A Portrait With Passion

Contemporary portraiture is fascinating in the myriad ways artists choose to represent their subjects. No longer is there an expectation of an academically rendered version of the sitter—today’s works frequently reveal the artist’s personalized point of view and often offer some insight into the soul of the subject as well. Reva Mattson’s powerful self-portrait Hard to Say is of this genre that reveals more than a superficial representation. Referring to her style as “expressive realism,” Mattson uses bold color and sharp contours to create a commanding portrait.

Hard to Say is the third in a series the artist painted during a difficult time in her life. And there’s no greater way to work through a period of self-discovery than by doing self-portraits. Mattson’s portrait is quite effective in creating a “riveting, emotionally intense portrait” (her goal for the piece, in her own words), yet there are several areas that, if developed, could further enhance her objectives.

Art Principles At Work
One of the benefits of doing a self-portrait is that you can depict your image from your point of view while not having to satisfy anyone but yourself. But it’s far from a simple task. By using primarily monochromatic tones to paint the figure, Mattson has painted a bold, expressive portrait. The asymmetrical placement of the figure is an intriguing device that lends particular interest to the composition. And while I commend her limited use of color, I feel the painting loses something because of the uncertainty of her palette.

Getting the most out of temperature choices. Even though the skin tone color isn’t natural, Mattson’s choice of a cool palette works well for adding intensity. By taking her direction a bit further, she could hone that impression by making it seem as though the subject is bathed in blue light. Additionally, on the areas of her chest and arm, warm and cool colors are mixed together ineffectively. It appears that Mattson’s intention was to create basically cool shadows and relatively cool lights with a suggestion of warmth. While the deep red areas of her lips and cheekbone work well in complementing the bold shadows, the soft pinks in the lights are placed randomly and, on the chest in particular, don’t explain the form as they do on her face.

Using color dramatically—but not distractingly. The compelling appearance of Mattson’s portrait has much to do with her handling of the media in a bold, painterly fashion. And while the bright yellow-orange rim around the edge of her figure is certainly riveting, I find it a bit distracting. It also minimizes the strong composition. The raw color may have been an attempt to frame her hair, but instead it creates a distracting silhouette—perhaps because we see no evidence of this color elsewhere in the painting. The color, while it contrasts with the hair in both color and value, could be effective if it were used in a less linear way. Perhaps more of the background could be covered with the yellow-orange, or the color could be infused into the light areas of the portrait.

Handling secondary points of interest. Mattson’s rendering of the face shows obvious skill. The intensity of her gaze draws the viewer in and, in fact, the whole head is handled with an assured sense of anatomy. It would strengthen the composition further if the rest of the figure exhibited the same degree of sensitivity. While Mattson does refer to her work as “expressive realism,” which can suggest a more lenient interpretation of the figure, her handling of the head suggests a direction that could be further emphasized in the figure. In the work of Edouard Manet, for example, the artist’s subjects were often interpreted with a cool palette, and his figures, although unrealistic in color, were convincing in their natural representation of the form. Mattson will find that she can communicate her attitude even more effectively if the figure as a whole is observed and sensitively re-created in all its nuances. To this end, the treatment of edges would direct the viewer’s eye more effectively; the portrait could benefit from more of an emphasis on combining soft and sharp edges.

Lessons Learned
Bending the rules of traditional color and the handling of paint is a marvelous way to create expressionist portraits. Achieving this successfully requires an understanding of the use of color, including its value and temperature, to express light and form. Sensitivity to your subject includes a conscious analysis of the entire image to fully express your point of view. It’s important to handle all the elements within the painting skillfully and consistently.

When I look at Mattson’s portrait, I’m reminded of Paul Cezanne and his bold use of color. He’s a good master to study when considering the points made in this critique. Although he saturated his subjects with color, there remains a sense of the effect of light on the form. His color choices were far from random: His work possesses a sense of stretching the limits of modeling form.

About the Artist
Reva Mattson of San Gabriel, California, studied oil painting at San Francisco’s De Young Museum Art School under Michael Cookingham. Her paintings have been exhibited in the region for the past 18 years, and she’s a founding member of Mica Art School, a San Francisco based art critic group. She now paints full time.

Loraine Crouch is a writer and editor in Cincinnati.

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