is probably obvious. I need to connect with the subject. I've been commissioned a few times to make portraits as surprise gifts for the subjects, and while it's possible, it's incredibly difficult to know if I've captured the essence of somebody I've never met, just working from a photo I didn't take. The most beautiful portraits, to me, capture the essence of a person or relationship. They capture a moment in time. You want to look at that portrait and have a happy memory. So either I work from a photo that was taken at a very happy moment, or I make that happy moment. When we do a photo-shoot we talk endlessly throughout the session about what makes life (or the relationship if there are multiple subjects) special. I get into the nitty-gritty of what matters to the person I'm photographing, and by the end of the session, I'm in love. Yep. I love really easily, so if I've ever interviewed or photographed you, there is a piece of my heart dedicated to you. I'm going to make your portrait with all that love I have for you, and my memory of the time we spent taking your portrait. 

That love is what the song-requests are about, too. It's a way of filling my studio with your personality. I've been given songs by artists in genres I didn't care to listen to, before, but by the time I'd drawn the portrait, and listened to the songs a hundred times over (no that's not an exaggeration), I hum the songs in my sleep and love them too. I've discovered some great artists this way, but more than that the spirit of the songs informs the work. I usually title my portraits, as I do most of my recent works on canvas, after a line from one of the songs I'm working with. If you've hired me to make a portrait, you probably already know I'm a synaesthete: I see sound. So when I make the portrait with the recommended songs playing on repeat, I'm drawing my own visual interpretation of the subject, the moment, the feeling, and the music... all mixed up on a flat surface, with graphite. 

So why use a projector? I know a lot of people think projectors are a terrible intrusion into visual art, taking away the artist's eye; the artist's interpretation; the art. I used to think that too, until I was painting portraits with watered down acrylic on used bed sheets (the MAMA Project) and couldn't afford to make a single mistake (because you can't remove or even lighten up a misplaced stroke of paint). I re-did a few of those first bed sheet portraits, and ended up throwing my precious donated sheets away, before resorting to the projector. Then I realized that the projector doesn't have to take away the soul of the art--I just had to learn to use it properly. It's a wonderful tool for laying out the structure of a person's face or body, to avoid making mistakes that would have to be fixed or reworked, later. The trick is to stop using the projector early in the process. I lay out the structure, and then I turn it off, turn up the music, and go back to the way I love to draw: scribbling and painting layer after layer, from my heart. But without mistakes of bone-structure or eye-placement. 

The scribbling. To me this is truly indispensable. It's just how I draw, like others use watercolour, fine chalk shading, or bold brush strokes. I scribble. Call it cross-hatching, if you like; it originally came out of cross-hatching, and there's still a good amount of cross-hatching in my work. But straight-up cross-hatching doesn't have the energy and vivacity of scribbling. Scribbling is unscripted. It's emotional. It's how I let loose and let art happen. It's how my intuition deals with putting feeling onto a flat surface. It's the reason my hand-drawn portrait is more than the photo I took to begin with. When I work with gesso (and I prefer this, although many clients request only graphite), I get to layer the scribbling with a depth that graphite alone can't really muster. Then it becomes scribbling with texture and colour (because gesso turns graphite blue in certain light), and allows for so much more depth of feeling and movement in the portrait. 

Recently I was asked to make a portrait without the scribbling, or cross-hatching. I did it, but although the client was happy with the result, I wasn't. I felt it didn't have the depth or feeling of my other portraits. My style isn't for everybody, and that's OK. It's who I am though, and a hand-drawn portrait is a big messy soup of the subject, the moment, and the artist. Just like it's essential for me to capture the nature of the portrait's subject, it's essential for me to let my own heart be present in the work. After all, I've put my whole heart into connecting with the subject, and that's where the feeling is. My heart is messy. That's the nature of my work.