Painting Portraits with Personality, Mood, and Character

Portrait of Ginevra di Benci by Leonardo da Vinci, 1474-1476, oil painting on wood, 16.5 x 14.5.

Portrait of Ginevra di Benci by Leonardo da Vinci,
1474-1476, oil painting on wood, 16.5 x 14.5.

I've described the most important technical parts of my study of Da Vinci: line and anatomy.
When I began to study how to paint, I opted not to follow his methods,
so I haven't got anything to share with you about the famous sfumato,
admirable though it is.

Let me explain something about how I learn about art; a quirk, perhaps,
of being self-taught. I usually don't read books by or about my
subject. I've read snippets of Da Vinci's notebooks, but haven't made
anything like a complete study of them. I am only sketchily aware of
his biography and his role in Western art. I like to learn by looking
at things, and I think I've been served well so far by this practice,
even if I have woeful gaps in my knowledge.

One of the most important things I learned from Da Vinci was in line
with this practice of looking at things. It was simply this: his
figures and portraits have so much soul. I have spent hours in the
National Gallery in silent conversation with his bewitching Ginevra di
Benci.

Madonna of the Rocks (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci, 1483-1486, oil painting, 78.3 x 48.
Madonna of the Rocks (detail)
by Leonardo da Vinci,
1483-1486, oil painting, 78.3 x 48.

How long can you talk to a painting? It's a good question. I think it
has to do with how much personality is present in the painting itself.
Ginevra is multi-sided. She looks as if she has a personality, and
moods, and thoughts. She appears complex and self-possessed. She serves
a role in no story but her own, and she's not entirely interested in
telling you what her story is. So my approach to this picture is a
pilgrimage to her; it is not hers to me. This is a picture, but it is
not a show.

Da Vinci's portrait paintings brim with substance and presence.
Consider the angel Gabriel in the Louvre version of the Madonna of the
Rocks (yes, that's the one Dan Brown thinks is spooky). This Gabriel is
a trouble-maker. The lower lids of his eyes are clenched with fun, and
his mouth is breaking into a smile. The eyes are looking at something
specific that isn't in the painting. You, observing the painting, have
caught part of an ongoing story, and the character of the participants
is evident, but the story remains mysterious. There's something
threatening about that smile, about the knowledge the angel has, which
you do not have and cannot get. Again, we see a full, self-willed
character, inviting us to sink into extended inquiry during our
encounter with the painting.

What I learned from these studies is that for the pictures of people
that I want to do, line, form, color, and light are not enough. They
are the servants, not the master. They are what depicts, not what is
depicted. What is depicted is the human presence. The success of the
drawing or painting is to be measured in relation to the human
presence, not the elements of visual design.

Young Mother by Daniel Maidman, 2011, oil on canvas, 30 x 24.

Young Mother by Daniel Maidman, 2011,
oil on canvas, 30 x 24.

I finished this painting just recently. The model's name is Piera. My paintings of Piera look a little Da
Vinci-ish from the get-go because Piera herself looks a little Da
Vinci-ish. In this painting, I wanted as much as possible to eliminate
everything but Piera, the person. There are no clever ideas, no exciting
bits of design. Just Piera.

I've been working with Piera for close to three years. If you're
interested as I am in the humanity of your sitter, I believe it is
important to work with models for a long time, to develop a textured
sense of who they are. Piera had her first child a year ago, and she is
very happy and very tired. All those things went into this painting, but they don't necessarily come back out of it. You might not know her
story or anything about her. Would she still be interesting? Would you
still stand a while with the painting because you want to get to know
her better?

I don't know, but I'm trying.

–Daniel


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