I was delighted to learn that James Mercer has reformed The Shins (which apparently is the name of whatever band Mr. Mercer happens to be fronting) and that a new album from them will be arriving shortly. Tony and I had a chance opportunity to see the previous version of the Shins perform live in downtown Portland with our friend Kelly just days before their disbanding and subsequent hiatus.
However, it is their song, “Kissing the Lipless” from 2003’s “Chutes Too Narrow” which lends its title to today’s post. With new material on the way, it’s nice to take an opportunity to revisit the past and stoke anticipation.
The painting featured today, however, is of recent vintage. It was completed during another Friday portrait session at the Old Town Artists studios one week ago. A youngster named Paul was dropped off by his mom at the front door to the warehouse, where I was stationed to let people into the secured building. Her instructions to me were given in a thick Russian accent: “Please make sure my son makes it up to the studio.” Then she sped off.
I sent the kid up the rickety freight elevator to the fourth floor with some random stranger who was carrying a fancy folded-up easel and a canvas. He looked friendly enough and was obviously headed in the same direction as the diminutive model.
The group had already positioned Paul in a chair on the model stand by the time I was able to abandon my post and arrived upstairs. He appeared unamused by the prospect of sitting still for essentially two hours while a bunch of old weirdos drew and painted him. He seemed to take his job seriously enough, though and held fairly still all throughout, albeit shifting his scowl slightly now and then.
A note for any artists who plan on using young models: be a good host and be sure to have something for the kid to do during his/her breaks. Snacks and/or sodas also would be nice. The OTA did not provide any entertainment suitable for a twelve or thirteen-year-old besides the classical music playing on the radio. Food was also in short supply, and the only beverages present were beer and wine. A couple of the other artists were Russian, and closer to his age (younger than fifty, anyway) and they conversed with him. Otherwise, he trudged awkwardly around the studio inspecting the floor.
The session consisted of four 25-minute sittings. I spent the first minute of each span ruining the painting. Twenty-four minutes were devoted undoing the damage.
Initially, my main objective for the portrait was to capture a good likeness of the model. The eyes and eyebrows started out nicely right off the bat, and they continued to develop successfully, as I added layers of darker pigment. The nose turned out perfectly within the first few strokes of paint, and the nostril color was dark enough that it never had to be retouched. The hair was a bit of a problem: it never wanted to get dark enough.
The underpainting of the mouth was perfect, as well. Sadly, I had merely sketched it in with a light wash, and it needed to be darkened, if not defined. Every attempt at this made things worse and worse. Before long, I was forced to play the ‘artistic license’ card that I kept for occasions such as these. This was going to be a portrait with only a mere hint of a mouth. I actually think it works pretty well that way.
With that decision behind me, it was time to rescue the other parts of the picture that needed help: the jawline, the muddy background, and the pale, underdeveloped shirt. All these were tackled with relative ease. Sometimes, the most important thing is to just make peace with what isn’t working, and focus on what *can* be made to work. I could have gone back and finished the mouth later, based on a preliminary sketch, but the piece kind of works just the way it is.
It’s a bit of a mystery why some things come easily and others never come at all. The lyrics to the Shins song are a mystery to me, as well. Sure, they could be found on a webpage easily enough, but I prefer to just enjoy the moody, uneven feeling of the song. Which seems to validate a lipless painting of a kid named Paul.