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Revelations of a Portrait Artist

Eintein Albert Einstein, Humanist and Scientist Extraordinaire

Everyone has a hobby or a secret delight. And I will share with you how mine – portrait drawing, came into being.

It was 1957, in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada. I was five years old, and saw a group of neighborhood children clustering around an older friend of ours, Jane. Jane was sitting at a table, her back to us. She began to chortle, and I heard the other children laughing. Curious, I squeezed in between them to have a look. Jane held up a drawing of a girl (probably of one of the children present). But the girl in the drawing had a circle for a head, straw-like hair and crossed eyes. It was a very funny drawing and I could see why everyone was laughing.

But I had never seen a portrait before. I knew that people drew pictures – trees, flowers, houses, but I didn't know that people drew other people. So I looked at the drawing, and inside I silently exploded. I felt a fury like I had never before experienced. It screamed, "I CAN DO THAT! I KNOW I CAN DO THAT! I CAN DO BETTER THAN THAT! I AM GOING TO DRAW FACES AND DO LOTS BETTER THAN JANE!" From my calm demeanor, no one could have guessed at the passion that was churning within me.

And there began my desire to draw faces.

Soon after, my parents bought me a chalk-board, and after school I would draw – round discs for the head, with something resembling eyes and a mouth, within. I knew that my drawings were no better than those of my neighborhood friend; but it didn't matter. I persisted. Day after day, week after week, month after month, and year after year, I would stand before my chalk board and I would draw. I'm not sure if I saw any improvement at all. Certainly, no-one took any notice of my drawings, nor should they have.

But one day, when I was nearly eleven, I stood back from some drawings which I had done on a piece of paper – using my 'hush puppy' piggy bank, my Raggedy-Andy doll and 'Pebbles' from 'The Flintstones' as models, and noticed that my drawings actually resembled them. Since my grandfather who was present could also see the resemblance, for the first time I felt reassurance that perhaps I had some artistic ability after all.

In junior high school, when my homework was finally done, I would read, write poetry or draw. Sometimes I had an art session with my older 13-year-old cousin. We tried to compose faces of women, with beautiful eyes and long eyelashes. Her sketches were always better than mine; but I tried not to be discouraged.

One evening, however, as a 14-year-old, I sat again at my desk at home, doodling what I thought was a lady's face. But I produced a drawing that mystifies me to this day. Somehow the drawing that I had just completed did not look like a woman. It looked just like my brother. But he had been killed six months earlier. And this was the night before what would have been his 16th birthday.

I was shaken. I wanted to know if it was just me who thought the drawing on the paper looked like my brother. So I hesitantly showed it to my mother. She looked at it, and my heart-broken mother, who never spoke of my brother, looked at the drawing and said, "It's Dorian". She said my brother's name.

So what happened here? If drawings reflect the subconscious of the artist, then this is a prime example. The portrait truly was a depiction of my background thoughts, though heretofore I had never shown such artistic skill. Or was my brother, in some mysterious way, trying to tell me that he was close? I don't know. I have kept the drawing, hidden away, and once in a while I look at it. Each time I do, a cold chill runs through me again.

When I was 15 years old, I stopped doodling. It had taken me ten years to realize, not without disappointment, that no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't draw from my imagination. I could see no progress in this type of drawing. But holding to the conviction that somehow I would be able to draw faces, I decided to focus on drawing only what I could see before me.

So I drew from photos of movie stars, politicians, and fashion models. I was happy when I drew and even more pleased if I liked the outcome. As I continued to draw throughout high school, my drawings improved. People suggested that I attend art classes, but I resisted. Adults were always telling me what to do, and when it came to drawing, this was going to be something that was mine, just mine, without any outside interference.

Finally, however, it was time for me to attend art classes. I had just finished university, and I realized that I had gone as far as I could on my own. I did not resent any more the thought of outside assistance.

There was a school in Toronto which my friends recommended, called the Three Schools of Art. Here professionals gave instruction in drama, music and art at a modest fee. I attended once, then later, twice a week. No matter how tired I was after work, my energy always returned during the portrait drawing classes. The number of students ranged from five to fifteen pupils, with a live model at the front.

