Mary F. Kish: Painting a Portrait

Mary F. Kish Portrait by Ann Litrel

Mary F. Kish – Kish Center for Ceramics & Pottery

 oil on canvas, 16” x 20”

Painting a Portrait from a Photo

Most of my portraits start with an in-person session with the subject. I get to become acquainted with him or her, we share stories, and I can photograph, sketch, and take notes.

However, a few portraits have been based on photographs only – paintings commissioned in memory of a loved one. This is the process I will share with you here.

Mary F. Kish died several years before I was asked to paint her. Her husband commemorated her life by making a donation to complete an arts center for clay artists at Woodstock Arts – to be known as the Mary F. Kish Center for Ceramics & Pottery.

And, as it turned out, Mary’s husband also wanted to remember her life with a portrait.

Learning About the Subject

Mary’s husband and I spoke for a while. I asked to know more about Mary, and what he remembered as special about her. This is just some of what I learned:

Mary was a creative spirit – a person who explored multiple forms of art over her life, from painting and drawing to pottery and ceramics. (Later, I would see some of her work – the lovely curves of her pots lining the shelves of the room, the delicate drawings and art framed about the house they had shared.)

Just as important, Mary’s husband spoke about her warmth. It was interesting, he said, that even though she was a fairly quiet person, other people really warmed up to her and would often tell me later how much they enjoyed talking with her. He said, She had a way of bringing people out.

Choosing the Pose

Mary’s husband shared a Google folder of photos that (I believe) was created at or around the time of her death. He remarked that Mary did not like having her photo taken, so he was amazed that he had been able to gather this many at all. He asked if I could suggest a few choices.

Images of Mary and her life flashed across the computer, moving into my imagination in a way I was not really prepared for.  I felt as though I was witnessing the trajectory of her life, in a kind of fast-forward time capsule. Here she was a young schoolgirl with braids and warm brown eyes, here a vivid laughing young woman, then bride beside an older woman (a grandmother?), a tender new mother cradling a baby, then baiting a hook for the young boy beside her, then the proud mom of an Eagle Scout. Finally, toward the end of her life, a cancer patient – face pale, hair gone, wearing hat, shawls, surrounded by loving family.

I found three pictures I liked – all a bit blurry – but we agreed on an image of Mary as a smiling young woman, the original of which her husband kept framed on his dresser.

old photo of smiling young woman with long dark hairGetting To Know the Subject

It was time to do the preparatory sketches, to dreaming of the orms in which the portrait might materialize – the color palette, the arrangement of lights and darks, how to handle the background…

I went to Mary’s photos in the Google folder. In my mind’s eye, I let my fingers trace the contours of her face over many different photos, trying to familiarize myself with its shape and expressions from all angles – the strong forehead, the wide cheekbones and jawline. She had a straight nose, beautiful dark eyebrows arched over dark eyes that tilted slightly downward when she smiled. Her smile creased into long laugh lines suggestive of dimples without actually having them.

I did a rough black and white sketch, concentrating not on finish but on understanding the forms of her face – the line of the chin, the pads of her cheeks, the inward scoop of her eyes beside the nose.

rough sketch of woman for portrait

What to Express – Gesture and Lost Edges

I very much liked the photo  – the most important part of it seemed to me to be the gesture of her raised shoulder – almost a protective defense, as though to say to the unseen photographer, “Oh, you got me!” There was warmth in the smile, but also vulnerability.

The photo didn’t have much detail , and I didn’t want to make anything up. So I kept the portrait soft and expressionistic, “losing” many of the edges so that the viewer was led to focus on just a few features of the subject – the dark downward sweep of her hair over the face and shoulder, the left side of her face (her right) the focus area.

Here you can see some of the rough thumbnails to try out some color palettes. I love the thumbnail stage – this stage allows me to attempt multiple approaches without committing to lots of time or paint. Right at the beginning I came to the decision to let the right side of her hair melt into a shadowed background so the focus could largely be on the opposite side of her face.

color thumbnail sketches

Putting On the Paint

I started the painting with a warm gray wash to cut back the white of the canvas. I left the little drips and splashes for visual interest. The hair, the face and the features I blocked in roughly, gradually refining the features to make them more accurate. The palette I limited to four colors – magenta and Indian red, yellow ochre, and viridian green, with a white.

In the manner of “alla prima” portraits (Richard Schmid being an ever-present inspiration) I allowed a good part of the canvas to remain negative space. Unlike the original photo, the lights of the background allowed her sweater to emerge almost imperceptibly with all the contrast at the shrug of her shoulder. The light then works upward into her neck and then her face, completing a path around and through the portrait.

The last little bits I painted were the brightest white edge of her shoulder, and the delicate strands of hair.

Knowing when to stop is often one of the biggest challenges in a painting. Tweaking and fussing the details until the subject is flat is the temptation I fight. I stopped in this portrait when it seemed to me that she suddenly seemed to emerge from the canvas. Done.

Seeing Anew

click on painting for enlarged detail and color

click on painting for enlarged detail and color

Seeing Anew: Melissa Casteel – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.

