Much earlier this year, I had an urge to paint, and so I got out my art supplies and started painting. The painting I began to paint was very messy. And the more I painted it, the messier it got.
At first, I thought the reason I was compelled to keep adding more and more paint was that my background was black, so the black was somehow seeping through the other, lighter layers of paint. I was admiring the way the black made shadows in the flesh color and thinking that this was an interesting technique. But all the while there was something going on that I did not know about. Instead of using white acrylic paint, I had mistakenly selected gloss.
Gloss starts out white when it is wet, but it becomes transparent when it dries. After I had painted what I thought was a passable face on my figure, and I came back to the painting, the face had disappeared. All that was left of the flesh tones were the darker shades of pink.This was very spooky, but not understanding what had happened, I decided to paint the face again. And again, the same thing happened. Little by little the face I had painted faded and then disappeared. It was creepy. It was confusing. And by the time I figured out what was going on, the urge to paint was gone.
That was in February of this year. Since then I have been very busy with other things. I published Our Lady of Kaifeng: Courtyard of the Happy Way in March. I went to the Libertarian National Convention in Orlando in May. I started writing for The Libertarian Republic in June. I published the bilingual edition of In Case There’s a Fox in August. In September, I joined the board of a nonprofit that champions great apes. In October, I kept campaigning for Gary Johnson, even though Austin Petersen has always been my first choice. So, no, I did not even think of that painting. I always tend to paint when there is time, and when I don’t have time, I don’t paint.
And then yesterday, for some reason, there was an internet outage from early in the morning until 2:30 in the afternoon. “I guess I have time to paint now,” I thought, and it was only when I dug up my painting supplies that I saw the discarded, messy painting with no face.
So I set to work on it, this time using white acrylic paint and not gloss.
My favorite part of painting is watching a face emerge out of what starts out as something totally inanimate. I know that is probably not the favorite part for real artists. But I don’t plan the face, so much, as watch it come alive on its own. To me, that part is magic.
I use the facial recognition part of my brain to paint a face, not the geometric shape part. That means that as I am applying the paint, if it looks more like the face I know, I keep it that way, and if it looks less like the face I know, I change it. But it feels as if the face has been there from the start, and I am just helping to bring it out. What it does not feel like is that I am drafting a image out of straight lines and well defined angles. This is why my paintings tend to be irregular and sometimes asymmetrical to the point of driving people with OCD up the wall. They keep wanting to correct every asymmetry, while the only thing that matters to me is: Does it look like her? Can she be recognized?
As the person in the painting starts to come out, I feel this strange stab of joy. It’s the same joy you feel when you search for a loved one in a vast sea of people and finally locate their face.
“Why, hello there!” I want to say to the image, as it starts to look like someone I know. “So glad I found you!”
In the past, whenever I painted portraits, the people I was painting cringed at the sight of them. “I do not look like that!” they would say. And while other people drew me aside and agreed that the person did in fact look like that, they told me that my portraits were just too unflattering. The people looked recognizable, but not in a good way. And besides, I sometimes added asymmetries that were not actually there, but they did not bother me personally, as long as I could recognize the face. They did, however, bother everybody else.
Because I did not use the gloss this time, I varnished the painting last night, before displaying it in my room. It’s still a very messy painting. It is full of bumps and blotches and irregularities that do not bother me, but that I was afraid would be a problem for anybody else –and especially the subject of the portrait.
When my daughter came home from her choir event late last night, she noticed the painting in passing. “Hey, that kind of looks like me,” she said. “But it’s pretty!”
I was so happy to hear that. “It looks like you, because it’s a portrait of you,” I said. “And it’s pretty, because you’re pretty.”
Maybe there is hope for me still! This just might be a breakthrough: a portrait that does not offend the subject! We’ve come a long way. She’s matured, and I’ve matured.
I still paint messy. But she’s a senior in high school now and not that cute four year old in the checkered dress with the cherries on it. And just maybe I have gotten to be good enough at painting portraits so that people need not take them as insults!
Someday, we may yet spot a fox on my property. And if not, it’s still a beautiful landscape, even if I have no idea how to paint it, because it hasn’t got a face.