Developing the Stevie Wonder Portrait

DEVELOPING THE PORTRAIT OF STEVIE WONDER

When people hear I am a portraitist, they often observe this must be very relaxing. I smile and mumble something, but that is actually not the case at all. Serious portraiture, which involves multiple goals—all challenging– is quite difficult, contrary to appearances. First the painter must catch the likeness exactly—there is no room for error. Just as importantly, he must convey the subject’s feelings. The person’s character and mood take center stage and if their depiction does not communicate who the person is, the work fails as a portrait.

Thus before beginning any portrait I always ask these questions: What is this person about? What pose will best communicate it?

With that in mind, I began examining all the photographs of Stevie Wonder I could find. I was not looking for a picture I could use without modifications. There is rarely such a thing and this instance was no exception. All I sought was a picture with a head I liked and maybe—if I was lucky—a good body as well. I was not seeking an image that would be perfect even in terms of clothing and background.

A gem turned up among the pictures. In it, Stevie was in concert, playing the piano, obviously having the time of his life. It was pure, infectious joy. It was the perfect photo.

Well, perfect to a point—remember what I said above. As with most of my large paintings, I would need to take elements from several sources to make up for deficiencies. The first was that the photo showed the body to just below the waist, whereas I wanted to extend it several more inches; at the same time, I wanted to show more of the piano. Filling in that visual information would involve doing what I do so often need to do—ask/persuade/cajole/beg(?) someone with a similar body type to pose.

A lovely gentleman came to my rescue—and he even owned a portable piano. I was not only grateful, but I came away with admiration for his dignity. He could have thought I was making him look silly, but he understood this was legitimate and he took it seriously. Now I had everything I needed to depict the body and the piano.

But there was more. The background was all wrong—what is the point of showing someone in a live concert unless you capture the excitement of lights flashing?

Twenty years ago I could have done what I do. I am constantly scouring the internet for photos of some random element which my painting requires. So I went online and pored over many, many pictures of live concerts. In the end, I borrowed from several, but above all from this one:

I wanted to make a further change, because in the photo I was using, Stevie was not wearing one of the colorful costumes he is known for. We can’t have that, can we? Once more I hit Google Images and turned up this:

Perfect! It even complemented the colors I was using in the background.

Sometimes I feel all the momentous decisions take place before I pick up a paintbrush. The painting of this portrait went smoothly, like a train following a familiar route without drama or problems along the way.

About halfway through I took the photograph below. It shows I did most of the work on the face early on, and I was beginning to sketch in the background in broad strokes. This is the technique which I and many painters follow, beginning with broad strokes and only gradually developing the details. I had not yet begun the suit at that point. I think I was still deciding what direction to take, as I discussed above.

As a portraitist, I feel I am not doing my job unless all my paintings look very different. There are great differences in the personality and history of all my sitters, and it is incumbent on me to follow the trail of who they are wherever it leads me. Stevie Wonder’s painting is a case in point. It was like nothing I had ever painted, but nothing less would have done justice to a force of nature like Stevie. Finally the portrait was finished, and I was happy.

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