Monday, October 11, 2010

Portrait of a Lady (or, "Your Hair is Fine, Really")


So: I'm a portrait artist. I like strange, daring or intensely thoughtful portraits and do them when I can, but every Saturday I go to the Farmer's Market and sketch charcoal portraits of people that take about a half-hour each. It's fun. I love people's faces, it's good exercise, it pushes me out of the analytical-painter-rut I sometimes get stuck in. Plus I like tourists.

I draw lots of different kinds of people--and pets-- and I'm surprised by how much more I enjoy drawing them than I anticipated. The dogs are a great exercise in texture. Kids say beautifully contemplative stuff after sitting still for thirty minutes. Couples are so sweet to draw (usually) and the confident, curious adult who simply wants a portrait is always interesting.

I thought I already had strong views on feminine beauty and its place in the patriarchy (hell yeah I'm a feminist!) but again I have been surprised by what I've learned.

First, I have only drawn five women, ever, who did not say something apologetic, worried and peppered with nervous laughter about their hair as they sat down. Only one girl under 18-ish ever mentioned her hair, and she was an elementary-school-aged kid whom her mother had dressed as a beauty queen. Yeesh. Personally I try to emphasize messy hair because it breathes a bit of life into a portrait. It keeps people from looking... embalmed. And for the record: their hair always looks fine in real life. Always.

And then there are the modest ladies.

The husband/boyfriend will see the Portraits sign, light up and say "Honey! You should get a portrait! C'mon, you're gorgeous!" But Honey has to act embarrased, argue, be persuaded, and pretend to be reluctant. Usually I can tell she is secretly delighted but has to put on the act of modesty anyway. It's not like there's any socially acceptable way for a woman to say "You're right, I am gorgeous. Let's get this shit framed!"

In fact, the only way that many women can be persuaded to get a portrait is to include a mom or child, and make it a "me & mom moment." To simply have a portrait of oneself would be vain. I suppose they figure it's only a short leap from having a framed photo of yourself, to filling your bedroom with "boudoir photos," to starring in Sunset Boulevard. It's sad because many single and married men will stop by alone who are completely unencumbered with painful self-awareness, declare the awesomeness of portraiture, and sit happily for a portrait simply because they're curious.

I guess the Man Version of 'Aww shucks,' is, "Ha! You don't wanna draw me, sweetheart! I'm so ugly your pencil would break!" Followed by hearty laughter. But no shame. I have to bite my tongue to keep from saying, "But ugly people make the best portraits!"

So this got me thinking about female beauty in a new way. I'm going to do a few posts here exploring that. I promise, though, no nonsense about women's beauty being God's gift to man or carelessly conflating "sexy" with "beautiful." Ugh.

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