Many times when my sons were small I would lovingly admire them as they slept. I fantasized about whipping out a sketch pad an rendering a quick, tender portrait like Mary Cassatt. But, with three sons born within 2 years of each other, I took their naps as a chance to get work done or rest myself. The above sketches are pretty much all I have of the years from 1999 to 2007.
You would think an artist would choose to paint their loved ones constantly: Hand them out as presents to doting aunts, uncles, and grandparents for every occasion. Like a pastry chef might hand out goodies on Christmas. No, portraits challenge an artist to the limit. I tried painting from photo, without success, with my first born (when I still had free time). In the picture, Elliot is held by his grandfather when he was just 2-3 months old. The end result was dismal: Elliot looks more like a lump of mashed potatoes than a cherub, Grandpa Peter is stiff and gray, and the entire canvas looks, well, like a scanned photo with paint texture applied. Not what I was going for.
My favorite portrait artists of all time are Franz Hals, Judith Leyster, and John Singer Sargent. I was surprised to see a picture of Sargent’s studio featured photos clipped to his easel while he was painting Madame X (Virginie Amelie Gautreau). Clearly, he did not paint this 7 foot tall painting from his tiny, black and white, 8″ x 10″ photo. I figure he used the photo as a reference, especially when the model shifted around or between sittings. I may try his technique with my sons’ pictures.
Just after we were married, I walked in one night with my husband reading math books on our living room couch. I took the opportunity to set up my easel and paint a small, 14″ x 11″ oil painting. I treasure this picture and will keep it with me, always. While, not a close inspection of his charming face, the entire picture really portrays my husband.
I want to capture each of my sons in a similar way. I succeeded a few years ago, I quickly painted small canvases (6″x6″) of each boy and gave them to my husband’s father as a present. Unfortunately, I did not take pictures before wrapping and shipping the pictures. This year, I asked my sons to sit for a portrait again, this time a much larger piece: 16″x20″ canvases.
These three paintings are acrylic on canvas and are definitely works in progress. Tilden, my youngest son, is the farthest along. He is the most available for a sitting, it took three, each about 20 minutes long, to get to this point. My greatest challenge is to work quick, because he fidgets. I informed him which part of his anatomy I am attempting to paint on so he can keep THAT part still.
Next is Elliot’s, the least finished, because he had almost no time to sit. Yes, that is a mustache on his face and no, his forehead is not that large. The three-quarter pose (he is not looking directly at me) was proving a challenge (but a good one!). I hope I can get another sitting or two after school is out. This portrait is truly unfair to Elliot, but I include it to show how hard it is to try and capture one’s loved ones in art. If I get it wrong, I feel like I am insulting and disrespecting my son.
Finally, is John’s painting I am having the exact opposite situation. John also has a hard time staying still and I had to use all my concentration on my first sketch with raw umber on this canvas. When I stood back I gasped: it was beautiful. I am still trying to keep the life and energy in the painting, and find myself wondering if I should have left the original sketch alone. But, it is too late for that, better to make the best of what I have before me. As I remind my art students: if you created it once, you can do it again.