Portraiture: Past Tense/Present Tense

by Alden Cole on September 23, 2017 · 0 comments

“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” – Oscar Wilde (16 Oct 1854 – 30 Nov 1900)

There’s something about a face! Like most artists, I am strongly drawn to that mask through which we earthlings view the world, particularly to the sparkle of the eyes, the sensuality of the mouth. I’ve been drawing faces since I was a kid in grammar school, even younger as a child in church. The face fills me with wonder, as well as dismay on occasion. I could write volumes about its power, to heal and to wound. How many poems have been written, inspired by a particular face, a glance, a look from the beloved? Eye to eye. The great mystery is the powerful sensation occasioned by the locking of the eyes between two people that inspires artists to attempt capturing, in whatever medium they choose, that moment when two pairs of eyes meet for the first time. And possibly linger, lost in the depths of the other for a moment of eternity.

Me, Myself & I • oil on linen, 27″ x 36″ • collection of the artist. Started in 2006, not brought to its present stage until late 2012.

PAST TENSE: In my evolving estimation of artistic values, I’ve always considered portraiture to be the ultimate art, the greatest challenge to an artist, requiring at least some level of sympatico between portrayer and portrayed. As well as a spirited cooperation between the heart, head and hand of the artist in attempting the impossible: to distill the essence of a 3-dimensional being onto a 2-dimensional surface. Perhaps sculptors have it easier? My background in portraiture is sketchy, with literally hundreds of pencil drawings, many focused on the face, done in figure workshops. I’ve also drawn a number of self-portraits over the years; and occasionally friends have sat for me. But I’ve only taken the time to paint about a dozen portraits in color over the years – portraits of self or others – including the two rather surreal profile self-portraits above and below. If you take a look at the two previous blog postings, you’ll see that I was heading into an illustrative approach to portraiture in the early 2000s. To date I have primarily used the medium of photography in this work, instead of traditional sitting sessions; but this may change.

Me & My Shadow Walking by the Seashore • oil on linen, 26″ x 36″ • collection of the artist.

A pendant painting paired with the one above, this canvas was also started in 2006, as a further statement about dual nature, but was left incomplete for a decade, reaching the present state of finish in 2016 for a show about Metamorphosis, at the Plastic Club. Both “Me, Myself and I” & “Me and my Shadow” were originally intended to be rendered in full color; in both cases I had stopped working on them in 2006 when the figures in each were flat dark-brown silhouettes with no internal definition. When I returned to them in 2012 and 2016 respectively, I realized that the definition rendered only by the thin washes of white pigment had a power to communicate my intent better than the distraction of full-color, impressive though it might be. If I ever change my mind on that score, they’re still in my possession, which means they’re subject to revision.

2006: RUA Hugger or a Pecker? • a diptych: oil on glazed masonite panels, 31″ x 19″ each * collection of the artist

I’m an artist who uses photography as a means to achieve varying degrees of compositional accuracy. I’ve been fortunate to have the assistance as well as inspiration and encouragement of a number of friends over the years who have modeled for various artworks. You know who you are, my friends. Thanks to WB and BM for making possible the painting above which hangs in a corner of my guest-room on the third floor. Like many experimental paintings done over the years, these two paintings are on panels that are definitely questionable as suitable substrates for oil painting, as their very smooth white-glazed surfaces, now brightly painted, are very susceptible to getting scratched. Treat with care!

PRESENT TENSE: Last spring I befriended JM, a neighbor who lives a few houses west on Federal Street, having met on the sidewalk shoveling snow, after the last storm of the winter, March 14. During one of our evenings of conversation I had the bright idea of painting his portrait, inspired by one of my favorite self-portraits by another great artist, the one at left by Albrecht Durer, painted in 1500, looking very Christ-like. Since my young friend also has very long hair, I asked if he would be willing to model for this project, and he consented.

Our photo session last May resulted in a series of excellent photographic portraits, from which I selected two as the most promising for trying my hand at painting a pair of portraits, using acrylics rather than oils, my first attempt using this particular
medium. It was an interesting process. At left are pencil tracings of the selected photographs, using my computer as the light-box on which to trace.
Next I GRIDDED IT UP, which is drawing a light grid over the original, that is proportionate to an enlarged grid drawn on the canvas. Thus I used the old tried-and-true method of enlargement, before camera lucidas and projected images which are then traced off at full size on the surface selected for painting, which is a more accurate modern method that has been used by illustrators and photo-realists for years.

Above and below are the two portraits, each seen in a series of progressive developments from pencil sketch to full color, plus an individual image of the
results (so far) of this experiment in portraiture, an art-form in which I still consider myself a novice. The close-up version is almost 1-1/3 times actual life size, whereas the more Durer-looking version is life size. These two portraits mark the beginning of a whole new exploration in the plastic arts for me, an artist who has always downplayed my talents. I’m beginning to accept that I’m an exceptional artist in a field that is already exceptional. WOWZA!

Mamihlapinatapai: “a look exchanged between two people, each hoping the other will initiate what both want, but neither chooses to commence.”

Check out a prior blog dated August 24, 2017: “Bakers Dozen: a Millennial Miscellany” for two early portrait experiments illustrating the Tierra del Fuegan term above, which the Guinness Book of Records lists as the “most succinct word.”

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