My One and Only Self-Portrait ~ Bill

Self-portraiture is a great way to hone your portrait skills because you always have someone to pose for you.  All you need is a mirror.  In college, I had an art teacher who told his students to bring in a variety of pictures to class, including pictures of us.  We didn’t know what was coming.  We had just completed painting miniatures and in order for us to get a feel for working in a variety of sizes, our next project was going to be a mural size dot drawing!  A six by eight foot dot drawing using a black magic marker!

Our teacher picked each students' photo for them, knowing what composition would blow-up well.  For one female student he picked a face of a tiger.  I could definitely see that looking really cool enlarged.  When it came to me he happened to pick out a picture of me wearing a cowboy hat that my girlfriend Jen had taken.  Oh no, I thought to myself.  I was going to spend the rest of the semester working on a mural size portrait of myself!  For a relatively shy person I thought how bad this would look to everyone around me.  The EGO! 

He had us use a projector to blow-up the picture on a huge sheet of white paper.  We drew a very fine pencil outline and from there it was one dot here and one dot there.  Hours upon hours of pointillism to create in the end what became a very realistic huge portrait of ME!

It was one of the most memorable albeit embarrassing art challenges I experienced in college.  It turned out to be one of my best works.  But what was I going to do with a mural size drawing of myself? 

For years, Bill was rolled up in a long cardboard box and traveled with us wherever we moved.  For a number of years, my brother displayed him in a large vaulted room in his home in Colorado.  I was flattered that he loved his brother so much that he could live with a bigger than life size version of me day in and day out. 

When he moved he no longer had room for Bill’s hugeness. I think the reality was that maybe my brother’s girlfriends found it odd.  :-)  Bill was now back in the box. 

Finally, I realized Bill had to go.  I would never hang him.  He couldn’t ever be seen again.  Big Bill ended up in many tiny pieces!  All that work was now in the trash.

I do admire self-portraits by others though.  Van Gogh instantly comes to mind.  He painted dozens of them.  I recently admired a self-portrait done by a friend and modern master Ryan Bonger. It is a worthy exercise for artists and many great self-portraits hang in the most prominent and important museums.    

Just not mine! 

My Brief Modern Art Period ~ I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold

In 1928 the famous American painter Charles Demuth painted I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold.  In 1978 the unknown student artist William R. Beebe (me) was at the University of Maryland taking a painting class in which the teacher made everyone paint a modern art painting.  I chose to copy Charles Demuth’s number 5 painting, representing a fire engine racing down a busy city street on a rainy night. 

Fast-forward to the year 2012.  I just dusted off my Number 5 painting after pulling it down off the shelf in the garage.  For some reason I have held onto this painting over the years.  It has been in either the basement, the garage or the attic of every house we’ve lived in for the last 33 years of marriage!  “Why have I kept it” I ask myself.

When I look at it to me it represents what my parents must have felt roughly 56 years ago on the night that I was born.  I was born at home during an ice storm in the middle of the night and the only way the Dr. could make it to my parent’s house was aboard the Glen Echo fire truck, perhaps engine number 5!  This might explain why I chose to paint it but my explanation for why I chose to hold onto this early student oil painting is less sentimental and more representational.

I remember the challenge of the composition.  I remember the difficulty of painting many straight edges in oil paint.  I remember the difficulty of painting perfect curves.  I remember painting the various shades of blacks and grays and I remember my early attempts at glazing in order to create transparency. 

Most of all, I remember this painting as a kind of breakthrough for me.  Working through the above challenges made me feel like I had a better handle on working in oil paint.  It gave me some confidence.  I remember several fellow students asking me "how did you do this" and “how did you do that”?  It made me feel like I was improving as a painter. 

The cubist painting I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold painted by Charles Demuth was a tribute to a friend of his the poet William Carlos Williams. Demuth was known as a Precisionist, one who uses mechanistic objects for subject matter.  His painting now resides in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and mine resides in our garage up on a shelf. 

Every ten years or so I pull it out, look at it and appreciate how it helped me gain confidence in my painting skills and then I put it back in the garage.  The abstract painting of the city of Baltimore at night that I attempted in the same class wasn’t quite so lucky.  It never saw the light of day!  LOL!!!