The portrait commission

A portrait is a ticklish intersection of your viewpoint and the client’s.
Andrea, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)

Last spring a gentleman stopped by my studio and handed me a battered photo from his wallet. It was of his wife, taken when they were very young. It was tiny and terribly worn. Only her face was unmarred, but what a face it was! It radiated a quiet joy at being caught in this moment by this cameraman. No wonder her husband had carried it with him for decades.

I took a few pictures of his picture and handed the original back to him for safekeeping. Summer is no time for me to take on a commission; he would have to wait for autumn. Still, I’d stop and take a few swipes at it whenever I was in my studio for a day, and by late August it was finished.
A detail of the worn surface of the photo.
In one way, it was a painting only a woman of a certain age could have done. It was easy enough for me to plausibly reconstruct her clothes, her makeup and her hairstyle, because there was a time when I’d styled myself the same way. But I couldn’t get lost in a retro fashion show. My client was clear that he wanted an impression of the photo, not a faithful reconstruction. It was not only a portrait of his wife in her youth; it was a portrait of a photograph he’d carried for most of his adult life.
Drake, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
I’ve painted several portraits from bad photos and tiny snapshots. Usually, they are nowhere as joyous as the one at top. The model often can’t come to me because they’re dead. The painting is a way to help his or her survivors grieve. The most difficult one I’ve ever painted was of a stillborn infant, above. It was painted from a blurry snapshot, taken hurriedly in a hospital room.
Such paintings are, artistically, as difficult as it gets. There’s no light in the photos and you’re making up most of the details. And there’s a lot riding on getting it right. The mother of that infant asked for the painting several years after her baby’s death. As a mother, staring at the snapshot for hours on end, it was easy for me to feel her grief. It was my duty to help bind it up, in any way I could.
It is always easier and more successful to work from life or a combination of life, sketches and photos (the more feasible solution for a group portrait). One still must consider the motivation of the client.
Reclining figure, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
The nude figure, above, was technically easy, since I had the model in my studio. What was difficult was the model’s public identity; she is a doctor. For the past twenty years, I’ve spent a lot of time with doctors, and I have a great respect for them. Still, I wasn’t her patient. It wasn’t until I started the painting that I realized how much her clothes defined her in my mind. I never got past my own reaction to her undress. That is apparent in my intentional simplification of her facial features. Still, the painting is a success, one of my favorites in a long career of painting.
The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, by Carol L. Douglas (private collection)
Another portrait that’s among my favorites is The Children of Dean and Karolina Fero, above. I didn’t know these kids before I started this painting. Many years later, the daughter is my close friend and her brother a valued acquaintance. It’s full of symbols that mean something to the sitters but not to the casual observer.
Next year I’m booked to go to Scotland to do a portrait in situ, in the manner of Francis Cadell. I’ll spend the intervening time thinking through what the painting means, both to the person who commissioned it and the model. Get that right and the painting part is easy.