The Pain of Developing a New Portrait Style

Chasing a vision pain of progress portrait style

Have you ever known a smoker or a chronic dieter that claimed: “Oh, I can do it and I know exactly what to do, I just have to make up my mind to do it.”? Maybe that person is you? That person was certainly me when it came to developing and changing my drawing style!

My previous style was once described as "looking through ripples of water" and I liked it, but years of looking through a camera lens created a new vision for portraiture in my mind. 

Indyana, 20"x24" pastel on paper, Melissa Muehleisen, 2004

I had this idea in my mind for a portrait concept and I was just sure I could do but I didn’t want to do the hard work of actually developing it because I didn’t want to have to face the reality of creating failures in the process. 

"Let's not be so precious with ourselves. You are at an age when you are supposed to make mistakes." Thomas Hawthorne On Painting

I realized that paralyzing perfectionism was only preventing me from making art and not making that art any better. I was forced to develop the attitude of not caring if a painting was ruined years ago when I realized that my fear of ruining a painting was preventing me from improving. I learned to gesso over old work with a carefree spirit and move on. A pastel portrait however, is difficult to approach with a carefree attitude. Once it’s ruined you can’t just add another layer of paint to fix it or gesso over the canvas and start again. With a portrait, once it’s ruined, it’s simply garbage. The good news with art is that making garbage leads to important lessons.  

Oh, the lessons I learned! Have you ever read Ann Rice and read about the vampire child? Well in the process of creating my portrait style I’m pretty sure I drew that kid. She horrified me.  The colors were all wrong, the grey that I tried to use to add tone where I didn’t want more color made the subject look quite ill and the lavender that I tried to use to create lighter highlights just added to the vampire look. The effect was terrible! I had ruined a portrait into which I had invested a lot of time. The portrait was ruined and the beautifully detailed striped dress was on a portrait that would never see a frame. It broke my artist heart. That’s when I realized that achieving the end result I was chasing, the vision I held in my head for years, was going to be harder to realize than I thought. 

So I took a year off from sharing portraits and worked to develop a new style. I created many failures that taught me a great deal. To keep my artist heart happy I kept developing my composite canvas experiments so that I could maintain the satisfaction of completing something. After a lot of work that went to the circular file, I finally made the work I had envisioned all along. Finally, 17 years after selling my first commissioned portrait, I have developed a style that matched my new vision and I'm excited to explore where this goes.

Ch-locate, 16"x20" pastel on board, Melissa Muehleisen


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