Alice Neel: Her Process and How it applies (or could apply) to my own work.

October 6, 2010

In her paintings, Neel portrays what it is to be human. She paints the sitter’s soul on the canvas as well as his or her physical features, using a psychological and physical approach to portraiture. In many of her paintings, the subject or subjects gaze out at us. She did not censor out any pain or awkwardness that the subject may be feeling. Neel knew many of the people she painted on some personal level, so she had insight into the inner workings of each one’s life. Neel’s paintings give a glimpse of what it is to be human– wonderful, awkward, thrilling, and tormented.

Neel paints quickly. Normally, she would have between three and six sessions with a sitter; using observation and her conversation with the model to choose the most important features (both physical and psychological) of her model.

Neel was a fearless painter. She did not let being a woman hold her back from painting. She did not care about gender. What was important was that being at her easel made her happy. Painting was her life.

I need to be more fearless. I allow myself to worry over making something ugly or something that doesn’t have a “good idea” attached to it. Sometimes I forget that even those that seem to work without fear had it at times, but they continued to work through it. The images that I may consider “bad” or “ugly” are just as valid as those that I find “attractive.” It is a tough value decision to make– what is important? Telling the truth and letting things be awkward at times or lying to make something attractive? It is a balance of what it visually true, what is considered attractive and “lying” to tell the “truth.”

Making good decisions quickly is something I struggle with. I forget to look at where something is going and rush into getting it on the canvas. It is important to me (especially this semester) to slow down and make the right decisions in the beginning, not several sessions into a piece. It is importance to bring an alertness, an awareness back into my work.

I want to communicate through the model. In some of the work I have done, you see the “psyche” of the person as well as their physical appearance. This needs to be pushed further. Neel had formal training before she “made it” as an artist. She understood the importance of understanding the anatomy of a person. Being able to really see and transfer the image to the paper or canvas is an important first step. If I can understand that, my ability to portray the mind, thoughts, and mannerisms of the person I am painting will become a clearer study. (Kind of like slowing down in the fog because you know only so much information is going to be available to you at one time. It isn’t necessarily easy to drive through fog, but there are things that can be done to make it a clearer experience.)

I know that the struggle isn’t something that will go away, but I am hoping that by really taking what I can from artists that have come before me my skill will improve. This improvement will come from actually working– painting, drawing, photographing. The more time I spend observing and working towards accuracy, the easier it will become to make the decisions I need to make. By copying the masters I hope to understand their work, and find a way to use that information in my own work as well.

Look. Listen. Respond.



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