Portrait Painting

I have recently started to take a class in portrait drawing. I get to do this because I can vaguely say that I plan to write about an artist someday. It’s all research.

Yeah right, says my husband.

To which I smile sweetly and toddle off every Thursday morning to make googly eyes at the model.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a he or a she. Old or young. Beautiful or not.

I have fallen in love with every face.

For three hours I watch and I sketch. Sometimes in charcoal, sometimes in pastels. Time disappears as I worry a line until it gets as close as I can to what I see. I look. I look. And I look again. All the time fascinated. All the time becoming more and more intrigued. And I’m coming to the conclusion that what I’m falling in love with is the stillness.

Because in that stillness you put so much of yourself.

Which is why when there are eight of us around the room at our easels trying to capture the same person, we end up with eight completely different versions.

Last week we tried to capture Carmen. She sat straight in her chair, looking to the side as if flirting with a ghost in the corner. We zeroed in on her black winged eyebrows and sensuous mouth. Even on her cold swollen nose as she sneezed delicately throughout the sitting.

Some of us worked on line, some on color, some on shading, some on likeness. (It sounds crazy in a portrait class but not everyone is fussed about getting a likeness.)

What we are doing is trying to capture her essence.  Just like I try to capture the essence of a character when writing. And I have learned so much in three drawing classes. Mainly I’ve learned to remember that it’s not what you think you see that’s key but what you actually see.

So sometimes I just look. And look and look until it becomes obvious that the nose is too long. Or the eyebrow too low. Or in my character’s case, her anger is too pat, his humor too bland. And so I have to fudge and smudge and start a fresh.

I am reminded about what Paula Rego, a painter, once said about creativity. And it applies so much to writing as well.

She said: “You have to have an idea, you see, and then you put it down. But the idea goes wrong many times, and you do that many, many different ways until one is better than the others.”

picture by giveawayboy (flickr)


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9 responses to “Portrait Painting

  1. I like this very much! What a wonderful way to be present.

    My favorite art\writing analogy is about sculpting an elephant: you get a big block of marble (first draft), and then you carve away everything that doesn’t look like an elephant (revise, edit, revise, ouch).

  2. Pingback: Writing the Elephant « Earful of Cider

  3. Paula Rego’s my hero and the class sounds great. Not nearly as interesting as horse riding, of course. But you will definitely learn all sorts of unexpected things about writing just the same….

  4. ninakillham

    Hey, Meg, Paula Rego is amazing, isn’t she? And yes, I definitely could learn a thing of two horseback riding. In fact, I’m gonna give you a call….

  5. I enjoyed these insights, Nina. Reminds me a little of when I was learning to meditate years ago. I remember the “discovery” that I was falling in love with my own breath. In looking back, it seems that was the first step to learning how to love other “unnoticed” things.

  6. ninakillham

    Thanks, Lois. I had another class today. And again was bewitched by the sitter, a guy in his 50’s. I don’t know, I think it’s something about the stillness. It’s just beautiful.

  7. I maintain as ever that every teenager should have a compulsory life-drawing class or two – it’s the only way to fall in love with imperfection in all its glory because when you capture the little sag on the eye-lid, the conical tilt of a receding lip or the slim plumpness of a finger, it is nothing short of perfection itself…

  8. ninakillham

    That’s exactly it, Trisha. It is the imperfections which make them perfect. So well put.

  9. lisa knaggs

    Nina bean! Thank you for once again describing the (almost!) indescribable! Ahhhhhh!!!!! 🙂

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