This week, I spent five fantastic days copying John Singer Sargent’s portraits under the superb guidance of Esteban Rodriguez at the Academy of Realist Art in Toronto, and trying to unlock the master’s secrets for myself (scroll down to see my master copies).
Every Realist Artist’s Existentialist Question
In my last year of high-school, my art teacher told me that I should give up art because “realism is out” and “you’re not doing anything a camera can’t do”. A part of me thought she was probably right. After all, I’d never thought about why it was so important to me to draw well. She threw the entire path of my life into question, and I ended up veering into a successful – but unfulfilling! – engineering career.
Fortunately I never stopped pursuing art in my spare time. But it wasn’t until this week that I realized she was dead wrong; I can do way more with a realistic painting than I can with a camera.
My Unexpected A-HA Moment
I was looking at my little girl and realized that I have to paint her as soon as possible using Sargent’s methods, because she’s changing every day and the camera can capture an image, but it can’t capture “her” the way a portrait does. A camera can show you her round baby eyes, but a good portrait will convince you that they can blink!
As I worked through Sargent’s paintings in the studio, each one had a moment where it came alive. I took on the emotions of the subjects, frowning intensely while I painted Gordon Greenough and feeling pensive as I copied his little girl. At one point I could see the woman I was painting starting to breathe.
So if I want to capture my kids for ever, it has to be in a portrait.
On the way home, I bought three more of the beautiful canvases I used for this course. Next step: make my family come alive on our walls!
PS – I got home last night to find a little wee finger print right on the girl’s nose. Someone had touched the wet oil painting and pulled the paint right down into her mouth. Of course no one confessed! But I realized later….the kids had to touch her to see if she was real. Cool.