I love to paint portraits. It is enormously satisfying to see a face form on a blank canvas, and quite often in the past year or two, twice as good to see two faces. Two faces make a painting about relationships, not likeness. Two faces on a canvas have something to say to one another; it’s my job to depict whatever that is—be it fondness, disdain, caring, annoyance, compassion, friendship, passion or something more.
And I love color. The vast majority of my work has always been in color—bright, vivid, in your face color. But I was inspired to try my hand at images in black and white when I saw a painting that my friend, Michael Wolov, had bought on a trip to Cuba a few years ago…a painting of an old, wrinkled Cuban man, smoking a big cigar. Until he told me otherwise, I had always thought that it was a photograph that Michael had taken himself, the details so perfect, so real. I tucked it away in the back of my mind, until I chose to paint a couple kissing and decided to attempt it in black and white.
I always start my paintings with a grisaille, a monochromatic underpainting, in which I draw the image with my brush and block out all the darks and lift the lights that will define the images. Once that dries, the next step would be to apply color, again starting with the darks, but this time, instead of various tones of flesh, my palette was filled with shades of white, gray and black. In each painting, I found that the lack of color freed me to paint shapes and patterns with increased contrast. Without the distraction of color, I think the images become more compelling, more dramatic, if you will, much like a good black and white photograph.
I give most of my paintings titles, often a hint at what I mean to convey. The titles usually come to me at some point near the end of the process—some are immediately apparent; others call for opinions from family, friends or fellow painters. One of my first painting teachers, Jack Highberger, happened to teach my painting class last week, when I was finishing the first of my black and white couples. He remarked that the man looked very tender toward the woman, moving me to call it “Love Me Tender.” As I turned to my second pair of lovers, I knew immediately that I would call it “What’s Love Got To Do With It.” Some titles come easy.