There is a great distortion between what you see creatively and what often is reality. I learned this most profoundly just recently while doing a portrait of a friends’ daughter, the reason I chose the photo to create was first its delicate beauty but even more it begged to be painted because it seemed like a photograph of an Andrew Wyeth painting. I painted it differently than I have in the past, portraits have always been a struggle for me but this time I tried it smaller and with less detail and hoped it would be easier.
I didn’t sketch it like I have in the past; I blocked it out in paint and adjusted the image by eye. It is amazing how the face very slowly grows, as you get closer, farther away than closer again. The first images seemed almost cartoonish and pasty. I watched the ghostly face grow out of a dark backdrop and the closer I felt to succeeding the farther the actual success seemed to be. This feeling of creative blindness seems to run through all of my works but never more dramatic than this portrait.
First I am amazed to see how realistic the image looks and the appearance gets very clear that I have succeeded and so quickly, that is until I send it for feedback or show someone that has not looked at it for the last few hours. The comments were less than encouraging: “scary eyes”, “ghostly”, “If I were the customer I would be insulted”, as much as it hurts to hear, it was true-she looked nothing like the photograph. As much as the image seemed to appear during the painting process the reality of getting away from the painting was a bit intimidating. I went back to the drawing board, I would see her eyes staring from the painting for a moment than I would realize how bad the progress was getting and the time I seemed to be wasting. The good thing about this process is that the artist gets to refine the image and look at it again and again and realize how being too close to any painting brings about a loss of clarity in the creation.
There have been several times and several hours of working where I felt like I was getting somewhere great only to realize afterwards I had made it even worse. The great thing about this process is the honing of the skill of seeing, even if I fail over and over again I continue to refine my vision and break through the loss of clarity, I believe that working on this portrait will help with all of my paintings in the discipline of seeing what you see and not just what the brain thinks or decides it sees. There is a short hand of seeing things much like how the brain can decipher text that is jumbled, we see the image and capture what we think we see, we cut corners on the reality and fill in the blanks.
The brain is overwhelmed with details so we tend to skip the reality of details that would truly capture what we see.
During the teaching process I have helped the student focus by putting a mask over all but a small portion of a picture to copy, this allows the student to concentrate on detail and reality of what they see and the brain has less ability to fill in the blanks and the proportion and scale gives way to the true perception of a scene. I have also heard about people turning an image upside down to copy what they see instead of what the brain wants to capture instinctively.
In the end, I would not say I captured even a portion of the beauty of the original nor the drama of the Andrew Wyeth painting but in the end I believe I have honed my skills for seeing. I will do more portraits and plan on continuing to perfect them, I have already turned down several commissions because portraits are not my specialty although in the future it may not be the case, I believe in leaving everything up to growing and developing as an artist and as the eye perfects what it sees and argues with the brain for what is reality, in the end the artist will create reality out of the skewed perception he or she struggles with.