Artist's Father (Portrait Workings)

I painted a portrait of my father while he was visiting in April. We hadn't seen each other in a couple of years (traveling between Vermont and Haukipudas seems so simple, but coordinating the schedules of two families with odd job hours and young kids can be frustratingly complicated), so it was a great opportunity to catch up and for him to meet the grandkids for the first time. I don't mean to sound grim, but as we don't know when we'll see each other again, I wanted to paint my father's portrait to capture the memory of his visit and our time together. That does sound a bit morose, especially since we're in contact on a weekly basis, and his visit was upbeat, fun and like a harbinger of spring when everything was covered in snow and ice.

This is the portrait right at that stage after I have finished the underdrawing, still in the first sitting. I totally spaced on taking a photograph (for posterity) of the underdrawing, so you'll just have to believe me that it exists under the paint. I thought I would have a difficult time drawing my father due to me being self-conscious or nervous. It's not an unfounded worry - I've been tripped up by my nerves when I have tried to draw or paint my mother. But now that I think about it, that was probably due to the fact that my mother is an accomplished artist, and I got a bit of stage fright. It also didn't help that she would stare back at me and smile - staring back at the portraitist is a sure way to unnerve him/her and get a wacky portrait. (My father appropriately, and with my direction, chose a 'lost-in-thought' pose, which is quite natural for him.)

This is how the portrait looked after the second sitting. I was using only natural light, so I had to contend with some cloudy days and one day where the sun beamed down and nearly burned my retinas (or so it felt, after months of seemingly no sun at all). My father was sat next to the kitchen window, which faces south. Using just north-facing windows at this latitude is a bit too dark, at least in my studio. Any questions? Ok, moving on...

So at this point my father has already arrived back home in Vermont, and I have to work from photographs of the sittings to complete the background and shirt. I used this portrait as a 'work-in-progress' demonstration at the Oulu Construction (Builders') Fair (see my post from the same fair the year before here), which I realize now, is asking for trouble when the model is not present. I painted some funny shapes in the shirt and didn't know how to get myself out of such a painting predicament in front of a (sparse) crowd. Though one could argue that all my paintings consist basically of funny shapes, so what was the problem. The problem was that I couldn't explain my abstraction style or why I was painting a portrait upside down to every passerby.

Here is the finished portrait. Instead of painting a definite background, I decided to focus on creating an atmosphere that complemented the pose and that also hinted at my father's affection for Finland and Finnish culture. His shirt and vest reminded me of traditional Finnish clothing, and the cloth pattern implied in the background is referenced from a Marimekko pattern from the 1960's.


Baby taking in the sights and sounds (and definitely smells, oil paint etc) of the studio while its mother paints away furiously - oh how bohemian! By the end of the second month the baby's curiosity sort of bloomed and I discovered that I could paint while she was awake, albeit if there's a bit of entertainment thrown in. So far she seems to smile more at the abstract paintings or the abstract blotches in the portraits... Her older brother, now a month shy of 2 years old, has learned to be wary of running into the studio, and he's now able to expend energy, like the little fireball son/sun (haha, erm) that he is, at daycare three days a week. Those are my precious (almost-)alone-in-the-studio days.

(The blue painting on the left is a portrait of my father from when he came over the pond for a long-overdue visit. The painting on the right is a portrait of a family friend in the course of his job as a large-animal veterinarian.)

Working in my (appropriated room) studio and watching the kids at home leaves me in a feedback/criticism vacuum. I take feedback from where-ever I can find it, including non-verbal kids. My own in-house, baby-as-art-critic, times two. A smile, coo, gurgle or, best of all, a hard, wide-eyed sustained stare at a painting that I'm working on is small encouragement, seeing as a 3-month old or 2-year old don't have any art history or (horror!) art criticism backgrounds. I figure that on a basic level, if the colors and compositions I create appeal to the eyes and sensibilities of children, then I've captured a bit of wonderment on canvas.

A painting doesn't have to be 'childish' to appeal to children. The substance of my paintings is not the literal subject, but the compositional interpretation in color, light and form. I want the second and third glance at a painting not because of some shocking subject matter, but because the composition is stimulating and intricate, something the viewer wants to come back to and savor. Young children respond to and are fascinated by contrasts in shape, color and number, and the adult brain will also respond to those same contrasts and intricacies  in the same fundamental way, despite years of education and socialization. Unfortunately young, non-verbal children can't tell me when a shade of red should be taken down a notch, or that the composition should be shifted 10 cm over to the left.


Kalervo portrait after sitting 5

Last Sunday I had my mother over to babysit while Kalervo sat for his portrait. What really happened was that my husband watched the baby while my mother had a spirited conversation with Kalervo in the studio and I painted. I had to play a game of musical chairs with them to get the arrangement and Kalervo's line of sight just so. As the baby chose not to sleep the night before I suffered some serious eye-and-brain fatigue during the session, so I didn't get a good look in. There will be one more sitting this coming Sunday, and maybe Kalervo will dare to peek at the painting at the end of it.

A note on his shirt - he wore it to the first sitting (and all subsequent sittings have been in some sort of black t-shirt), and I was intrigued by the witty tag line from the Finnish Red Cross (Punainen Risti): "GIVERIGHTNOW". "Veri" is the Finnish word for blood, and I think it's a pretty clever combination of English-Finnish, plus eye-catching. It also speaks about Kalervo, as he has been a steadfast blood donor all his life and is committed to the cause.