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I started writing this on a rainy day in my corner of France with intermittent thunder and lightning. I’m sitting in a cozy stone barn with a sharply slanting roof. For some 300 years this building was home to sheep. With some upgrades like a water-tight roof, wood floors, plumbing and electricity, it’s been our summer home in southwestern France for the past 30 years. In stormy weather like this, we have to unplug all sensitive electrical appliances. Surge protectors are no match for lightning in these parts and the phone lines are notoriously vulnerable to lightning strikes and will fry your modem and perhaps your computer. So, I can’t go online; I get to think. And what I’m thinking about is why we do what we do, and why I think you’d enjoy spending 20 minutes getting your hands dirty making a portrait.
“As soon as I found out how the white was actually giving form to my black background, I couldn’t stop. I don’t know why, but my hands just weren’t stopping,” said Valeria C. at a Memory Project workshop in Brooklyn.
Val was drawing from a photograph of Settela (Anna Maria) Steinbach, a Roma girl who was part of a large family of seven (or eight, depending on the source) brothers and sisters. Settela’s head had recently been shaved so she covered it with a torn sheet. She’s nine years old, but looks much older, gazing at the viewer through the door of a cattle car on its way to Auschwitz. Val’s portrait is featured as our Portrait of the Month for August. She captured in just 20 minutes, the sorrow and suffering in Settela’s face with powerful white strokes of pastel defining the shape of her head and the light on her face. Black verticals imprison her in the unforgiving doors of the cattle car. There’s also tenderness and dignity in the shadows on the side of her face and the definition of her nose.
As a non-artist myself and someone who is perhaps 90% verbal and 10% visual, I was surprised to discover how much I love getting caught up in the drawing process. Using our lesson, it’s 20 or so minutes of pure concentration—taking the time to observe what’s in front of you, translating it onto the page focusing only on light and shade. The longer you look, the more you begin to see. It’s meditative and completely engaging.
You work upside down, so you don’t know quite what your picture will look like until you turn it over. That moment is dramatic. It’s three-dimensional and there’s always something beautiful you captured. Even if the face looks somewhat distorted, Roz (our co-founder and creative director) has taught me to see the beauty in what I’ve done. She reminds me, “It’s not supposed to be perfect. See how much you’ve observed. Notice the sensitivity (or strength) of that line or the way that section looks as if it was carved.” She does the same with students and I’ve seen their eyes light up as they learn to see the beautiful elements in their own work. We’re so quick to judge and condemn ourselves and so programmed to aim for perfection. That isn’t the aim of art. One aim of art, I think, is to observe and to connect with something outside yourself.
Choose a subject
So, now I’m going to suggest that you take a giant adventurous step and try making a portrait. It is messy, I warn you, but so satisfying.
Below is a link to our website page that will teach you everything you need to make a portrait yourself. You will require some basic supplies—an ordinary piece of white paper, a piece of black charcoal and a black and white pastel. You can get these at most art supply stores. You can also use black and gray crayons. They aren’t as malleable as pastels, but they work. We have art lessons for both crayons and pastels.
For a subject you’ll want a black and white photograph that is well-lit and has clear areas of light and shade. There are more than 30 you could choose from on our website (link below). You can also choose a family photograph to work from. We provide instructions to scan and enlarge it. If you send any of your drawings to us, we will post them and you will have the reward of experiencing your own creativity, learning about a remarkable person and sharing all of that with others. Sound good?
If you don’t feel quite ready to do that, don’t have the supplies or don’t feel like getting dirty, another fun thing to do is to browse our portrait gallery. You’ll see many different qualities of line and texture, of confidence and tentativeness, sophistication and naïveté, of hope, sorrow, serenity…
Tell us what you see, what you find beautiful or touching. Post your words; we can make a word cloud or a poem if enough people participate. Why not?
Portrait-making instructions: http://bit.ly/UYHOIh
Portrait Gallery: http://bit.ly/2vIzoZw
Portrait of the Month: http://bit.ly/1GzUSWE
Subjects to draw: http://bit.ly/2qi6rj3
Home page: http://bit.ly/1k7Jfiq
Up top you see me with my portrait of Raoul Wallenberg. His photo is below. It felt great to have an image emerge when I turned my page over and to pay tribute to him. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat who managed to save more than 10,000 Hungarian Jews from deportation and death in 1944. He was 32 years old at the time and consistently faced down Nazi authorities, issuing thousands of papers both authentic and forged, that said the people about to be deported were under the protection of the Swedish government. When Russia liberated Hungary from the Nazi regime, Wallenberg disappeared in the custody of Russian officials and is presumed to have died two years later in a Russian prison. But there has never been any confirmation of what became of him. August 4th is his birthday, so this felt like a good time to honor him. Thanks to the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust for additional information about Settela Steinbach. http://bit.ly/2tJofKr