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Being Seen: A Beginning Painter's Thoughts on Painting Portraits and Being a Portrait Model

Updated: Aug 19

A painting of a brown skinned woman seated on an orange chair, wearing a gray sweater and a blue striped top.
A portrait painting in oil of me by Erin Raedeke

I've been thinking about the time I spent painting in a small town in the Algarve of Portugal, Tavira, last spring with my friend and painter Erin Raedeke and fellow painter Matt Klos. It was my first trip away from home since the pandemic began and my first time away from my husband and my kids. I felt guilty for taking time to do something just for myself and by myself, and at the same time, I felt incredibly fortunate to be in this ancient and foreign place, learning how to paint landscapes in the cobblestone streets of this small, quiet town straddling a river.

We spent the days learning about how to capture the fleeting shadows on the whitewashed buildings and the felt sense of place that is only possible from actually being there. And in the evenings, we laughed and shared homemade meals and drank locally sourced wines together, and listened to familiar and newly met friends share their stories of being and becoming artists.

One warm evening, Erin asked if I could sit as a model for a portrait painting demo, and curious and more than a little flattered, I said yes. I've never been an artist model before so the experience felt unusual, but no more than being in an unfamiliar place, with strangers. Being out of my comfortable routine forced me to reflect on my own assumptions and thoughts about art, and being an artist, and being me.

Having previously worked as a student artist in figure drawing sessions, I felt it was important for me as a model to find a pose and a facial expression that I could comfortably maintain. When a model is uncomfortable, it becomes immediately apparent in their face, their body, and ultimately in the the work an artist paints of them. Take for example the nude model paintings by Euan Uglow. Larry Groff at wrote a detailed post about Euan Uglow and his slow, meticulous painting process and the difficult poses his models endured. Whenever I look at Uglow's painting Ali, my back hurts.

A painting by Euan Uglow of a nude woman bent over with her hands on her knees.
Ali by Euan Uglow (1995-1997).

In the Ali painting, I notice the triangle shape formed in the negative space under the model's belly and the negative shapes that form between the figure and the background. Amazingly abstract and unexpectedly tender and intense, I can only imagine what it took for Ali to stay in that position and how long it took for him to paint her.

Of course not all artists demand this level of discipline from their models. Usually models and artists work together to find a pose that creates interesting shapes to paint in the shadows or in the negative spaces. In my case, I wanted a simple and relaxed pose, one that reflected how safe and comfortable I felt even though I was in this strange place with new people. Some of the people, I had only met through Zoom classes with Erin. It was so different to be in person and to feel physically in the same room with everyone. Perhaps it was the wine, but I still felt good being here. I sank into a worn, nubby velvet orange chair, allowing its cushiony back and pillowy arms to surround me, like a round, brown egg in a straw nest.

As I settled into my chair, there was a brief moment where I noticed that there were so many people looking at me. Intently. Often with furrowed brows, concentrating hard. At first, I thought everyone was thinking about my physical flaws, my square jaw, my too full chin, my round belly.

A pencil sketch of me by artist Kelly Micca.
Sketch of me in Tavira gifted by Kelly Micca

A portrait of me painted in Tavira by Sharmila Kapur.
Oil Portrait of Me on Paper gifted by Sharmila Kapur

Growing up, I learned to fit in with everyone else in my large, loud Filipino family of cousins and aunts and uncles, and to not make waves and to not embarrass my parents by calling attention to myself. And here I was sitting so multiple people could paint or draw me.

While I sat, I thought about the long history of portrait painting, how it emerged from the ancient Greeks and Romans idealizing the human form, the depiction of saints and martyrs, then to the the rich and powerful and the wealth kings conquered and robber barons amassed, and even in the more modern era, the propaganda, the commercialization of our faces, of the common selfie.

And for me, being who I am and what I am, sitting there being painted in my orange chair was somewhat a rarity. According to the Pew Research Center, Filipinos are the third largest origin group in the United States. But to me, we were practically invisible. I saw few Filipinos growing up in the 80s and 90s in the suburbs of Washington. D.C. and the East Coast. I never saw Filipinos in the movies or even movies about Filipinos. What Americans know about Filipinos is so limited, even though the Philippines has had a special relationship with America for decades. Some people know that Filipinas have won the Miss Universe Pageant four times, more than any other country. And of course, everyone knows the most famous Filipino is Manny Pacquiao.

One thing that has always bugged me is that if you type Filipina into the search engines, what comes up are not paintings of Filipinas from Philippine history or famous living Filipinas, but profiles from dating sites promising to be the best places to meet and date these beautiful Filipinas. I can't tell you how humiliating it is when strangers assume that since I'm a Filipina I must have met my white husband on a dating site. Sitting here in this orange chair, I felt like I was finally being seen as myself, and not just as a stereotype or a background character.

But perhaps the best thing about having my portrait painted by Erin is that she showed me how to mix my own skin tone with the limited palette of paints she always uses. I am a a mix of phthalo green or chromium oxide green and cadmium orange and titanium white, which combine into a kind of yellow ochre. I have written many posts about how I tried to paint my own portrait and I've always been frustrated in the gap between what I wanted to paint and what I could actually make.

Seeing a painting of me gives me hope that today, someone like me can be seen and heard. It won't be easy, but seeing my portrait makes me see what is possible. Watching Erin mix my colors inspires me to keep fighting for my own voice, my own visual vocabulary, despite the limits and expectations imposed by others who think they know me. One day, I might be able to paint a portrait of myself that truly represents me. And now, whenever I feel low, I will look back at this evening in Tavira, and I will remind myself of what it felt like to be seen . And I will tell myself that even the smallest step is still a step forward.

Shout Out

Erin is offering a portrait painting workshop through Black Pond Studios this September. You can learn more about it here. I'm not being compensated by Erin or Black Pond Studios for this blog post. This is my honest opinion and my actual experience of learning how to paint. Sign up for my newsletter or fill out the form below to get future posts like this mailed to you.

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