The following is my response to another writing prompt posted on Poets & Writers. The prompt is this: Have you ever been the subject of a work of art? What is it like to look at someone else’s artistic interpretation of who you are? This week, write a piece analyzing why the artist made the compositional choices he or she did. If you’ve never had a work of art created for you, write about how you’d want to be portrayed. What medium, lighting, color palette, and setting do you think would capture your spirit? Who would you want to create the piece? Where would you want it displayed?
Portraiture as an art form has evolved over the centuries, but the ultimate goal of it hasn’t changed much: to portray (note: the root word of portrait, French in origin) a subject through the eyes of the artist.
I’ve always thought the word sounded formal—grade school portrait days were the bane of my childhood existence—and a little stifled. During the Renaissance, wealthy patrons commissioned portraits by the seriously skilled artists of their time and spent hours sitting in one place while the artist worked their magic. Precision strokes of the brush, an eye for detail and a knack for character: these are all important traits for artists in the business of portraits, and these haven’t changed today.
While the advent of photography changed how portraits were created, I think there’s still something distinctly special about getting a handcrafted portrait done. Whether it’s oil paint, pastel, or pencil…being recreated by someone else on a canvas is a fascinating idea. The medium is multi-faceted: your portrait is being sent through a couple filters, including the artist’s mind, their eyes, their hands, and then the tools they use lend a certain tone to the final product.
But I digress—I was an Art History minor, can’t help myself—the real point of this piece is to delve into my experience with being the “subject of a work of art.” And so, without further ado…
Caricatures. Defined as pieces that either exaggerate or simplify the subject, you could say they’re almost like a glorified cartoon. And, rightly so—I’ve rather enjoyed the art of caricature mainly because there is no pretense. This is you as a character, not a photo portrait. Verism hath no power.
I’ve had a few caricatures done of myself, the first being in Las Vegas when I was a teenager (family vacation) and the most recent being at a local art festival in downtown San Jose. I was pretty brave that first time around…I was alone wandering the Circus Circus hotel amusement park and just decided to get one done (probably because I had these delightfully dangly new sparkly star earrings…ah, youth) and I think I had asked the artist to draw me playing guitar. The funny thing is, I didn’t play guitar. At all. I think I had bought one in my formative years thinking I would become an instant rockstar (see: earrings) but nope: couldn’t strum a tune to save my life. I think that is part of the allure of caricatures. You can ask the artist to superimpose your own desired self onto your “real” self through portrayed hobbies and things. It’s all for fun, right? If you wanted a photo, you would have gotten a camera instead of sit in an artist’s chair.
I’ll talk about my most recent caricature experience. A good friend of mine was visiting from out of the country, so naturally we went out to have some fun. After a few drinks and some general rabblerousing, we happened upon a downtown street festival and in so doing, found a caricature artist booth. We both jumped at the opportunity to get one done and interestingly enough, my friend actually knew the artist. So, as we sat there, we chatted him up and had a good conversation about porn stars and ren faires (only somewhat jokingly).
After sitting for about 20 minutes or so, he showed us the finished product: a picture of me and my friend sitting side by side, legs crossed and arms crossed, but otherwise looking very distinct from one another.
Let me elaborate. My friend is a very easygoing, laid back girl, and she can pretty much talk to anyone, even the most unapproachable looking person (think: hobo with a sharp talking to a tree), with a smile. She was portrayed as literally laying back in her chair, body slouched invitingly and her eyes heavy-lidded, painted as staring directly at the viewer: almost a “come hither” look. Her hair was long and untamed, strands of it floating around her face. Her long bare legs stole the show for sure, and they almost spread across the entire painting.
Me, on the other hand; I was portrayed sitting up straighter than a lightning rod, arms and legs primly crossed, close to my body, with dramatically oversized eyes drifting somewhere off center, towards the left of the painting. My hair was drawn as a neat little black bob, lips pursed in a dainty smile.
I found the contrast immensely fascinating. While my friend and I joked about how we looked like cougars in our mid-forties (the artist was very gratuitous with his line work, particularly under our eyes) I found the caricature more or less spot on. The shape of my face was like a square heart, which I’d never actually thought about until seeing it drawn like that: my friend’s face was elongated, with an exaggerated jawline. I think he did a great job with posture, especially. I made it a point to sit up as straight as possible to be drawn “correctly” and accurately, while my friend was just chatting the entire time and constantly moving around, explaining why her body was so much more lax than mine in the painting.
Overall, I think the artist picked up on our differences rather well. We both had the same smirk on our faces, but I definitely had a more demure and aloof air about me, while my friend was sultry and inviting.
The piece is currently pinned to my bedroom wall. I look at it as a fond reminder of my good friend, but also as a study of just how important posture and body language can be. I didn’t bother telling the artist how to paint me like I did for my first caricature, so I appreciated the candid perspective and portrayal.
TLDR; caricatures are awesome.