Portrait of the artist as a young woman

This year, I set myself a new goal – to master the art of portraiture – and so I set to it in the early weeks of January. What resulted (and this one is not of me, I hasten to add…though she is an artist) really surprised me, in more ways than one. The biggest was how much it gripped me, how it exploded my enthusiasm for painting way beyond all the heights of enjoyment I thought I had already experienced, how much I fizzed with insuppressible excitement at the opportunity for sheer perfectionism it unleashed – because portraiture is nothing if not the perfectionist’s domain.

Layer after layer, with ever-dryer brushes and strenuously steady hand, I tweaked and nurtured the minutest features of a face I knew so well, softly stroking skin to life with the subtlest hues I could muster. In the end, this skin took me aback for seeming almost beyond real, like an amalgam of all the times I’d ever looked at that face under the best possible lighting and, like Frankenstein’s creator, my insides danced with the satisfaction and audacity of it. Immediately, I felt passionately about portraiture, working on other things while layers dried but always longing to get back to that canvas. As for the background, the one that I fabricated became a narrative, a clue as to what this painting was all about.  I was already beginning to feel a personal way in to this genre.

For my second attempt, I dived into that rite of passage for any painter that is the self-portrait. At once, both the easiest and the hardest face I could ever hope to paint, I started from a very rough phone-shot that had been taken of me sat on the ground at an art fair last summer, with a pair of veiny legs and some shopping bags right behind me and a background that was far less than ideal…so I fabricated my own and, very quickly, came to realise that “my” background was telling me a story. One by one, a series of more deliberate symbols (the peacock butterfly, the particular flora and foliage I chose) meshed with entirely accidental ones that just grew out of my subconscious (the weight across my shoulder, my watchful dog against my heart, the moonstone gems, the distinct right-sided dominance and so many other things that my “accidental”composition seemed to be telling me), turning into another kind of portrait altogether – a narrative laid out in clues. At the end, I counted them all up – in fact, we made a family game of it – and there were 33 in total; an extremely meaningful number to me so how fitting could this be.

Along with the symbolic content, my particular spin on portraiture (no surprise) is to work closely with light; with the light from a person’s eyes, the glow of their skin and hair and that more elusive source of light that shines from within. Working with these subtle elements is what delivers my particular brand of joy and is what takes the potential of this kind of work way beyond the realm of photography, in my view. My instincts tell me that there is so much further that I can go with this genre and I can’t wait to begin unwrapping it further.

One of the things this painting particularly highlights and so, in my mind, celebrates, is my glowing bright-white hair…a new (and entirely natural) feature since a year ago; so, as applied to me, is the above title ironic? No, perhaps a little tongue in check but I don’t believe so. As I’ve just shared in my other blog, my decision to embrace this authentic aspect of my current physical self has been a meaningful and extraordinarily liberating step for me, one that quite literally drops me into the natural setting of this painting, somewhere I’ve been working on being in so many aspects of my ever-more natural lifestyle these past months. Tomorrow, I turn 47 and I honestly haven’t felt this youthful for a very long time (if ever, as an adult) so the colour of my hair and the number of years I’ve spent on this planet are nothing about “age” in that cultural sense of the word. Having travelled through the hardy terrain of ill-health to where I now feel as though I have arrived in the prime of my life feeling significantly better, painting myself as such felt like the seal on this and the affirmation of it. From that viewpoint, I envision the years of my life stretching out ahead of me for many decades to come; against which measure my current age, suspended in paint, is indeed “young” and I am sure I will look back at it as such in years to come.

This only goes to highlight an aspect of portraiture that has preserved it as a formidable, even mysterious genre and the ability to capture a likeness as a skillset that is taken seriously; because, deep down, we suspect that the way we choose for (or allow) ourselves to be depicted in a form that literally holds us there for a very long time can, likewise, energetically suspend us in that place too. No doubt this intuition contributed to the long-running tradition (almost superstition) that you spent whatever you could afford to have a “good” portrait carried out, one that depicted you in all your finery and with all the best trappings of your life around you, like a pharaoh immortalised with his treasure. In an attempt to be ironic or mould-breaking, modern art portraits are so often gritty and every-day real enough for me to shift uncomfortably in my seat and wonder “do they really want to be held suspended like that for all to see and for all time?” and it seems to be that photo headshots have, largely, picked up the baton of depicting our best face forwards, leaving art to play with darker and starker themes. In this case, my portrait feels authentic through and through yet there’s nothing about it that I am uncomfortable with and the setting is one that I know to be sustainable for a very long time; I have placed myself in an idyl that suits me to a tee. Since finishing that painting, and whatever else I happen to be doing, I now actually feel that, in some other dimension, I am also in my perfect patch of sunlight in a garden filled with some of my favourite things, relaxed, smiling and with my dog draped over my heart – in my element, you could say.

So, a portrait of the artist as a young woman – but which one am I talking about? Both, I suspect, and its been such an interesting journey working on these two; one that, I know, has only just begun.


 

I intend to put more time aside for portraiture soon and am also open to taking on occasional, select commission work along these lines as, unlike the inherent difficulty of painting other subjects to a client’s spec, a portrait offers a clear focal point of intention for both artist and client with scope to then develop this according to my painting style. As a rule of thumb, I would expect to have an indepth conversation about expectations then, if taken any further, to meet the client in person and to have access to a range of photographs taken in really great and contrasy light (preferably by me) in order to start work on such a project.

You can see more portraits and contact me via my website.

 

Related:

“Au Naturel” on Living your Whole Life

 

About Helen White

Helen White is a full-time professional artist (painting moments of everyday radiance in oil on canvas), a photographer, fabric designer and published writer with several blogs, on various topics, to her name. Light on Art is her art-related blog sharing recent artworks and inspiration.Living Your Whole Life is a health and lifestyle blog sharing all the many highlights of learning how to transform your health and wellbeing (spiralling out of ten years recovering from fibromyalgia). Spinning the Light is a very broad-based platform of self-discovery where she explores the everyday alchemy that is available to all beings just as soon as they open up to life's fullest potential.Helen White Photography is a portal for sharing her Fine Art photographs which are available as Limited Edition prints.
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One Response to Portrait of the artist as a young woman

  1. I do love to paint portraits and these are luminous. The first reminds me of a Geisha in the light, colours and ethereal atmosphere. One of the first things I noticed about your self-portrait was your luminous hair and remembered what I’d read on your other blog! It seems to bring together aspects of the work I’ve seen from you focussing on nature and surrounds you with it.

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