Painting Melissa was a pleasure – she has an intense expression and clear features that make for interesting portrait work. For this painting, I couldn’t help but think of Da Vinci’s female portraits. Melissa’s enigmatic expression, the classical draped neckline, and the waves of her hair, all recalled to me DaVinci’s subjects – a modern day Mona Lisa, or his Madonna of the Rocks, with her smooth face and rippling hair.

The color palette, on the other hand, is contemporary with the Impressionists or later. It’s a high key palette that emphasizes the morning light bathing the flowers and plants. The aerial perspective references DaVinci again, but is an urban setting -the kind of community space that Melissa so often designs for.

To read more about Melissa’s story, visit the blog post under “Community: History and Visions.”

A Global Ministry With Community Roots

A Burning Vision

A Burning Vision: Dr. Johnny Hunt – oil on canvas, 14” x 11”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Local Pastor Focuses on Small Things and Grows a Ministry That Spans Continents

Dr. Johnny Hunt is senior pastor of First Baptist Church Woodstock, serving a congregation of 17,000. Former President of the Southern Baptist Convention and author of numerous books and lecture series, Dr. Hunt is a leader in national and worldwide ministry efforts.

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders, volunteers and visionaries who have had an impact on the community. For more on the Dr. Hunt’s story and the accompanying portrait, visit www.annlitrel.com  

___________________

I never did anything big –

it was the little things.

Dr. Johnny Hunt sits at his desk signing stacks of his books – gifts to church youth, he explains. His hair is silver, but his eyes glow with the energy of a young man. He listens graciously as I explain the purpose of the interview – I am interested in visionary leaders and the stories behind their impact on community.

“I’ve led the Southern Baptist Convention, and I’ve been honored with some big positions,” he explains. “But I didn’t set out to have a big church. I never did anything big. It was the little things.

“I get a hospital list every morning, so those folks are uppermost in my mind when I walk through the halls on Sunday. Maybe I know your mom is in the hospital and I pass you in the hall on my way to give the sermon. I’ll stop and ask how your mother is, and we’ll pray together right there on the spot. I’m preaching to 5,000 people that morning, but praying with you might be the most important thing I do all day.

“I like to say, ‘I may do more ministry on the way to the pulpit that I do in the pulpit.’”

He gives an example of what he calls “small touches,” – for example, attending a dinner for over a hundred widows, when he made it his mission to make a personal contact with each of them. He explains that as he made the rounds of each table, laying hands and saying hello to them, that each woman had a story to tell. And so often a woman would say, “When my husband died, my social life fell apart.”

Dr. Huntsays that funerals are a priority – often the time of people’s greatest need. “I will move heaven and earth to be at a funeral. So often a congreagation member has never asked me for anything personally. I want to be there when they most need me.”

How do you explain your influence?

“You can’t lead people unless they know you’re serving them. You’re mobilizing the people to reach their potential. I’m a commander of a large army, and I need to lead them to conquer. But the conquering is, Let’s feed this community. Let’s clothe this community.

“The past year I’ve traveled around the country to mentor other pastors. I’ve met with Christian leaders in Cuba, in Istanbul… In Iraq, it’s estimated there are over a million Christians practicing underground. But I can travel like this only because of the strength of our platform here.

“I will preach here 45 out of 52 Sundays a year – I don’t fly out until after I preach on Sunday.”

How do you decide where to put your efforts?

“It’s not hard – you just listen. People will tell you what they need.

“For example, I’m very burdened and concerned with foster care. So I made it my business to get to know the folks at the DFACS office [Department of Family and Children’s Services] in Canton and find out what they need. We sent in bookkeepers and CPAs, got them a whole new bookkeeping and filing system.

“The meeting rooms for foster parents were so depressing, they’d discourage anyone from fostering a child. So we knocked out some walls, opened them up with light and windows – just made it a nice place to be.

“The waiting rooms were very noisy – families who come often have a lot of kids. DFACS said, ‘we need a playground for these kids’ – and it’s MAGNOMINOUS what we built them.” Pastor Johnny grins over his coined word.

What drives you?

“I have these little life statements that I assimilated over 30 years ago, and they really haven’t changed.

“I want to reach my own God-given potential. Charles Spurgeon, a preacher in the 1850s, said, ‘The average human has misjudged their capacity for God.’”

As I leave Pastor Johnny’s office, I feel inspired. I can’t help but notice I’ve joined the many who have received a personal gift from this man – a vision of service.

The Lord God Made Them All

Portrait of Jake

For pet portraits, call or visit my shop on Etsy.

I never met Jake. He died when he was young, only twelve years old. His family was devastated.

Jake was a chocolate lab. Jake’s owners said he had been with him since before the birth of their two children. They admitted Jake was, in fact, like a child to them.

The husband called me first. A bit hesitatingly, he asked if I “do” pet portraits. He explained that Jake had died rather rapidly of an unexpected illness, that Jake was a real character – and “a part of our family.” He said his wife had gone into mourning as though they had lost a child. And he thought maybe a portrait of Jake would be a wonderful gift to commemorate how very special Jake was to them. Would I be willing to do a painting of Jake?

