Take a look at your hands. What do they say about you? My hands are small but sturdy; usually spattered with paint; hieroglyphs of to-do lists scrawled in ballpoint pen. Built for basketball and giving solid hugs; the nimble fingers that easily untie knots struggle to extend far enough for guitar chords and piano exercises. Our hands help tell the story between the lines of our life.
In order to paint a successful portrait, you can’t simply recreate a likeness of the subject. You need to connect with their story so that you can bring them to life in the painting. In this case, I had never met my subject. I’ve heard bits about her life through her daughter, but know very little. So, I studied the reference image, searching for the story within the photo. Her hands are what first caught my attention. Purple veins speak to the delicacy of life, as more of life is behind than before her. Arthritic knots prove that these hands have worked hard: loving, caring, providing the tough love and rock-solid support that a strong mother can. Even the position of her hands tells a story. They’re not in her pockets, not thrown nonchalantly over the back of the bench, nor are they clasped or folded in her lap. No, they’re relaxed yet ready, resting one on each knee. They support her posture, which sits up straight and proud in spite of age. She’s proud, but she isn’t disdainful. She is relaxing, enjoying this afternoon of sunshine in a park, spending time with her daughter. We can’t see her eyes, but a smile curling at the corner of her mouth tells of her sense of humor. She is enjoying this day.
I started this portrait as a demo for my watercolor students. As they progressed with their own portraits, I’d gather them around for lessons on color, layering, and texture techniques. For example, her white jeans were a lesson in “white is not truly white” – you must mix greys, blues, or yellows into the white to tone it back and make the shadows seem real. Her sweater was a lesson in patience: patterns in clothing must warp with the folds of cloth and can’t be faked or rushed. Face and hands were a lesson in skin tones: don’t go too brown with the shadows or the skin will look muddy and cold; reds and purples are better for maintaining warmth in the shadows of skin. Finally, we moved to the background: layering dry-brush and spatter textures gives that illusion of rough mulch and leafy trees. Perhaps I’ll get permission from my students to post their finished portraits on this blog…then you’ll see what they learned from these demos and what stories they chose to tell through watercolor.