I have gotten to be very particular about taking posthumous portrait commissions. They pose some singular challenges to any portrait artist. My goal is to capture life, or at least to create portraits that have the feeling of being painted from life. This can be very difficult if furnished with only a few photographs, from which to work. It’s even more difficult when someone give me a single stamp-sized print to work from.
That was the case for the portrait of Juan Wu Li, commissioned by his daughter’s husband. Bob McQuillen was very persuasive, disarmingly charming and didn’t set his expectation of me too high. This took some of the pressure off me, I suppose. But at the end of the day, the real pressure for producing quality work falls squarely on my shoulders. Just because its posthumous doesn’t mean I’m off the hook. It still must be a convincing likeness, tell a compelling story and have the highest integrity as a work of art.
Bu crazy me, t I saw something in the photo I thought I could capture. There was some pretty decent light on the subject. And although the photo was quite pixilated when blown up enough for me to see it, I was able to move into it quite deeply. Some areas were washed out completely, so I had to draw on years of painting from life to fill in the information the photo lacked.
The portrait was a birthday present for Eunice, who described her father as a very serious but kind man, from a humble background. An Ashram Buddis, he was a Theoretical Physicist in China who died about ten years ago at the age of 72. All Eunice had to remember him was the single postage-stamp-sized photo. Juan Wu Li lived his whole life in China, surviving the Cultural Revolution and the various movements that came and went. An avowed anti-Communist, he taught at the Wu Han University until his outspokenness led him to be “demoted” to teaching physics in high school. Eunice cried when she saw the portrait of her father, remembering him fondly as her sweet father.
It always gives me satisfaction to be able to form a bridge between the living and the dead. As I say in my marketing, our portrait will one day be more real than us. I think its beautiful that Eunice has something far more real than a photo to remember her father.