The other day I saw an older man on the streetcar with pale age spots on his face. He seemed to be a regular kind of guy, looking intently out the window so that he didn’t miss his stop. When I got home, I did a quick sketch and then finished the portrait by digitally colouring it. I couldn’t remember his eyes or his mouth, or really anything about him except that he was balding and had age spots. And maybe a nose that was a little bulbous at the end. I was working quickly and intuitively.
It was a surprise to see what came out – something more sinister than what I thought I saw on the streetcar. Or maybe just more damaged. Makes me wonder where images come from. Did my subconscious sense something that wasn’t visible to the eye? Or was it my mood at the time that I worked on this (not that I remember anything unusual about it), or something in my environment – some stress, some news item – that influenced how the portrait turned out? I don’t have answers, but since I do portraits from impressions or from my imagination (as opposed to using sitters), I might start paying a bit more attention to this.
This week, I discovered the delightful work of American painter, poet and designer, Florine Stettheimer (1871 – 1944) at a nicely curated show at the Art Gallery of Ontario.
I took a lot of photos, but have posted only a few here – self-portraits and a couple of the charming scenes she painted of her family and New York society.
Florine was wealthy and chose not to engage with the commercial side of the art world (probably a choice many artists would make if they could afford to). For more information about her, this post from Artnet News is interesting.
I’m struggling with self-portraits. The root of the problem seems to be that I don’t actually ‘see’ myself – the curve of my eyebrow looks nondescript, my mouth is generic, my eyes seem to shape-shift. Careful pencil drawings haven’t given me results that ring true so I decided to try making loose, quick ink sketches. I thought this might help me find a more intuitive way of seeing and allow me to capture some inkling of myself. The results:
Maybe in some future years, after I’ve put in more hours, dug deeper, learned to see better, this approach will work, but for now, it still doesn’t bring me any closer to making a self-portrait. And there might be another lesson here, one that has more to do with not always being in the background and half-hidden. Maybe in order to see myself, I have to want to be seen!
My daughter was looking at daily sketches I’d done over the past few months and said, “You see the world in a dark way.”
“Really?” I asked. Her observation came as a surprise.
I saw the worn clothes and bundled possessions of the woman in this sketch. But what I was most struck by was her pleasure. She was lost in the moment with her ice cream, her eyes half closed. It seemed she was letting the world disappear for a while, allowing her surroundings – a deserted strip of storefronts by the transit terminal – to soften and fade. What I saw was her pleasure, what I imagined was her as a child, what I felt was a little hope. Because she was having a moment of grace in what was obviously a difficult time in her life.