The Figure in Place

Emotion is the most important element in my painting. I want to convey a feeling and tell a story, but quietly. The setting, for me, is the American South and the subject is often a person who’s either very old or young.

I try to find the gesture that reveals character and says something about my subjects’ lives. My objective is to render a figure’s form in such a way that it looks completely natural. When I place that natural-looking figure in a setting that is familiar to them, I convey a mood. Older people are expressive anyway. They have a wisdom that they can share with us. Since they’ve seen and lived through so much, they help us put things in perspective. I’m conscious that as an artist, I’m in a fortunate position. There are many people who are coping with real issues. I do what I can by trying to be honest when I paint them and by staying in touch.

I find my material by driving around the country. When someone or something catches my eye, I stop, take photographs and do quick, thumbnail sketches in pencil—mainly to get a sense of the light and shadow. Back home in my New Jersey studio, I consult the sketches and photographs to construct the composition on which the finished painting is based.

Sometimes I place my subject near or in front of a window or door. The rectangular element functions as an interior frame; it attracts the viewer’s eye so that the viewer will take in not only the focal point (the subject) but also the rest of the picture. I’m always thinking about how space is being occupied. I’m concerned with positive and negative space and the interplay between them. There must be visual balance. If there’s a fairly large dark area, it’s answered by another dark area, usually of a different shape. If there’s a large light area, I make sure that there are smaller areas of light, as well. The goal is to attract the viewer’s eye to the focal point and then lure the eye around the picture, so the viewer explores every aspect of the picture. If the viewer’s eye gets trapped, the picture is dead. To make sure that there’s visual interest throughout the picture plane, I create patterns of light and dark.

Sandra Carpenter is editor of The Artist’s Magazine.

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