How does a polar bear painting possibly relate to a portrait of a beloved pet?
It lies in that fact that I regard all my subject matter as portraiture, and my polar bear art is no different. I paint with the theory the eyes are the “mirror to the soul”. Until I get the eyes “right”, until they feel alive to me, I personally don’t connect to the painting. When that magical moment of connection happens, then the painting is on its way!
All artists have their own way of approaching a painting, especially when painting from photographic reference. Some artists apply the paint inch by inch, finishing each section completely before moving on to the next.
I use the more “whole painting” approach in my technique, but I start each session with the eyes and work out from there. As each new layer of paint is added, my focus remains on the eyes, until finally, the portrait comes to life in my imagination.
I have a biology degree, a fine art degree and most of an illustration degree. As a result, I like my portraits to be realistic and anatomically correct, yet emotional, too. But my ability to draw from my imagination, honed from my illustration studies, plays an important part in this process, too. One learns to be a bit of an actor - to feel that emotion and spirit of the subject and to try transfer it to the canvas.
For example, when I was commissioned to paint Dr. Oscar Peterson (Living Arts Centre, Mississauga, ON, Canada), I was honoured and thrilled to paint the jazz great’s portrait, but I had also never seen or met him in person. This was a larger than life portrait and I was working from someone else’s photographs. .
How was I to connect to the subject and make it more than a copy of a photograph?
First, I brought the whole painting to the edge of completion. It was a large painting (larger than life) and a complex one , as in fact it was multi-portraits.. Dr. Peterson’s piano was to be accurately represented. His hands were a portrait in themselves. And his face was clearly selected in the piano top!
So with the face roughed in, I began the final painting of it as I listened to the emotion- filled, heartfelt tribute of music and song that aired on CBC Radio that day. As his teenage daughter spoke lovingly about Oscar Peterson, the father, I did the final paint of his eyes and face.
So, when I began to paint polar bears, I wondered, how to bring the bears alive? How to make them more than a reproduction of a photo I took of a polar bear at the Toronto Zoo?
So for the painting below, Polar Bear Portrait Study 1 (Wistful Bear) ( and a couple of others in this earlier series) I placed my laptop on a stool in front me, as if a portrait model on a chair. One of my polar bear photos was up on the screen. I then created the polar bear portrait as if the bear was seated there in front of me. (wouldn’t that have been fun, although short lived.) Once again, the eyes say it all in this painting. (Read more about this painting here)