Beatriz, left, and Laly, above right, were the ladies who inaugurated my professional portrait commissions in the late 1980s. If it had not been for them, I would not be able to show this page portfolio. Over and beyond them, my sister Maria, most of all, has been a formidable "manager" and inspiration, as she introduced me to Bea, and Bea, to Laly.
All of my portrait work is done directly from live poses, and the final painting process follows ample conversations with the client as to background, size, and decoration or dress of the person or figures in the work. Although I prefer not to paint from photographs, of course this is not a hard rule, and sometimes camera shots of the figures or the background help enhance the final work. This sort of portrait is not meant to be as graphically mirror-like as a photo, but this is precisely why such a painting is or can be memorable!
The images above include two of the thumbnail sketchbook studies I made before venturing to translate the complete "group" picture of Ana Maria and her two felines -- which had been approved by them -- into the finished pastel version. Even her mother, who was alive then, had valuable things to say about my preliminary sketches, and one of Ana's best friends who pasased by one day, compared her "look" to that of Hollywood diva Veronica Lake, and this was a fun sort of criticism in the long run -- although I am very careful not to let too many cooks meddle with the brew.
As to my insistence on prior conversations and especially pencil studies, much of this work methodology came from the fact that some years before, a Catholic monk friend of mine from upstate New York had told me to value all my thumbnail sketches (or "croquis," as he called them in Spanish)--- and to keep doing them, alongside my more laborious pieces. Brother Stephen insisted that they capture a more casual, direct impression sense of the subject. Years later now, when I look at those very loose but some times highly penetrating "scribbles," I am literally transported to the portrait session, in a way that a photograph of that encounter would not ever be able to transport me.
In fact, when I began to regard as valuable the initial studies in pencil, charcoal, or watercolor, I began to move to the finished version in oil or pastel with greater ease and to experience how the two modalities or approaches converge. The sort of scribble my monastic friend talked about is what Leonardo DaVinci also called the "stain" (in Italian, "macchia," mack-ee-ah). In various passages of his famous journals or Codices, Leonardo insists not only that the painter should first work out his painted compositions as loose, gestural notations in crayon or ink, but that those same crayon or ink tangles contained the seed or inner movement of the more developed images. The more I trusted and enjoyed the croquis stage, the more spontaneous my controlled sketching or painting became! I saw, too, how a good painting could be developed from a lowly, almost throw-away scribble!
A Memorable Family Portrait Session
Almost thirty years have gone and come since I was asked by the late, wonderful, Mrs. Pucha Diaz, to paint in pastel the group portrait of her family -- minus the husband, who, she claimed, would not have stood still for me to sketch him. Instead, her son Alfredito then was as restless and skittish as an 8-year-old boy can be, yet I captured his likeness with no hesitation. One day, when I reported to the Roman Colosseum to meet a group of Miami tourists so that I could show them the monument, I did not pay too much heed to their last name from my notes. But was I ever surprised when the group and I approached each other at one of the corners of the Arch of Constantine the Great, and I immediately recognized "Alfredito" as a 30-something father with his own children standing by him with his tourist group, and I exclaimed, "You are Pucha's son!" Certainly he was, and without saying Yes, he simply gave me a huge bear hug and with tears in his eyes, he told me of his mom's passing.
It turned out that my memory of the series of posing sessions we had in their grand Spanish-style house in Coral Gables, Florida, had left its mark. Plus, he was a very handsome young father now, etc.
Another Important Portrait Story
or... Portrait of Two Roman Ladies
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The day I met Alessandra "Pupa" Garboli at the Piazza del Popolo in Rome in late October 2008, she was promenading with her friend and confidante, Ines. I, on the other hand, was racing against the dying afternoon sun to finish the watercolor of the piazza displayed below.
La signora Garboli politely asked me if she could view my watercolor and proceeded to tell me all about herself and her friend -- and to praise the fact that I had been somehow able to capture the square shape that this charming piazza had before it was redesigned by Giuseppe Valadier -- (1762- 1839). "The stronzo (creep) totally ruined this piazza, turning it into the ellipse that we see here!" she cried.
"But, this is wonderful, signore!" the lady raved on. "In fact, would you kindly call me at the number on this carte de visite when you have finished the work?"
And, handing me her personal business card, she added before leaving, "I think I would like to buy your watercolor!"
Said and done. Some weeks after this fateful meeting, I was having coffee with these two ladies at their house near the piazza, and not only celebrating the sale of my pre-Napoleonic view of Santa Maria del Popolo, but forming a lasting and wonderful friendship with the two of them.
By the way, the fact that Alessandra is holding a book in her portrait is indicative of this lady's wide literary background. At age 80 +, she readily quotes verse passages from Dante's Divine Comedy or Torquato Tasso's love poetry, and she explained that she has gradually inducted Ines into the world of letters. "Ines is very good with plants, but she does not usually talk to people. For her, human beings are as brutish and nasty as Thomas Hobbes says in Leviathan !" Mrs. Garboli's portrait of her companion could not be more contrary to the way she revealed herself to me with the years, by the way.
"Why, Ines is midway through the Inferno, aren't you, Ines?" she went on, "and she has read Stendhal's
Life of Napoleon!" To the disclosure of which information, her noble companion nodded in assent.
One more detail about the portrait below. There is a small key in Mrs. Garboli's hand. "This book is my diary, Jose." She told me when we started the painting. "And the key means that only I hold the passage and entry into my life story."
To me, of course, since Alessandra's friendship eventually made possible my first show of artwork in Italy in December 2008 -- her silver key has additional meanings. Alessandra Garboli holds in many ways the keys to
what has been my own story as an artist here in Rome.
The pen&ink portrait entitled “La Ines,” shown above, shows the quiet, almost introspective side of Mrs. Garboli's companion; instead, the ink drawing on the left shows my more humorous interpretation of these two ladies as I have had the great fortune to observe them them during our frequent detectivesque
promenades of Rome. When I drew this picture, I couldn't resist showing one of Ines's frequent moments of exasperation when her lady says or demands from Ines something outlandish. As Ines herself would say, her hands turned up and her head looking to the Italian heavens: "Ay, signora!”