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David Goatley, "The Right Honorable Kim Campbell, 19th Prime Minister of Canada"
David Goatley, "The Right Honorable Kim Campbell, 19th Prime Minister of Canada", oil on canvas 4' x 3'
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"Gabriel"Marija Petricevic, "Gabriel," 2004, pastel, 16" x 12". Winner of 2004 CIPA award for most innovative use of a medium.
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"The Right Hon. Kim Campbell"David Goatley, "The Right Hon. Kim Campbell," 19th Prime Minister of Canada, %u2028oil on canvas, 4' x 3'
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"Sushi for Lunch"Kitty Blandy, "Sushi for Lunch," charcoal, Damar canvas, %u202848" x 36". %u2028Winner of 2004 CIPA award for most innovative use of a medium.
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"State of Grace"Jean Pederson, "State of Grace," watercolour, 16" x 20". Winner of the 2004 CIPA award for best watermedium portrait.
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"Joseph"Lorna Hannett, "Joseph," scratchboard, 10" x 8". Winner of the 2004 CIPA Award of Great Distinction.
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"Parasol"Henri de Groot, "Parasol," pencil, 30" x 35" framed. Winner of the 2004 CIPA Founder's Award for best portrait in the show.
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"Portrait of a Painter"Janine Hall, "Portrait of a Painter," oil on board, 16" x 23". Winner of the 2004 CIPA Award of Distinction and the Swinton Award for best oil portrait.
THE PORTRAIT WITHIN
No cheesy grins, please. Portrait painters today aim to capture the essence of an individual.
By Jennifer MacLeod
Former Prime Minister Kim Campbell waited 11 years to get her official prime ministerial portrait done – it was finally unveiled in Parliament last November. Was she busy? Or was she simply inclined to put off an experience so weighty with historical significance, so daunting in its potential to penetrate one’s protective façade?
The portrait in all of us lurks behind a lifesize cut-out that is our self-perception – the way we see ourselves; the way we think we look, perhaps the way we are.
Mirrors are deceptive allies. Snapshots we know are unconscionable liars. But when we sit before a portrait artist, there’s a transfer of power that is frighteningly absolute. We hand our souls over to an artist whose very existence pivots on his or her powers of observation, whose talent is the ability to look at you, to reach in and pull something definitive out. It’s an act of derring-do. Risky. Bold. Defiant.
Calgary artist Marija Petricevic tells the story of an elderly client who brought a photograph of his younger self as well as a decades-old sketch depicting him in full military garb. Naturally, Petricevic referred to the photo for his likeness. “When I showed him the portrait, he didn’t want it,” she recalls. “He had expected me to work from the sketch. He’d looked at it frequently over the years, and never looked at the photo. The sketch was how he saw himself.” She asked him to take the portrait home and think about it. In a couple of days he returned, at peace, sincerely grateful for the painting she’d done.
“I always get an emotional reaction when I show people their finished portrait,” says painter Janine Hall. “Lots of quiet tears.” Hall won an Award of Distinction and the Swinton Award for best oil portrait at the 2004 National Open Portrait Exhibition, presented by the Canadian Institute of Portrait Artists (CIPA) last fall. When the subject of her winning piece first saw his portrait, it was a profound moment of looking, says Hall. “He is a painter himself, yet he had underestimated the affect that seeing himself in a painting would have.
“The piece of art – the painting – has an energy about it that captures soul and beauty,” says Hall. “It is profound to see yourself in that glow.”
True. But do we imagine King Henry VIII shedding a tear when his painted visage was unveiled to him?
Perhaps not. For one thing, the artist in that case wasn’t dabbing at Henry’s soul. He was focused on the ermine. Portraiture in past centuries was all about what you were, notes Bernard Poulin, president of CIPA. It was the King that was important, not the Henry. “Later, as professions emerged, what you did was important. Today, it’s who you are that counts. Portraiture has evolved along with that,” says Poulin.
