Sunday, August 15, 2021

Working with Models

I recently completed this portrait of Emma, a wonderful model that I’ve worked with before. 

I sent an image of it to her.  Emma loved it and posted it on Instagram.  One of her friends responded with this note: “Whoever created this portrait hasn’t looked into your kindness and lightness. I hope I get to paint an oil painting of you and show who I know you to be.”

Emma responded: “I'd love for us to art together with paint and canvas, I'd be very interested to see what what part of me you capture. This one comes from a series, where the artist gave me free range to go through different sides of me from harsh to soft, this one was from a tough edgy section of our session :). It’s been fun watching artists witness my many sides and then their interpreting of that through their art medium, so beautiful.”

The first note was not wrong.  She only saw one artwork and Emma has an infinite range of sides that I would like to try to capture.  Not only that, but Emma would probably show the commenter some different sides that she didn’t show me.  So I would love to see what this commenter would come up with.  

Emma’s response shows that she totally understands the relationship between model and artist.  It’s a collaboration.  She does her thing, I run with it, and maybe something really cool comes out of our efforts.  Very much like two musicians getting together, feeding off each other, and trying to make some new music.

These two notes - the initial comment and Emma’s response - actually get to the very essence of my work with all the various models I’ve had in my studio.  Basically, I’m a figurative artist.  I draw and paint real people.  

Some artists - most, actually - use images of people to tell stories or to convey thoughts, ideas, or emotions through figurative images.  In these artworks, the figures are really actors in a visual play.  Their real-life personal identity is immaterial.  Take Norman Rockwell’s paintings, for example.  He used his friends and neighbors to tell stories for the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.  The mailman in a painting wasn’t really a mailman, he was chosen because he looked like the right character for Rockwell’s idea.  

I do this sort of thing, too, when I want to tell a story.  But a lot of the time, I’m doing an artwork to try to capture something of the specific individual in front of me.  He or she is not a generic figure, or just a slab of meat to draw, it’s Troy or Amy or Emma or James, a specific individual with a thousand different aspects to their personhood.  

I’ve had a lot of models come to my studio for photo sessions.  My guidance to them is very minimal.  Really, I just want them to be themselves.  Almost all of them quickly turned it into a play session: dancing, moving, lounging, “Vogue”ing, picking up props, changing clothes, removing clothes, putting clothes back on, talking with their hands, crawling over furniture, cranking up the music, whatever came naturally to them.  I encourage them and keep my camera going.  My goal is to let them be free to show me whatever side of their personalities they feel comfortable showing.  

These sessions typically reveal a lot about the model’s personality, often aspects that I hadn’t anticipated.  In one session, the model took a lot of poses that expressed both physical and mental strength.  A different model showed a very calm, grounded, earthy character.  A third showed her vulnerable and awkward side.  And one male was a combination of George Carlin and Robin Williams.  If I had them back for a second time, would they show me the same aspects again?  Maybe.  If they had a session with a different artist, would they show different aspects?  Almost certainly.  

So back to that initial comment about seeing Emma’s “kindness and lightness”.  I have actually seen that in her and thought it would come out in the session.  I went back over the photos and, surprisingly, it rarely did.  She was in a different mindset that day, a bit of a Vogue model, medieval witch-spirit, lawyer ballerina (now there’s a combination for you), and a variety of other characters.  It was lots of fun and I have a tremendous amount of material to work with.  But she was mostly edgy that day.  Might have to get her back for another session specifically for the kindness and loving aspects.  

One final note.  I really love my models.  All of them, male and female.  They let me see a bit of who they are, knowing that I’m going to make artworks that show other people what I see.  To them, I say thank you for your trust and openness.

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