Making of: Portrait Painting of Adora
It was Wednesday, December 28th, 2011 when I received an email from Hanan Levin. In essence, it said this:
Two years ago (at the age of 56) I had my first child. Recently I started commissioning artists from all over the world to create unique work based on photographs of my baby daughter. […] If you are available, you have free reins to create anything that tickles your fancy in any style, your choice of character & atmosphere.
Touched by the idea, I perused the photo library Hanan had provided a link to. One image of Adora struck me powerfully and I agreed to contribute to the project. Three years later I had lived in the Swiss mountains, in Austin, San Francisco, New York, France and Finland. And always there was this painting of Adora, that I had started, and would revisit every now and then.
I have laid out a journey through the process below, most of which happened at Atelier Narasca in Switzerland, with the guidance of my dear friend and painter/sculptor Patrick Devonas. The handsome curly-haired gentleman in the photos below, that’s Patrick. He has a heart of gold, if you have a chance to meet him, do.
Step 1: Preparing the Oil Painting Surface
Mounting the Canvas
Patrick and I worked together on this, first measuring and cutting a round piece of Dibond that was then scratched up to give the glue something to grab on to. Next, we heated a small pot of rabbit skin glue and applied it to the canvas and panel. As the glue started cooling and setting, we kept squeezing it out of the canvas, removing air bubbles and excess glue, creating a very durable ground. (By-product: exquisite special effects snot… 🙂 )
Once the glue has dried, the next step is sanding it, removing knots in the canvas and creating a very fine surface.
We used time-honored Lead White for the ground, pressing it into the tiny valleys of the canvas and scraping off any extra paint to keep the layers as thin as possible. We did three layers of applying paint, wet-sanding between layers. This smooth white base coat was then left to dry properly for 1-2 months.
A layer of transparent oxide brown + sap green was stippled on, creating a warm “campitura” or field color as a base for the painting. At this point I didn’t know much about the composition other than that I wanted it to be round and have Adora’s head in the center.
Step 2: Beginning to Paint
Initial Layout & Grisaille Underpainting
After a bit of back and forth about the size of Adora’s head, I decided on life size and jumped into the underpainting. I realized that the panel was too big and that there was going to be a lot of empty space around the girl. A compositional challenge that would have to be resolved one way or another… There was still a lot of searching in the underpainting and I made an effort to allow myself to be taken in unexpected directions.
This was a scary moment. Patrick walked me through his process: the entire underpainting had to be covered with another wash of transparent brown oxide + sap green and then carefully stippled to create an even texture. After the final pass with a fan brush, the surface was breathtakingly beautiful! What a joy to paint on top of this preparation..!
Here comes the first layer of color. The computer screen does not have the vivacity of the life model, but it is superior to a printout. I had been going in circles for days, grappling with the many unresolved issues in the composition before I finally decided to just start painting Adora’s face. Stop thinking and start doing. The doing can create little clues from which a direction for the entire image can emerge.
Alas! Some ideas for salvaging the lacking composition. A branch design, starting as a flat graphic shape and turning into a more realistic volume as a play on becoming.
Interlude: Atelier Narasca Life
A few shots from working at Atelier Narasca. What a special place.
Step 3: Final Touches
After a few more months and many experiments, I decided on the eight + sixteen petal lotus pattern. A design, found in so many of theBuddhist and Hindu Yantras and completing the frame around Adora. Gold leafing is finicky business but very rewarding.
In the fall of 2014, the 10th anniversary of the small local art festival “KUNSTpause” provided the necessary pressure to finish the piece. So here it is, with all its charms and flaws.
I’ve learned a lot from this painting. It has given me new confidence in my ability to paint the human face, in creating an original composition and in trusting the process. I hope the back story lets you smile and I hope the image brings you joy.
Visit adoralevin.com to see some of the 900+ artworks made for the project.