I just got back to Boston and spent the day putting the studio back in order. It’s exciting and the space looks so shiny and new. I’ll post some pictures later in the week, but in the meantime, I thought it might be interesting to look at one of my past paintings and talk about how I made it.
This painting (pictured) was, in the parlance of Oprah, an “a-ha” moment for me. I painted this in early 2002 during my first year of grad school. For a good number of years, I focused primarily on self-portraiture. This was borne from a love of figure painting and a need to paint from life. It is difficult for me to work from a model because I paint at odd hours and I get feelings of guilt, like I’m wasting their time or something. It’s a feeling that is as irrational as it is genuine.
In response to a suggestion from my major professor, I changed how I made this painting. Up to this point, I would begin most compositions with a rough, Cubist-like sketch on the canvas. I would then build up the image slowly, sometimes over a series of days (this is, in fact, how many painters make their work). My advisor challenged me to make a self-portrait in a single sitting. So I sat down, looked in the mirror, and just began to paint. Instead of sketching out the shape of my head and the placement of my features, I began the painting at the center of my nose. Instead of “filling in” the sketch, I looked at the contiguous planes of color and light on my face. I worked from the inside out, rather than the outside in. What made this painting my “a-ha” painting was that it taught me the difference between a painting and a drawing. For the first time, I was utilizing the properties of paint in the best possible manner; I was painting light rather than placing lines. I looked for shifts in value to construct the whole painting. Rather than painting a nose, I painted planar shifts that together created a nose. By focusing on shifts of light, I was able to paint the eyes and the lids simultaneously. Painting from the inside out allowed me to feel as though I naturally came to the edges of my face and hair. I made this painting in a single sitting, and it took me approximately four hours.
This painting is by no means a flawless one. There are a ton of “mistakes” that I would have normally fixed, most notably the flatness of the shadows and some anatomical drawing issues. But it’s better to keep the mistakes visible than to forget what you need to be mindful of in the next painting. I loved this painting and I learned so much from doing it. I had it hanging in my house until last year when I gave it to the person who really made it happen, my major professor from graduate school.