During my chat with award-winning Portrait Society of Canada member, Deborah Pearce, I learned one important piece of advice: fall in love with something about the face when you’re painting a portrait. Deborah grew up in Hamilton and has painted commissioned portraits across Canada. She earned her B.F.A. from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick and briefly studied at the American Portrait Institute in New York. I met with Deborah at her art studio on James St N. Surrounded by charcoal, pastel, oil and acrylic renderings, we talked about her travels, her creative process, and the Hamilton art scene.
One of my favourite books is The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde. It addresses themes of life imitating art and vice versa, as well as topics of beauty and morality. Do you think you can see into the soul of a person as a painter and as a viewer of a portrait?
Yes. When you’re painting, you’re looking to capture someone. When you’re capturing someone, it isn’t just about what you see in the mirror. When I think of children, I think about how their emotions show more and how the artist tries to get this personality to come out. When we take a photo and tell people to smile, it might not necessarily be that person. Maybe they’re not normally a smiley person. When portrait used to be commissioned and people sat for hours without the technology of a camera, people didn’t show their teeth because they had to stay like that. But if I’m talking to someone and notice they’re always smiling, even when they’re listening, I try to incorporate a subtle smile into the art.
What is your portrait style?
In being commissioned to do a portrait, I look at people with an optimistic eye. Art school became opposite to that, in that beauty in art has become too mundane, too predictable and too unintellectual. Art has become angry and so on, trying to make whatever statements we like to make about society. I’m still looking for beauty and I’m not shy to admit that. There’s a dichotomy between admiring the beauty in something and being angry against it.
Another thing about art is the great divide; we’re all making something that someone, somewhere will like and will want to buy. When you are trying to appeal to the general public and not make them angry by a statement you have made in your artwork, it does change the tone of the artwork. But public galleries can show the other side. Portraits are what people are asking of me. When you’re not doing a commissioned piece, your brain is more open to new ideas, like layering mediums.
What is your approach to teaching classes in your studio?
When I teach a class, I ask people to fall in love with something about the face. Get excited about the facets of the nose if the model has a chiseled nose. If big, chocolate brown eyes excite you, play around with the browns.
What is your favourite feature?
Lips are the most difficult, but people say the eyes are. I find the eyes exciting and easy to do. There are more circular muscles in the mouth and the mouth does a thousand dances, but you have to pick one to show in the portrait – whether that’s a demure smile or the Mona Lisa smile or something subtle. If you go back to the National Gallery, people don’t have big smiles because they’re posing for long periods of time.
What is the process like for starting a new portrait?
The first step should not be taking out your precious canvas. Take your cheapest paper and some charcoal and start sketching. Sketch different angles and then take the drawings, put them down on the floor and let them talk back to you. Get involved, observe, and give your brain all the information because as you are relaxed. Start developing an opinion about which side is the best side. Let yourself fall in love with something about the figure. If you gave yourself time, you could do a lot of preliminary drawings, not trying to make it look like something, just let it happen. Once the drawing is established, you are ready to get out the canvas and start. Pay attention to how the tones of the face change in the light.
Do you respond more to the painting as it evolves or are you always trying to mimic the model?
I think it’s a whole lot of responding to the painting. A lot of your early decisions with the drawings help you face some issues with cool and warm tones.
What is your favourite thing about painting from life?
I wish that life would be able to give me more time! My big frustration is that I can not get that time with the models, so I need the tool of the camera to make it happen.
Do you ever paint from photos?
I have to, but I prefer life. The way I get that is going to life drawing classes. The model that is only going to pose for five minutes allows you to relax and just draw. You get to take it all in; no commissions, just doing it for myself. It is an excuse to draw and at the end of three hours, you might have a magic one there. That is relaxing, I really like it. I love the figure and have done modest nudes. Now I am working on painting males in a square shape and females in circles.
Can you tell me a little bit about your trip to Africa?
After university I applied for a Canada Council Grant and went to East Africa. I was there for 7 months and visited Tanzania, Rwanda, and Ethiopia. My proposal was to paint the Coca-Cola-ization of Africa, but it hadn’t happened yet. The direction I ended up going was totally different. It was International Women’s Year (1975) and every 50 miles you went, women were doing their hair differently, tattooing their hands, wearing different costumes, or just wearing necklaces and no clothing. I found that the women illustrated their culture and the men tried to modernize it. The men were wearing a lot of British military fatigues and not necessarily the native costumes, so it was really interesting for me to express all these women.
I did three shows when I came back because I was so full of ideas. I was working in the basement and didn’t want to hear media. I just wanted to keep my mind back there. I did a portrait of a Masai with a Coca Cola can in his ear to stretch it. I have one painting left from the show of a Ugandan woman on the wall.
How do you feel about self portraits?
A had to do a self portrait in art school. Because I was the model, I could model for myself for hours. It was just so nice to have that many hours to work with somebody.
Fair skin is an interesting phenomenon because it has all these nuanced colours. I see plums and khakis. If you slow down and spend more time, you can have fun with all these colours. I used all 11 colours on a standard artists’ palette but it does not look colourful because there are little brushstrokes.
Why did you start painting?
You know what started encouraging me? This should still happen, but it doesn’t. I should write to the Hamilton Spectator and get them to start again. There was a kids’ page at the back of the Spectator and I would enter every art contest they had. I won a poodle and a turkey once.
What is your earliest art memory?
I figured out in my father’s library that when you opened a book it had a blank page at the front and the back. So I started drawing on all the blank pages in the books in his library. He got very annoyed with me, so he started bringing home blueprints (he was an engineer). I could unfold these blueprints and lay down and have all this space to work on. He saved his library. Keep your kids supplied. They are creative so they will just run with it.
What do you think about Hamilton’s Art Crawl?
I love it. It is very solitary to do your art work and you do not get feedback. Even if you have a show at a gallery, you only get to hear what people are saying about your work on the opening night. During the art crawl, you are getting feedback from a range of people. Eight year olds to 80 year olds come here and they love it because they are free to chat about art and not feel obliged. There is no pressure here and people just talk.
Where can we see some of your work?
I have a show right now of my 6 Burlington Olympic Athletes. They are hanging at McMaster U. DeGroote Business School, in the Great Hall. They are the 21st Century Athletes, Brady Reardon (2008), Helen Nichol (2004), Becky Kellar (1998, 2002, 2006, 2010), Mark Oldershaw (2008, 2012), and Jessie Lumsden (2010, 2014). The show is open-ended right now because of the upcoming Pan Am games.
Visit Pearce Studios at 175 James Street North, 3rd Floor (at Vasco da Gama)