fbpx

When a large audience is meaningless

Life at 70
12×16″
Oil on canvas

Is this a good painting? Can you tell?

What’s a good painting, anyway?

Most people judge a painting by likeness, by detail, by size. If the painting looks like the real person, it’s a great painting. If it displays painstaking detail – every pimple, every pore, every strand of hair – it’s a great painting. If it shows amazing likeness, true-to-life detail, and is a huge, wall-sized impasto that runs from floor to ceiling and gives the audience chronic neck-soreness – it’s probably the greatest and most expensive painting ever created in the history of mankind.

For most people, this is just another one-of-those.

But I wasn’t doing this for most people.

I wasn’t doing this for even a few.

I did this for only one person: the man in the painting.

His son and his wife wanted this as a special birthday gift – the man turns 70 this weekend. They sent me a few pictures of him to paint from, finally settling on a black-and-white stolen moment. Good enough for a nice piece, but I asked for more. And more.

I didn’t want to simply copy a photo. I wanted to feel for the man who was, till then, just a two-dimensional stranger.

For a few endless days and nights all I had in mind were pictures of him. At 70, such a vigorous smile, so much life! I didn’t know his voice, but I could almost hear his laughter. I had only spoken with his son and his wife, and their voices were swimming in my head, even now – how important this man, how much they felt for him, how dearly they wanted this painting to be a beautiful memory.

I don’t pretend to know this man. I’ve never even met him, let alone heard his voice. But when I finally made that first stroke, it was as though he was sitting in front of me.

When I was done, I smiled. This was the greatest, most confident portrait I’ve painted by far.

The joy lasted for mere seconds, before that familiar fear set in. How will they judge this? Will they look for buttery-smooth likeness? Will they mind my loose spontaneous strokes? Will they like it at all? Will they … will they… …

I finally met the son. He saw the painting, and wiped a tear from his eye.

“It’s beautiful.”

I lifted the painting from the easel, and held it in my hands, just for a few more moments.