Easel Words

Your face is new to me. May I paint it? I’m intrigued by the unique set of your features, styled with such conviction by hereditary happenstance.  I’m drawn to the expressive depth conferred by the passage of time and lived experience, and by the animating impulse of your thoughts.

I’ll give an honest account, if you don’t mind, not because you deserve credit or blame, but because I’d be squandering your presence by straying from what I see.  Rest assured my observations will be tempered with sympathy as I too find myself wearing a face that I neither designed nor chose, but with which I helplessly identify.

I respect your personal space, so I’m not at all tempted to examine you with a microscope or telephoto lens. I might be denying myself the scintillating wonders of broken capillaries and oily follicles, but your psychological dimension is not, I’m quite sure, sequestered there.  When the caricaturist Max Beerbohm wrote, it is ‘when (and only when) my caricatures hit exactly the exteriors of their subjects that they open the interiors, too.’ he used ‘hit’ for its implied brevity, rather than ‘trawl’ or ‘scour’.  Brevity is the soul of wit, and the chemical peel pedantry of the photo-realists illustrates the corollary.   

But you share this space with me in real time, and to convey that on-going presence I should guard against being too glib or cursory. If my Scottish art schooling has taught me anything, it is that superficial markers of painterly expertise, like the all-too-knowing peripheral flourish or the eye-catching autograph, should be strangled at birth. Humility before the subject is the correct attitude.

Fortunately, humility is no mere posture. I find it infusing my perceptions as I engage with the light that models the planes of your face. All content, inward and outward reveals itself as a pattern of visual facts, suggestive, to the practised eye, of passages of paint on canvas.  Selecting and gathering the most salient of this information is a task of channelled excitement and concentration.

And salience is a question of artistic preference. Choices have to be made. Like everyone you have facial idiosyncrasies that a skilled caricaturist could distil and exaggerate, creating a realer-than-real, grotesque likeness. But I notice that in this light I’m really not perceiving the isolated forms etched in that way. The truth of the light on you here and now is more surprising to me, and demanding my attention, even if it partially obscures your trademark look. The way you connect with your surroundings is an intriguing puzzle, and there’s less separation and more interplay than I first noticed. Positive and negative shapes lose their distinct status, and the two-way process of tying you in and carving you out brings fleeting hints of the tangible realism that is my goal.

Thank you for your time. The work is, as always, a crashing disappointment. I was definitely in the zone, but I can see where I lost it. There’s always tomorrow.

Published in The Jackdaw, Sept/Oct 2013

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