Thoughts on portraits

I have been given a gift that allows me to capture a little bit of a person’s spirit on canvas. It is a gift that I am grateful for, and that I try to share with others.

My calling to draw and paint portraits harkens all the way back to my childhood when I would beg my brother and sisters to sit still so I could draw their pictures. My younger brothers and sisters were always eager to sit for me and the older ones hated it because they knew it would take a long time. I would very methodically draw what I saw and become totally lost in my art. I would have no awareness of how much time had passed. Very early on – I’m not sure exactly when – I realized that my sketches and painting of my siblings captured their feelings.

This was very clear in a painting done by me, when I was still a teenager, of my youngest sister that was painted when she was only five. In this painting, sadness is shown in her face and her posture and it was not put there by me. It was put there by her. That is how she sat that day and most days when she was that age. She ignored the painting for many years. Then as a teenager she started claiming that she hated the painting and that it didn’t look anything like her. By that time, it didn’t. She was becoming a strong willed woman and she was leaving the sad girl behind. This painting was done as part of an assignment given to me by my mother, who is also my art teacher. She told me to do the painting with a limited color pallet. I chose to do it in yellows and browns, so that her hair would be her natural color.

When I was 15, I was already very confident about my art skills and I made the decision that it was appropriate for me to win the grand champion ribbon for art at the County Fair. A success plan just popped into my head and it was a simple one: I would make an entry in the hardest category and just wow everyone. The hardest category must be portraits because that category always has the fewest entries. I knew that I had a winning strategy and felt the power that come with knowing something is a certainty, so I perched myself on the very top of the back of a chair pulled up in front of my bedroom mirror. From my teetering position, in less than an hour, I did a pastel self-portrait of myself in very strong colors reflecting the strength I was feeling at that moment. That self-portrait was hung very prominently at the fair, was printed in the newspaper, and as predicted, it won the grand champion ribbon. Why? Everyone recognized who the picture was of, and it was bold. It was done with fresh and bold colors, and the look of concentration on my face was a common look for me – which people recognized.

From my teen years onward, I have been aware that emotion was captured in my paintings, but I wasn’t aware of why. You see, I don’t intentionally put emotion there, I simply paint what I see. And I don’t over analyze what I am doing, as I do it. I paint for fun, and thinking too hard would take the fun out of it. That is probably why as a young adult I had such trouble painting a self portrait. I wasn’t having fun; I had great difficulty finding a pose and view that worked, and I was very much aware of my emotions.

I have painted several portraits of my daughters beginning when they were very young. I thought that I was painting only what I saw, but somehow I painted the girls as they would become. In each case, the girls look a year or two older in their portraits than they were at the time the portraits were painted. This was not intentional. Again, I just painted what I saw. Perhaps the experience of sitting for so long, gave the girls a serious look that aged them. A pleasant result of this is that the girls felt the paintings looked like them for several years after they were completed. They didn’t start asking for updated portraits for about four years.

I have always painted from life – never from photographs and I have been fanatic about this. I believe that it is the “live” in the “live” experience that gives the paintings energy and emotion. When I look at one of my finished paintings, I am instantly transported back-in-time to the day that I painted it, and I re-feel the feelings that I had on that day. Painting makes me happy and most of my paintings ooze a happy feeling as a result. But the portraits stand out. I can look at them years later and remember not only my own feelings, but some of the feelings of the person who was painted. And these people also look at the paintings of themselves and say things like “I didn’t see myself that way then. How did you know?” I didn’t conscientiously look for any emotions to add in to the work. I merely painted what I saw and often it was some time later that I saw the emotion.

The first time that I painted a portrait from photos was in 2002; I did it because I wanted to surprise a long time girlfriend with a portrait of herself. I was nervous about the outcome, because I had never done a portrait without the subject right in front of me. I did the painting relatively quickly (over the course of just a few weeks) and the paint seemed to fly onto the canvas without any problem. I became convinced that I was able to do this portrait because I knew the subject well and had known her over a long period of time. (With this success, I changed my rule about only painting live subjects. I will now paint from photos, if I am given many, many photos of the same subject and I know this person well.)

Those who have seen this portrait all think that it looks like the woman who is the subject, except the subject. She thinks it looks like possibly a relative of hers. The woman depicted, is exuding happiness and confidence and displaying a winning smile that I happen to love. This is the smile that this woman displays in conversation but not often in photos – so maybe she doesn’t recognize it. Hindsight says it probably would have been better to let her in on the secret and I should have painted her live.

I subsequently painted portraits of my grown sisters. They were painted as the women worked on projects that they could do sitting. I am pleased with both portraits and feel that they have captured something unique about each woman. The sister who was done in profile, while she worked on her computer, doesn’t recognize herself. I suspect she has never been able to see herself this way.

I have also painted a portrait of my niece (age 4) which captures the delight and enthusiasm that is often on her face, and two of the young men that I have worked with. Their portraits capture the wonderful enthusiasm that they have for life.

My own home has many portraits on the walls. The portraits give me joy and comfort. I am able to look at the portraits of my daughters and feel some of their presence even when they are not home.

Mary Kathleen Lynch
August 2006

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