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.