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Contemporary portrait painting: Two contrasting profiles

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There are many sources describing portraiture artists, and the history is very long. This article is not about art history. It is about artists who try their hand at painting people. Who might you think of when you recall famous portrait artists? How about Rembrandt van Rijn, or Leonardo da Vinci? When those fellows painted, they had to make their own paint and brushes too. They built scaffolds and the process was physically enduring. They painted at a time when there were no cameras to record subjects. They began with drawings. To arrive at the point where they dare accept commissions, they had studied drawing and anatomy. They served apprenticeships to prove their competence.

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John Singer Sargent is among the top portrait painters. He is the most recent among the top ten on most lists. Sargent was born in Italy in 1856 and died in London in 1925, but he is considered an American artist. His mother said that he was producing “nice” sketches at age 13. In his lifetime he produced 900 oils and 2000 watercolors. That is an incredible amount of work in this class of painting, don’t you think? Some of his paintings took more than a year to complete.

That is a very abbreviated snapshot of a portrait artist.

Artists today are at a different time and place. Taking time to paint in our fast-paced lifetimes is a precious act as time is most valuable. Being productive in that small window puts intense pressure on artists as they seek to communicate and create in that finite space. Artists who paint portraits often know their subjects, and they have a specific patron for their work. They may be time-bound by specific constraints. It is not as if they have the freedom and liberty to do as they wish, and when they wish. That is not always the case, but it can be.

Portrait artists are expected to produce work in their unique style and methods. That means they have a degree of freedom to treat their subject with their unique approach. In the end, the outcomes can vary along a spectrum of responses and reactions including but not limited to the following:

  • “That looks exactly like the person.”
  • “That doesn’t look at all like the person.”
  • “That resembles the person.”
  • “That’s the artist’s honest take on the person.”
  • “That is an insightful interpretation.”

The inspiration for this article came from watching Javier Padilla paint a portrait from a picture provided by Edgardo-Gato Montalvo of a senior man living in the neighborhood. Padilla is painting a series titled “El Barrio,” and this is one in that body of work. Javier could just as well be painting from a person sitting before him. He could have drawn a sketch and completed the painting later as I know he does all of those things. But, in this instance he is using a photo reference.

In the slideshow, see a little bit of his process. It is interesting to see where he begins and how he develops the portrait. I especially enjoy the way that he creates the feeling of a felt hat.

Javier explained:

"I dedicated most of my years as an artist trying to find a unique style and painting images from my imagination. The first painting I did on a canvas was about a birds nest and I did it looking at a picture from a biology book...the painting was realistic to the point that I decided not to do another 'copy' ever...I was in high school then and painted from my biology book.

I think at this point...I have pushed my style to the extreme and although I'm happy with the things I have done...there was a need to revisit the realism style...and to incorporate some of the elements I have developed during all these years.

I have used the human figure always in my works....although a little distorted and in a sense abstract. With this new series of realistic portraits I still want to tell a story and deliver a message...if colors inspire feelings....the human face is the ultimate palette and those colors don't lie!"

Javier Padilla

From these observations, I solicited a call to portrait artists as I want to write about them. The first to respond is Maria Bennett Hock. As is the process that I employ, I asked for a bio, and artist statement, and five or more digital images of recent work. From that, I initiate my own investigation and perform a review of work. Here is the review.

Maria Bennett Hock

Now, before getting to the materials that she provided, I discovered her description of “Maria’s world”. See the photo.

“This is my world. My pedicure...feet on my metal...cannot be destroyed coffee table. 5 lb hula hoop in the background for when I want to exercise. Skull on the coffee table for sketching...it sits atop some of my favorite art books. Red kimono in the background waiting for my model to arrive...and some great decorative lizards on the wall reminding me of my time in Thailand. I love my world.”

Maria on Facebook

That sets up Maria’s studio. Now, like most artists today, she has a website and blogspot: bennetthock.com and her blog is mariahock.blogspot.com.

Who is she?

“Maria Bennett Hock’s work has been shown at numerous galleries to include shows in Dupont Circle, Washington DC, Alexandria, Virginia, and Solomon’s Island, Maryland, Cincinnati, Ohio, Sedona, Arizona, and Costa Mesa, California. She works at her home studio/gallery either working from life or setting up a photo shoot for source material. She is a copyist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Along with commissions and gallery exhibits, Maria is a member of the Portrait Society of America, Oil Painters of America, Springfield Art Guild, Torpedo Factory Art Center, and volunteers as a docent at Lorton Workhouse. She actively blogs about her work showing works in progress and explaining her process and the stories her paintings tell.

She has studied in Europe and Asia as well as throughout the United States. She has a bachelors degree from George Mason University with a degree in Art and Visual Technology.”

Via the artist

It takes a tremendous effort to participate in each and all of these venues. Of particular note is that she is a copyist for the National Gallery of Art. That credential is as good as it gets in the line of precise work that she has chosen.

Exceptional enthusiasm and love of her medium and style distinguishes Maria and her work.

Check out her artist statement.

“I use figures and portraits to paint concept pieces depicting specific moments in life that transcend social boundaries. A cursory glance will let you see the picture but not the story; these pieces are to be read. Oil paints allow the looseness and freedom necessary for this vision. Faces can capture the attention and allow the viewer to deduce the story behind the painting. The juxtaposition of warm and cool colors in a composition propels the eye across the canvas. Success is initiating a resonance in the viewer.’

‘My days are filled with conceptualizing, defining, and realizing concepts. Seeing an idea come to life in a way that can communicate that idea to the viewer is what drives me. I love what I do. I love my life.”

Maria Bennett Hock

What this tells the reviewer is that she is intensely purposeful, and technically methodical in her approach. That is something shared by both Javier Padilla and Maria Bennett Hock.

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