What Dorothy writes is very helpful to me as I plan for future portraits. I hope it will be helpful and interesting to you. People who have never sat for a portrait seem to have lots of questions and even many misapprehensions about what goes on during the process. Dorothy's reflections shed light on events, feelings, sharing, laughing and lots more that needs to be better understood about making art.
On Having My Portrait Painted
by Dorothy Truman
On Christmas Day 2010 one of the gifts under the tree was a note from my husband, John, that he had commissioned our friend, Suzanne Ouellette, to paint my portrait. I protested that I really didn't want to sit for my portrait and decided just to ignore the whole issue. In the following months John would comment that I should call Suzanne to make an appointment to get started. The hint usually came every time David, Suzanne’s husband, and John had been working on piano saxophone duets together. (Now that’s another story.)
There were many reasons, rational and irrational, why I was reluctant to sit for a portrait. I really felt I was not a proper subject for a formal painting, a project that would involve the artist’s time and talent. I have no public persona or unique accomplishments. I also feared being scrutinized too closely and I was not sure of how Suzanne would see or interpret me.
It also surprised me that John didn’t realize what my reaction would probably be. He is sometimes very impulsive and I think he assumed I’d be flattered to see the project as evidence of his love and admiration. John is an extrovert, but I am very retiring. I don’t like to assert myself or be a focus of attention, and I prefer to avoid confrontation. That is probably why people feel comfortable confiding in me, and I’ve gotten very used to my low-key relationship with the world. I assumed, that on reflection, John would just let the project go.
In the months before this Christmas gift appeared two situations probably inspired John to commission the painting. First, John had been involved in arranging for a portrait of Dr. John Driscoll, eminent physician on the Columbia University medical school faculty. It was also during this time that we went to a showing of Suzanne’s paintings at a remarkable space in lower Manhattan. The site was a hairdressing salon where Suzanne was a client and friend. It was particularly interesting to meet the owner of the salon and his wife who were the subjects of two very large paintings. This seemed quite natural, as these were people who worked with the public and felt comfortable in social situations.
Then during the summer of 2011 we went to see another show of Suzanne's work in Rhinebeck, NY. In this show there were two portraits that impressed me. One was a triple portrait and the other was of a man in a grey sweater. Suzanne told me about the sitters and how the paintings came about. I began to feel more comfortable about sitting for her. The portraits were smaller than the ones in New York and I felt an immediate interest in the subjects of these two portraits. I also found myself looking at how the details of the brushwork and color that went into creating the details or impression. I decided, in spite of my apprehension, to sit for my portrait. I think I just decided to put my trust in Suzanne and, to John’s delight, we planned to start sitting in September.
John had some ideas of how he wanted me to pose. He particularly wanted me to hold a piece of our small Georgian silver, a la Copley’s portrait of Paul Revere. But quietly, through several e-mails, Suzanne let me know what she wanted to see and to learn about me. I was especially interested in the request for photographs of me at various stages of my life.
The adventure began on the 19th of September, when I drove out to Pine Plains the car loaded with a variety of clothing and a small collection of items that reflected interests or events in my life. The drive took about 45 minutes and proved to be a very pleasant one for the most part through quiet countryside. Once through Millerton I turned up Winchell Mountain Road and on reaching the summit a lovely scene of fields and hills came into view. During the fall as I drove to and from Pine Plains, I found the countryside a constant delight as the light changed each day. The morning drive especially, the sun was behind me, and as the days shortened the changing scene was particularly interesting. I had 10 sittings in Pine Plains with Suzanne so I had close to 20 hours of observation of the changing countryside.
In spite of my lingering anxiety I found Suzanne was informal and relaxed and the studio was very reassuring. Rather than a daunting formal space, it was a garage in which half was converted to a studio with some north facing skylights. The other half was a workshop, but all in all it was a homey clutter of everyday and special objects, There were some of Suzanne’s works on the walls and lots of tools of her work, but nothing was intimidating and certainly Suzanne didn’t take on an authoritarian personality.
