What makes a face?

What exactly is it that makes someone’s face distinctly and uniquely that person’s face? 

DonaldTrumpPainting

 

This is one of the questions that is driving my portrait painting. I’ll say two things about this question. One thing is that I do know a few things that can answer the question.  Some technical things, which I’ll explain in a moment. The second thing is that the more I think I know, the more I realize what I don’t know. This point is far more important and is somewhat philosophical but is also a statement of truth. 

PaintingofJFK

 

 

First the technical things about what makes anyone’s face uniquely the person’s face.

 

The universal answer is the eyes. And yes, the eyes are the soul. From a technical point of view, it is the nose that steers the positioning of everything on the face. This is from the point of view of the artist. If there are artists reading who want to improve their approach to portraiture, I suggest starting with the nose.

Here is the beginning of some of my paintings...

I always start with the nose!

I always start with the nose!

 

I always start with the nose and spend proportionally and exorbitantly more amount on time on it than on anything else. I might spend an entire hour on just the nose. Sometimes an hour is minimal.

I spent several hours over the course of two painting sessions on George W. Bush’s nose.

GW Bush's nose

GW Bush's nose

After the first session, I went to sleep thinking that I’d never be able to paint a portrait of him because I couldn’t figure out his nose. Figuring out the nose is like cracking the secret code of a person’s face. 

GWprocess

 

There are parts to the face that don’t have a formal name as far as I know, but matter a great deal to the portrait artist. The triangular region going from the nose tip to the outer edge of the eye is incredibly important in getting the likeness of a person and that’s the reason why the nose has to come first.

The eyes are often the most satisfying thing to represent for many artists because you get your art to look back at you. But even the most amazing artists can position the eyes too close or too far apart if they go to them first. 

 

As far as the eyes are concerned…

The “white” space on the sides of the eyes inform the shape of the eye. And the whites are not always white; sometimes they’re gray, sometimes even pink. 

TramantanoSelfPortraitProcess

 

 

But if I continue this way, I will submit to the technical approach to art that I disagree with so much. There are things to learn, but it is not the technical proportions or perspectives alone that represent a person’s face, or anything for that matter. Representing a face is not about the placement of the paint on the canvas and its supposed accuracy. It is the fact that the placement of paint is as a result of looking

the completion of my fourth self portrait

the completion of my fourth self portrait

 

But that’s only part of it and I can’t claim to know all of it. It is certainly also about the physical connection with the paint. And then there is the mystery. I honestly am surprised when I finish a painting and I was able to capture the subject’s likeness. 

BarackObamaPainting

 

 

Copying Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X

This is a photo documentary of my copy of Diego Velazquez's portrait of Pope Innocent X. 

I started out just wanting to study the face. This is why I used 16" x 20" canvases. 

But, as it emerged, I wanted to attempt to capture the rest of the portrait...

But, as it emerged, I wanted to attempt to capture the rest of the portrait...

Keeping the canvases together became more difficult as the painting expanded...

Keeping the canvases together became more difficult as the painting expanded...

I placed the finished work on the floor next to a guitar in order to get across a sense of scale. 

I placed the finished work on the floor next to a guitar in order to get across a sense of scale. 

On becoming a painting: Lincoln

The visual story of the creation of a 40" x 50" portrait of Lincoln

Started with 40" x 50" stretched canvas--added yellow for colored ground

Started with 40" x 50" stretched canvas--added yellow for colored ground

A very rough sketch just to get oriented

A very rough sketch just to get oriented

the nose steers the proportions of the face--I begin with the left nostril

the nose steers the proportions of the face--I begin with the left nostril

the left eye emerges and looks like a glowing green orb

the left eye emerges and looks like a glowing green orb

The Question of Gold

I so often felt awkward in my own body in Junior High School. The art teacher, Mr. Gold was a survivor of polio, and needed special crutches to assist him to walk across the room. He never seemed to communicate any self-counsciousness. And for that and many other reasons, his presence was reassuring to me.

