HUNGERING for portrait drawing but short on funds, I hatched an idea: I’d offer an hour of English conversation in exchange for two of modeling! I nervously/excitedly posted my proposal at various sites round town and online; a couple of responses trickled in.
I also have several friends I just really want to draw, including Alex, whom I met in my earliest days in Toulouse. Alex — Alessandro — has bushy brows and a bald head flanked by unruly grey-and-white hair. An artist himself, he was raised in Argentina and studied printmaking in France and lived in Atlanta and New York … facts I know barely scratch the surface of the story. His English is peppered with idioms and turns of phrase that only someone who’s lived in a place and dug into the corners of its film and literature and popular culture could know and understand. So I invited him over for a sitting.
Alex seems to have endless stores of both curiosity and segues, seamlessly departing one topic to delve into another, like a breeze. A conversationalist. So I was a little uncertain about how he’d be as a model. Would asking him to sit still, in the quiet I require for a successful portrait, be an impossible request?
I’ve been burned by chinwaggers in the past. Uneasy being in charge and taking up people’s time, I’ve let sitters chat, or recite lines — resulting, invariably, in disastrous drawings. Interacting with models while drawing muddles my accuracy, concentration, and confidence. It’s not that I don’t want to; I can’t, my brain’s sides wrestle one other to the floor.
So after a long opening chat, I steered Alex toward a chair and took to my easel. Would he please look toward the window? I asked gently. But it seemed to be folded into his design to talk, and to gaze around, and I couldn’t find a way to insist on either silence or stillness without sounding harsher (god forbid) than I really felt. I tried a profile, I started three drawings, I tossed each aside. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t see a way, actively in that moment, to reconcile my roles as both drawer and conversation partner. I despaired.
No surprise that at times like these, The Voice is happy to chime in. “Who are you, some sort of dilettante? Some sort of amateur? Oh, that’s right — strictly speaking, yes, you are. Can’t even figure out how to draw, Ms. MFA-in-Painting. Can’t even start. Who do you think you are?” … and on and on, until I stop it, which usually requires some serious swearing out loud and opening and closing of doors, which I didn’t feel I could do right then.
I exchanged blows with my drawing for an hour and half, to no avail. We ate, he scooted off, and in the calm that followed I assessed the damage.
Could I somehow, I wondered, not abandon this altogether but rather integrate the anxiety of the process into the portrait itself? It was after all time together, which I cherish. And perhaps this will be a question I have to confront again, as I draw people whom I love but who are nonetheless not cut out to be serene, unmoving models. Particularly if a portrait is to be a reflection of both outer and inner character, and they are not the type to sit quietly and gaze tranquilly in the distance for long periods of time.
How could I embrace the process — reluctantly accepting that this is a moving, dynamic target — and express it in a way that’s neither hokey nor immature? Is it in the line quality, or the composition? Or is it enough that it’s just on my mind and in my heart? What about the background? I recall my portrait of Boris: I appropriated a background I loved, that’s it, and for that time and place it was enough. Same with Luca: saw a pattern, used it. Maybe not brilliant. But certainly sufficient.
inspiration: Joseph Stella Self Portrait, 1940. |
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.
So maybe I can calm down a little, and accept the seeming impossibility of this. Maybe next time I’ll consider more carefully my intention in advance of our meeting. What is my relationship to this person, and what compels me? What is in my heart that matches my mind?
In contrast: Louise responded to my ad and came to sit, and she was wonderful. She read, and we sat listening to classical music, and it was calm and relaxing and all I really did was focus on the portrait itself, drawing and looking. No need for endless starts and restarts. But that was then, and we were strangers; perhaps the two portraits must necessarily be different.
I’ve started Alex’s again, and though it’s a mysterious process and answers elude me, I’m enjoying the search at last.