Before you read this post, look at the finished painting, Grey Bird Gets a No, here at the top, and quickly jot down the first impressions that come to mind. […]
Before you read this post, look at the finished painting, Grey Bird Gets a No, here at the top, and quickly jot down the first impressions that come to mind. Now set them aside; you’ll refer back to this later.
A friend recently asked me how much of ME shows up in my artworks.
At first I thought he meant strictly in my literal self-portraits. But during our discussion realized that probably ALL of my artworks are self-portraits. Even – perhaps especially – the ones that are not self-portraits in the traditional sense: literally depictions of an artist’s own physical body.
It’s easy to get tied up in how a physical human body should look on the canvas, including the proper artistic technique to achieve a good likeness. This can be useful, but it can also be a huge distraction from capturing the raw essence and energies present in our subjects (including our selves!)
Why is this the case?
Trying to get it right relies on our left, logical brain to analyze and figure things out. A little bit of logic is great! But to really tap into ALL that is present, an artist must let go of that linear thinking and surrender to her right, creative brain. Let it take her over and move her to make strokes in ways and areas that may not make logical sense, but nonetheless work perfectly to bring forth on the canvas a strength of feeling and unique expression of what she “sees”.
The best self-portraits – and all portraits – are not about seeing with just our eyes; rather they are when we as artists are seeing subjects with our hearts too. We are listening to and trusting our intuition to guide our hand, and making marks accordingly.
At this point my own left-brain is kicking in with comments like: Sounds a little airy-fairy Hannah. Cool description, but pretty abstract. What does one actually do with this concept practically? How does an artist do this in the studio?
Great question Lefty!
Here’s an example: the story of how this painting, “Grey Bird Gets a No”, came about.
One very early morning I was walking into the gym and noticed a small grey bird lying dead on the sidewalk. Immediately I felt connected with her, a soft pile of darkness huddled there on the cold concrete. For I was feeling this way too: having just heard a “no” from someone to my excitedly heartfelt invitation. So, that morning I was feeling pretty much like that dead grey bird on the ground: a small heap of greyness lying in the dark.
I made her a promise that if she was still there when I came back out after my workout, I’d take her home and paint her portrait in honor of her presence in my life at this particular time, and of her life period.
Turned out to be some pretty solid art therapy for me too. Because she was there on my way home. So I gently collected her small body and gave her an epic photoshoot back home in my studio, wings fully spread and everything! All the while celebrating her beauty, strength and softness, her life and death.
At this point I kind of closed up, got nervous. How do I possibly depict on canvas the deep reverence I feel for this small winged being?
So I started small: only an 8×8 canvas, a “quick study”. It was ok, a start at least. Technically appropriate for a small bird.
But it soon felt far too cramped. I could barely manipulate the paint around with any freedom. And she had no space to spread her wings, to rise from death and live on again, in the artwork. Just viewing the small study shown in this post you can feel it too, right?!
After struggling with the 8×8 size awhile, I set it aside and dove into a canvas 3x larger, where this tiny grey bird that fit in the palm of my hand could be depicted with the true amount of love and energy she actually carried, which was much larger than her purely physical form.
The simple shift in canvas size freed me up to move with confidence and certainty in creating her likeness. Too the larger canvas size forced me to use a more robust easel, to stand while painting, and to move my whole body vs just my hand as I stroked the canvas with thick layers of paint.
Soon I was moved to put music on, causing my body to move even more openly and freely, in a bonafide flow now. Perhaps how my little grey bird felt in flight, soaring high and wide on the strength of air currents and the beat of her beautiful wings?
Coming from within this creative space, the painting unfolded organically, and she told me what to do next!
Periodically I’d take breaks, stepping back to replenish my body and get a bigger perspective from across the room. And thru the next several days of painting her portrait, I realized that my heart was somehow feeling lighter, my head not quite so achy, my body having more energy.
I suppose that all my sadness at getting that “no” from my friend was pouring forth into this portrait of my little grey bird.
It felt as if we were co-creating together, an intimate dance of life, death, and legacy. And there was a third party: the person who originally said “no”, which set me on this path. But even in the depths of that distress, I sought to fully feel it – but also release it! To let it flow thru so I could fly light and free and light again, newly.
Now knowing what you know, can you see how I’d say that this painting, Grey Bird Gets a No, is an accurate self-portrait of me at that particular time?
Now re-read the first impressions you jotted down before reading this backstory. What did your intuition say that was in sync with this piece?
The sadness, softness, freedom, death, life, the wide open spread of her wings? Let us know in a comment below!
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