Only after looking closely at the pallid women on their sofas would one think they must be ill. One of them wears black–not a good color for her. She has interlaced her long fingers together, perhaps to steady her nerves. Her gaze is steady but untrusting, almost a little fearful. The other woman is less interesting, less defined, one dimensional. Something seems very off about her; her forehead is too short, perhaps. Her lips are pressed tightly shut. She looks angry. Maybe she resents being stared at?
One might be spurred to ask how did Miss Elizabeth Reynolds Chanler and her doppelganger come to be perched rather tentatively in my basement? How, indeed…
I invited Miss Chanler and her ugly sister into my house and my life this January because I needed them to help me.
I was a sporadic painter. My last painting was done last year. Taking a thrift shop find of a sketched in portrait of a man with a beanie, I saw a vague similarity to a famous painting, and turned him into a Rembrandt self-portrait. Nobody would think it was actually a Rembrandt, but that wasn’t the point.
I thought I’d learned important things in copying the self-portrait from a book. I loved the soft, low light in the real Rembrandt, the dimensionality, the pathos of the face. And I thought that the one experience of studiously copying was going to improve my portrait painting forever.
It didn’t. In fact, the relative success of the Rembrandt copy made me frustrated when my next attempts to paint–without copying–were so utterly unfortunate. I decided not to paint anymore.
That’s when Miss Chanler’s daddy came into the picture, right out of a course catalogue, and into my life. Yes! I would sign up for a course to learn to paint like John Singer Sargent! A skilled teacher could explain things to me like color and shadow and brush sizes and shapes. And I would be painting like Sargent in just 8 weeks! COOL!
(From the course catalog)
Learn Portrait Painting from John Singer Sargent
8-Session Daytime Course
Copying a master is a powerful tool to improve your own painting skills. The paintings of the admired portraitist John Singer Sargent have much to teach today’s artists about composition, value, and color. Through viewing Sargent works in the collection of the American Art Museum, lectures, demonstrations, and studio painting sessions, students learn to create an elegant portrait as they put Sargent’s methods and techniques into practice.
So, I’m taking the metro downtown to the Smithsonian every week, lugging paints and brushes, palette knives, linseed oil, brush cleaner, paper towels, rags, and a smock. My basement smells like linseed oil and turpenoid. It’s delightful to be working on painting again.
But in just a quick look at the beginnings of my version of Miss Chanler, you can see that instant success has not come to me. My Miss Chanler is nonetheless providing me the opportunity to see, to focus detailed attention on Sargent’s paintings, and to mine as well. Sargent is my obsession now. The seductive lushness of his people, their clothes, the light in the rooms…
I am so grateful for this scheduled time during which I see differently, and more closely, and where I must paint even if what I am doing is so vastly inferior to Sargent’s work. Doing the work, actually painting, is important, even if I am not painting “my” paintings.
I’m often hard on myself about copying other painters’ work–despite knowing that in copying, I’m both deeply appreciating that work, and learning from it. I’m not learning to paint fake Rembrandts and Sargents, but how to create shadows, to compose a painting, to think about lighting for my own work, some day in the future.
Still, I needed to feel better about being a copier. So I dove into Oliver Sacks’ writing on stages in the creative process when imitation (copying) is legitimate– and actually necessary to the development of an artist:
“If imitation plays a central role in the performing arts, where incessant practice, repetition, and rehearsal are essential, it is equally important in painting or composing or writing, for example. All young artists seek models in their apprentice years, models whose style, technical mastery, and innovations can teach them. Young painters may haunt the galleries of the Met or the Louvre; young composers may go to concerts or study scores. All art, in this sense, starts out as “derivative,” highly influenced by, if not a direct imitation or paraphrase of, the admired and emulated models.” –Oliver Sacks
I’ve got to let go of my shame of copying, and relax into 8 weeks of learning, seeing, and appreciating how a master created his paintings. I hope that by spending this concentrated time actually painting, and thinking about painting–and using the paints which are now out and ready for me–that I’ll keep painting once the class is done.