On a warm sunny day I was walking up the street and absorbing the fresh air of Berkeley, California. It felt good to have a little time to reflect before reaching my destination. I had my camera, some lights, extension chords, and extra light bulbs all stuffed into my backpack which hung from tense shoulders. I was trying to figure out how to best utilize the short amount of time I had in order to make sure that this upcoming photoshoot was successful. It was the only chance I was going to get. Ideally, I would've had a sit-down-and-talk meeting beforehand, but my subject was a busy man, and with years of being a commission portrait artist I knew that ideal situations were hard to come by. It was a warm and sunny day all right, and I was off to meet a living legend.
When I got to the headquarters of the SEVA Foundation I was surprised by how homely it was. There were toys scattered in the yard, and I passed by piles of personal belongings. It didn't feel messy, in fact there was a strange order to it. All the clutter seemed like essential components that helped the walls stay up. I noticed the warmth of the rooms. I noticed the photo collage on the wall. I noticed that it felt like no other place I've been.
Aaron, my liaison and greeter, was showing me around. He was friendly and smiley, and I could see that this was the result of having one of the best jobs in the world. How could he not be in the state of constant bliss? He was Saint Misbehavin's right hand man! Every day he worked, he worked for the king of hippies, a master clown, and a devoted activist. How could you not smile when you worked for Wavy Gravy? A man who embodied the flower power generation and made a career of it. This was who I was going to meet. This was the subject of my next portrait painting. Did I feel nervous? You bet I did.
To put it in context, Wavy Gravy has lived a life that few people could dream up. Being a monumental pillar of the hippie movement in American history, Wavy rubbed elbows with the likes of Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, B. B. King, Ken Kesey, and practically every rockstar during the 60s and 70s (even rockstars all the way up till today). He was part of the Merry Pranksters, began the SEVA Foundation to help the blind, created Camp Winnarainbow, and was the master of ceremonies at Woodstock. And these are only a few of his accomplishments. Wavy started his psychedelic journey with a bang and is still going strong in his 80s. Anyone can comfortably say that Wavy is bigger than life itself. With all this in mind I was faced with a problem. I needed to figure out how portraiture could encapsulate this man. I needed to figure out how my oil paints could translate the essence of a legend.
A Commission Portrait Artist Meets The Clown Prince
When I think of an 80 year old I picture someone falling asleep in a comfortable chair, just taking it easy. But it's not what I saw when I walked through the doorway to Wavy's room. He was working on the computer moving a bit slow, but definitely not slowing down. He wanted to get stuff done before giving me his attention. When he turned to me his smile was warm and a bit mischievous. He had a twinkle in his eye, and I could tell he was sizing me up, curious about my intentions, but not particularly wary. Our conversation was light. I asked him about things in his past, and he kept his answers brief but entertaining. He put on a tie dye shirt, and a white bowler, and we went into another room. There was a large altar built of Wavy Gravy memorabilia, things people sent him, posters, art, and tapestries he's collected. I was surprise to find so many Wavy Gravy action figures. There were toys, musical instruments, beads, and figurines. It was a room that could've been an 8 year old's playroom, but it belonged to an 80 year old icon. I began taking reference photos, letting the natural light from the window illuminate Wavy's features.
While I was photographing I realized that Wavy's spirit was youthful. He held on to an appetite for life most commonly seen in the young. It wasn't a case of an arrested development. It was because Wavy felt no need to change himself. He was happy, motivated, and comfortable being inside his own skin. But the thing I found most interesting about Wavy Gravy was not his embracement of childlike exuberance, it was the very intelligent and sly expressions that passed over his face. I could see that there was a discerning and sharp mind that lay beneath. It was a very different side which mingled and mixed with the clown like surface. He wasn't pretending to be one thing or the other. I felt that he was a multi-faceted man that found a balance amidst his many sides.
We didn't have very long for the photoshoot. Wavy needed to get ready to do a recording session with Phish, a modern day rock group. He was indeed a man on the go, so we finished up, I thanked him, and I found myself walking under the Berkeley sunlight once again.
To Paint a Living Legend
Being a realistic portrait painter has been one of my greatest passions and greatest challenges in life. I've stated time and time again; in portraiture I do not just try to capture a physical similarity, but I also try to recreate the feel of a person. I found out that this became incredibly tricky while painting Wavy. I needed to bring out the personality behind the man, as well as recreate the many facets of the man's personality. Meeting Wavy Gravy, getting to talk with him, and gleaning a sense of his being was important towards the success of the piece. I felt comfortable with figuring out how to render the proportions correctly, painting the features accurately, and getting the lighting to look realistic. But I had to figure out what parts of the subject were windows to his complex personality, as well as which objects in the background would add to his story. I felt that the glimmer in Wavy's eyes and the slight amused expression on his lips were monumental towards conveying the deep mind beneath his prankish exterior. As a commission portrait artist, I've found that it's the very subtle things that make a huge difference in a portrait painting. For the background, I brought out some details in seemingly opposite objects. I made sure to make some of the toys plainly visible, as well as clearly render the pattern in a Tibetan Buddhist tapestry hanging on the wall. I felt that these elements accentuated Wavy's nature.
Once the momentum of the piece was underway, I felt the painting created itself. I had some technical issues that needed to be solved (like rendering the lighting on his belly to accurately curve with his body), but in the end I felt good about the piece. The experience was a unique event in my career. Painting someone famous offered a different set of challenges. But in the end it became like all portrait paintings. I kept my goal the same; capture the person and the personality.
Thank you Wavy Gravy, Raymond Van Tassel, and Aaron Simon. Make sure to check out the SEVA Foundation's website and Camp Winnarainbow!
If you are looking for a commission portrait artist to render you or someone you love, feel free to contact me. I'll be happy to answer any questions. Also check out my Commissions page for details on my process and prices.