I don’t know how long it’s been. Maybe a week, but I don’t think it’s been that long.
I attempted to do something I had neither the skill nor the experience to accomplish. Once I started, I felt as though another hand had taken control of my own.
I wanted to paint a selfie I had taken of myself with my cat, Hermione, who passed away last month. In this picture, Hermione is very prominent; I can be seen in the background, and only in shadows.
There were a number of reasons I didn’t think I could pull it off:
- My only previous attempt to paint a cat had failed miserably.
- I’ve never been good at painting anything in shadows. In fact, I stink at anything dark; a friend once called me a member of the Kodachrome School of painters, since everything I produce looks like a flash cube exploded in front of it.
- In order to paint this in any size bigger than a post-it note, I was going to break a cardinal rule of portraiture: never paint your subjects larger than life size.
- In the original picture, there were certain details I could not make out: my left eye, the left border of my nose, the actual contour of my chin. My right eye was nothing but a shadowy smudge. My lips were visible, but nearly colorless. Only my glasses showed up in any great detail.
Common sense should have told me to chuck the whole idea, but I decided to go ahead and paint the picture.
Normally, at the start of a portrait, I cheat. I put the original photograph into Power Point, and project a table on top of it, so I can graph out the details. Then I draw a graph on the canvas, and proceed to draw the picture, using the fields in the graph as a rough guide, so I don’t make noses too big, or eyes too far apart. It’s not a foolproof method… my fields are big enough to allow for approximation… but it’s a help.
This time, I did my preliminary sketch, but I was so afraid to put paint on canvas that I kept adding more and more detail. Soon, the shadows and values of the pencil drawing were so developed that they resembled a detailed grisaille. Instead of covering my pencil drawing in black and white paint, I just covered it with a coat of liquid medium and decided to go right into color.
I swear I felt as though a greater power were speaking to me, and guiding me as I started painting my face.
“Paint the lights and shadows. Don’t think about the forms. Look for the darkest shadows. Where do they fall? Paint them in. What colors do the shadows produce? Are they purple? Reddish? Blue? Don’t make them pretty. Make them real.”
“Now for the lights. Which ones shine brightest? Which are more subtle? How do they flow?”
I didn’t look to see whether a particular ray of light belonged to my nose or my cheek… I painted it as a beam, as an active streak of energy. I saw shapes not as they corresponded to physical features, but as they resulted from the interaction of lights and shadows.
When I started painting my glasses, I suddenly saw how very little of the gold appeared yellow. It reflected light, and looked much more silvery than I would have expected. Even the little rubber nose guard had a light play of its own; it’s the kind of detail I would normally not have even seen, let alone incorporated into the picture.
I don’t know how long it took me to cover “my side” of the canvas with paint… but when I was done, I stepped back and I was floored.
It was me. Without detailed eyes, I could see exactly where my figure was looking. Without definition, I had captured the contours of my nose… my chin. I could make out the bone structure under my brows, the muscles above my lips.
It was the best damned portrait I had ever painted in my life… and all I had concentrated on was the simple play of lights.
Painting Hermie was simple and quick. Much of her face was white, but the front of it had a warm tone, and her cheeks were bluer. I was able to achieve these effects with an underpainting, then slashed on pure titanium white on top to suggest the growth of actual fur. Her tabby markings were easy; I just loaded a fan brush with white, black, yellow ochre and burnt umber, and the colors mixed themselves right on the canvas.
The only feature which I painted deliberately and consciously was Hermie’s eye; I followed the lights and shadows that appear in the original picture, but made the color much more vibrant, as I remember it. The effect worked; Hermione’s eye is unmistakably the focal point of the picture.
The entire painting was completed so quickly and with so little paint that if you look closely, you can still see some of the graphite grid marks hiding under the pigment.
Am I going to add paint to correct that?
I wouldn’t dare. I didn’t paint that picture; Someone Else did, manipulating my hands as surely as I manipulated the brushes.
I spent at least a day staring at the picture, and asking myself, “what have I learned?”
The answer was simple. “Follow the flow of light.”
Don’t paint static shapes, or figures.
Paint the movement of the lights.
It’s just like when I studied acting.
You don’t act “words.” You act “action.” Movement. What is your character DOING? How and why is your character DOING the action of the moment?
The revelation came.
Art is action.
Action is energy.
I went back and looked at the paintings I had produced two weeks ago, and compared them to the photographs from which they’d been sourced.
I was appalled.
In painting what I thought should be there, instead of what the camera had actually captured, I’d thrown four cartoons on canvas, instead of four people I really love.
The painting of my son was the worst, and I realized it when I looked at the ray of light on the bridge of his nose. The actual ray of light had been angled; by painting it straight, I had not only misrepresented the shape of his nose but its length.
I also saw that I’d completely left out the ray of light over his upper lip; to put it in, I’d have to raise his moustache and shorten his nose, confirming what the previous ray of light had revealed.
Next to him, my boy Derek looked better, but his hairline was wrong and his cheeks were too dark. Also, he looked bearded; Derek should have nothing more than a shadow, a stubble. You should see hair trying to grow in, not asking to be cut.
It took me two days to rework them, but this is what I have now:
Then I proceeded to “fix” my daughter and her husband.
Ben’s nose wasn’t right. It looked cartoonish, like a little potato. His eyes weren’t right either; they were SO defined that he seemed to be wearing eyeliner. Amanda had fared better, but her head was too round, her forehead too short, and her lips were too dark; this is a girl who puts on Chapstik and feels like a painted lady.
Again, I went back and looked for the lights. Not only did Ben need a light above his upper lip; he needed an upper lip! In the original picture, you could see it vaguely under his moustache; evidently, I had just plopped dark hair under his nose and proceeded to fuss about his teeth.
In order to give him a lip, I had to raise his nose, and noticed two things I hadn’t seen before: he had the tiniest reflection of light on the side of his nose, which defined its width, and he had a very specifically shaped shadow surrounding his nostrils, which gave orientation to his face.
His eyes were too big, and the area surrounding them had neither shadows nor creases; by concentrating on the light play, I was able to paint features which were much more realistic, and infinitely more attractive.
It took two days to get them to where they are now.
I think I’m finished with these three paintings.
Churchill once said it took two people to paint a picture, one to do the work, and someone else to say, “Stop messing with it!” I’m hoping to hear that voice; I’m tired of waking up at three and thinking, “the right cheek needs a glaze of umber.”
Also, I miss writing!
I bought a few more canvasses yesterday and a couple of good brushes, but I’m scared to death to start on any new pictures. Painting is so all-encompassing, and I’m so bloody obsessive!
But I’d hate to quit now, just as I’m finally getting better.
And there’s something transformative about connecting with your muse.