Going back into portraiture

I’m beginning to advertise myself as a portrait artist again. This year has been an interior one, exploring my motivations, what I really gravitate to, what I want to say, and how in this capitalistic society do I make it work. So with that in mind, I want to talk about why I stopped commission work in the first place, why I’m coming back to it, and what I hope it will become for me.

I’m gonna be super-simplistic and break art that sells into two types. There is the art that is done for others, and there is art that is done because the artist has something to say. The division between these two is not a crisp straight line, more like a fuzzy spectrum of red and blue with a lot of confusion in the fuzzy purple center. But… to explain. There is art that is created for the non artist. The non artist has a vision, and works with a creative to complete it. This is true for all art, from writing to music and dance as well as the visual art. Like… a CEO and their team want to come up with an advertisement strategy, they hire artists/creatives, or a family wants to have a photo reproduced as a painting… I’d count that too. Or any individual for any reason who hires someone who has skills they don’t have to create a thing they are visualizing in their minds. The creative’s challenge is to find out what their client really wants, and how they can make that happen so they can achieve their results. It can be exciting work and there are lots of employment opportunities with that kind of work. Then there’s the other kind, where the artist, writer, musician, dancer/choreographer, director, etc work. They use the information in front of them to interpret their own vision. Instead of having a client dictate the message, the creative instead has something to say. Could be they are intimately involved with light and atmosphere and want to explore what they see in it, or they want to explore what the medium can do, or they want to talk about social or political issues, or they work at defining what they see, how they see with pigment or film.

Both are valid forms of exploration and expression, and I work both ways personally. However I have always leaned to the latter, the more fine-artsy way of doing things. I would say I have not always had the… confidence (for lack of a better word) to work that way. People who hire me tend to think of me as ‘the artist they know so can create what I can’t’, and because of that I have gotten requests to do work that I am either uncomfortable with or simply don’t do. I’ve gotten pornographic requests from men who wanted to hire a female artist to paint them nude as part of a fantasy, I’ve been asked to paint lesbian robots making out in a dystopian scene, and I’ve had less shocking but just as annoying dictation into how I was to lay out and interpret the subject. It’s part of my personality to want to make people happy, and to give them what they want (probably why I’m good at customer service). So in the past, especially when I was right out of college I’d struggle hard at these requests, because they weren’t what I wanted, but at the same time working at art was what I wanted to do… and I really do love portraiture. What ended up happening though is I decided I didn’t want to continue with feeling dissatisfied with my work when someone else felt they had dictatorial control. I don’t have to work from a model, it’s better if I do but I can create and have control just fine. So, I quietly stopped offering commissions. That was a few years ago.

So what has changed now? Back to the beginning when I said this has been a year of introspection. I’ve been quietly sketching and reading, watching documentaries while finding short quick freelance gigs of all kinds to try to stay afloat (with marginalish success… yes that’s a word, I said so). There’s a lot I want to do, and many areas where I can do good… and one of those does involve working with people, going back to portraits because of one of my own personal driving mission statements. Without writing up flowery ways of saying, basically I want to document, show people what I see, and help people realize they are awesome, heroes in their own story as it were. Even if you’ve faced tragedy or done things you aren’t proud of, or even if you feel lost… there’s hope and beauty to be discovered and there’s always a chance to connect. That’s how I have always felt. Now I wonder if some folks have turned away and can’t get back to seeing the beauty in themselves and others because hate seems like a more attractive option, but I can’t let myself get lost in what I don’t have control over. When I look at what I feel is the best of my own work, and where I want to dig my heels into, is the open sensual richness of aesthetic that I understand and can never put in words because I’m a painter.  My first language is said not through words and the thoughts and symbols they represent but the feeling and emotion I put into ‘the work’. I don’t know if I can ever really explain, but if I get lucky maybe I can show.

And that’s what I want to do with portraiture, but the trick is going to be to get people to trust me. I have been thinking a lot lately about why people would want to hire a painter. If I was going to, it would be because I would want the artist to see more of me and say more of who I am than what a generic photograph from Sears or whatever can. Lately I’ve gotten a few portrait requests, and the first question I ask is ‘have you seen my work?’ and I talk to them to see what is it they really want. Do they want me to paint them because they love what I do and want me to see something in them? Or are they wanting to hire me to be the first kind of artist, to interpret what they wish. Today vs years ago I have more confidence in saying no to the more illustrative request. Come to me because you want to collaborate with me, let me see you and paint you as I do and help you evolve on your journey.  Not to be the hands you lack to do a thing that may or may not be toxic to your own adventure, or your pornographic paint derived channel, or an ego driven circle jerk.

I know I have a lot of work to do if I want to build that side up. I do wonder if there’s even a demand… but I am choosing to trust myself. I believe I have something valuable to offer and as a painter I’m inexpensive. So we shall see.

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