My Friend Tom

I had a hard time getting the colors in this portrait right. I did it in acrylic on a 15- x 22-inch sheet of gessoed 140-lb. watercolor paper. I’m not painting on that flimsy stuff any more. Watery paint kept gathering in the valleys of buckling paper. I’m beginning to prefer acid-free illustration board or 300-lb paper that will take almost anything. Canvas is good, too, but then I’m stuck with the format–I can’t crop out anything if the composition doesn’t work. And sometimes it’s fun to run some pastel over things, which I doubt would hold well on canvas.

I took my finished portrait over to show Tom this morning and he was, as I’d hoped, highly amused. Anyone who knows Tom would recognize him here, and just that I find pretty funny.

Life on the Toadtanic is part of a series I’m doing celebrating friends (and maybe me). (Click on the picture to enlarge it.)

On a Portrait Roll….

I did this one in two days. The first day I drew it and started painting it with acrylics. Then I quit because I didn’t like what I saw and didn’t know how to fix it. Yesterday, I tried again. I got out a box of pastels which I’ve only used a couple of times in years and I colored right over the acrylic, which I’d painted over a coat of gesso on a cold-press watercolor paper block. Wow. There was plenty of tooth to catch the pastels but leave exposed a rich texture of acrylic. I didn’t know you could do this, mix media this way, but it worked. I was able to capture John’s likeness really well from a picture I took when he and Carol took me out on their sailboat on the Saginaw Bay last summer.

I showed it to them last night and I hope they liked it. It’s sometimes hard to tell and what could they say in my presence? Oh well. The bathroom is a great place to hang a painting that you like but that doesn’t quite go in the living room. I’d never be offended. Honest.

The Process of a Portrait

It began last fall when I painted a portrait of an old friend I hadn’t seen in years, using an emailed photograph. No one knew I was doing this outrageous thing that I shouldn’t be able to do. It turned out strangely well, considering it was a first and I was just playing. When a friend saw it, she asked me to do a similar portrait of the man in her life. She wanted a painting, not a coulda-been-a-photograph, although she gave me a photo to work from.

I didn’t like the photo at all: I found the values (color intensities) too similar–no good shadows to work with–and the face-front composition truly boring. It lacked tension, motion, shadow, nice shapes. I prefer taking my own photos for paintings, but this was to be a secret gift.

To get rid of too much detail and provide some shadow, I went for exaggeration–extreme contrasts–black and orange with green in the background. An artist friend who knows her stuff thought it too garish and told me how to soften the extreme green and how to mix skin tones. That first effort looked exactly like Jeff Goldbloom (Goldblum?), whom my subject resembles but isn’t him at all.

I used skin tones for my second attempt, and proper, accurate coloring. I softened the green. The values evened out. Yuk. I hated it. I couldn’t stand to look at it. Worse, it looked even less like him than my Jeff Goldbloom version. The only thing that really worked was the composition: I’d tilted the shoulders, which made him look friendly–sexy even–and provided some interesting background shapes. I gave up and left it for a couple months.

Recently, I decided to try again. I went back to my green/black/orange palette, but I added some red and turquoise to jazz it up. This version was also criticized, this time by another artist friend, who fumbled for full minutes as he searched for a diplomatic response. I should have used green for shadows, not black, he said finally. Well, it’s your style, he said. Okay, he’s right. He went to art school, for Pete’s sake. I think both my artist friends were right, that I shouldn’t have used black, although I did mix my own black from alizerin, dark hooker’s green, some ultramarine, and whatever else it took to make it look right. It’s not black out of the tube.

Anyway, I emailed a preview–this picture–to my client-friend so she would not have to deal with a shocked reaction in my presence. We’d agreed that she didn’t like it, she could pay me a cut fee, as we call it in the writing biz. I’m not sure what it’s called in the art world. I have crashed this art party and don’t know all the rules.

She raved, She really likes it. I like it too. The high contrast brings out the strength in his face and celebrates his genuinely wonderful smile. So what if he’s orange? Andy Warhol might have approved. A bonus: the high contrast gray-scales beautifully, a plus for my subject, whose picture appears regularly in the local paper.