I have always loved painting people, and dream of having a big wall of portraits of all my most beloved friends and family, painted lovingly by me, capturing their personalities as I see them in colors to match their individual wonderful selves.
Maybe this is a lofty goal in some ways. It is also a very problematic one.
I assume other artists surely run into this dilemma: Many times when the artist makes a portrait, the sitter flat-out doesn’t like it. They ask for it to be hidden, never shown to anyone. Or, they decline to be represented, either because they aren’t comfortable being looked at, or because of the carefully-curated mask I will elaborate on here.
Lately I have some serious artistic self-esteem problems and thus have trouble accepting criticism in my artwork. But regardless of how I am feeling overall that’s always been a difficult thing for me—putting a lot of effort into painting not a direct photographic representation, but a personality and a mood, and having it flatly rejected.
I am not a photorealistic painter. I like to tone the canvas into a lovely gradient, sketch in paint, then paint alla prima in as few sessions as possible to try to develop a certain energy and mood in my work. Thus, “not a direct photographic representation”… and that is the crux of the problem, I believe.
We live in a world of digital photography. And individual can use his or her camera or smartphone or webcam to take multiple pictures without worrying about wasting film. You can take a hundred pictures of yourself if you want, each from a slightly different angle, choose the one you feel makes you appear most attractive in a societally-acceptable sort of way, and delete all the others.
We also live in a world of social media. We curate our entire lives to make them appealing, or even “perfect”, to individuals we may not even know—and most importantly, to ourselves. In this world we never fight with our spouse; our party turned out just the way we wanted it to; we never slip up and yell at our kids out of sheer frustration. We edit out the part of our Bahamas vacation where we got sun poisoning and lost our luggage. We are witty, brilliant, unreal individuals, always in control.
You can see how this might present a problem for the artist, who likely represents individuals according to a particular artistic style, and as he or she views them. Suddenly the sitter sees him or herself through the eyes of another person, at an unappealing angle, in an unappealing light.
Perhaps they wanted only their “good side”, which is usually very specific and might be anything from chin-slightly-turned-up to a-few-degrees-off-of-3/4. Or maybe they wanted to be painted with a specific mood—or no mood at all, just a carefully curated mask. Maybe they wanted to be tough and were shown as vulnerable.
Thx, Cosmo and ten thousand other sites and blogs!
Another, rather unpleasant possibility of course is that I am just not that good of an artist, and they are vastly disappointed.
As such, I gave up my idea for now. I paint myself if I want to paint a figure, because really I don’t care how I look—or perhaps, sadly, I just know how to form the curated mask I have created for everyone else. I also draw and paint the myriad expressions of cats and dogs, and infuse mood into still lives. None of this is bad in the least, but I do hold onto the idea.
Life is complex and difficult. People are complex and difficult, including ourselves. I don’t understand why it’s equally difficult for us to admit it.