Working out the pose Suzanne decided on was largely a process of elimination, often with resulting laughter. The hope to include one of the pieces of old silver was finally abandoned with a shrug and laugh, because “it looked like a Tiffany’s ad.” There was also an old pitcher Suzanne always wanted to paint, but again she reluctantly rejected it as part of the pose, but asked if she could borrow it in the future for a still-life. Eventually two items originally excluded proved to be just what were needed. In the background Suzanne said one of our antique maps would suit the empty wall space and a silver spoon, this one a 17th century apostle spoon, would be perfect to create a line to draw the viewer’s eye to my face.
My initial concern about being intensely scrutinized turned out to be an interesting experience and I learned a lot about how an artist works. Suzanne would tell me what she was looking for such as the exact colors in my eyes, the colors that defined my high cheekbones, or exactly what she saw when dealing with my glasses. These moments she was intensely focused on specific problems and then she needed a break and we both relaxed. The concentration required of me was minimal for the most part. Rather than being a time of concern over being closely scrutinized, I found I spent much of the time when I had to be quiet and hold a smile reviewing my life, especially the amusing moments in being married to my uxorious, exuberant husband and raising two bright, interesting children of very different personalities.
Sometimes nature created a problem for Suzanne. Part of the informal setting was the window behind me and when we began the trees were in leaf, but as the days progressed the foliage disappeared and instead of the soft light there was now a glare from behind me. This made it hard for Suzanne to see the details of my face. The remedy was to place a handy piece of screening over the window and get on with the painting. One morning there was a light snow and it covered the skylights, which again changed the quality of the light. But annoying as it might be Suzanne just adjusted and we got on with it.
In the early sittings Suzanne had made sketches and taken photographs so that I could reproduce the pose she wanted. Once the pose was on canvas the painting itself became the point of reference. Often, during our short breaks, I lost the proper tilt of my head or the chosen arrangement of the fingers holding the coffee cup. But Suzanne never seemed annoyed and there was usually some laughter in the process of getting back the right pose.
Another reason I would lose my pose was that I found myself chattering away to and with Suzanne. I would sometimes get quite carried away and apparently my face became very animated, but not as Suzanne intended to portray me. I was a bit amazed at myself, for only with John do I tend to babble on or voice my opinions. As a result Suzanne probably knows me better, both as I appear visually and how I am personally, than anyone except my husband. To my amazement I am not upset by that at all.
About half way through the sittings Suzanne asked me if I wanted to see how the portrait was developing. I actually had to call up my courage, tell myself not to be silly, and walked over to see. There I was looking perhaps more self-confident than I felt at that moment, but clearly me.
The painting is now finished and hangs in the dining area of our kitchen where it gets constant scrutiny. The mood of the portrait is very relaxed, and informal with almost the immediacy of a snapshot. I sometimes I feel as if I’m about to say something. Suzanne has not made me look younger, but, as she said, she has Botox in her brush. I see myself in her portrait as someone content to be mature and happy to have had a rich and happy life, if not a one of important accomplishment.
During are sittings I often had to adjust the right position of my hands of the coffee mug. I remember telling Suzanne I had thought my mother had very beautiful hands. They were not pampered, but honest hands and I thought they were beautiful. At that moment I realized I had never told my mother that and I thought her hands were beautiful. My hands are not beautiful because of arthritis, but in the portrait, they are mine.
I sent photographs of the painting to my children and some friends. I should quote the reaction of two of the people who know me well:
My son e-mailed this reaction,
“That is FABULOUS!!!! She totally got your body language. Brilliant!!
A close friend commented, again electronically:
Wow - this really turned out to be very nice indeed. Good likeness, nice pose….I like the expression and the background and also the way your lovely long fingers are shown. I hope that John likes it, too.
The autumn of 2011 turned out to be a very special one for me. The 30 hours I sat for Suzanne were actually a pleasure and I found it interesting and not threatening to be the object of such close scrutiny. Even the 20 hours of travel through the changing light and landscape became part of the whole experience.
To end this ramble I must comment on a special event in which I was included. I had the good fortune to be there when Ula entered Suzanne and David’s life. It was during my sittings that Ula had her first challenge as an artist’s canine companion.