Sometimes you can’t finish a portrait because the conditions are less than ideal. And sometimes you make glaring mistakes. In this case, my friend Jose was very tired and kept falling asleep. I did not have very long to get a likeness and when he was posing his head kept moving (he was minding the dogs). Even before I walked out the door, I had that awful feeling, the realization that the painting was a disaster. I don’t know about you but once you’ve spent 4 hrs on a painting, you feel like you need to spend time doing your best to salvage it.
I looked at it more analytically the next day. His face had not ended up in a proper 3/4 view. His eyes were wrong and his nose was too long. The background was the wrong value (too light) and his shirt was so distracting. That’s what jumped at me and I made mental notes thinking I would work on it later, but…
I couldn’t stand not fixing these mistakes right away and I wiped off the eyes the day after, before the oil paint was dry.I “fixed” his eyes but his face kept bothering me, so I measured his face’s proportions using a photo I had taken, and confirmed my suspicion that the whole face was wrong. Even here you can see that the mouth is not aligned with the rest of the features.
That night I had a phone conversation with Jose and told him his painting was not finished. He told me he had meant to shave before the portrait, and “could I please take off this facial hair?” Since I was already planning to change the whole face, I said yes. Then I looked at my calendar and figured out this extensive revision would not happen in Puerto Rico because I had to allow the paint to dry before shipping. But actually, the real reason was that I needed to be able to concentrate to figure out how to fix the whole face.
Once the painting got to my studio, I gave it a much more leisurely look for about two days. I placed a ruler on the straight lines to make sure I hadn’t distorted any because of my astigmatism. I darkened the background first, then worked on Pinolo the larger dog, and simplified his shirt.
When all of that had been resolved, I felt like I could tackle his face. I pre-mixed all of the skin tones and waited until the morning when I knew I would be more rested. Maybe it’s true what Agnes Martin said, “You can’t make a perfect painting. We can see perfection in our minds. But we can’t make a perfect painting.” While I might still have to make some minute changes, I am much happier with the outcome and I am sure José will be happy as well.