Really, both making a work of art and having a child are strikingly similar.
Both involve great uncertainty at the outset. There are more potential parents frozen in fear at the uncertainty and responsibility of bringing new life into the world than there have been probably at any other extended time in history. Sadly, many don't overcome this fear.
Artists or potential artists, when faced with the blank canvas and so much possibility, can also balk under similar pressure.
This struck me recently when I assigned a project to my college level students. The task was to illustrate a poem from a series. The hardest hurdle seemed to be merely to put pencil to paper just to make the first sketch. Most who had the courage to do so were able to make the second and third refinements without much trouble. But for those who didn't the excuses were myriad: I can't draw; I don't have time; I can't draw people, hands, faces, animals, whatever; what should I choose from the poem - there is so much; what do you think I should do? (can you just make the decisions for me?).
So many potential parents and potential artists trip on that starting line: commitment. To really start making something of a family and in art, you must say 'no' to a whole host of sparkling possibilities and say 'yes' to a host of potential problems and uncertainties. Maybe you'll have to work hard to figure out how to draw hands better because that is what your particular vision needs!
Once parents are pregnant, the uncertainty continues: What will my child be like? Boy or girl? Saint or Sinner? What trade? The possibilities are vast even though you have the most important parameters figured out (mom and dad will be the foundation and support and guide through their lives). Likewise the artist who has set his hand to his craft never quite knows what will come out at the end! He can have some idea based on what his vision and skills are, but like with children, all art makes demands that are unforeseen and ultimately has a type of autonomy of its own.
What could possibly overcome such uncertainties? Love. We need to be less afraid of making mistakes and more generous with bringing life. The artist is driven more by the love for the process and the product than he is stymied by the possibilities of error and failure. It is the same when having and raising kids. We need love, daring, and a little stupidity (luckily both of the latter are usually contained in the former!).
Last summer I received a message via Instagram from a woman who comes from a family which, I have since gathered, takes gift-giving very seriously. Mary had a concept in mind for a Christmas gift painting for her mother and wanted me to execute it. It was my honor to do so and the result is Ex Calibur.
The driving meaning of this painting is the long and loving marriage of Mary's parents. Deirdre and I had the pleasure of visiting with Mary when she took a mini road trip to my studio in order to hand-deliver these objects which are of great sentimental value to her and her family, especially her mother. During that visit, she shared with us about the pieces and their significance.
In the painting you see an unusual sculpture that consists of two parts: a cut Steuben glass orb (if you will) and a beautifully crafted sword. The glass represents the Stone of legend and the sword is Arthur's famous weapon, Ex Calibur. Mary explained to me that this sculpture is a treasured possession and meant a lot to her parents (her father has passed away). The couple had discovered it in a shop many, many years previous but it had been outside their budget, so they kept it in mind and saved up for it while raising a large and busy family. They finally purchased it as a celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. To Mary, seeing it is a reminder of the virtue of patience -- not to be stressed when something takes time or has to be budgeted for, since her parents waited 50 years for this gift!
The rings are her father’s Notre Dame ring and a miniature that he had made for her mother - very important to them as a dedicated ND family! (You know I appreciated this, being class of '08, myself.)
The cards are postcards which Mary and I agreed should be included in the painting. They are souvenirs from the Shrine of St. Anne in Quebec and represent the devotion Mary’s mother has to St. Anne (the mother of the Virgin Mary). Mary noted that her mother enjoys the fact that the feast of that saint falls on July 26 and that she herself also has twenty-six grandchildren.
Working on this painting was an absolute delight, as Mary was an ideal patron. She was excited to share her story and to hand off the vision while also very kindly entrusting the composition and execution to me. We had a great time communicating with her throughout the process and then hearing about how the gift had gone over at Christmastime. She told us that reflecting on the painting has even been a reminder to some of the grandchildren to visit the grave of their beloved grandfather. On a technical level, it was an interesting challenge to communicate the metal and the glass in the medium of oil paint.
