Friday, August 3, 2012

Learning to Paint Laughing

Detail from  Katie blazed a trail at 8 3/4 months
You already know Katie, the pregnant one, posed without hesitation. It was easier than I thought and she was the first one I asked. Here's how that first encounter went.

From time to time, I hire figure models to come and pose for me and other artists so we can paint them from life. We hired Katie, at 8 ¾ months pregnant to pose for us showing her big beautiful round belly. Katie was my artist friend Carol Medhurst’s ( neice and as I got to know her over the multiple day pose, I found out she spoke her mind and called a spade a spade and didn’t hold back. I kept visualizing how wonderful my first CWB painting would be with a pregnant belly…so round, so firm, so ball shaped and the fun flattened beak the belly button makes. I couldn’t let this opportunity slip, she wouldn’t be pregnant too much longer.

Detail from Pam's world turned upside down
After modeling for the day had finished and Carol had left, Katie and I were alone. Babbling and using too many words, I told her about the CWB project, which at this point was only words. To demonstrate what I was thinking, I felt like I had to take off my own top and show her what I was talking about. In retrospect this was weird and I didn’t do it again, but this whole thing is a learning process.

I also explained the disclaimers and caveats which I was still formulating as I was saying them. No one would ever see the photos…not even the model herself. And they most certainly would not be posted on the internet. With any claim like this there needs to be an element of trust because once a photo is “out there” no matter what was guaranteed and no matter what legal recourse you have, the photo cannot be “brought back”. 

My guarantee was this: I like to create the illusion that I don’t use photographs and I work exclusively from life. I bristle at comparisons of my work to photographs and I don’t want viewers looking back and forth from my reference material to my painting noting similarities and differences. The painting stands alone. So I guard my reference material fiercely. I told Katie that my selfish pride was her guarantee that her quasi-nude photos won’t be parading on the internet…I want to hide them more than she does.

Detail from Leah runs, bikes, swims and tackles…Paul
The painting, however, will go everywhere…internet, books, galleries, posters…anywhere and everywhere. Along with her first name, and a bit about her as a person too.

I also stressed that this was not a commissioned portrait where there was an element of client approval. The model would be doing me an honor, a privilege and a favor to pose for me, but the painting was my vision with their body and soul as inspiration. The intent was not to make fun of my friends and make them look bad, but if I found a physical quality that would make the painting better, and it wasn’t something that THEY liked, I would still paint it.

I gave Katie full disclosure, and she gave me a hearty and quick, “Sure I’ll do it!”

A couple basketballs from my garage and a few minutes of cracking up in front of the camera over how silly this thing we were doing was, and I had reference for my first Chicks With Balls painting. I took far fewer photos that I would for later Chick paintings…at this point, having painted exclusively from life for 30 years, I was a novice with shooting to paint. This project, however with its quick alive and spontaneous poses, was not best done with staged poses where the model holds still for hours. It also made it easier for  regular people to pose instead of professional figure models.

Detail from…do I really need to tell you?
by Leonardo DaVinci.
Later in the privacy of my studio, alone with the photos,  I discovered another scary aspect of this project. I would have to learn to paint laughter…teeth, gums, cheeks, open mouths, eyes alive and heads thrown back, neck muscles tensed, silliness and fleeting expressions. The experience would be fun, the ladies I would ask are fun, and the posing sessions would have us cracking up. But, painting laughter is not nearly as fun as actually laughing. It is extremely difficult, and can end up looking like a hideous grimace. That’s why you see so few joyful portraits from history…even the Mona Lisa kept her mouth shut.

Detail from Gypsy by Franz Hals

So, I needed to look for inspiration. I could think of only two painters who had successfully and consistently painted laughter…Norman Rockwell and Franz Hals. I looked through their images and got serious about learning how to paint fun…and as time went by, I started to have fun with it too.

Detail from Freedom from Want
by Norman Rockwell

Did you think you were going to see another
whole Chicks with Balls painting in this blog post? Sorry to disappoint, but I really want to build the suspense as we count down to the show in the summer of 2013, so I am being selective about which CWB paintings I show in their entirety. Stay tuned and next time I'm thinking I'll show a whole one!

Images by Franz Hals and Norman Rockwell are courtesy of The Art Renewal Center, (