When my friend and colleague asked me to paint a pastel portrait of her three-year-old son, I was both delighted and a bit nervous. Painting a portrait of someone specific is a lot different from painting "a person." I feel confident that I can do a credible job of rendering the human face and body, but the challenge of capturing the spirit and personality of a particular child was a new goal. Could I achieve it? My friend sent me a number of charming pictures of her son, and we agreed on one that featured a diagonal composition, with his head tilted and his eyes impishly meeting those of the viewer. In an approach unusual for me, I carefully enlarged the photo to a black and white photocopy, then gridded it out in 1" squares. Having selected a warm but pale ochre Colorfix paper to work on, I drew a 1.5" grid and scaled up the main features. On a portrait, the alignment and spacing of each feature is critical, and if it isn't right the likeness is lost. I didn't want the final painting to be what John Singer Sargent once said a portrait was: "a painting of a person in which something is wrong with the mouth"!
Happily, the portrait progressed well and gave me less angst than I expected. To bring warmth to the piece, in which the child is wearing a cool blue plaid shirt, I chose complementary orange and warm yellow tones for the background, which, coincidentally, turned out to be the colours in the room where the portrait will hang. Phew!
We had agreed that I would send the portrait across Canada to my friend, unframed, and she would frame it to her taste. Worried that the pastel would be creased or punctured, I sandwiched it between two sheets of 1/4" fome-cor, with an extra piece of stiff mat added to keep it rigid and a sheet of glassine to keep it from smudging. I slathered "fragile artwork--do not bend or puncture" warnings all over both sides, and sealed the edges of the package with sturdy duct tape. Choosing express post to minimize the time it would spend in transit, I also insured the package for the value of the unframed painting, and sent it off with a silent prayer for its safe delivery.
Miraculously, the package arrived safely within 24 hours, and my friend reported delightedly that her son recognized himself immediately. His mother was very gracious in her praise, and it seems we have a happy result. Thank goodness! This process was less nerve-wracking than I had feared, and encourages me to take on other commissions in future.