Can we compare a writer to a portrait painter? Sure, both are ‘artists’, although only those with sable brushes are defined by that term. Anyway, why should anyone sit for a painted portrait when a snap of a shutter could capture a moment? Writing is not trendy like that.
Bits of emotions, at a specific point in time, certainly make choice shots, and a camera controls light and dimension… but an artist can manufacturer a glow or strength not available to a black box click.
An oil portrait of me, as I sat in my parents’ living room, was done by artist David Immerman. He is most famous for his rendition of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt which is displayed in Hyde Park. My face in oils has never been the wholesome/content “me” I see and feel about myself, but it is an honest interpretation of a 17-year old’s moment of sadness and bewilderment during the breaking up with a boyfriend; through the years, it has also reminded me to be sensitive to the emotions of others.
I tracked down the artist in 1986 after my daughter Sheryl’s wedding. Now in his 80’s, I wondered if he still worked. If so, could he also capture what the camera missed when Sheryl sat and gestured only minutes before marching down a wedding aisle?
Filling sheets of paper with insight into my child’s personality and values, fears and dreams, past experiences, and future hopes, I mailed those along with snapshots taken at various times of her life. There’d be no sitting; this would be a surprise for her. Why bother, I questioned myself as I thought about the expense and, perhaps, the folly; we had ‘formal’ wedding pictures and wasn’t that all one needed? Why was an oil painting so pressing?
I touched wrappings of the finished portrait. I had no doubt that the artist might create a person on canvas based on the assortment of pictures and notes I’d made about her personality and physical features. I knew it would not be ‘completed’ until every brush stroke met with the detail considered important. Technical ability has little to do with creative energy and communication; was he an energetic communicator?
Unwrapped, I stared at a canvas that surpassed even my expectations. The almost sensuous flesh tones and slight accentuation of important facial features was incredible. Her hair was an interweave of light and texture that begged me to run my own fingers through the silky strands. Her large blue eyes caused me to feel her pre-bridal fears yet hope and wonder about her future was inserted by a touch of the artist’s brush.
A painting tells a story, and linear space doesn’t exist. Light and shapes fall away from her face, yet Mr. Immerman put strength in her long fingers partially covered with a transparent bridal veil. The veil’s perfection, softness, and fluid feeling forced me to notice the curve of her cheekbone.
No camera or artistic photographer can create such a relationship with a person; an artist uses his own light source, his own interpretation. Nothing was trivial to Mr. Immerman; no area merely ‘painted’. He caught the generally-unseen inner feelings as he constructed a face.
Our society’s attitude on the aged seemed silly as I held it next to the one of me painted over three decades ago. I saw the difference in technique. In the ’50’s, color intensity of background and subject is similar. Raised paint conveys shine or texture rather than an interplay of subtle light. My fair skin’s flesh tones appear ruddy rather than porcelain. There’s a tonal beauty where space disappears in Sheryl’s, and a blend of every line and shading. My portrait has prominent brush strokes, less dimension, looks better with a picture light, and doesn’t invite the viewer inside. Sheryl’s painting glows without external light and looking into it is like looking into one’s private self.
Aging of this artist’s hands, eyes, body added to his skill rather than diminished it. Aging didn’t make his eyes less sensitive nor his mind less able to process what needed to be impressed on stretched canvas.
When I was a girl and went to the Frick Museum, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and stood before a Gainsborough, I especially liked the ‘feel’ of the satin gowns and appreciated that Gainsborough didn’t try to hide his subject’s fingers, as so many other painters, because hands are difficult to draw. I ‘feel’ Sheryl’s painting; her cheeks and hair are like Gainsborough’s satin, and her artist also didn’t try to hide a hand which seems to be brushing a fleck from her face. Was she pushing away a filament from her bridal veil? Was she touching a strand of hair that had escaped the comb holding her veil in place? Was she making contact with her maiden face for the last time?
I never walked-into a Degas’ staged lighting but merely looked at his art because I like ballet… And I think, sometimes, that viewers may look at the one of me in the same manner. None could leave Sheryl’s without feeling romantic yet introspective, while experiencing something he/she ‘feels’ from the technique and light…as I have felt with Gainsborough.
Photography can freeze a place or person, can airbrush out imperfections, can rapidly take us to wars and weddings and harvests and droughts. A slow developing painting evolves as a composite of the seen and unseen, the artist’s mind in harmony with the subject.
Into a manila envelope, in 1992, I carefully placed snapshots, a photo I oil-colored many years ago, and detailed notes about my husband. Addressing it to David Immerman, I asked for a portrait of my mate minus a sitting. Could it be completed for his 1993 birthday? I put up the flag to signal mail to be picked up from my rural metal box affixed to a post.
When the crate arrived more than twelve months later, I beheld the oil of my husband. The artist had manipulated light/form but took his subject’s sixty years of living and managed to trace decades as my eyes moved around. There were his childhood eyes, adolescent brow, young man’s cheeks, middle-aged jaw, and neck, yet woven all so smoothly. Rather than a one-color background, he moved my husband into wintry outdoors which contrasted his skin tones, and the energy of winter with a hatless man braving its elements added vigor.
If my mate had been sitting before the artist, he certainly would have captured a specific mood, and that might (as was done in my portrait) have been a fleeting moment and not one for posterity. By taking mere snapshots and a wife’s words, his gift with sable conveyed the personality of the subject.
He filled in gaps between what I want to see and what actually was filmed, and the blank canvas and human hands went deeper.
Don’t we, as writers do some of the same? Technical ability has little to do with creative energy and communication. Also, without my specific words giving insight about a two-dimensional snapshot, even this artist could not have produced a three-dimensional person.
We take blank sheets of paper and a slow developing creation evolves as a composite of the seen and unseen, our minds in harmony with the subject. Our words create a relationship with a reader and we use our own ‘light source’, our own interpretation.
A painting can touch us, remind of pleasant or unpleasant events, cause us to respond to color and brush strokes; our written words do that for readers. And as we age, we ripen and can add to our skill rather than diminish it. We all spend years rejecting trite expressions, too many adjectives, being ‘wordy’; time sharpens as experience, at the same time, broadens us.
We don’t carry sable, and few even use pens or pencils anymore, but we’ve learned that bits of emotion, at a specific point in time, certainly make choice stories, and we control light and dimension…
Lois Greene Stone
Photos and Paintings and words was first published on Writernet Internet in August 1999
Lois Greene Stone, writer, and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard & softcover book anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian. The Smithsonian selected her photo to represent all teens from the 1940’s-50’s.