I love to paint most everything but my passion is doing figurative work, especially portraits.
Nothing is more satisfying than to first capture a person’s likeness and then catch at least a glimpse of what I think of as his or her spirit or soul. I relish that moment where I stand back and realize that I have done what I set out to do. Sometimes, of course, I fail. However, I succeed every now and again.
I have been working on a quick portrait study of my son’s girlfriend, Amanda, a woman who does not see herself to be as beautiful as she is. As I have worked on the painting, I have been thinking about vulnerability and self-confidence. My goal in this portrait is to show it all: the beauty, the vulnerability, and the immense spirit that this young woman possesses. As I paint, I worry that I can’t pull it off. And thus, arise my own issues of vulnerability and lack of confidence in my own abilities. I did catch Amanda’s likeness in the underpainting which was done in a rub-out technique on a panel. I was then able to solidify the likeness as I put more color and dimension on the portrait. But can I make her spirit shine through?
I think many artists struggle with these same self-doubts and look in many places to find coping strategies. I mention a few of my own in hopes that they might resonate with you.
First, I want to continue to learn about techniques and materials. I graduated from a wonderful comprehensive atelier program that was really focused on drawing skills, techniques and materials. But, I continue to search for more. I have found along the way, that for an endeavor as intensely personal and subjective as painting, a staggering number of experts give hard and fast rules dictating what they believe is the only way to successfully paint.
That leads to general questions: Who do I listen to? Why should I listen to anyone? If painting is a way that we artists can express the passions and emotions in our souls and hearts, why should any expert be given the power to tell us how to express ourselves? For every book I have read on portraiture that stresses that you must know anatomy, there is another one that sets out measurement rules for the length of the head and placement of eyes, etc., not to mention those that use a sculptural approach to narrow down the masses until the portrait emerges.
So what do I do with all of this conflicting advice and information? I love learning. I use many of the techniques at different times depending on my mood and what I am trying to accomplish in a particular painting. Learning about someone else’s method always yields something new that I can explore and adapt to use in my own work. But, at the same time, I do not think there is a best way to paint or an only way to paint as long as basic conservation procedures are followed so that the painting will last over time. I do not find the conflicting advice confusing as much as comforting. Artists have found so many different ways to communicate their visions.
I also study paintings in museums and online. How does a particular artist paint eyes or lips? What do they do to make the person’s spirit shine through? I watch videos and sometimes attend workshops particularly if the artist’s style or technique takes me beyond my comfort level. Learning is energizing but what I learn is not gospel. I do think limited palettes lead to color harmony, but I do not always use them. Sometimes I want to add a color or a lot of colors. Why not? Just because pigments were severely limited for the early masters does not mean that we must limit our own choices. I like starting with a live model and then working from photographs before finishing the painting with the model. Photographs are great for capturing the likeness but leave a lot to be desired in terms of capturing light and emotion. But I use photos and I am always glad to have the opportunity to take them. I like candid shots that show expressions and typically use several photos of the same person to get a sense of their expressions as well as their features. Some artists say “never work from a photograph.” I say why not if it helps me achieve my goals for the painting.
Sometimes I do quick portraits and other times I take my time. Is there a right way? Not for me since what I want to do is to reveal emotion. I think the most important ability for an artist is to be able to draw accurately. I have to constantly draw to maintain and improve my skill level. It is a case of use it or lose it. So where does my self-doubt come from? Is it from my quest to always get better and the fear that I might not be able to do so? Is it because I worry that others will not like my work? Is it that I compare my work to others and find mine lacking? Is it because every painting can’t be perfect? Is it because so many people are better artists than me? Is it because the painting process is satisfying but not always fun? I think my self-doubt stems from all of the above and much more.
So what do I do about my fears and worries? I put them aside and I paint.