Portrait Painting as an Act of Love

Nina, Oil on canvas (2006)

When I was doing research for my MA thesis paper on portraiture, in 2003, I came across a story by Pliny the Elder.  It was about the invention of drawing/painting.  A Corinthian maiden traced the profile of her lover using charcoal and the shadow of his face on a wall.  He was about to depart for war, and it was a way to remember him by.

Martin, Oil on canvas (2004)

While I was at Banff, I was thinking a lot about love and art.  I thought about my practice of portrait painting and how I understood it as an act of love.  In my art practice, I work in two veins: personal and public.  There are the personal portraits of friends, family and loves; and there are the pop culture paintings of people.  In this instance, I am talking only about the personal portraits, not portrait commissions or the pop culture “public” paintings.  When painting a portrait of someone I am familiar with and close to, it is an intimate act.  When there is love, whether it is platonic or romantic, that goes into the painting; this can also become a very sensual act as well.  I will spend hours looking at the portrait subject’s face, both through the photograph I am working from as well as the painting I am creating.  Looking into one’s eyes, studying every line of one’s face; the shape of the eyes, nose, and lips; and how the hair falls just so.  From stroking and feeling every curve on the face to touching the lips with the paintbrush and slowly smoothing the paint over until the expression on the lips is caught perfectly, I will spend hours and weeks focused on this one person.  And I do not paint at arm’s distance.  The amount of detail that I put into a painting requires that I be physically very close to the surface of the painting while I’m working.  The entire process is not unlike the intimacy of studying a lover’s face.

Beth I, Oil on wood (2006)

Painting a portrait, for me, is a very personal and intimate act.  I only paint those that I like or love.  Why would I choose to paint someone I disliked or hated – to have to look at them daily and invest so much emotion and time would be like torture for myself.

Nicky (The Arbutus), Oil on linen (2008)

And for this reason, that portrait painting is a loving act, sometimes I have been confused when the subject doesn’t understand it that way and can only see the superficial aspect of the representation and are not happy with the final result because they do not think they look “beautiful”.  It hurts me as friend/love/family member more than as an artist, because to me, it is such a personal investment and an act of love. 

Grace (Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am), Oil on board (2008)

If I choose to paint your portrait, it is because you are beautiful to me.

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