A reporter recently asked me about my choice of medium for the AS IS portraits. In this age constant documentation, where everyone is snapping pictures of everything, and digital photography makes it all so easy, why would I spend forty to eighty hours paintings someone, she wondered. Wouldn't a photograph do the trick?
I have to admit that I was unprepared for the question. In fact, I am still struggling with the answer. This is in part because I truly admire the work of many artists who work in the field of photography. As far as my choice of medium for portraiture goes though, here are my (1) scientific and (2) philosophical answers:
1. The emotional centers of our brains prefer blurry.
When I paint a portrait I want it to hit on the essence of who someone is. I am not particularly concerned with recording every freckle and eyelash.
Have you read this CNN article? (Thank you to Laura Walton Crouch for bringing it to my attention!) This point in particular jumped out at me:
Patrik Vuilleumier at the University of Geneva and colleagues figured out that the amygdala, a part of the brain involved in emotions and the "flight or fight response," responds more to blurry photos of faces depicting fear than unaltered or sharply detailed images. At the same time, the part of our brain that recognizes faces is less engaged when the face is blurry. Cavanagh explains that this may mean we are more emotionally engaged when the detail-oriented part of our visual system is distracted, such as in Impressionist works where faces are unrealistically colorful or patchy.
So, emotionally, we respond more strongly to things which are depicted with less photographic accuracy. My portraits for this project are realistic but they are not photo-realistic. Their palettes and paint applications do not correspond to reality in a literal sense.
2. The process is as important as the product.
Touch matters. For a project dedicated to giving the gift of notice, I want the trace of a human hand (mine!) to be evident in the final artwork. Giving connotates a reaching out from one person to another and I want a small trace of that one person (me!) to be uncover able in the gift.
Time spent matters. These paints are large...and they take weeks or even months to make. AS IS has challenged me to offer the gift of notice to everyone that I meet in the course of my day. Sometimes I acknowledge a person with a smile or nod, other times I may paint a five-foot tall portrait of someone and leave it on the street corner for them to find and keep. When the later happens, I think that it is important to spend time reflecting on that person. This doesn't necessarily mean cataloguing the details of someone's life. It means simple concentrating on the fact of someone's existence apart from my own. It is always refreshing and I hope that that attention translates into the finished portraits!