Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Posthumous Portrait

Helo Pilot
20"x16", oil on panel, 2011

Over the past week or two, I've been swapping emails with an old Navy buddy. We got to talking about issues that are central to my "Meditation on War" paintings: why we go to war, how military members feel about it, the costs of war, and personal losses. His daughter was engaged to a young Army helicopter pilot, a Captain. He went to Iraq in 2006. While flying a combat support mission over Mosul, in northern Iraq, he was shot down and killed. When he was buried, pretty much the whole town turned out to line the streets.

This story got to me. Reading stories about anonymous soldiers being killed in action is one thing, but hearing about the personal impact is another. Isn't it always? I asked for some pictures of the young man. One of them, where he was beside his helicopter, seemed to me to be the liveliest and captured something of his spirit. So I turned it into the painting above.

Doing a portrait is difficult under the best of circumstances. Doing a posthumous portrait is doubly so, particularly of somebody I never met. I can't see the person, can't study the way light bounces off different surfaces, can't see the color shifts in the skin tones, can't see the way he carries himself, and (most important) can't get my own first-hand impression of his personality and character. Even worse, such a portrait is loaded with emotional baggage that a regular portrait doesn't have. So doing a posthumous portrait is at best a guessing game done in a minefield. Fortunately, this time I apparently got it right, or at least close enough. My buddy said that I hit the mark with it, and that's a good feeling.

A few years ago, I saw a TV show about a woman who was painting portraits of fallen soldiers. She was a professional artist and her works were quite good. The segment followed her as she painted a portrait of a young infantry soldier from some photos, and then went to the his parent's house to record their reaction. It was evident to me that the portrait missed something in the young man's likeness or character. The reaction that an artist wants is "Oh, my gosh, that's John!" The reaction this portrait got was "oh ... ummm ... look, she got the way he always stands ..." Put yourself in their position: they've lost their son, somebody has gone to the trouble of painting a portrait of him and is giving it to them, here's a TV crew in their living room to record the Big Moment, and the portrait isn't quite John. What are they going to do? Say something nice, be appreciative, and when the TV crew leaves, they'll pack the picture up and put it away someplace while they try to put their lives back together again, only without their son.

I've done a posthumous portrait once before of a young Navy sailor who died of cancer. I didn't copy one single photograph. Instead, I used the general pose of one photo, combined with features from several others. It went through about three iterations before it finally felt right. I also had a contact who gave me regular (and very detailed) feedback. So I was pretty comfortable with the end result.


The Navy Chief
Oil on canvas, 20"x16", 2008

Apparently, though, I missed the mark. While it's a good painting, it evidently didn't capture something important of the likeness or the character. I never heard anything from the family nor my contact, so I have no idea what wasn't right. It's probably in a box in an attic now, if not a landfill.

Am I whining? No. It was a learning experience. I learned that posthumous portraits need to be handled with kid gloves. If I get it right, it's a wonderful thing for the family to have. If I get it wrong, it's another emotional burden on a family that already has more than it can handle.

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