It wasn’t so much an answer, but a question, rather:
How to paint a soul?
How to paint beyond the obvious, the visible, or the tangible?
How does one capture the “inner essence” or spirit–the soul–of another human being on canvas?
I ask, because last month I was given the most unusual task: to paint the portrait of a woman who had lived decades ago; of whom there exist no photographs today.
She was described to me as “full of light, smiling, with a lot of laugh lines around the eyes”.
She had been a mother, then a grandmother, and then a great-grandmother. Her great-grand-daughter—now a grandmother herself—longed to see the light of her smile again.
“I would love to give the portrait to my mother as a gift,” this woman’s great-great-grand-daughter, Marie, told me. “But I have only one picture from an advertisement photo, whom my mother said looks almost exactly like her.”
Marie emailed me an image of the most beautiful smiling face: eyes wrinkled, yet shining. Skin toughened and roughened by life, yet vibrant and almost glowing.
“I think I can do it,” I replied, “but I’ll need more description of her personality.”
So Marie sent me more details, as described by her mother:
“My mother said that her great-grandma was full of light and always lighthearted and laughing. Her skin was the same shade or just a bit darker, with a lot of laugh lines around the eyes. She described her eyes as sparkling. She said she never wore jewelry and that her hair was always up in a bun…a mix of black and gray/salt and pepper.”
For days, I tossed the picture around in my mind. I had this one resemblance to go by, but nothing else.
So, how to paint, I asked, somebody who lived and loved and laughed and left this earth without a single photograph?
…by painting her soul, came the answer.
And thus, the question:
How to paint a soul?
“Full of light…” I remembered the description of the windows to her soul—sparkling eyes.
I looked for the light—searching for where it reached out past the windows of her heart and breaking through her smile.
I looked for the light—imagined it in her eyes, how they shimmered and danced.
I looked for the light—looked at existing photos of her beautiful great-grand-daughter (now, with a halo of greyish-white hair), her great-great-grand-daughter Marie, and even the youngest generation great-great-great-grand-daughter, a playful two-year old named Maia.
The generations of these women had passed down good-looking genes, yes, but more so, a distinguishable smile that squinted the eyes when they shone with happiness.
They smiled a lot.
And, looking for the light, I let my brush bend its bristles in self-willed strokes that caressed the canvas. I, merely the channel to let the light through.
And as you know, we create the light by painting darkness. To capture the light, we must paint the shadows.
For without the shadows, there are no shimmers. Without the dark tones, lighter ones would simply fade away.
I marked those soft graphite lines where grey and black shadows formed on her skin.
A sun—in my point of view—is most beautiful when it is setting. Fading into the night, it sprays the shadows first with brilliant fire. For just a few minutes, there is an interplay in tones of time. The moment between day and night we call twilight.
These are the moments that make up a soul.
Souls who live through the darkness will shine in the light.
Souls who know sorrow embrace so much stronger the joy.
Souls whom a painter must show on canvas breathe life only when the painter lets the light in.
“I’ve obviously never met my great-great grandmother,” Marie wrote to me later, after seeing the final outcome of the portrait, “but over the years I’ve heard my mom talk about how much she meant to her. She was a beacon of light, warmth, and love during some difficult times in my mom’s childhood.”
I mark and seal the envelope today, sending it off across the ocean to reach its recipient, and though I have no way to really know, I hope it truly is rendered the way her great grand-daughter remembered her—the way the light shone through.
Marie and I collaborated on the picture, both trying to envision this woman. As I painted, the questions came, the answers, the need to write this story down and the desire to celebrate a life—not only with the portrait, but with this story of a painting.
“I wish I knew her in life but I know your portrait will be a wonderful tribute and remembrance for my mom,” she told me.
I’ll have to wait to find out, when the gift is given, if the portrait is a true resemblance of the woman–that cherished woman named Caria.
So until then, this story doesn’t have an ending.
But then again, neither do souls.
Light is a thing that cannot be reproduced, but must be represented by something else – by color.–Paul Cezanne
Photo by Polk Wedding Studios