Portrait of Scott Helvenston, Oil on Canvas, 12x16, Summer 2005 (commission/sold)
Scott Helvenston was one of the four contractors who were ambushed and killed in Fallujah, Iraq, March 31 2004. (click here to learn more).
With any portrait, it’s important to have a focus before you begin. I felt it was important to make sure that this would be a portrait that could instill happy memories, and could transcend the memories ensued by March 31, 2004.
This was a commissioned portrait. I was given several different photos for reference, from which I pieced together the best captured expression, lighting, angle, etc. There are so many variables just in terms of getting a likeness in the physical sense, and then there are so many other aspects to take into consideration as well. I feel this changes with every portrait I do. This could really go in several directions, but in the case of this particular portrait, there were a couple main issues that came up while painting this that I thought I'd touch on because they are issues that come up occasionally with other things at different times as well.
Visuals from outside sources that were getting in the way.
These particular visuals, however, were very motivating in a sense, but I had to get past it all in my own head in order to paint this portrait in the way that it needed to be painted. I do want to point out that I intend not to write any definition of my visuals, or describe them in words, in order to keep with the focus I noted above. I remember seeing the pictures of the incident in Fallujah on the internet. When I discovered that this man that I was painting was one of the four men involved, and the stories unfolded as I read more and more about him, I had to remind myself to stay focused. Also, considering I was painting this for someone in his family, it was very important to me that he was depicted in a positive light, with a lasting memory of happiness.
I didn’t know the person I was painting. And this will not be an uncommon aspect in my career as an artist. This is one of those times in general when it becomes most apparent that as artists, we put ourselves into our work. To paint something deeper than a likeness without knowing the person can be a bit tricky. So if we are injecting a feeling, then it inevitably has to be our own. This is also an example of the incredible connection of the nature of things and the contagiousness of energy. When we paint what is indefinitely our own feeling, and especially when we feel very strongly, it will always hit a universal chord. That’s not to say that everyone will feel the same about the painting, but there will be something being said that will touch a place deeper than the surface. And I think it would make sense to hope for different interpretations too. What made this one tough were the feelings that I had that were caused by the things I saw. Ultimately, it's up to me to influence the energy in the right direction.
My client was a close friend to Scott’s family. She gave me photos to work from, and could give me feedback as to whether she thought it looked like him and I could get a sense by her comments and reactions whether it felt like him or not. In this portrait, there is nothing being said about the visuals that were committed to memory from the incident in Fallujah. This could make for a very powerful message, but would entail painting an entirely different type of portrait. It was important to me that I did not have any of that energy in this painting. This commission was to be straightforward in the physical nature of the painting. As far as feeling, it is straightforward as well. He has a commanding presence - strong, confident, and happy - and heroic, as he had lived his life. I felt that this was how he and his family and friends would want him to be remembered.