“I love painting self-portraits. I am always there. I quickly forget that I am looking at myself. What I see is a pattern of light falling on a large form (my head), and the way that light affects smaller, secondary forms (my features, what I am wearing). For me, painting a self-portrait is pure perception. I am not thinking about making a good painting; I am not thinking very much about composition; I am not thinking about getting a likeness, or of flattering myself. Somehow I am able to work boldly, simply and quickly, in a way that is not typical of the way I paint a still life.” -Catherine Kehoe
These paintings by Catherine Kehoe all feature the artist from the shoulders up. Studying these portraits is a fantastic way to learn how minute details in form can influence the work as a whole. Plus, they are just darn pretty.
THE BACKGROUND IS KIND OF A BIG DEAL
“As for the ideas for the paintings, they are primarily visual: contrast of color, shape, touch (shiny/dull, soft/hard). I am interested in how each object is changed or affected by the adjacent objects. I want to make a believable space, though there might not be any reason for those objects to sit together. I am interested in the movement of the eye around the painting, but it is an intuitive interest, not an analytical or intellectual one. Do some of the objects mean something to me? Yes. Am I telling a story? No. Metaphor? Maybe. Sometimes.” -Catherine Kehoe
Kehoe approaches the space around her head in different ways, but all the portraits feature an interaction of some kind. The background does not play an insignificant role here; it interacts with the head and contributes to the personality of the portrait.
For example, sometimes the background is thick and blank, but it also creeps into the colors of the face and cuts into the hair, overlapping foreground strokes (see figure 1).
Another portrait’s background appears flat and separate, with dark hues and vertical strokes that counter the body’s bright tones and varied stroke directions. However, even here the background is not entirely distinct from the head (see figure 2). Color is the key: see how the hues play off each other? The greens lightened with yellow, the red above her head echoes the vibrant pink in her cheeks, and even the turquoise on the top can be seem in a few light strokes on her face.
In another portrait, the background appears smudged and colored (see figure 3). The strokes make a kind of aura, encircling the head with palpable energy.
Here’s a less obtrusive example of how distinct strokes encircle the head, and the space seems to curve as if with the gravity around the skull (see figure 4).
Different techniques, but the background consistently interacts with the object it surrounds, and so the space has significance. It stands firm but delicately yields attention to the face. The background is not the spotlight, but it is most certainly not dead weight. Nicely done, Kehoe.
A MASTER OF TONE
Now, Kehoe knows how to make a simple view very dynamic. Each head becomes a landscape, light contrasting dark and vibrant colors juxtaposed with muted hues to carve out the portrait. It’s easy to distinguish features by leaning on tonal contrast (just add a bit more black), so that’s why I am particularly enthralled with her use of hue. She pairs warm with cool colors, the bright with dull, and the light with dim… The quality of the color more often shapes and shadows of the face than simply light/dark contrasts. This makes for a more dynamic and exciting painting.
“Once I begin painting, it is all about relating one thing to another, and to the space. I am reminded of Matisse’s wonderful quotation: “I don’t paint things, I paint the difference between things.” -Catherine Kehoe
This balance of form/function between hundreds of strokes is not an easy feat! Particularly when the artist uses bold, broad strokes as Kehoe often does. There are areas where a brushstroke or two seems just a tad off, and its relationships with its fellows is broken. Suddenly, that one stroke sticks out, appearing separate and unconnected to subject.
THE NECK HOLDS UP THE HEAD
A head does not stand alone, so it is important to consider what’s happening below the cranium. Kehoe’s heads are seated on sturdy necks and broad shoulders. Look at the thick, vertical column of darker hues in the neck (see figure 5).
“On the other hand, art history is full of examples of distortions put to masterful expressive use. My point is not that distortions are bad, but that painters should recognize them and use them with intention, not because they don’t know better.” -Catherine Kehoe
Her clothing is simple, but it balances the head above. It makes its own statement and carries visual weight, but it does not fade to the background. Think of it this way: if the body is created as a second thought, as a throw-away area of the painting, you can tell. It will appear foreign. It will seem disconnected to the head, and then the whole portrait loses its relatability and its honesty.
How does Kehoe do this? A couple of the portraits feature brightly colored shirts that pop into the foreground, but often Kehoe paints herself in a white painting jacket. The large white collar has its own personality in every painting, fanning out at different angles, casting various shadows, and Kehoe plays up these features. She does not add too much detail, however; sometimes you cannot even see the strokes. This flat, light surface stands out, countering the visual complexity above without distracting from the face.
DETAIL ISN’T EVERYTHING
I couldn’t call Kehoe’s work minimalistic by a long shot. However, there is a delightful simplicity here. She is not bogged down by details or fettered by realism. Each stroke counts. Each blot stands on its own and plays a part. Each is bold and carries with it the artist’s intent: that strength translates into the forms of the image. These are straightforward, honest portraits.
The details she does choose to include, like the elegant weave of strokes that map out the contours of the face, are carefully weighed and measured.
“When a painting is successful, or even when a small passage is, it has to do with finding a surprising way to describe the visible. Most often what surprises me is how far an image can be reduced and still be clear. It is a delicate balance (or a conflict) between subtlety and bold simplicity. If I can sneak a little nuance into something boldly stated, that feels like success.” -Catherine Kehoe
I know I mentioned a few areas where the brushstrokes seemed out of place. But really, that doesn’t matter much to me. When the hundreds of other brushstrokes manage to work together…well…it’s like having a portrait full of little miracles.
And that is awesome.
All of the quotes were taken from this excellent interview with the Jerusalem Studio School.