Sunday, January 11, 2009

Portrait Into Story

When I need inspiration of any kind, I really love to look through the artwork published in magazines like International Artist. The latest issue (Dec/Jan '09) features the contest winners for IA's challenge to paint People and Figures, and most of the portraits just blew me away.

Like a photographer or any visual artist, painters tell stories in the portraits they create. When people are their subjects, very often the composition, colors, use of the surrounding or negative space and that indefinable thing called atmosphere define the person as much as the features, hair, clothing etc. While sometimes the artist's title or some obvious symbol used tell us who this person is and what the portrait is all about, most of the time you have to figure that out yourself.

For example, consider the second prize winning portrait from IA's contest, an absolutely gorgeous acrylic painting by Lancashire UK artist Robert Hefferan (click on any of the images in this post to see larger version):

It's been a while since I've seen something this beautiful done in acrylics. He should have won first prize, too, in my opinion. When I look at this lovely person poised against the piano, I wonder immediately why she's there, and not at the ball, or the wedding, or the concert. Then I start answering my own questions:

1. Ball scenario: Rosalinda knew she would never again dance with the handsome, mysterious stranger who had given her that single, perfect white rose. If she did, her stepfather would have him murdered, just like all the others.

2. Wedding scenario: Serena could not summon the energy to scream, weep, or tear apart her gown the way she had her veil and bouquet. She could only wait for her in-laws to arrive, and somehow find the words to tell them that Hamilton, their beloved son and her husband-to-be, had just run off to Cancun with his best man.

3. Concert scenario: Delia understood how important her debut tonight was, but the gown they had sewn her was so tight and stiff she was pretty sure she could play Chopsticks without using her hands.

Let's look at another (unidentified) painting from this issue, a portrait of two lovely ladies by artist Yanqun Xue:

When I see a portrait of more than one person, I think about how they relate to each other. Are they sisters, or strangers? Is this a rich lady and her maid, or a pauper being dressed by a princess (who obviously wants her to impersonate her so she can sneak out of the palace and meet her boyfriend, the handsome but penniless koi-pond attendant.)

Although their faces are serene, there's a lot going on here -- I can almost hear them thinking out loud, especially the girl at the back:

"This Hair Bumpit is never going to make her look like Eva Mendez."
"She might be rich, beautiful and beloved by everyone, but you could grow potatoes in the dirt behind these ears."
"This isn't wedding rice in her hair, but I think it rhymes with it."

Finally, there was a wonderful painting among the finalists for the IA contest that made me smile the moment I turned the page:

Derek McGowan's Girls Night Out is amazingly rich with realism and life and movement. The contrasts between the three women portrayed in this oil painting make it seem like a snapshot, one moment of conversation between girlfriends frozen in time. This one is really my favorite of the three because it's the beauty of reality, the wondrous things you can see in the people around you every day.

I find all three of the ladies great character studies, and I really love the chick in green. I bet she's a pistol. But the woman in the center of this portrait is rather mysterious. She's listening to her friends, and yet I get the feeling at the same she's a million miles away. She has on this great outfit and is obviously ready to have a good time, but she's also looking at her makeup rather than applying it. The way she holds the little palette and brush make me think she's having second thoughts. Maybe she doesn't want to be there, but where else would she rather be, and why? Answering those questions would give me the foundation of the story I'd write for her.

If you do decide to try looking for story inspiration in artistic portraits, I wouldn't jump right into writing the next Girl with a Pearl Earring or The Picture of Dorian Gray. I think the best place to start is with a single characterization (and you can even apply a version of my three questions: Who is the person in the portrait? What do they want? What's the worst thing that can happen to them?) Once you've done this a few times, then try interpreting a portrait of two or more people, and when you do note the differences in how you respond to them as a storyteller.

I'll wrap this up with a quote from portrait artist Robert Hefferan: "I strive to capture a moment in time; the light the creates the mood of the painting and gives the subject real emotion." I think that's all any of us can do, whether we use paint and brush or ink and paper.

(Note: all of the above images were scanned from the Dec/Jan '09 issue of International Artist and are copyright the respective artist. To see more beautiful portraits, pick up a copy of the issue at a bookstore or newstand near you that carries fine arts magazines.)


  1. Love the scenarios, and the paintings are GORGEOUS (can't believe that first one is acrylic--it's almost impossible to get such effects with that paint!).
    An interesting exercise I will try. :)

  2. Anonymous8:07 AM

    Cool idea...

    I love all of them, but that first one is unbelievably beautiful.

  3. I have a black and white charcol painting by Scott Burdick over my great room mantle. It is dark and mysterious. There is a large bird of prey with outstretched wings and underneath a woman in a clock with her face partically concealed. I love to sit and look at this painting and image the stories behind it. The painting is called Midnight Rendezvous. Is she a witch?, meeting a lover? ,carrying some important message? Opportunities abound. I never tire of looking at it.

  4. The first picture, Girl at Piano, is brilliant! What emotions it evokes. I thought it was a photo at first.

    I do have to say, I wish I looked that good at *my* piano! ;-)

    This is a wonderful idea though. I've done this with people but never paintings or pictures. Thanks for the suggestions!

  5. Anonymous10:50 AM

    Oh wow. That first one is just stunning. How lovely! I like that last one, too. That's me and the gurls on the weekends, lol.

  6. That top painting is just amazing. I had no idea one could get effects like that in acrylics!

    Thanks for the idea for writing prompts, too. I'm between projects and antsy for new flash ideas to keep me busy!

  7. I was skipping through blogs one day and came across one that I just loved. I started following it so I could look at any new pics he posts. The guy is brilliant, if I wrote sci-fi I would love him to do the cover art.

    What do you think?

  8. Anonymous3:26 PM

    This is nothing to do with the pictures, but I wanted to let you know that I have been trying to order 'Stay the Night' from and they have it listed as not being released until March 2009. Is that a mistake?


  9. Eugenia wrote: What do you think?

    I think he's brilliant. Gorgeous stuff. Thanks for the link, lady. :)

  10. Teresa wrote: ...I have been trying to order 'Stay the Night' from and they have it listed as not being released until March 2009. Is that a mistake?

    I will check with the publisher, but my guess is probably not. I know some independent booksellers out side the U.S. import my titles as soon as they're released, but usually it takes some time for the online booksellers to get them in stock.

  11. Teresa, try AbeBooks :).

  12. I really love that first image especially. Thanks so much for sharing.

  13. I have to laugh about this post, Sheila. I'm currently teaching a class on non-verbal communication. One of my exercises is similar to what you're doing here :).

    I linked to this post so people could see that authors do it too.

  14. Christine Goodman5:38 PM

    I recently purchased "The piano lady" at an art auction on a cruise I was holidaying on, I can say that I fell in love with the painting as soon as I saw it...Such a beautiful piece and also so elegant...

  15. Anonymous6:19 PM

    I'm in my 70's and have just found out that I can paint, and am not doing to bad, but how in the world can that be a painting? and with that medium, don't think I will live long enough to ever do anything like that. Just beautiful, looks like a photo, not a painting, Thanks for sharing


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