“A Father’s Blessing”
Painting emotionally: how much can an artist afford to invest of herself in each portrait commission? That was the subject under discussion in the high school art class I taught one Thursday afternoon at Art on Broad Atelier. Since one of my students was painting a watercolor, another an oil, I wanted to teach things that bridge both media.
I think I had just explained what a mood sensitive medium watercolor is: in fact, if you’re not feeling appropriately sassy, just don’t begin a new watercolor that day. Even in painting oils, how you are feeling about yourself transmits when you paint. That is a separate issue from, yet connected with, another emotional factor. How do you transfer emotion to the painting you are working on?
Then my first commission sprang to mind: a portrait of my grandmother for my daddy. Daddy had always talked to me about learning to paint oils, and wanted me to buy transparent oils to tint photographs, in case, as he said, “I would ever have to make a living for myself.” Now my dad was very forward thinking, especially if you consider he was born in 1891. He referred to a man he knew in Toast, North Carolina, where my father was born, Bob Watson. Bob Watson evidently was highly in demand as a photographic portrait colorist, the profession my father envisioned for me.
My artistic talent had been enough to receive some notice through the years, and so my mom and dad had bought me a correspondence art course. I had made something like a “95” on a picture I drew for “Draw Me” ads put out by Art Instruction Schools in Minneapolis. I had studied a concentration of foundational fine art courses at Queens University (then College) and sculpture at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Anyhow, all that evidently gave Dad enough confidence to commission me one day on a visit home from abroad to paint a portrait of his mother.
He approached me very seriously, a small, framed photograph in his hands. “My mother was very beautiful,” he said. I stared at the photograph and for the life of me could not see the ‘beautiful’ part, but I listened attentively. “Yes, I want you to paint her portrait. Take your time; I want it to be good. I will pay you one hundred dollars, and I’ll give it to you up front.” He handed me the hundred dollars.
One hundred dollars might not sound like a lot, but for me, on my first commission, it was a princely sum, and it felt like magic, conjuring up a face with paint and getting hard cash for it. I was living in Germany at the time, but had not yet taken the Old Masters courses I would later. So I began carrying out the commission, getting paint, brushes, canvas, and setting up the painting spot.
“Beautiful, beautiful,” the words rang in my head as I proceeded to paint her face, her bust. I kept at it, adding tones demanded by the photograph, faithfully. Finally, I had something, but, alas, it was not her. What I had was someone dollish, pretty in a frothy sort of way. That was not my grandmother. Her lineage was fine, but she was mountain stock, and had lived a hard life which showed in her face. ‘Handsome’ might express her appearance better. I tried again.
I took another tack and changed angles, colors, whatnot, all the right technical things to produce the right end. Yet once again, this attempt failed. Now I was frustrated, knocked down, and finally, angry. Yes, I got angry with the paint, the brushes, the canvas, myself. “She’s not that sort of fussy pretty,” I told myself. “She is beautiful in character, a strong woman. I’ll have to paint her that way.”
Setting the canvas paper up on board, I drew the face first. Then I mixed grayed blues, near-blacks of her hair, beige skin color, and slung paint onto the canvas. Back and forth in the most energetic strokes I had ever used, I threw the strokes down, not waiting to re-think and second guess myself into tight technical precision.
Precision, perfection. My dad always spoke of his mother with near reverence. It made me nervous, but still I pushed ahead. First, the face emerged, the hair, the body. As if by magic, this woman appeared in the painting, strong, regal, a woman tempered by life and hard times, but yes, “beautiful.” Daddy would be proud. He would love the portrait of his mother.
Unfortunately, that was never to be. Before I was able to mat and frame the picture and bring it to him, he died while I was overseas. I was devastated, capsized. My father was my rock, even though admittedly, a somewhat volcanic rock. He was an emotional man who felt and loved intensely and deposited his love of painting and of poetry in me, quoting poems in French, and telling me stories about his people. And I felt that I had failed him in not getting him the finished portrait he had paid me for, not so much for the ‘hard, cold cash’ he gave me up front, but for the emotional investment it was for him.
Years later, my own children grown, I know that I was wrong to feel that way. We parents are always happy when our attempts to help launch our children succeed, even, I believe, from beyond the grave.
And so my father launched me into portrait painting with that first commission. Some days I am better than others. Still now I remember thinking, “Lord, I won’t paint long if I must get this emotional about every painting I do.” And yet, my first commission proved that emotional input harvests a better product and response from the viewer, because when it comes from the heart, it speaks to the heart.
That is why with every commission, I get to know my subjects. The better I engage them, the better the result. Yes, technical specifics convey differing emotions, but the non-technical must is the feeling and passion to portray the truth of one particular person. How can an artist NOT invest emotionally in every portrait, as though a first commission?
An artist must afford emotional investment in every single portrait–as well as other paintings.