Several days ago I visited my mother. I was planning to help her with some yardwork, but a noon visit by the six-year-old girl who lives across the street put an end to the raking. She stood in the driveway looking like a painting, and I thought, "No, Tom, it's too difficult. Kids are impossible, and anyway, you should be raking the grass." But I said, "Megan, would you like it if I painted a picture of you?"
"Okay," she said.
I grabbed a 24-inch square canvas, an easel, and a paint box from my van and asked Megan if she would sit in the small chair my ever-helpful mom had brought from inside the house. Megan was beautifully back-lit: An aureole of brightly lit blonde hair surrounded her face; her features were defined by warm and cool colors rather than by dark and light. My mother's garage doors provided a bucolic background.
I've found that it's a good policy to involve your sitter in the process to keep him or her interested. To my surprise, Megan knew what an easel was, explaining that she used one at school and that she could draw but couldn't paint very well. Not a bad problem to have, I thought.
The last child whose portrait I painted was 5. She had known for weeks in advance that she'd be required to sit still: She proudly told friends, "I'm going to have my picture painted and I have to sit very still." On the appointed day, I set up my materials and a chair on her parents' front porch and asked her to sit comfortably and look at me.
Well, she was a fine illustration of what physicists know as Heisenberg's uncertainty principle: Her position and momentum could not be directly measured and could only be stated in terms of probabilities. She was everywhere, a blur. I wondered if the child mind generally makes a distinction between sitting quietly and cartwheeling around the block. The result was a half-decent oil sketch, but hardly a Sir Joshua Reynolds. Hardly even a Hughes. Maybe it was a Heisenberg.
So maybe 6 is different from 5, I thought, knowing better.
In fact, for about 20 minutes, Megan was quite the little model. She did the usual squirming, although not in the self-conscious manner of adults. All the while, I frantically swiped away with the brushes - trying to make a likeness, get the drawing right, the color right, etc. Why do I always think back-lit pictures are going to be easier?
She was dying to see what I had done so far. Minutes seem like hours to six-year-olds, and I knew every minute counted: Painting a child feels like defusing a ticking bomb.
I showed her the work-in-progress, and she made a sort of no-thank-you face. "You don't like it, do you?" I asked.
"My shirt's not gray."
I had scrubbed in a perfunctory rose-gray halftone where her pink shirt was ("It's not pink, it's maroon!"), not yet having sufficiently delineated the brilliant lit edge of her shoulders and arms, all of which should make the viewer see a pink (maroon!) shirt lit from behind by 1 o'clock sun in October. To Megan it was wrong.
Anyway, either Megan had reached critical mass or she had realized that I was an untalented dauber and declined to sit any longer. Well, that's not quite true: She made a game of jumping out of the chair and waving her arms as soon as I looked from her to the painting. Then she'd collapse back into a rigid position and giggle when I glanced back, as if she'd really put one over on me.
Eventually, she found greener pastures and left me to work on the garage door and the lovely reflections in its windows - although not before admonishing me that the painting belonged to her, not to me. I replied that I had bought the canvas, the brushes, the paints and had painted the portrait, while she wouldn't even sit still for me. Plainly, it was my painting. "Yeah, but it's my picture," she explained.
Megan is one of the refreshing few who admit to enjoying pictures of themselves, rather than sublimating their feelings into a desire for paintings of their children or pets or, most distressingly, their houses. Nor is Megan constrained by the inverted vanity of many others: "Oh, I couldn't possibly have a painting of myself, and anyway, not until I lose 25 pounds." I don't want to sound as presumptuous as I am, so I don't ask if he or she would have sat for Sargent. Or perhaps Rembrandt?
What makes us uncomfortable with the idea of being stared at by someone calling himself an artist and then having to face the results of what he seems to think of us may be what is so engaging about portraits of others: When in the hands of an artist, even the most apparently flattering, aggrandizing, or condemnatory portraits convey a sense of revealing, as if through a keyhole, or by spotlight. And what can we feel but admiration and some measure of kinship with Pope Innocent X, who when he viewed Velazquez's portrait of him, remarked, "Troppo vero." Too true.
Here's a disillusioning fact: Painters do not generally try to plumb the depths of the sitter's humanity or to reveal the contours of his or her soul. They try to paint good pictures.
They try to arrange the marks on the canvas so that they seem to look like the subject as seen from a certain angle, in a certain quality of light. For some of us, this is a very difficult task, and for others it's a little less difficult. It is falsely sentimental to set about representing the human intangibles before the tangibles. Much of what viewers feel is deep or revealing about portraits is their own sensitivity to the spiritual significance of painting. That is where the art is.