One of my first formal portraits was of my father, done while still in college. I worked from an 8” by 10” black and white photo of him, taken by a professional photographer for business purposes. It was a pretty good picture of Dad and it seemed to fit into what little I knew at the time about portraiture through studying Thomas Eakins, Gilbert Stuart, John Singer Sargent, Rembrandt, and other portrait artists in Art History class. One of the main characteristics of formal portraiture for hundreds of years has been to only indicate a slight suggestion of a smile, which is what the portrait artist Paul Emsley chose with his already famous portrait of Kate Middleton.
I was a student working from a black and white photograph. Usually the more reference material the better. I struggled like most beginners with glazing layers of paint to create translucent skin tones. I struggled with how light and how dark to make the sides of the face. My teacher helped a little but looking back it was quite limited instruction due to the times. Modern art was much more prevalent and realism discouraged. Certainly, working from a black and white photo created obvious difficulties with creating realistic skin tones.
Knowing the subject so well, I was quite self-critical of likeness. I knew from my pencil study drawing that I had done for preliminary work that I had all of his features down pretty close and that it definitely looked like him. So would it all translate into paint???
The answer is…. I somewhat finished the class project, never signing my name because I knew I could make it much better, someday! I can remember showing it to my Mom for the first time. She was very pleased, sentimentally mostly :-), but I can still hear her saying “It looks like him but there is a little something about the lips that isn’t quite right”. I agreed but wasn’t quite sure how to fix them. All I had was that photo. It was supposed to be a surprise for Dad, so I couldn’t have him pose for me.
Then I showed it to my Dad. All I can remember him saying is “Wow, who knew that a kid of mine would ever become an artist!” He was flattered that I chose to paint him and he seemed to like it!
Dad passed away just two short years later. Well, for over thirty years now I’ve had the portrait of Dad in the attic, the basement, and the closet of many different homes. It’s withstood cold weather, hot weather, storage, dust, dirt, etc… but a few years ago I put it in my studio closet with the dream of finishing it one day. Or at least making it so that I could have it out and look at it without cringing!
I am going through a period where I really enjoy painting people and trying to capture a likeness. I’ve completed a number of portraits over the years and I would like to paint many more. I thought that by now maybe I could look at my old portrait of Dad, see more clearly what needs improving, make a few touches and be happy enough to bring it out of the closet.
Here is the pencil study that I did in college in preparation for the oil painting. It has survived the same inclement conditions as the painting, and is no worse for the wear!
So as I write, I have started back working on my college portrait painting of my Dad. I’m still working from that same black and white photo, but I’ve scanned it and can now blow it up much larger on my computer screen. I’m scrutinizing every little facial characteristic that made Dad look like Dad.
Hopefully, soon I’ll be able to unveil the updated version of my painting to all of you. I’ve already made it worse and now better! :-) I’m all consumed with the dream of finishing my father.
Dad always said “If you are going to do something, do the best you can.” I don’t want to let him down. It may not be the best I can do, but I’m much happier with it now. Hopefully he is looking down and has a much bigger smile on his face!!!!