becoming “unlabelled”: the story behind my Kingston Prize painting


Unlabelled: Doreen, 14" x 14" oil paint on oil primed Arches paper. Finalist in the Kingston Prize 2015

Unlabelled: Doreen, 14″ x 14″ oil paint on oil primed Arches paper. Finalist in the Kingston Prize 2015

I don’t talk about this much in this newsletter, but I love painting portraits. (Oddly enough, I talk about my love of portraiture all the time in my “real” life, but I don’t tend to bring it up often when I talk about my art practice. I’m not really certain why that is. One of those precious little dreams you get all secretive about, y’know?)

The paintings that drew me to art were always portraits. They fascinated me, these silent, unspoken stories of people from different times, different places. All that was left of them was a painting. They lost their labels, their duties, their titles (or their titles became meaningless as time progressed on).

They just became people. Just another human, looking at someone who’s looking at him or her. It’s a funny little dialogue, isn’t it? Portraiture is a two-way street – both artist and sitter size up and assess and study each other. There is a silent but riveting interaction between two minds that can happen. The best portraits are always like that.

One of my dreams is to have people pay me to paint their portraits, but not from photographs – from life. Like it’s the 18th century all over again and people flock to a dramatic studio littered with draperies and giant urns and busts of Greek philosophers to have their portrait painted. A girl can dream, right?

At the moment, there’s less drapery and more clutter, but I’ve got a chair and a small tree, and even some fabrics in lovely shades of blue. I’m happy as a clam at high water.

I’m even happier when I get volunteers.

I spotted Doreen at my husband’s work Christmas party in 2014. Tall and striking, all I could think was, “Oh. My. God. I must paint her!” Except that’s not really socially acceptable to say to total strangers out of the blue, so I exercised some self-restraint and just kept muttering to my husband, “I must paint that face!”

At the end of February, word came around that she’d like to sit for an artist and would I be interested in painting her?

I may have started bouncing in my seat. And all over my house.

She came for two sittings, and we did a colour study and then an underpainting from life. I worked from photographs to finish it, as an acquiescence to speed and scheduling issues.

Kind, whip smart, generous, powerful and beautiful. She’s been a delight to paint and converse with while we worked.

She came to me because this was her thing to do just for herself. She’s a busy mom and wife and employee, but those things melt away when you’re being painted.

That’s the thing that I love most about this portrait, and all portraits: you show up as only yourself. I can’t paint your labels for you – mother, daughter, wife, sister, volunteer, CEO, fast food cashier – I can only paint you and you alone. It becomes a deeper conversation about character and spirit. It becomes about painting the external reflection of your internal self.

(This was first published in my newsletter, which you can sign up for here!)