What’s more interesting than the human face?
That’s the question posed by “Three Naïve Portrait Artists,” the current exhibit at Manhattan Arts Center. It features the work of three local artists and their interpretations of the human face. Paintings by Clive Fullagar and Dick Beeman and photographs by Luke Townsend aim to offer a look into their subjects and how the artist tried to capture them.
The entrance of the exhibit even features two portraits of each artist, one created by each of the others. Its name comes from the fact that none of the men have formal training and are therefore “naïve.”
Fullagar said that although the artists work in different media, they all have the same goal.
“You’re not just trying to capture a physical likeness, but trying to capture the essence of the person,” he said.
One simple way Fullagar likes to indicate more about his subjects than their appearance is to include objects that reference their personality or interests. The background might include an image of their pet, a musical instrument or a religious symbol that tells the viewer about the subject.
“By incorporating that symbolism, you get a clearer picture of who the person is,” Fullagar said.
At the same time, getting a close likeness is still important. A painting doesn’t need to be photorealistic, but Fullagar said you still want to portray subjects as they really appear.
“It doesn’t matter if you lop off a branch from a tree,” he said. “With a person you can’t do that. You have to respect the person you’re painting and their likeness.”
Beeman said facial expression communicates something about the person’s personality as well, and faces and hands are two of his favorite features to paint because they are so expressive.
Some of the portraits of the artists’ family and friends, giving the artist a deeper relationship to the subject. Fullagar painted a portrait of his mother shortly after she was diagnosed with dementia. He said he wanted to depict his feelings about her and about the feeling of losing her that loomed over the time.
Fullagar also painted portraits of his grandchildren, including one of his then 3-week-old grandson. He said the experience of capturing the portrait was special because it documents the beginning of a relationship.
“I knew it was somebody who would be playing a role in my life,” he said. “It’s the beginnings of a relationship, but he doesn’t know who I am yet.”
While he said working with a subject that young can be a challenge, he enjoyed candid feeling of the image.
“They’re wonderful subjects because it’s before they have an idea of pose,” Fullagar said. “The look you get is a such an honest look.”
Townsend included a photograph of his father he snapped in a casual, relaxed moment. Sometimes having no expectations as at that moment, he said, can result in a more genuine representation of the person. This was a contrast from the hours of preparation he put into photographing former chief official White House photographer Pete Souza or Junction City native and Oscar-winning screenwriter Kevin Wilmott. Townsend said he practiced for three days for his session with Souza, which only ended up lasting four minutes.
The speed with which he has to work was one of the things Townsend found intimidating about getting portraits of Fullagar and Beeman. He said he felt an added pressure because while they could paint over something or to manipulate the image in some way, he couldn’t.
“I have to do it in a single fraction of a second,” he said.
Beeman said preparation and background help him create a more accurate image of the person. He usually works from photographs, and if he has only one picture of someone, for example, that makes it more difficult to get a full vision of who they are and what they look like.
Although Beeman creates lifelike portraits, he also tries to make his painting technique shine through. In one, flowers in front of a girl subtly blend into her shirt. In another, plants in the background mimic the tendrils of a woman’s hair.
“I hope it magically becomes something almost real, but not quite real,” he said.
All of those details can express something about the person’s story. Beeman said he hopes his portraits do tell a piece of that story.
“Hopefully each portrait reveals something about the person,” Beeman said. “It’s only a glimpse of the person, but I hope it is a glimpse.”
Townsend said that while the artist can influence the message a portrait sends, it is important to stay true to its subject.
“We have the power to manipulate and portray what we want, but it’s still the person, it’s still their story,” Townsend said.
‘THREE NAÏVE PORTRAIT ARTISTS’
The exhibit will be on display until Oct. 12 at Manhattan Arts Center. The artists will give a gallery talk at 6 p.m. Oct. 2 at the MAC.