Monday, 23 November 2009

The mysterious smile

I recently had the chance of working again with Tatiana, a beautiful russian model who features in my painting " The Russian Lady".
I think I painted Tatiana's portrait over the course of just one session. I used a small canvas I had stretched, sized and primed with lead primer. I normally used pre-primed linen but that canvas was a leftover from a few months earlier, when I had made a batch, and was the first one handy that day.

The painting has been very successful: it was selected for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters Show this year and was one of the first paintings sold at the opening. It also yielded commissions for three more portraits.
I think that part of its success depends on Tatiana's expression. While I was painting I wondered how it was possible for her to keep that slight smile for so long.

Smiling is something we are very used to in photos, but its appearance in portraits can be tricky.
Antonia S. Byatt, in an essay about portraiture, said that a photographic portrait is often about a fleeting moment frozen in time, unrepeatable, therefore ultimately about death. A painted portrait for Byatt incorporates the concept of a longer time, its thoughtful creation a deep research on personality and human essence, so really about life instead.

Here is where the problem of the smile in portraits lies for me, in that its fugitive nature does not allow a long investigation. But when I painted Tatiana the smile she started with just remained there unchanged, and with the same intense look, for the whole session.

This week I had the chance of painting her again and we had time to chat. Tatiana told me that she is an instructor of Health Qigong, a chinese practice that is extremely beneficial for the organism. As a former Tai Chi student, I immediately understood the origin of the smile. Qigong uses meditation and breathing to channel the qi (energy), and allows a very powerful control of the body.
Tatiana has explained to me that while sitting she practices Qigong and tries to reach a state of total relaxation. Her smile originates from the deep relaxation of the muscles of the face. I think it is like the smile of Buddha; while practicing Tai Chi I too have been taught to keep a smile when performing the movements.
I believe that the appeal of her portrait lies with the deep serenity of her expression and I am happy to have unveiled the mystery !

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