Family Portraits

In my early forties, I lost 96% of my hearing and was thus obliged to stop working and to sell my film production company.  Fortunately, I was introduced by a friend to Decorative Arts and soon I was busy painting murals, furniture and objects.

One day, a close girlfriend had her portrait painted. I approached my husband and suggested that he commission a portrait of me, too.

To my frustration, he said: ” Why would I pay to have you painted if I can look at the real thing every day!”

I have never been one to take “no” for an answer. Thus, I grabbed a stack of my films and photos and submitted them to the National Gallery in NYC, applying to their portrait class.

I decided a self-portrait would be the easiest way to start. After all, what face did I know better? I figured that after getting the drawing right, it would be a like applying makeup.

The reality was a bit more complicated than that. Not bad for a first try, I thought.

Here I had the added challenge of painting my first fuzzy dog – Kasper, my beautiful Skye Terrier puppy.

I then decided that a younger version of me with fewer lines and wrinkles might be easier. So I next picked a motif from a photoshoot I did for Good Housekeeping in the 1970s.

When the painting was almost finished, I realized that using a photo as a motif does not mean you have to paint it the way it looks. In the painting to the left, the background was all wrong and conflicted with the final image. So I removed the pillows and the white wall, and blurred the background. This brought the subject to the front of the painting and into proper focus. Next, I brought highlights to the two blondes. I also learned that doggy snouts are more difficult to paint than lips!

The little girl on this page is my granddaughter when she was seven years old. A gifted writer she loves to read and contemplate her world. Her eyes are always focused and her gaze steady and thoughtful, with a just a hint of a smile.

When painting this, I had many closeup photos of her eyes and yet I struggled to capture just the right nuances and light. I suddenly put all the photos away, closed my eyes and simply thought about her and who she is.

And then, with just a few speckles of golden and hazel blues added to the iris, there she was… the way she lives in my heart.

The mother and child in this painting are my niece, Merete, and her firstborn child, Sophie. The motif I used was taken at Sophie’s baptism by my brother, Thomas Ibsen. When I saw it, I was so inspired that I painted this in less than a week.

The baby is snug in her mother’s arms and delicately swaddled in a crocheted lace shawl that belonged to Merete when she was a little girl.

I love the the way Sophie is reaching up toward her mother, making this a private and exclusive moment between mother and child.

Here again, the eyes tell the story. Their mutual gaze is intimate and focused solely on each other as they celebrate and navigate these early bonding months.

Even when you know someone as well as your own father, portrait painting can be fraught with the differing perceptions of a person.  To me, this is my father: his direct gaze, still bright and watching carefully as I move and speak – the slight smile on his mouth, always ready for that wry remark that drove us crazy when we were young. My father thought he looked frail in this painting, nothing like the strong, handsome man he still sees inside himself.  Next time, I will paint him as he was in his prime.  And he will not be wearing a tiny checked jacket which took me hours to paint!

Oil on Canvas 9″ x 11″