Art, journeys

How to Paint a Soul

It wasn’t so much an answer, but a question, rather:

How to paint a soul?

How do you paint what is not obvious, beyond the visible or tangible?

How does one capture the “inner essence” of another human being on canvas?

nyx painting

Request for a Portrait

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.

All I had was a slight description:

“Full of light, smiling, with a lot of laugh lines around the eyes”.

The woman had been a mother, then a grandmother, and then a great-grandmother.

“I would love to give the portrait to my mother as a gift,” Marie, who commissioned the portrait, told me.

Marie was this woman’s great-great-granddaughter.

“But I have only one picture from an advertisement photo. It is not her, but my mother said it looks almost like her.”

Marie emailed me an image of the most beautiful smiling face: wrinkled, yet shining eyes. Rough skin, as if toughened by life, but still vibrant. Almost glowing.

“I think I can do it,” I told Marie, “but I’ll need more description of her personality.”

“Full of Light”

She sent me more details in an email, as described by her mother:

“My mother said that her great-grandma was full of light. Always lighthearted and laughing. 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.”

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.

how to paint a soul

Looking for the light

And so it was, that I found myself wondering:

How to paint a soul?

“Full of light…”

I remembered the description of the windows to her soul…those sparkling eyes.

I looked for the light…

Searching for where it reached out past the windows of her heart, 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 grand-daughters and great-granddaughters.

The generations of these women had passed down good-looking genes, yes.

But more importantly, a smile that lit up the eyes and radiated happiness. They smiled a lot.

Channeling a rendition

Looking for the light, I let my brush bend its bristles in sure strokes. They caressed the canvas willingly. I felt I was 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. 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 tones formed on her skin.Nyx portraits

Twilight Hour

A sun, in my point of view, is most beautiful when it sets.

Fading into the night, for just a few minutes, there is an interplay in tones of time. That moment between day and night we call twilight.

These are the moments that make up a soul.

Souls who have lived through darkness shine brighter in the light. Souls who have known sorrow cherish much deeper, the joy.

And souls whom an artist must show on canvas breathe life only when that artist gets out of the way, and lets the light in.

“I’ve obviously never met my great-great-grandmother,” Marie wrote to me later. “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. I hope it truly is rendered the way she was remembered, the way the light shone through.

“I wish I knew her in life but I know your portrait will be a wonderful tribute and remembrance for my mom,” Marie told me.

As I painted, I felt 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’ll have to wait to find out when the gift is given if the portrait is a true resemblance of the 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

 Photo by Polk Wedding Studios

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2 thoughts on “How to Paint a Soul”

  1. Elaine says:

    Thank you Nix for this beautiful story. It resonates with me as many years ago I asked an artist friend of mine to capture my sons soul. He died in 2005. She declined at the time saying it was too personal, she didn’t want to be responsible. I left it at that, but never truly gave up the idea. Then last year, out of the blue she called me and said she would do David’s portrait, I now have it hanging in my living room. The beautiful smiling eyes are perfect. She met him on a couple of occasions, but didn’t know him well, he was 21 when he died. She said it was a remarkable experience trying to recapture him, and felt that he had much to do with the outcome.. I love this portrait, especially the 1/2 face version, as it hints of the unknown and the curiosity of the viewer is inevitable. Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful woman’s story.

    1. Nyx Martinez says:

      Dear Elaine,
      Thank you, too, for sharing your own story. I cannot imagine how it must be to lose a child, and would feel the same if in the artist’s place–huge responsibility in capturing him properly. Amazing that she was able to do so,w hen she felt that the time was right. And it must be wonderful to have the special portrait of him now. Thank you for reading.

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