He was a wonderful artist and a phenomenal teacher. We can’t explain everything that great teachers teach us. There are some practical things that I can name that Mr. Gold steered me towards. As we would draw whatever the subject of the morning was, he would circulate, lean into the table, and ask, “Is that what you see?”

His gently insisted that we become aware and be present. I cannot claim to know what art is, but right now I think it has to do with learning to be present. You have the subject, whether a scene, a person, or a representation of the abstract. And then you have the canvas, or the material with which you are representing what you see. Let’s look at that word: “Re-presenting.” To present again. The subject is presented to us and then we present it again. I think this is at least some aspect of what art is about.

We’ve developed terms that surround the activity of presenting again. One of these terms is accuracy. Accuracy in representation is based on the theory that the subject actually looks a given way. But there are many styles of presenting again and they each indicate a different response to Mr. Gold’s question.

The answer to the question isn’t the important thing. The asking is what matters. We can organize art into these categories. We can make a textbook, have an art history course, and therefore organize our knowledge. And after we’ve done this, we have the question, is that what you see?

I took my son to the MOMA when he was three. He would run up to a work of art and have an immediate emotional response to it. Sometimes he would linger for a moment, but often he would run to the next work. He was excited by the life in the art. He was responding to something. And I realized that, for years, I was trying to respond intellectually and had been muting that actual response. Proverbially, I heard Mr. Gold lean in and ask his question.

What you see isn’t just what you see, it’s what you feel, it’s what you try to think and try not to think. It’s the entire experience of life as you are seeing. It is the presence.

I don’t know if any instance of presenting again is meant or intended to present the experience. I think re-presentations are presentations unto themselves that are inspired by some initial seeing.

For a while I believed that realism was a problematic proposition. The idea that any form of representation, whether visual or literary, in dance or in music, is more real than another is premised on a reality filled with certainty and void of the humility that we don’t know what we don’t know. But realism is just a name for any kind of representing that attempts to render a presentation with certain features. For a while I believed that my own more impressionistic approach was the more real, more authentic one. This was an OK belief, but I was doing what I believed the realists were doing: falsely asserting the certitude and supreme validity of one approach over another.

I used to be in awe of the works of Salvador Dalí and MC Escher. I was introduced to their work through the social milieu of students at the high school of Art and Design, where I attended. I was taken by Dalí’s ability to present what he imagined and Escher’s ability to show us that what we think we see isn’t the only thing present.

But at the heart of this appreciation was my belief in the hierarchy of accuracy.

Both Escher and Dalí are masters at making the objects they present look unmistakably like those objects. The sceneries may be surreal in Dali’s work, but you know that you’re supposed to be looking at a dripping clock. In my mind, and this was reaffirmed by conversations with my peers, two things reigned in artistic expression: the ability to accurately present things and the vision to create your own scenes and images. This hierarchy had canceled out the appreciation of art that presented to us in what I believed to be less “realistic” ways.

As I have deepened my understanding of art, paradoxically I embrace how much I don’t understand about it. I’ve been trying to return to that immediate response that my son demonstrated when he was three.

Now I am drawn to the works of André Derain Derain and Alex Katz. Derain’s bold colors demonstrate to me a beautiful inner joy about the beauty of the world. When I look at one of Derain’s paintings, I feel like I’m asking him, “Is that what you see?” But I’m asking it from a place of awe, and, to some extent, from a place of shared seeing. Katz’s work, for me, balances so elegantly between cartoon and reality that I experience some sense of optical illusion, or perceptual questioning. Through his work, Katz is asking me Mr. Gold’s question.

 

The Triumph of the Human Spirit

Artists are stalkers. We stalk the un-nameable sentiments, gestures of being, glimpses of emotion as they flash across our consciousness. 

"Aspiration" 30" x 40" depicts a male figure reaching upwards

"Aspiration" 30" x 40" depicts a male figure reaching upwards

As I've explored in medias res (in the middle of things), I've discovered that what I want to portray in my paintings is the triumph of the human spirit.

"Amen" features the "Victory V" pose--universal body language for confidence and triumph

"Amen" features the "Victory V" pose--universal body language for confidence and triumph

 I want this work to do for viewers what motivational speakers do for listeners. I want this piece to resonate with that part of you that strives for triumph.

