Ideas can form quickly, like the ringing of a bell going off in one's head. Others come more slowly and evolve and then suddenly feel ready, and some of my best paintings are slow to evolve.
My sketchbook is where many sketches go to wait. I put them down and then move on to other ideas. After some time, I flip through them and sometimes something clicks and if all of the factors line up, I think of attempting a personal piece.
In my class at Pratt in 2012-13, there was a tall, thin student, Emily, with a unique look. She has high bangs and pale, porcelain-like skin. Like the rest of that class, she is wonderful person and artist. One day while looking back at my sketchbook, I saw a small sketch of a girl that looked like Emily and I awkwardly asked if she might model for me. Though I wasn't ready to do the painting, I didn't think I'd ever see the right model for this piece again.
Often when I shoot reference I look for a range of lighting and expressions and in the end have only a few that work out. In this case, I had numerous photos that were perfect yet different. I then had the dilemma of having to choose the right pose. On my computer for about 10 days I kept two images up and after time began to see that one that matched my vision of the girl in my head.
The image started as just a girl and a bird. To go into all of the reasons it became a painting about a relationship between the girl and the bird would require that I write a novella. In short, I wanted to cement their connection beyond just placing a bird on her shoulder. When I combine elements in a painting, I often try to integrate them. With that in my mind, I first thought of a small string around the bird's foot, looping down and back up to her neck. It sounded better than it looked and felt a bit too much like a Walton Ford trick as well. At this point production stopped again. I was not going to do this unless it was right.
Another series of sketches I did this summer was of birds on small bits of floating turf. Marooned on these tiny islands, they are trapped but ironically they have the ability to fly, and thus are not trapped at all. The metaphor was poignant for me, and I then had my eureka moment. The bird on Emily's shoulder can
leave but doesn't and Emily can shoo the bird off but doesn't either. Their relationship appears to be a perfect one until one looks more closely. The tiny scratches and cuts belie the perfect union, yet they stay together.
The painting started with a simple sketch, done only for aesthetic purposes. The meaning evolved over time. Most of my best works gain their meanings later on, after the image was conceived.
The painting itself was done slowly, first getting the values right, glazing them down, then repainting over that. In that way, the skin has a depth and for me allows the eye to travel over the skin the way it does in three dimensions. I also tried to move into a different color area. I admire artists who successfully use green in portraits so I wanted to have a green cast to the shadow side. Finally, the background was an issue to consider. I was first going to be a simple gradation but I decided on a turbulent environment. Once I did that I felt I had something better.
My sincere thanks to Emily Pettigrew for being my muse for this painting.
Emily is a wonderful artist, illustrator living in Brooklyn, New York. She won a major award at this year's Society of Illustrators Student Scholarship Exhibition and graduated in May, 2013. Her work is subtle,evocative and delicate and can be seen at http://emilypettigrew.tumblr.com