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Gangsters! And assorted other criminals and associates. This is my attempt to get better at painting faces. All 8 x 8, oil on cradled art board. If you want to see the paintings, they’ll be at Eureka Studio Arts in December. The show opens Saturday, December 7 from 6-9 PM.
I’ve been painting for over ten years, thanks to Linda Mitchell’s weekly class, but I’ve always avoided faces. I found them frustrating and, to be honest, not as interesting as cityscapes, which is what I really want to paint. But then I took a workshop with an amazing painter named Kim English, and we spent an entire day on the planes of the face. Understanding the architecture of the skull, and the way the light falls across it, really got me thinking about faces in a way that I hadn’t before. So I decided to do a series of faces and really figure this thing out.
The idea to paint mugshots is not my own. Another great painter I’ve studied with, Karin Jurick, did a series called BUST-ED for much the same reason – she really wanted to work on faces. But I decided to take a slightly different approach. I found a website about gangsters from the early twentieth century and a lot of their mugshots were posted. I thought it would be fun to paint these gangsters, in black and white or another monochromatic palette, so I could focus on the form and not have to think too much about skin tone.
There are some famous mugs here, including Al Capone, Whitey Bulger, and John Dillinger, as well as some anonymous mugshots and press photos from the black-and-white era. A few are not actually gangsters, but they’re associated with the era and I thought their faces were interesting. The goal was not to glorify or glamorize these guys — many committed monstrous crimes — I just wanted an interesting set of faces to work from, and these were certainly interesting.
After a while, I decided I ought to move into color. Rather than do ordinary criminals as Karin Jurick did, I thought I would focus on modern day gangsters — the white-collar criminals who destroyed lives, communities, and entire economies in the pursuit of even greater riches than they already had. I’m sure you’ll recognize Bernie Madoff, Kenneth Lay, and Humboldt County’s favorite, Charles Hurwitz. Some, I should emphasize, are drawn from press photos and not mug shots.
I’m certainly more confident with faces after doing thirty of these. There were a few that I wiped off in frustration, but these are displayed in the order they were painted (left to right, top to bottom) and there is a progression of sorts. And as with any kind of painting, it’s amazing the things you notice when you look at something closely. Some of the people in these mugshots had been beaten right before their picture was taken. And to my surprise, I kept having to add more red around Kenneth Lay’s eyes to match the picture. I finally realized that he might have been crying right before the picture was taken.
Not that we should feel sorry for Kenneth Lay. It’s just an observation. And that’s what painting is all about — observation.