"Aphrodite's Reach" is 40" x 50" tribute to the reach of human beauty; beauty as a form of triumph

"Aphrodite's Reach" is 40" x 50" tribute to the reach of human beauty; beauty as a form of triumph

 "I want this work to do for viewers what motivational speakers do for listeners. "
In this runway painting, the triumph is in the poise and "swag" of the male figure as he struts down the walk

In this runway painting, the triumph is in the poise and "swag" of the male figure as he struts down the walk

Life is Challenging.  At times, it can seem insurmountable.  That wellspring of strength in our heroes is in us too, though it might not always seem so.  But no matter how difficult life can be at times, I am increasingly in awe of the strength and resolve of the human spirit.  

a 30" x 40" portrait of Miles Davis -- Jazz improvisors seem to express the human capacity for fluidity and adaptability -- improvisors teach us that responsiveness to challenge can be artful

a 30" x 40" portrait of Miles Davis -- Jazz improvisors seem to express the human capacity for fluidity and adaptability -- improvisors teach us that responsiveness to challenge can be artful

How are beauty and triumph related?  This is a question I am fascinated by.  Each artistic exploration is a journey of lessons.  I'm reminded of the ancient Romans who, in their sculptures, depict the natural wrinkles of time on our faces.  To the Romans, age was beauty.  

on the left, "Dancer's Back" 30" x 40", portraying the triumph of beauty, the gentleness of gesture -- on the right, "Einstein" 30" x 40" -- Like the Roman sculptures, the wrinkles are part of his beauty

on the left, "Dancer's Back" 30" x 40", portraying the triumph of beauty, the gentleness of gesture -- on the right, "Einstein" 30" x 40" -- Like the Roman sculptures, the wrinkles are part of his beauty

But now, we try to cover up and hide age.  I am more in line with the Romans on this.  Our wrinkles and color complexities, nuances in the skin and body, things we might believe are "imperfections," are really the exposition of our triumphs, of our unique and authentic selves.  I wonder how triumph might really be about embracing life, embracing who we are and who we are becoming. 

The inspiration behind "Amen"

 

This painting is inspired by Sergei Polunin's interpretation of "Take me to church" by Hozier.  Polunin responded to music with dance.  I responded to both the dance and the music with this painting. 

As part of my exploration of In Medias Res, I'm looking at people who make their life's work out of movement: models as they walk down the runway, dancers.  

The conceptual sketch for "Amen"

The conceptual sketch for "Amen"

Polunin's dance to "Take me to church" is other-worldly.  He seems to have an exemption from gravity at several points in the video, as he glides across the floor and leaps through the air.  

I loved the song the first time I heard it but Polunin's dance brings my appreciation of the song to a much deeper level.  

When I started this painting.  I wanted to capture the gesture in this pose.  I didn't want to leave the hands out but in order to include them, the proportions would have to change.  

As I was painting, I got this sense that these white shapes ought to go around the figure. 

As I was painting, I got this sense that these white shapes ought to go around the figure. 

As I worked on the painting, as usual, I didn't listen to music.  I wanted to hear the connotations that the image made in my mind.  I kept hearing that part of the song where the singer says, "Amen, amen..."

At some point, I got the sense that I could make different shapes around the figure's body.  This was not planned.  I like to sense what the painting is telling me as I go and embrace improvisation.

At some point, I got the sense that I could make different shapes around the figure's body.  This was not planned.  I like to sense what the painting is telling me as I go and embrace improvisation.


I draw my inspiration for the style of this piece from a few sources.  And they are the sources that I've been working with lately.  I wanted to use concepts about representing reality from the fauvists: defying the colors that reality presents, broad, expressive brush strokes, bright bold colors.  But I also took a page from the abstract painters with both the elements in the figure's body and the background.  

It's possible that the title of the song could be conjured by the image ("take me to church") because it does resemble a church stained-glass window.  But it's also possible that the abstract nature of the background can be interpreted in an open-ended way.  The viewer can see whatever he or she wants as the setting for the figure (either real or imagined locale).  It's possible that the location is made up of abstract elementals in one's state of mind.  