During breaks we would walk around and comment on each others' work. It always amazed me how everyone had their own style. Some students were very good at sketching, some at shading, some at detailing. And no matter what day it was, their style remained the same. Each person's drawing was as distinctive as their handwriting. Those who were discerning could tell who the artist was, just by looking at the portrait.

I found that I loved these classes. Time was not noticed. Hours could drift by as minutes, so absorbed were we. And often I found myself surrounded by several classmates, oohing or awing at a portrait which I was working on. I took a lot of pleasure in this. One model asked me if she could buy the portrait that I had just done of her. And I sold it to her for a dollar. Another asked me if I could also draw her husband and son, from photographs which she had of them. I was thrilled when one of my sketches, of a young Indian woman, looked just like the model.

In class we drew with a charcoal-like pencil called conté. It drove me crazy, though. Using my special razor, I could never sharpen the charcoal to a fine enough point. And whenever I drew, my hand resting on the paper would smear the charcoal across it. So I gave up on fancy tools in my private drawings and stuck to low tech pencils. They hardly smeared, and correcting an error required a simple rub with an eraser.

For seven years I attended these classes, and in this time I got married. And when the question of children came up, I felt that I had to be someone distinctive before I could have them. I wanted my future children to feel that they had a special, unusual, mother. If I could sell a few portraits, I thought, then this would satisfy my criteria. Fortunately, I did – for five dollars apiece. Thank goodness. "Does this mean that I would not have had any children if I hadn't sold any portraits?" I half- mused later.

But little did I know that having children and portrait drawing are not congruent. My husband and I moved from Toronto to Edmonton in western Canada, where we were blessed with five children in six years. And although we lived in that city for ten years, no-one there knew that I liked to draw faces. For twelve years I put aside my pencil.

Portrait drawing requires a period of tranquility and this I did not have. It is an urge like any other creative force, but I had to quell it. It would come over me like waves – to sit, hold a pencil, and draw a face before me – to feel the thrill of seeing a face recreated beneath my hands.

Customarily, I would look with a magnifying glass at a photo, into the eyes of my subject to see its detail. It would appear three-dimensional, and I could almost feel the life force looking back at me. I felt a fondness for my subjects. And to this end I knew that I could never draw an evil person.

Portrait drawing had run like a common thread throughout my life since early childhood – providing me with a sense of continuity in good times and bad. And now, after twenty-five years of it, I had to stop.

But I bided my time. We moved to Oklahoma in the United States. When the last of our children, our twins, were in kindergarten, I was finally able to resume portrait drawing. And to my amazement, my drawings were better than they had ever been. They even more closely resembled the person that I was drawing. "How can it be," I asked, "that after twelve years of not drawing, my drawings have improved so much?" I was puzzled. Some people offered that motherhood must have blessed me with a maturity in seeing that I had not previously had. Perhaps this is it.

Portrait drawing has also brought to my attention how our perception can vary from one moment to the next. For instance, I would draw one part of a face, think I was done, go back to it later and notice something I had not seen before. I would use this phenomenon to reassure myself when I had difficulty drawing a particular face. I knew that I could always return to it later and be assisted by a fresh look. But I always wondered why I didn't see that crease or shadow the first time around.

I have also found it funny that when drawing a child, I would sometimes see resemblances to one of the parents that I had not noticed before. For instance, once I was drawing my daughter's friend from a photograph. And all of a sudden, it seemed like her father's eyes were staring back at me from the paper. I had never noticed before that Brandy's eyes were like her dad's. Later when Brandy stood next to her father, I could hardly see this resemblance between the two, but in the partial portrait it was very clear.

I met with some successes in Oklahoma. I sold a number of portraits (for more than $5.00) and was a prize winner in my city – Norman's annual art fair. But my greatest thrill was seeing the portrait which I did of Albert Einstein, displayed in the student lounge of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma.

Time continued to march on, and our family moved once again. And this time it was to Eretz Yisrael. We settled in Raanana, and like a loyal friend, my love of drawing faces followed me here. And as I draw, I have this enduring feeling whose message I would like to share with you. It goes like this "We were made in the image of G-d. We are G-d's creation. And We are not to be harmed!"

As a creviced face appears across a canvass, or the innocent eyes of a child peer out from a sheet of paper, I hope that in some small way my drawings convey the specialness of human beings. And for this reason, I draw with my heart as well as my hands. 

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Wednesday, 26 January 2022

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