It is my hope that this work will prove for many years to be a worthy tribute to a long and devoted marriage and the loving family it yielded. This world needs steadfast marriages and I was very glad to celebrate one this way.
Visit my Commissions page and read Mary’s kind testimonial here.
Perhaps you’ve noted the two coins in the center of the painting, which were my addition (with Mary’s approval). I can tell you what their significance is, but first I’d love to know what your guess is as to their meaning -- tell me your guess in the comments below!
I'm very pleased to share with you one of my major projects from 2019: my first formal portrait in oil of my wife, Deirdre.
I set out with the cooperation of my gorgeous wife, Deirdre, to make a beautiful and elevated portrait of her. I have long wanted to attempt a portrait of my wife that was more than a quick pencil sketch (which I often have the pleasure of doing) and I'm very grateful that I was able to work on it this year.
We set about gathering together three or four different outfits a few weeks before the sitting. I took these outfits in the studio to coordinate and harmonize them with different background draperies and other props that I had well before Deirdre came in for the photoshoot. With this previous preparation we were able to set about posing and snapping photos of Deirdre in the context of my studio's wonderful North light. (I actually had her come into the studio on her birthday!)
During the process I would take dozens of photos, giving Deirdre some direction about her pose ranging from asking her to perform small actions like straightening her hair or setting out a fan to inspire or discover a pose that I had not yet imagined to asking her to tilt her head slightly one way or another to refine a pose that was already working very nicely. Every once in a while I would give Deirdre a break from posing and we would discuss the images that we had taken so far and she would be able to give me immediate feedback about what her favorites were. After about an hour and a half, 300 pictures, and various adjustments, we went back home to start the sorting and editing process.
Some work in progress shots:
After hours of sorting and editing I narrowed the source material down to four photos and let our Beauty Advocacy community help us decide on the final! (thank you!) Then the work of the final painting got started.
As we went through the development of the painting it was fascinating to both Deirdre and myself how the image was transformed. A painted portrait from a photograph can never be an exact copy (which is a good thing). It will always be changed in some way through human eye and mind. It was remarkable to see how some slight shift in an eyebrow or the curve of the lips could bring about large changes in the tone and expression of the sitter and the feel of the painting altogether. I hope that the crafting of these nuances has brought about a deeper and truer image of Deirdre than the camera was able to capture; one that is in fact more reflective of her personality, warmth, and dignity.
One of the last adjustments to the image that we decided to make was to change Deirdre's earring from a large wooden one that was in the original photo to a smaller, gold, fan-shaped hearing that you see here. I made this decision for a number of reasons - the first reason was to elongate the feel of Deirdre neck to give a greater feeling of dignity and grace - I felt the large chunky wooden earrings took away too much from the vertical lines at this particular angle. After this I tried a vertical silver earring which we found made the picture overall feel too cold. Finally we decided on the earring that you see here and we're very happy with the warmth and interest it brought to the picture.
I'm also pleased with the way the wedge or triangle shape of the earring plays into and interacts with the other triangles in the composition. If you take a look you'll see a series of these shapes in Deirdre dress, made by the angles of her arms, her fingers, and of course the shape of the fan at the bottom of the painting.
The fan is an antique one that Deirdre fell in love with at a thrift store when she a teen (and had a penchant for costumes and all things dramatic) and which her mother later gave to her as a gift. The bracelet she wears is also an antique and, although it's not visible to the viewer, is actually a Rosary bracelet so that it can be a sacramental companion to prayer. Hopefully the brightness of her face and some aspects of her character are complemented by these details.
I am thoroughly delighted with this completed the painting and we hope you will be too!
Now I need your help again: what do you think should be the title?
A few weeks ago I received a visit from local reporter Robyn Kenney. She took a look around the studio and asked me a few questions about myself and my work. Take a look!
It was a pleasure having you stop by, Robyn! Thanks for the spot.
For the truly time-pressed, find a 30-second teaser version below:
Hello there, I'm John H. Folley. Thanks for visiting the Beauty Advocacy Blog, where it's my job to help you become a more discerning art appreciator.
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