Painting Practice on Family Members; The Gift and Challenge

I’ve noticed several artists adding portrait and figure painting to their skill set lately. We know there are benefits in challenging ourselves by painting the figure from life. Having practiced painting the figure and portrait at our local art center I’ve been eager to create settings and poses both inside and outside at my home. Working from life is the best way to improve our skills yet it’s often difficult to find someone willing and available to pose -especially during the daylight hours. Thankfully I’ve had live-in models milling around my home -my children! I have experienced both gifts and challenges painting them.

  Familiarizing oneself with one’s subject is essential. In preparing to paint an unfamiliar model we need time to discover the model’s sense of identity and style, passions, achievements, worries and wishes, while with family we already have an understanding and familiarity with these facets. Once the artist has managed to persuade a child or spouse to sit for a portrait, and likely only for a limited time, kindling the sitter’s interest in the design will help everything go more smoothly. The artist can engage the model in some of the decisions; determining a natural position for the pose, incorporating a favorite treasure or symbolic object, and choosing a relevant, appropriate outfit. Although it’s not easy, inviting your model to hold an attitude, thought, or sentiment in mind during the sitting is also helpful -this idea may be more the job of the artist than the muse.  With this dialogue between the artist and muse we can arrive at a pose and setting which propels us to begin.


“You compose because you want to somehow summarize in some permanent form your most basic feelings about being alive, to set down some sort of permanent statement about the way it feels to live now, today.” -Aaron Copland

Not only do I strive to accomplish a dialogue between myself and my muse, I have technical goals as well. Every new work can feel like the first time I’ve painted consciously. Having spent the last couple of years painting the figure indoors and landscape studies out in the open air I have become partial to natural light both on my subject and for my palette and canvas. Natural daylight allows us to identify accurate hues. Perceiving true color allows us to think in terms of shapes and masses, looking for and generalizing sections of color, mixing it as closely as possible and, as though you are assembling a puzzle, placing each piece with pastel, brush or palette knife onto your surface. 

In the last few years I’ve had the good fortune to capture a few of the passing phases of each of my children. Hopefully moving in the direction of narrative portraiture where the model is a subject in his/her own theatrical composition my works are better described as biographical portraits which summarize a happening, a moment, or an attitude in the life of my subject.

A few years ago, before I considered the significance of narrative portraiture I painted my first small portrait in oil of my teenaged daughter sitting on a stone wall in the morning sunlight. I only wanted to capture this lovely girl, whom I adore, bathed in morning sunlight.

“Bathed in Morning Light” by Barbara Berry
Oil on panel – 10″ x 12″

I managed to persuade my son to pose for a quick photo shoot, and I painted him in soft pastels. He was wheeling his motorcycle out into the bright sun. I hoped to capture his energy and passion for riding.

“Ride” by Barbara Berry
Patel on Pastelmat Board – 39″ x 26″

Years later I painted my older daughter again when she entered a more guarded phase in her young adulthood and I suggest this by painting her behind the back of the Windsor chair keeping the viewer at a distance.

“Nineteen” by Barbara Berry
Pastel on Pastelmat Board – 22″ x 18″

Practicing in various different media can stretch your boundaries in mark making. Using the broadside of the pastel stick is a bit like using a large flat brush in oil painting. With either medium one has the option to mass in the larger shapes paying close attention to their corresponding colors and values after which one can begin defining the forms.
I painted my youngest in a September field. It was her first year of high school when it occurred to me she will soon be leaving the nest as my older children have.

“In The Nest” by Barbara Berry
Pastel on Wallis archival paper – 30″ x 24″

I’ve painted my youngest twice in the last couple of months. Her incentive to pose? Gas money. My intention here was to suggest her quandary with the many valentines she receives.

“The Valentine” by Barbara Berry
Oil on primed cotton canvas – 24″ x 18″

Although this figurative painting is not of my own child I have painted this young woman several times while she sat for several artists at a local studio. In this painting I imbued the scene with a mood which didn’t reflect the setting before me, illustrating how much play we have as artists to enhance atmosphere or emotion in our rendering.

“Alone” by Barbara Berry
Oil on canvas – 20″ x 16″

Beware of this one thing when painting your own children – they can be painfully honest critics. They may not understand and appreciate an artist’s objective in the practice of painting and they don’t hold back when they see you’ve painted an eyebrow too thin or the nose a little too long. Some family members, however, don’t complain that their noses aren’t right:

Practicing portrait painting from life with our own family members gives us an advantage in capturing the essence of our muse. While it can be challenging to get them to sit we’ll cherish the time painting someone with whom we feel a deep connection. After all, what is a more worthy focus than our clan of kindred spirits? 

“There can be nothing exclusive about substantial art. It comes directly out of the heart of the experience of life and thinking about life and living life.”  -Charles Ives

“Don’t only practice your art, but force your way into its secrets; art deserves that, for it and knowledge can raise man to the Devine.” -Ludwig van Beethoven

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