Now we see people as complex, victimized, realized, analyzed and unique. Against the backdrop of 20th century psychoanalysis, we have a concept of individuality that wasn’t around before. We ‘get it’ when the portraitist offers us the chance to engage in a relationship with the subject of a portrait. And that becomes part of what distinguishes portraiture from figurative artwork.
“The painter has introduced you to someone – if you are engaged, and feel close to that individual… then yes it is a portrait,” says Poulin. “Portraiture says something about the person represented; we get caught up in a relationship.”
With a portrait, you get a sense of a specific personality. Figurative work, on the other hand, is done for a different purpose – a study of form, a representation of archetypal images such as the nude. Certainly, the subject doesn’t need to be identified for a piece to qualify as a portrait. So does the person portrayed actually need to exist?
As part of his body of work, Evan Penny creates meticulously detailed oversized sculptures and photographs of human figures. Some present the particular features of a real-life sitter while others exist as fictional composites of human beings. In either case, there’s no denying the overwhelming sense of presence one feels standing before these powerful ‘personalities.’ Penny’s artistic purpose, however, goes far beyond the creation of likeness, forcing us to contemplate our understanding of what is real, and unravel what it is we call identity.
“One needs to take very seriously the artist’s intent,” comments Hall. “Even composite sculptures or paintings, which are of no one real person, can be on a spiritual level a sort of portrait. But if the artist’s intent is not to produce a portrait… we need to take that seriously.”
Is a portrait also defined by the intent of the viewer? Since 1945, senior CIPA member Dorothy Oxborough has been creating pastel portraits of aboriginal people, mostly children and elders. Each one is based on a real person whom she has met and photographed. Each is rendered affectionately as a realistic depiction of a real person. None are commissioned. And most sell. What are the buyers buying? Have they any knowledge or interest in the individual portrayed? Not likely. They are buying icons; images of a culture. The line starts to blur.
If the distinction hinges on soul, and the ability of the artist to engage the viewer in a relationship, how is that accomplished? Most portraitists spend as much time as possible with their subject, but they’re lucky to get a couple of hours. They talk, do some sketches, and take lots of photos. The painting or sculpting is usually done back in the studio. Not many people actually sit for the whole process anymore. “Ten percent maximum,” estimates Poulin.
Portraitists are unapologetic about this. It’s pretty much a practical necessity in our busy world. And the use of snapshots does not mean that portraiture itself has become mechanized. Just the opposite.
“Photography is not your eye. It distorts proportions and perspectives… it is only a reference point,” cautions Poulin. “You cannot copy the photo, it can be wrong.”
Poulin is emphatic about the importance of having solid fundamental drawing and technical skills, and a precise knowledge of anatomy, so the artist no longer has to think about how to achieve the physical representation. The artist can refer to the photos for details, but the painting is done from intrinsic powers of observation, and the deeper sense of the person gained from spending time together. “The photo allows me to concentrate on the person,” says Poulin.
Janine Hall concurs. To open yourself to expressing what you’re seeing, to have your painting transcend, she says, requires hours of practice, to the point where you’re not thinking about how to do it.
David Goatley, a founding member of CIPA, is the Victoria-based painter chosen by Kim Campbell to create her long-awaited portrait. It was a rare treat to have painted much of that work from live sittings.
“People don’t often get a chance to stare at each other,” he notes. “Sometimes, the subject starts to feel like you can see inside them. They begin to tell you about themselves,” he says. “It’s like a confessional. It’s a privilege to share someone’s life like that.”
With such a leap of faith required, we can all empathize with Ms. Campbell’s angst about subjecting herself to any painter’s soul-catching brush. Was she nervous?
“Actually, she was very excited about it,” says Goatley. “She paints a bit herself, and was interested to see the process…a lot of fun… very confident… really thrilled....”
Oh. Well that proves it: the experience of portraiture, like the finished work, is as diverse as the individuals involved.