I just finished painting a portrait that feels like the source of my previously untapped visual language. For a long time, I have been searching, seeking the story I want to tell through paint. As an art model, I hear voices of teachers speaking their own language, exerting their own ideas, often asking their students to copy their vision to learn to paint well. The result is a less technically advanced reproduction of the master.
One time in class, a student went to retrieve her painting from the drying rack, but she couldn’t remember which one was hers. Sometimes, it is impossible to tell. I see drawings of a figure, all from different angles, but they all look as though they were drawn by the same person. They are all beautiful drawings, but they are missing an individual voice.
Drawing or painting from life is useless if the artist fails to bring their own particular way of seeing or feeling to their art. Students take classes to learn technique. Hopefully after the fact, they will learn to express themselves and leave rigidity behind. But it’s not for certain. Art stands out from the mass production of images only for that very ingredient of self-expression. It’s the expansive silence amidst the endless noise. A meditation.
In Marion Milner’s book On Not Being Able To Paint she describes the process: “It now looked as if some of the spiritual dangers to be faced in this matter of coming to see as the painter sees were concerned with the transfiguration of the external world; in fact, with a process of giving to it something that came from within oneself, either in an overwhelming or a reviving flood. Also this process could be felt as a plunge – a plunge that one could sometimes do deliberately but which also sometimes just happened, as when one falls in love (Milner, 31).”
Through observing artists and students at work, I eventually came back to exactly where I started – an expressionist style that shares the inner humanity of a person, rather than our idealized perceptions of them in the broader context. It’s an empathetic exploration that can’t be achieved by painting from a photograph, no matter how hard I try when I’m not in a studio.
“One of the things that had been so dissatisfying about those deliberate drawings which were sheer copying of the object was that they had no life in them (Milner, 41).”
As far back as I can remember I have been drawing the human form. In grade school, I was obsessed with becoming a fashion designer. It was a glamorous fantasy life that I had all worked out in my head. In sixth grade, I created a book of at least twenty fashion illustrations. I still think of some of those designs today, and wish that I could wear them. But my friend bought the drawings for ten dollars, and knowing her, she probably told people that she drew them herself.
From grade school through high school I was drawing so much that I barely passed my classes. Usually I had an F all semester, right up until the last few weeks when teachers began to feel sorry for me, or didn’t want me in their class all over again. I could never hear what the homework was, or that we even had any because I was too absorbed in the drawings on the margins of my notebooks.
I made it into a small Christian college on a probationary basis. It was the first year they were offering Art as a major, and it was a disorganized and scattered program. I took Modern Art in my first year, but the professor spent the whole semester on Impressionism, and barely made it into the 20th Century. With only two weeks left, he panicked, and asked us all to pick an art movement, write a paper on it, and present it to the class. I chose Art Nouveau, which was based on the curves of an organic environment.
The art teacher was mainly a potter – vases and bowls were his passion. The other teacher was well known for his complex watercolor landscapes. I had the sense that there was very little they could teach me. I’d just come out of Advanced Placement Art in high school, and had spent the entire year previous creating a portfolio of work. I wanted to be taught things that I didn’t already know, rather than carry on an independent study at a very expensive school. So I chose fashion and writing/literature instead.
I continued to paint on my own time in my dorm room. People kept asking me to do paintings for them, usually from grainy, indistinct photos – either of them as children, or their grandchildren. Kids were the antithesis of everything I was driven to paint. There was no life experience in their faces, only an empty canvas of a life waiting to happen. When I finished the commissions, I failed at receiving an appropriate amount of pay, even to cover the cost of supplies. It was something that should have been agreed up-front, but I had an aversion to discussing anything having to do with money. In my frustration, something snapped, and I stopped doing art altogether. I felt like a sell-out – somehow, money had ruined the craft I loved.
Every now and then, I found an interesting face in a magazine and I drew it in my sketchbook, or I’d sketch faces at coffee shops. Then the day I first fell in love, I started a sketch and never finished it. Poetry began to take up all the blank pages, and writing became my new form of expression. I was pulling back the layers on my honesty, daring myself to go further and further. My stories began in paint, then they became poetry, then fiction, and then memoir.
A funny thing happened after I published my memoir. I felt horribly exposed. More naked than when I stand on the podium posing for artists. Even though I am almost finished with a second memoir, I’m not sure that I will publish it. I would like distance from the genre, except in this book blog, where I write more about my present state of mind, rather than the feelings of a past self that I no longer identify with.
The sheer amount of work that went into creating a quality book burned me out after months of twelve-hour days on editing and formatting, and designing the cover. So all summer, after the book came out, I needed some distance. During that time, there was a rumble. Posing on the stage, I began to feel intense and painful currents of envy towards all the artists who were drawing me. It felt necessary that I come back to my place on the other side of the easel – but this time, as a fully formed adult with a clear sense of vision.
