Thursday, February 6, 2014

Portraits for the New Year

     Since the start of the New Year I've been working on a few portraits of my family. While I was trained as a figurative artist, it's been awhile since I've taken on paintings like these. At Syracuse University, I drew from the model 3-4 times a week, painted dozens of portraits, and worked on large figurative compositions. This continued after graduation, where I slowly starting incorporating the figure into different kinds of spaces, focusing on how this could contain a narrative, with symbolic meaning. Eventually, concerns about space and atmosphere took over and the figure disappeared; I shifted my interests to the landscape. Periodically I will draw portraits in my sketchbooks, but these new paintings are more sustained and concentrated efforts. The whole project started in preparation for a large family portrait that I wanted to give my wife for her 40th birthday this year. I figured I would start with individual portraits before jumping into a large scale figure composition. I think of these paintings not only as studies for that project, and as portraits that stand on their own.

oil on linen, 9" x 12"
     This first one is a painting of my youngest son, Griffin. He was about a year old at this point, and the painting is based on a photograph I took of him. With all of these portraits (at least the kids), I had to use a photograph as a starting point for practical reasons. But, I also wanted to utilize one of the powers that photography possesses: freezing a moment in time. With these, I captured that instant when somebody turns to look at you, before the self-conscious realization that they are going to be photographed.  Although a photograph was used as the starting point, gradually through working with the paint, it merged with the struggle to manipulate a surface, form, and color.

oil on linen, 12" x 18"
      The next one in the series is my oldest son, Jasper. The photo I took of him somehow captured a moment of transition; from a boy to a young man (he's 9 now). There's a look of confidence and cockiness here, and I can get glimpses of the man he will eventually grow into. I had this photograph on my computer and initially was going to crop it into the actual image that you see on the screen. I started painting it for a few sessions, with the computer propped up on my desk, working from what was on the screen. (If I do need to work from a photograph, I actually prefer using this method. Rather than a photographic print, where the color and light can flatten out, the back lit computer image is much brighter and crisper.) As I was painting, I began to wonder why I felt the need to cover my tracks, so to speak, with the computer reference...why not put the actual source material that's in front of me, into the painting? Not only was I creating this 'frame within a frame' composition, but by incorporating the computer in the painting, it began to reference our (my) collective use of computer mediated imagery in general, and more specifically, Jasper's immersion in the world of video games, IPhones and screen time.

oil on linen, 18" x 22"

     The next one is a painting of my wife sitting in my studio. I still consider it in progress, but I think I'm close to resolving everything. I've tried to do a few paintings with this long hallway in it before, but somehow none of them clicked, until now. Perhaps, all I needed was a person to anchor the space. I like how her head is framed by various sized rectangles: the large covered door on the right, the painting of our former house in Brooklyn above her head, and the deep receding space at the end of the hall to the left. That long, deep space down the hall, lit with a warm yellow glow from within, becomes the metaphor for her deep in contemplative thought. She becomes the still point in the composition, the anchor that holds all the patterns, lines and edges together. Also, the slight tilt of my head as I'm painting, not only echoes her posture, but funnels everything towards her face and down that hallway.
     I've yet to start the last painting of my daughter, but I've done a few pencil drawings of her in my sketchbook. Here's a few: