Capturing the Truth in Portraits


I am not an artist, but I do draw and paint with some small talent.  Often, as gifts, I will paint a favored setting, pets, or even portraits for people I love. Those same folks then tell me I should try to sell my work.  (Right…Along with all the artists who actually are able to make a living this way.)  Maybe this is possible, but only for strangers. . .because painting the people I know is the most difficult thing for me to do.  Even as a writer, I have always found that the fiction I write is most stilted when I add real people, their real dialogue to the story.

What is it about knowing someone well that makes it nearly impossible to capture them on paper?  Their very essence blocks my view when I am sketching. Their needs strangle me, too, when I am shaping their noses, their chins.  I waffle between being the  ELLE magazine CGI master who thins out waist lines, straightens teeth, spaces out eyes, and the illustrator who is trying to capture what I see, what I know and love.

This past month, my parents celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary.  Years ago I drew a large pastel portrait of their four cocker spaniels, which they richly framed and placed in their kitchen.  They proudly brag to visitors how closely each dog resembles the real animals, long buried, long-loved.  This year I chose to pencil-sketch their four grandchildren, and it was tough going for me.  I had to practice sketch each child repeatedly.  When I was ready for the larger sheet, I threw out seven different drafts, before I balanced them into one sitting. The cockers were so much simpler. 

Too many things to consider. . .which child gets center stage?  Will one head be much bigger than the other, (which, of my sons, we do have large heads, to the point where the doctor delivering my youngest scared me so much the anesthesiologist cursed at her, when the doc complained about trying to grasp my son’s giant head. . .)  Do I remove the nose bump that drives my dramatic niece to feel suicidal.  Will my nephew’s long hair which is certain to change once he leaves middle school, date this picture like all middle-school pictures do. . .?  Will my oldest want his ever-present glasses on or off?  Strangers do not effect these decisions.  I have no emotional investment in their portraits.

However, capturing my family was filled with heart.

My nephew has a devilish grin and the family Irish/Scots twinkle in his eye.  Each plane of his face was once my brother’s as well.  My niece has gorgeous, strawberry blonde locks, and certain Celtic beauty.  Her eyes tell so much about her, even in a pencil rendering.  And she is the epitome of my mother when my mother was a teen. (I seem to be the only one who sees it, but I am correct.) My oldest son inherited his father’s broad Saxon face and jaw, but his head is covered in the tightest blonde curls of anyone in our family.  Who gave those to him?  He lamented them when a Tween, but now accepts them as a great conversation starter.  

My youngest, I struggled with his drawing the longest.  He has the most mirthful smile of all the children, laughs and giggles with abandon.  And he has his paternal grandmother’s eyes, hooded lids, delicate eyebrows.  Every single draft made my child look Chinese.  As Seinfeld would say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. . .except that my child is so definitely English, German,  Scotts, with his smooth pale skin and ruddy cheeks,  He is, of all the children, the most Tribal Germanic, but in my sketches, he looked like I had adopted him.

I couldn’t just draw them without feeling responsible for their very image.  I found that they represent the eyes of my whole family, blue in all our known generations, with green pacific tones, yellow sunbursts, or pure aquamarine sky, but all blue.  All four of them have my chin in varying forms. I had never noticed.  All of them have eyelashes to die for, curly, dark blonde.  All share the hint of a dimple tracing along one cheek, my Mom’s contribution, though fully pronounced in my youngest.  My back hurt (as fused backs do) drawing and shading, but I ended up simply feeling so in love with these kids that I was able to ignore the pain.  There is much I want to redo, but my parents welcomed it, and wouldn’t let me touch up anymore.

Of course. . .the children were still my harshest critics.  The boys liked the sketches well-enough, though felt this or that should be changed.  But they feel that way when they look at photographs of themselves. . . so I didn’t mind (even if my oldest thinks he looks like that guy from  King of the Hill). My niece, however, felt that I had made her much too pretty.  The failings of drawings. . .I was worried she’d hate hers the way one deletes an unphotogenic selfie.  But instead, she felt she didn’t live up to her own beauty.  Let me tell you,  I didn’t enhance anything about her.  To me, she is exactly as she is in that sketch.

If only we could get people to see in themselves what we see in them.