I have always said I don’t do pet portraits. I’ll admit right up front: there is an element of snobbery there. An assumption that a pet is not an important enough subject for art – or, at least, my art. (This may also have something to do with the fact that our childhood family schnauzer, Poppy, always seemed a bit more interested in table scraps than in our affections.)

But the caller’s story pulled at me. The thought flitted through my mind, “What makes painting a portrait of this animal less worthy than any other subject?”

Some people argue that an animal doesn’t have a soul. That the gift of a soul is the birthright of Homo sapiens alone.

But those who have known an animal intimately know the truth. The spark of the Creator that shines in each of us exists just as surely in all His living creatures, great and small.  For all who are willing to see, it seems self-evident that God manifests Himself in every sparrow and lily in His Creation.

The British veterinarian and writer James Herriot wrote about the love shared between humans and animals in a series of books, the titles of which were based on the words of this beautiful old Anglican hymn:

“All things bright and beautiful,

All creatures great and small,

All things wide and wonderful –

The Lord God made them all.”

Painting a portrait is about more than capturing a physical likeness. The portrait channels and communicates what the painter can discern about the essence – the true nature – of the subject.

For Jake, it seemed to be his laughing mouth, his soulful eyes, and above all, those expressive eyebrows, so like ours, it’s as though we are looking into a human face. For this final glimpse of Jake, he looks up at those he loves, and he smiles amidst the wide green fields and tall blue skies of Heaven.

Digging Up Sweet Potatoes

Reinhardt Vice President JoEllen Wilson

Lit Up – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Reinhardt Fundraiser and Vice President JoEllen Wilson Cultivates the Surprising Touches That Win Hearts for this University

JoEllen Wilson is Vice President for Advancement at Cherokee County’s Reinhardt University, where for the past twenty years she has served in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually becoming the school’s first female Vice President. Beginning in 1997, Wilson became Special Assistant to the President, serving as the “familiar face” for many alumni and donors in a critical time of transition, as a succession of four men rotated through the office, culminating with Dr. Isherwood arriving in 2002. Currently she oversees donor relations, marketing and fundraising for the university.

 This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. When Ms. Wilson began working at Reinhardt, it was a two-year school which offered one Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, serving 400 students. Reinhardt is now a post-graduate institution with 41 undergraduate degree programs and six Master’s degrees, with a student population of 1,200.

 Ms. Wilson is pictured here on the stage of the Falany Performing Arts Center. 

 _____

“I told the President, ‘If I have to plan one more Homecoming, I will DIE.’ ”

I suspect it’s an unusual statement for JoEllen Wilson. A half an hour into our interview, I have already mentally designated her as one of those rare people with inexhaustible reserves of energy and good will toward their fellow man.

Wilson is referring to her first job at Reinhardt, a part-time position in Alumni Relations. “I’m a people person, so that job was perfect for me. My sons had started high school, and I was ready to get back into the workforce.

“Fundraising and alumni relations aren’t about what people think; it’s not about asking people for money. It’s about the relationships. My job in Alumni Relations eventually became full-time, and I loved it! But after five years, there was a point when I felt like I just couldn’t plan another Alumni Weekend or Homecoming. I was burned out.” At this point, she confesses about her threat to “die” if she has to plan one more Homecoming. “I knew that might be the end of me working here,” Wilson adds.

“But fortunately, the president had another job for me.

“Dr. Falany had just found out he would need to retire, for health reasons. To prepare for this change, he brought me on as Special Assistant to the President. I would be helping to transition him out of the office, and the next President transition in. I would make introductions, maintain relationships with donors and alumni, and staff. As it happened, two more presidents came through before Dr. Isherwood arrived in 2002. It was an amazing opportunity and growing time for me. I learned something new from every one of those men, almost every day.”

I ask Ms. Wilson how she first made the connection with Reinhardt.

“Since I was a girl!’ she exclaims. “My grandmother was a house mother and a nurse on campus. I used to visit Big Mama here, and I always thought I would come here so I could become a teacher. While I was earning my two-year degree, I met my husband John here, and we married. We had twin sons, and THEY both came here, and met THEIR wives here. That happens at a lot of schools. But there’s a saying we have at Reinhardt about our students and their spouses: We’re like a shoe factory – we put people out in pairs. ”

What part of your story do you think people relate to most? The smile disappears for a rare moment as she pauses thoughtfully. “I think it’s when people hear I finished my college degree and my masters’ while I went back to work here. People will tell me they were encouraged when they hear that, and they think, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’

“This is a people-oriented place, and even though we’ve grown, we haven’t lost that. I’m so pleased that even after adding a football team, we still have a culture of caring and respect. Those young men have been trained by our excellent coach to be ambassadors for the university. We’re a people place.

“I’ll tell you something funny. Dr. Falany and I once visited a longtime supporter who was extremely wealthy – she probably could afford whatever she wanted, anything. But what she really wanted was sweet potatoes from Dr. Falany’s garden. So whenever we went to visit her, we first had to drive over to Dr. Falany’s garden and dig up those sweet potatoes, so she could have some!

“I think that the personal attention at Reinhardt can’t be contained in 600 acres. It goes out into the community.”

The same could be said for JoEllen Wilson.