It had started out subtle. In the spring I drew at a studio nearby a few times. I wasn’t sure if I would stick with it, and I didn’t have much spare time. But then I began looking at art more and more with a rather dissective tendency. I teetered-tottered between classical painting and a modern expressive style. I toyed with the abstract qualities of an artist I worked for all year. I asked myself, in the struggle to find and express a language, “What do I like to look at? What gives me a rush?”
A few of my favorite artists are Lucian Freud, Alice Neel, and Egon Schiele. These artists capture something else about our reality than what is visual to the basic eye. There is messiness, pain, scars, movement, a beating heart pulsing on the canvas. Looking at their work, you commune with the sitter by moving through their humanity. You sense their struggles. But you also feel their strength.
An excellent example of art verses mass media is Lucian Freud’s painting of Kate Moss. Towards the end of his life, she sat for him, and what resulted is a Kate we’ve never seen before. We are used to cool Kate. Perfect in her rocker-girl chic, her perpetual bed-head, the pout and the cat eyes. She is surrounded by mystery. But Freud strips that all away and shows us a person. Not a model or a celebrity or someone who’s been airbrushed too many times to count. He’s not showing us a life we desire to have. He shows us a naked, vulnerable, human being who is mortal like all the rest of us.
There are many classical painters at the school where I work, but I soon realized that their paintings left me cold. At first, their work seems incredible. Their technique is awe-inspiring. But more and more, I saw the tricks. It’s just as airbrushed as what we see in the magazines. They fuzz out the detail to give the painting a romantic feel. They exert over us an idealized view of life. It reminds me of church.
Working from a photo is a similar pitfall – a copy of a 2-dimensional flatness of light. There is very little you can bring to the table as far as expression goes. For years, I painted and drew from photos, and never really questioned it. I wasn’t aware that I had a choice. I had no idea there were so many options out there for drawing from a model. Subconsciously, I think going into modeling was an attempt to find my way back to art.
So I’ve listened to hundreds of art lectures, stared at hundreds of paintings, and have finally pinpointed exactly what I like to look at. Now came the challenge of putting that into practice.
I began to go to a studio every Friday afternoon, working from a several weeks long pose. In the last three, I developed a 9X12 portrait of the model Ifat. The first thing to be struck by is her beauty. It takes time to get past that, and analyze what it is you are actually seeing. The process becomes a breakdown of bone structure and muscle; light and shadow; and how her face moves, even in stillness. How does the color play across her skin as it peaks and valleys?
The more I began to see, the more I could see everything in everyone. Every face I look at, I am painting in my head. I am seeing the light and how it changes the face at different times of day.
This portrait feels like a major achievement for me. It went beyond the stereotypes of beauty that so often make paintings look cheesy. I stopped worrying about what could be perceived (Did I age her? Did I make her look too world-weary?) and broke it down merely into what I actually saw. Not what I think I see, but what is actually there in the present.
One difficulty that occurred was that what I saw changed week by week as Ifat’s face changed or the light was slightly different. Working from life is never static. That movement becomes alive in the artwork – at least when there is success.
Artists often feel that if they get to know the model too well, it will be harder to see them. Though drawing a person for extended periods of time, you get to know them in a way that their closest friends never will. It’s a way of knowing that has nothing to do with words.
I like to express that knowing through the face. I spent much of last year being painted as a faceless figure. The body I saw was a body I don’t fully identify with – the faceless woman body. There is something objective about it, without the face to give the body a story. The paintings have more to do with composition and sense of space than with the actual person posing as the figure. It’s a different philosophy than what I personally identify with in my need to create.
As a writer, I feel that great art is not complete without a narrative. It might explain why I would rather visit artist’s studios, and hear their process, rather than go to sterile galleries with nothing of the person there to explain their work. I like to see what books the artist is reading, and what they have tacked up on the walls. I like to see how they arrange their palette, what colors they choose, what brand of paint, what mediums. If it’s an abstract piece, I want to hear the story of how they layered grey over red over black to give the piece a depth that the average observer would never notice without the explanation.
Painting the figure is a narrative of my own life – how I’ve seen the world through every phase, every decade. I started out looking for people who could teach me something through their faces. I am returning to the beginning.
From the start, I was more essentially myself than what I give that undeveloped age credit for. The artists I love now are the same ones I loved then. There are sketches from those early years that I’d be hard-pressed to achieve now. All through those twelve years of not painting, I knew that I would come back to it someday. My style now is different, and yet the same. Though, I’ve learned so much in the past few years.
I don’t know if I will ever have a gallery show, or where my love of painting will lead. Paintings of Ifat are taking over the living room. She appears over and over wherever I draw or paint, as the beacon for my new eyes. Eyes I always had, that could never quite see in this way before. Art has always brought me something more than I thought I was capable of. It’s so important, leading us to a greater capacity of self, empathy, understanding – a heightening of the senses taking us beyond where we thought we could go.