Where do you think this takes place?

The finished painting outside on the easel.  It stands 50" tall and 40" wide and has a 1 and 1/2" gallery-style edge.  

The finished painting outside on the easel.  It stands 50" tall and 40" wide and has a 1 and 1/2" gallery-style edge.  

In the middle of things

 
from a collection of rhetorical terms study cards

from a collection of rhetorical terms study cards

Where should I put things? A good question for the focus of a painting, where to keep your keys, or even how to file ideas in your mind.  We will always feel the need to answer this question because nothing is ever in a permanent place.  

Once we decide where things go, they are in their place...

for now. 

I just moved from an apartment to a house and every moment I have felt the need to put things in their place.  There are the boxes, the furniture, the things that go in drawers and the things that go on walls.  

The pictures above are of a card from a set of rhetorical terms study cards.  I've since lost or misplaced the entire set, but this one survived.  It appeared during the unpacking and placing of books, first on the floor, then on shelves.  It appeared seemingly out of nowhere.  It appeared in the middle of things.  

Whether it's coincidental or not, no term has more meaning to me now than in medias res.  

I keep this card on my desk, which is also in the workspace where I paint.  Sometimes I misplace it or it falls to the floor and goes missing for a few days.  

It's difficult, but I want to keep reminding myself that life, the whole grand narrative of it, is always in medias res, always in the middle of things.  

This is why I've chosen to pursue the concept in art.  

I've so far primarily focused on the movement of the human form.  I've taken to sketching and painting runway models as they are in the middle of their walk down the runway.  

runwaysketch

You see where they are.  You don't know where they've been or where they're going but you have a sense for it.  You can tell which foot is forward, which hand will swing backward.  You feel the rhythm and the movement.  We can perceive something in the middle of things but we can't perceive everything.  

"Runway 1" [12" x 20"] the first painting exploring in medias res of runway models during their walk.  I'm fascinated by the hand gesture, the movement of the arm, the angle of the step.  

"Runway 1" [12" x 20"] the first painting exploring in medias res of runway models during their walk.  I'm fascinated by the hand gesture, the movement of the arm, the angle of the step.  

In the above painting, titled "Runway 1," I'm exploring how the colors form highlights and shadows work with the movement of the human form.  In this piece the background is de-contextual, with some sense of light and shadow.  This compositional scheme involves the unstable blue background.  This particular blue paint changes its appearance depending on the light, time of day and the position of the painting in the room.  I learned this about this particular blue as I was working on "Connected" earlier this summer.

commissioned work - 48" high by 60" wide each

commissioned work - 48" high by 60" wide each

This piece is two paintings of lyrical abstract shapes and colors representing the highlights of the physical gestures of a male and female modern dancer

This piece is two paintings of lyrical abstract shapes and colors representing the highlights of the physical gestures of a male and female modern dancer

"Connected" merges techniques from two previous works. 

"Miles Davis" (30" x 40") used a blue background with yellow, white and orange to highlight the contours

"Miles Davis" (30" x 40") used a blue background with yellow, white and orange to highlight the contours


I drew from the shapes and colors in "Calypso" (20"x30") to create the abstract representations in "Connected"

I drew from the shapes and colors in "Calypso" (20"x30") to create the abstract representations in "Connected"

The resulting approach is a composition with abstract shapes and shades capturing the gesture of human movement.  

I'm trying to convey beyond what is seen.  I want you to sense more than one still-frame image when you look at the in medias res works.  I want where the figure is going and where the figure has been to resonate in your imagination.  If you do get this resonance, then to some extent, the representation of the physical renders an experience beyond what the painting is showing.  I want to play on the idea in art that the eye, especially the eye of the viewer, will put things together and make things happen.  The physical representations in the in medias res works aim to capture how the past and the future are inclinations that resonate in our minds.  We bring who we are, what we feel and what we think to the act of looking at art.  In medias res: in the middle of things.  What things are we in the middle of?  We bring them to our perception of a work of art.  They influence how we define our terms.