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On the Easel Blog

On the Easel Blog


I am a painter.  I use oil paint on canvas to create my portraits.   I retrieved this portrait “The Red Hat” from my warehouse yesterday to rephotograph it and I got a chance to look at it again.

What impressed me was a quality of aliveness that this portrait gives off and I thought I’d make a closer examination of what makes that possible.

Of course, as I am drawing and applying paint on the surface, I am trying to create something that is vivid, that represents the way the light falls on the hills and valleys of the face, that is believable as a woman’s face, that is pleasant to look at.   I don’t want the color to be local or imitative, but I don’t want it either to be garish or false.   I want the hands to look like hands, not claws, and the skin to feel like skin, not leather or metal.

So there is imitation involved, I cannot deny.   I am going for a certain verisimilitude.

Yet, if she is successful, one of these women I am painting, she must feel alive.  Of course, she is not; she is just paint.  But this is the trick and the reward.  To make something that appears to live and breathe.  This is impossible, you might say, and you are certainly right.

But look at her.   She is not perfect by any means.  Some of the paint could have been better applied.   And yet.   She seems alive.  How did this happen?  How did I accomplish this?

There is no formula, and the task does seem impossible.   But here is the evidence.   It can only be one reason and one reason only.   My own aliveness has been injected into the image I have created.   

Like a soul flying out the window and landing in a new person, she has been breathed into manifestation.

Look for this as you look at art and you will find it everywhere.  The magic of creation. 


As they gaze upon a new painting, viewers may wonder what possibly has inspired the work.  How did the artist come up with this particular visual idea, and why?   Was it something the artist witnessed or was it derived from a source like a photograph?  Perhaps it was just imagined out of the blue, in a dream perhaps, a chance meeting, a passing glance that stuck.   However did it pop into consciousness and onto the canvas this particular day?

Usually for me, it is something visual that has zinged me.  The light on an object,  a pair of colors that resonate, a position or pose of a figure that evokes empathy…  For this work, called “Femina”, however, the genesis was an  idea I decided to try and express visually.  I wanted to depict the cliché concept of the feminine identity. Not the spiritual or emotional idea of femininity, but instead, the conventional, societal construct.

What were the elements I needed to include?    I decided on the ingredients: blond hair, blue eyes, a bewildered expression, a dress, preferably printed, a bow in the hair, and most essentially, the purse or pocketbook, carried in a particularly haughty manner.    The latter proved to be most essential and difficult to achieve.  With no model to work from, I went to my own closet, got a handbag, and put it over the crook of my elbow with that particular hand gesture I wanted to imitate, and painted it in with the other hand.   It proved to be exactly what I needed to deliver my message visually.

After several experiments on the background, I decided on black to set my female in stark relief, but the painting cried out for more.  I found the answer in a home depot store in the form of a wall stencil.  Somehow setting the figure off in front of what appeared to be a wall or enclosure was just the thing to make the point that the societal concept of femininity that we are so attached to and persists in the consciousness of both women and men is so detrimental and can be imprisoning.

So the work was now complete.  Here is “Femina”.  The value of art is that in an instant, without language, the idea is apparent in a way that no other medium could communicate.   The image is an exaggeration, of course, but it is also eerily familiar.   We recognize what she represents.  She looks at us and asks for our opinion of her.  She questions us and we cannot look away.

“FEMINA” by Carolyn Schlam, Oil on canvas 40 x 30”, 2022