Accidental Portrait Painter

Painting portraits was never something that I thought I would be doing, and it took a bit of coaxing for me to try it. But now that I have, I must say that I love doing it. Painting people is inherently challenging because there are real expectations that it should look like the subject. Duh!! But when you succeed, it can be an amazing experience for the artist and the client.


Great Uncle Jack

Uncle Jack and Tia were like grandparents to my beau. His relationship with them was closely bonded over root beer floats and lots of time spent together.  Having never had children of their own, they doted upon their niece's two boys with generous helpings of love and guidance throughout their lives.

When I met Uncle Jack, he was 94 years old. He had suffered a stroke years earlier but still had an immense sense of pride in his home, his appearance,  and his family. His wife, whom we all call Tia, was often his spokeswoman, since words were sometimes difficult for him. At 93 years old, she peppered our first conversation with shared experiences, questions and a few self deprecating jokes. With her mental acuity, I found her truly inspiring....she was such a firecracker!  I immediately liked them both.

I was quite moved when I got the call that Uncle Jack had died. Shortly after, my partner asked me if I would paint a portrait of him to be displayed at the memorial. I remember having reservations. There was not a lot of time, only a week (although I admittedly work well under pressure). I was afraid of it not looking right and disappointing the family. He assured me that it did not matter if it was perfect.  I had very little experience, having only painted still life, collages and only a few figures with very little detail. But, with his gentle pushing, paired with loving encouragement, he wore down all of my arguments until I agreed.

He sent me a small photo in an email, which I printed out and taped to the side of my easel and began to paint. Normally, I don't take photos of my painting process, but because he was out of town (helping the family with arrangements) I took a few to keep him updated of the progress, which I am sharing here:

In the beginning, I sketch on the canvas with a small paintbrush to make the initial layout. I then fill in the outlines with some color,  using a lot of water in a wash technique. I make sure to indicate something in the background, even if it's only a wash of color.


This is the moment to step back and look for proportion problems. I realized that his face was too thin, his ear was too long and the glasses were rounded too high at the top. You will notice that I shortened the ear with a dark brown to be painted over later.


The final version. I added blue to the background to bring out the blue in his eyes. You can see I covered the brown paint on the ear with dark blue. I needed to get that depth of dark areas in his hair and under the lapel. Because of the white in his shirt and hair, I decided to keep some of the background showing, keeping the left side more 'detailed' and the right side less so.


The make or break part of any portrait is the eyes. We communicate with eye contact, and in a portrait we need to find that same familiarity in looking into the eyes. The true test was Tia. As a woman in mourning, it was expected that she would cry when we gave it to her, and she did. She missed her husband dearly and was overwhelmed with being alone after 65 years of marriage. All day long at the memorial people kept telling me that I was very talented and wanted to know how much I charge for portraits? Um.........I wasn't really prepared for that. I had no idea at that moment, but with such praise and encouragement, it gave me a reason to figure it out.

The unexpected surprise was that Tia keeps the portrait on her mantle and says it makes her feel like he is with her still. It gives her immense comfort and she looks at it every day. She said, "the painting is better than any picture because of the way you captured him. His eyes, smile, and favorite shirt make the picture come alive." That is the ultimate compliment. I had no idea that I could have such a positive impact on someone's life with a painting. Thank you Tia. It was my pleasure. This is what makes me want to do it again........maybe for you!