Watercolorist Jackie Dorsey paints many subjects, but it’s people that hold a special place in her artistic life. She combines painting with her love of music, by capturing the musicians that make up the vibrant music scene of her home, Athens, Georgia.
While you do paint a variety of subject matter, what is it that draws you to portraiture specifically?
I find painting people to be an immersive, intimate experience. Initially there is this all encompassing pull that draws me in as I build the likeness.
As the painting progresses an intimacy develops with the subject that is probably unique to portraiture. After hours and days studying and carefully laboring over every feature that makes that person beautiful and distinctive I feel oddly attached and protective of that person in the end. I do not experience the same course of emotions while painting irises or bridges.
Also, as an artist whose primary income is from commissioned portraits there is the deep satisfaction of creating a painting that will be a treasured family heirloom. That reveal, when I first introduce the client to their painting, results in the most gratifying feeling. The joy and emotions are bigger than one ever sees for paintings of any other subject matter.
What is the most difficult thing about painting a portrait? Why? How do you deal with that?
Creating smooth form on a large scale in watercolor can be very challenging. Small scale is easy but imagine trying to paint a 14” colored sphere in watercolor. Children and women with flawless skin, and large spaces in clothing can create a similar challenge.
I approach this by working wet on wet and using light glazes that I allow to dry overnight. Sometimes I do a significant under painting and then glaze over top.
How do you go about getting to know your subjects? How important is that for your process? What do you feel you need to know before you’re ready to paint someone?
Knowing my subjects is really important to capturing them in a painting. With commissioned clients I ask a lot of background questions. With musicians (since I paint a lot of musicians), I listen to their music, watch videos, and listen to interviews before I meet them.
The photo shoot however is the most crucial step in getting to know them and forming a vision. Not only do I take hundreds of shots, but I am also observing my subject throughout the session. I develop adjectives that describe their disposition and energy. Those adjectives then determine the photo references that I select, the colors I use, and affect all compositional decisions.
For example somebody who is soft spoken is going to be depicted with gentle lighting and a soft background. Somebody with a larger than life personality might be shot with a strong upward perspective to create a looming effect on the page. Someone who is high energy will have blurred movement depicted somewhere. Figuring out how to translate a personality, or in some cases a stage persona, to paper is the fun challenge of being an artist and painting people.
Along those same lines, for your Athens series do you go out with the musician to take reference photos or do you work with photos they give you? What are you looking for in a good reference photo? Any advice for working with a person to get a good photo for painting a portrait?
I take my own photos. This is critical to my painting process. I learn so much about the person from the photo shoot, their energy, how the appear from different angles, physical information that can’t be gleaned from a single photograph.
I also do it on principal. If I were to use another person’s photo, I am effectively copying or using another person’s art as a basis for my own. I have made exceptions if the person is no longer living and if I was given the photo from the original photographer, but this is rare.
As far as advice on photo shoots, I try not to over pose my subjects. Everyone has preferences in how they hold their body, and move their hands. I like to capture those little behaviors, a tilt of a head, a quirky gesture. If someone twirls their hair around their fingers when they are deep in thought, that is going to make a better reference photo than a standard pose. How they naturally hold their bodies is part of their story.
That being said some people do need some guidance. I often find that men want to fold their arms, which creates visual stumps as the tuck their hands in, or they want to square their bodies, which creates too much symmetry. So I try to gently guide them away from some of these shapes.
For you, is the goal to do as realistic of a painting as possible or is there something else you’re trying to achieve with a painting?
I do have a high level of realism but I also want to create a painting that tells a story, entertains the viewer, and has color harmony and a compelling composition. I also sometimes like to add some playfulness by popping in some unusual color.
I have heard many artists say they are not after a likeness; they want to just capture the spirit of their subject. I don’t see these two things as being mutually exclusive. My goal is to try to capture the likeness as well as the spirit.
You have some beautiful paintings with people standing in front of walls. How do the backgrounds play in your work?
My paintings with people are about those people. The backgrounds I use are solely for this end; they are there to create the story, mood or aid in composition.
Half of my backgrounds are entirely made up but are inspired by reality. For example, one musician that I have painted has a fierce stage persona and will crawl across the stage and climb onto the venue’s bar during a performance. I did my photo shoot with her in my studio and had her crawl across a desk. In my painting I invented the stage and lighting to create this fierce female musician crawling across the stage.
Learning to draw people can feel like an overwhelming task. What advice would you give for people interested in learning to draw people specifically?
Besides doing it a lot, I would advise people to spend time observing people’s faces, sketching or making mental notes of how light and shadow defines form, how form emerges under different lighting conditions and how gesture manifests in different body positions.
From your website it seems like you have several series going. Could you talk about how you use series and why? How does working in a series benefit an artist?
I often hear it is good to work in a series as an artist. I think there are many good reasons to do so from an artistic as well as sales point of view. A lot has already been said about the advantage to sales, but if you work in a series you will also get very, very good at painting that subject matter.
I not only work in a series with general subject matter, for example musicians, but I also have several subjects that I have painted more than once. I have one muse in particular that has been the subject of many paintings. I get better painting her each time.
How does music influence your work?
I love music. I listen to music most of the day in my studio. I normally listen to classical in the morning regardless of whom I am painting. If I am painting a musician, I then play that artist’s music in the afternoon. I like to think it influences the outcome and energy of the painting. As a music lover, it is also pretty cool to be painting someone and listening to their music!
In your painting process where are places you have to be quiet and focused and where are the parts that feel more like playing?
I am honestly very tight with my painting when I am working on facial features. I later relax and play a little with hair and clothing, and even more so with the background. Some of my backgrounds involve a lot of splashing and throwing of paint. It is a great release after laboring over the details of the foreground!
Learn more about Jackie Dorsey at her website or Facebook page.
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