Recently I found myself painting a self-portrait.
The reason why is not important right now, but it is not an easy task. I have never been one to like photos of myself. Even when I was a child. Most people don’t so I am in good company I guess. Plus lighting in photos is difficult at best to translate into something useable for a painting. And painting oneself in a mirror has its own challenges. I would much rather work with a model. Other than myself.
So when I inevitably began complaining about how to do this and that I was old, a bit plumper than I used to be, etc, etc. My wise daughter gave me a line of advice:
“Lean into it.”
Being a portrait painter and studying the body for so many years has given me a secret power- I have found that I notice things that others don’t. I am in tune with the structure of the head and the way the body moves and carries its weight. So I easily notice the person with botox across the room at the coffeehouse. (And on literally almost every newscaster) I see the person who has an eating disorder in the grocery store. Their body so thin and their demeneaour so timid. I notice the person in line ahead of me who has a blue tinge to their skin so I know something is off with their health. Also, the person with half their eyebrows missing- from the midpoint to the outer edge- so I know their thyroid is having issues. Then there is the insecure “Karen” who keeps flipping her ungodly expensive purse forward unnaturally so that others notice her carrying something worth more than most people can afford for a car.
I notice. And I am self critical.
My kids don’t catch these things so I have come to realize that these postures and facial elements are a by-product of being a portrait painter. I study people. I guess a dermatologist can spot issues with someones skin across the room too.
And of course being an artist means not just painting pretty things. I have said this a lot over the years in this blog and in many workshops. Being an artist is another name for being a construction worker mashed up with a storyteller. If an artist finds themself painting “things” I fear they are missing the point.
“I think it is rare to see an honest depiction of someone your age mom.” (She said without insult) “I think you need to lean into it. Embrace everything about yourself and paint that.”
Oh wise soul. But that is hard advice. Especially in a selfie-obsessed world.
So I am trying. It is another learning adventure for sure. And tough. And no, I am not ready to release the image to the world just yet. It is still percolating. Though right now it is hidden in a back corner of my studio out of my line of sight for a bit. I’ll pull it back out again when I feel it has marinated enough on the canvas and in my brain and then I will finish it off at some point.
When I was in labor with all of my three kids I had the “shakes” really bad. It is a side effect of the trauma the body is going through and other women out there will relate to this experience. The nurse, seeing my shoulders shaking so badly told me to lean into her hand. As hard as I could. The shaking stopped.
When something is uncomfortable it is understandable to want to run. To turn from the humanity and imperfection. (Oh, don’t I seem so wise this week?) Many paintings that I thought were a lost cause only came together when I let go and stopped being so controlling. When I grabbed some courage from the universe somewhere and leaned into the mess and ideas and then somehow the image settled. So I have a mirror. And a flashlight duct-taped to a stand above my head while I paint. And many photos.
I’m leaning in.