Monday, October 20, 2014

Alice Neel - I Paint People

The Great Portraitist Alice Neel
Portrait By Johanna Spinks

Love feeling the "portrait love" when it comes unexpectedly. Inbox today. Thanks Mrs. J.B.!

"I absolutely love it, the way your painting captured my little girl in her innocence, she looks peaceful and content."

Years ago, when I started out as a mere tadpole in the huge portrait painting pond,  I was told testimonials were everything and one must get 'one' from the portrait commissioning client to succeed by hell, fire, or murky pond water.

Well, yes, that's true -but only partly so.

Now I am an older portrait frog, mid-pond, with well-rounded grateful algae covered lumps and bumps,  I have learned painting portraits ACROSS the board/pond is the real focus.  Portrait commissions are of course wonderful. I am always hugely honored to do them, knowing some are in collections that will still be there when I am dust. Mud at the bottom of the pond?

I give my commissions my ALL, often spending months to produce something I am personally proud of. No matter what the hourly rate.

But painting portraits, from life, very regularly of everyday people that I see around me, just because I feel the need to, is also the testimonial to my portrait life - and ultimately to the client that wants to commission me. 

Deceased master portrait painter Alice Neel said in her older frog years at the outer rim of the pond: " I paint my time using people as evidence."
Alice Neel Comes to Fame, In Her Mid-70's

 I think of this quote every day. Alice Neel became a portrait legend in her mid-70's after YEARS of no-one caring about her decades-long, out of style, intense study of painting the people in her poor Harlem neighborhood, from life, no camera used, with very few portrait commissions to feed Alice's kids or her art spirit. Money was tight for the basics yet alone canvas and oils. But paint she did. Relentlessly.  She had a passion. She had a fever. There was no stopping her, rather like a frenchman eating garlic braised frogs on sea of caviar, forget the pond, to the expense of all around him.

Sure there was heart burn. Certainly, there were no benefactors until way later.  Alice Neel  painted portraits because she just had to, setting aside hunger, financial and, let's be honest here, emotional security. The unsold canvases lined the walls in her tiny apartment for years, and history records her kids didn't have an easy run. Alice was no Betty CROAK-er, or whatever frogs do.

I would hate to say lucky for Alice she became a legend because she deserved it.  But I also think of all the Alice's or Alec's out there, who painted just like she did through thick or thin, no feast and certainly famine, who didn't get that Whitney Museum Show in their mid-70's or that lush coffee table book when they were six feet under.

I also think of the more casual painters, the so called "Sunday Painters" who get a ton of respect from me. The busy working father  supporting his family for years who painted every spare moment of his weekend. The mother who grabbed her canvas when she could when the kids were asleep.

All just stuck at it quietly because their art voice was within them, heard or not.

Alice Neel's story makes me understand that my intense portrait direction, whether silent or heard by others during my short time on the planet while I paint  my time "using people as evidence",  means I am living the true experience as an artist who happens to like painting portraits.

I am so grateful for that and I could not think of a better way to live.

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