Portraits for a Commission Portrait Artist
The day was hot and full of odors that fought to overpower one another. It was midday in Marrakech, and the hazy sky brought along dust and noise as a compliment to the smells. I chose this tea shop because of the view, not because of the distance from the street gutters. My reward were the multitudes of people passing by. I had just ordered a pot of mint tea. The sun was beating down on anything beyond my shade, but I still longed for the hot concoction being served. Moroccan mint tea in Morocco is not like the kind you find at Starbuck's in San Francisco. The mint overpowers the bitterness of the actual tea leaves, and the copious amounts of sugar overpowers them both. It feels thick even though it is much lighter than coffee. It's the sweetness that makes it feel heavy while the mint adds a freshness to each sip. The drink's character is much like the country it came from, full of many sides and dichotomies. I cherished every drop. The sounds of passing motorbikes and rapid fire arabic delighted my senses. I watched the faces, taking in every smile, every wrinkle, every expression. Every face was a portrait, and I wanted to paint it all.
This San Francisco Portrait Painter Isn't in Kansas (or San Francisco) Anymore
If a character of a place is made up of the characters within its borders, Morocco is full of personality. It's not like the racial and cultural heterogeneity you would find in the United States, where the population is made up of people from everywhere. It's the kind you only find in countries that are very old. Ones where the slow turnings of time shape a history that creates a variety of faces underneath the identity of one nation. That is the type of country Morocco is.
Being a commission portrait artist I often don't get to choose who I paint. This isn't a big problem for me as I love doing what I do, but I still need to find things to paint outside of commissions. It keeps the art feeling fresh, and continues to flame the passion that all artists need. So going to Morocco was a great opportunity. I was looking forward to absorbing my environment, taking on new experiences, and seeing faces upon faces. I'm not a big shopper so I wasn't looking for souvenirs or trinkets. I wanted to bring home the people. I wanted to pack the soul of Morocco within my sketchpad and smuggle it back with me on the plane. I'm still unpacking it all, even though I've been home for months now.
On the road from Marrakech to Essaouirra we made a stop at an argan farm. The building was surrounded by trees, and the place had a peacefulness about it. Oil and butter is produced from the argan trees among other products. The process is intensive as a group of half a dozen women were seated on the ground within the compound. Most of the women would pound out the seeds in order to extract the middle, which would be broken up and ground down in a grinder. It was a mini production line. With stained hands and deep dark blue overcoats, the women all had stories on their faces. Every toothy smile and weathered brow had a unique tale. I wanted to uncover what made them happy, what made them tired, what created the lines around their eyes. They were all middle aged and matronly. It was fun to laugh with them. I was sad to not get the chance to really know them or hear their stories. But I knew that through painting I may be able to get a glimmer into who they were. That is the power of portrait painting. To be able to glean some sense of another person, even a complete stranger. It is through observation that we get to know about the people around us, and to be a good portrait painter you need to be a good observer. This is probably the most important skill, but also the one most overlooked and disregarded.
What's it Like for a Commission Portrait Artist to Paint a Non-commissioned Portrait?
Creating a portrait for someone else is a great endeavor. It forces an artist to hone their skills and produces an experience that is unique for the person being painted. Often times a customer finds a commission portrait artist in order to paint a loved one. It's a heartfelt and special gift. I am deeply honored when I am told that I captured the essence of the person I've painted. But I would not have gotten to this point in my career without painting portraits of people outside of commissions. By being free to choose which people I paint, I am letting myself explore what I see and what attracts me. This has increased my sense of empathy and ability to uncover the essence of who a person is. I don't claim that it has taught me to know a person completely, but it has taught me to gain a good sense of someone's character. This ability is an important skill to hone as a commission portrait artist. One needs to infuse a portrait with the personality of who is being painted. If one does not do this than no matter how technically accurate the piece is it will lack life.
A San Francisco Portrait Painter's Homecoming
The paint I mixed has the right shade of red to it. I want to accentuate the nose in my current portrait even though my subject's is not quite so rosy. I struggled with her nose the day before, and it looked strangely two dimensional. My instincts screamed for me to add more red in order to make it pop out. I resisted for a moment, only because it's habit for a portrait painter to paint what they see. But the things that painting non-commissioned portraits has taught me is to let yourself enhance what you see, and to always be willing to alter the reference if it will make the painting better.
When I think back on my recent trip to Morocco, I feel blessed to have been given the chance to go. I had good company, a stimulating environment, and a creative purpose. I've sat at many teashops around the world sipping the local beverage, and I've watched many faces go by. Each one has a story. Each one has a personality. Each one has hopes, dreams, and goals. I may only get to see a mere handful of people relative to the world's population, but it won't stop me from bringing as many of them home with me. You can come visit them in my studio, or in my sketchbook. Hopefully you can get a little sense of who they are.