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Q&A: Portrait Painting, Then & Now

Young Gentleman and Gentlewoman, oil on linen, by Nicole Stewart. Winner of The Gilham Award for Best in Show.
Young Gentleman and Gentlewoman, oil on linen, by Nicole Stewart. Winner of The Gilham Award for Best in Show. (click for larger image)

Last October, Nicole Stewart won best in show for the figure painting Watching Her (below). A year later, her portraits seem to have traveled back in time a couple centuries, and a juror has once again recognized them with the Gilham Award. Stewart told us a little about how portraiture has changed over the years, and how she became interested in period portraits.

Can you explain a little about how you got involved in painting these portraits, and what pendant paintings are?
Nicole Stewart: Throughout my life I’ve always loved early American Folk Art portraits. I dabbled in drawing and watercolor, painted a couple nature themes each year, but didn’t think I was skilled enough to do portraits. But then I was thinking — why not paint my sister and her soon to be husband as colonial children, in folk art style, as their wedding gift? Any mistakes on a “folk art” portrait would be forgivable. I painted them in acrylic but got very frustrated in the process. I spent many hours on paintings I didn’t like in the end. But my family knew I was doing it so I brought them to New England anyway. I was in trouble when my step dad named them “the evil twins.” I hated them (they really are awful), but my family loved them.

Watching Her by Nicole Stewart. Read the Q&A here.
Watching Her by Nicole Stewart. Read that Q&A here.
Fast forward to 2006 when I took my first Studio Art class at the College of Southern Maryland to learn oil painting with the man who would become my mentor, Larry Chappelear. Toward the end of that semester I hired another student to pose for me for an achromatic portrait. The likeness was there. I took another Studio Art class with Larry, hired some more students at the end and was getting better. Then Larry recommended I take classes at The Art League.

Larry had gone to school with Mike Francis and recommended I take classes with Mike’s wife, Danni Dawson. From Danni, Ted Reed, and Rob Liberace, and with many, many hours of painting, I got a heck of a lot better. Problem is my sister (who has the originals) and my mom (who made a print set for herself) will not get rid of the Evil Twins!

It was in one of Danni’s classes that I saw model Ric Huffman in profile and thought, “he would make a great Colonial guy.” I painted him at my studio with a Colonial wig, and I liked the result. Then I wanted to give him a wife, and knew a local woman who was a Colonial reenactor at Smallwood State Park where my studio was, and I painted her (my first pendant portraits).

Young Gentleman and Gentlewoman (detail) by Nicole Stewart

What are pendant portraits? They are portraits meant to hang together. Most of them are two, but I have seen family groupings of three with husband and wife flanking their children. When there are two, the paintings often flank fireplaces, doors or windows. Family portraits were meant to be private and were hung in spaces that only family, and maybe some close friends would see.

How is a period portrait different from a contemporary portrait?

A lot of portraits of this time used glazing techniques, but there were some artists who used what we consider a modern technique: direct painting. This is my technique for almost all my portraits, though I sometimes come back later with glazes to deepen a shadow or intensify a color. What makes these look old is the limited palette. The compositions they used (what I call the curtains to nowhere) made the faces the focal points. They also developed strong light and dark values. Painters from that period also altered anatomy to make their sitters appear more regal.

I was especially blessed on these two portraits. I took the reference photos at La Plata High School in late June/early July (the models are high school students who were part of a War of 1812 wedding reenactment). Modern schools have these big high windows and I was able to get the perfect high north light for this style of painting.

“Art NOW” is on view through November 3.

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