How To Paint a Portrait

Cover of San Diego Weekly Reader, June 28, 2007By Geoff Bouvier

San Diego Reader

June 28, 2007

The first time I chat with painter David Darrow on the telephone, I ask him how I might pose. I tell him that I like the highly individual stagings of Annie Leibovitz's photographs. Darrow tells me that mine will only be a 16" x 20" painting from the chest up, so we won't have to worry too much about my pose. And as for how I should appear — sidelong glance, coy grin, gazing into the distance, serious and stylish -- he'll probably be able to figure that out just by meeting me for a cup of coffee.

Geoff Bouvier at Starbucks
Author Geoff Bouvier
at that first
Starbucks Meeting
I've already seen Darrow's paintings online, and I can tell that he's good with paint. His representations are realistic, and he handles light and color elegantly. But I can also tell from his online blog that he's witty and good with words. One of Darrow's blog entries that involves painting in the rain begins, "Weather or not... That is not a typo, it's a pun." [Link]

Darrow, 50, is solidly built and stands an even 6 feet tall. He sports a goatee ("the facial hair of the fat man," he calls it), and his hair spills halfway down the sides of his round head in elaborate wisps. When he shows up at Starbucks for that coffee, Darrow is wearing the same outfit in which I'll see him again and again over the course of the next week: old jeans, a black Hawaiian shirt, and a wide-brimmed hat. As he'll tell me later, this is his painting outfit.

The reason
to have
an artist
paint you
is because you
like the work of
that artist.

I start our first conversation by asking Darrow a pointed question, a test of sorts: In this day and age of cameras and computers, why would anyone want to get a portrait painted?

"I guess it's for the same reason that people don't just listen to CDs," Darrow answers thoughtfully. "They still go to concerts. They still want something that can only be done one time and can never be duplicated." A few days later, Darrow will refine his answer and tell me that the reason to have an artist paint you is because you like the work of that particular artist. I like this answer better. I've always wondered how Picasso might have seen me. Or Paul Klee. But Darrow's expertise isn't abstract stylizations like Picasso's or Klee's. Darrow's specialty is dead-on painterly representations. "I've painted hundreds of heads," Darrow says. "Maybe thousands. I've never really thought about how many." Darrow, who lives and paints in Oceanside, CA, used to make a living drawing preliminary art for Hollywood movie posters. "I made better money back then," he jokes, perfectly seriously. "But now I still haven't figured out what my day job is. I paint, I do video editing, photography, webpage design, graphic design... Oh, and I do rock balancing. I get paid for that. It's not lucrative, but..."

Rock balancing?

Darrow laughs. "Yes," he says, drolly. "Believe it or not. I balance rocks one on top of the other, and it looks very strange to someone who's never seen it before, because they are actually balanced. I can make a tower of little eight-inch boulders that's four or five feet high."

Why? Why would Darrow do that?

"I got into it as a hobby and a thing to do at the beach," he says.

And why would anyone pay to see rocks balanced?

"Because it's odd," he says. "It's a freak show. I occasionally get hired to do demonstrations for conventions and stuff like that."

See my gallery of Rock Balancing pictures which is currerntly not at —drd

Turns out you can see Darrow's rock-balancing feats online — — and they do look interesting.

So I infer that Darrow must have very steady hands.

"Yes," he says with sly intelligence. "Before I have coffee, yes."

Darrow tells me he went to art school at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. "I wanted to be an illustrator," he says. "And I did that for about 16 years, before the illustration market dried up for me."

He has an exacting sense of his tastes and a light sense of humor, no matter how serious the subject. "I don't like to paint landscapes," Darrow says. "I'd rather be broke, and so far, that's working out great." He laughs. "I've reached that goal. A broke artist! But it would make my day dreary to paint landscapes. It's more interesting to me to paint a head."

All three of Darrow's children are also artistic. His oldest son, Drew, 24, is a graphically oriented artist who works in "shapes, colors, and textures, on found materials." His second son, Greyson, 20, is a sculptor, drawer, and painter whose work won Best in Show at the San Diego County Fair when he was in high school. And his daughter, Danielle, who is 15, has "fantastic natural ability," although Darrow doesn't know whether she wants to be a painter. "They've got the genetics for art," Darrow says. "I believe in that. Artistic talent, for the most part, is genetic. You either get it or you don't. Although I could teach anyone to paint better. I don't know if I could turn a nonartist into an artist, but I could definitely teach them to paint better."

Darrow has taught art at the college level in the past, and he's currently trying to organize his own workshop. "I need to find a space for a workshop," he says. "I know how to paint, and I know how to teach others how to paint. I know how to do that because I had to learn it all myself, little by little. It didn't just come to me naturally."

* * *

Darrow tells me that it will take two or three sittings to paint my portrait. I'll have to stay still (and be more or less quiet) for four or five hours each day. "Most people don't have the time to pose for their portraits," he says. "So I usually paint from photographs."

It's not really the same, is it, painting from photographs?

"Some people think that painting from photographs is cheating," Darrow answers. "But I don't. Back when I did illustration, everything was from photographs. I didn't have time to be a purist about anything. But the bottom line is, I can paint. I can draw. I know what to do with the color and values in shadows to make the painting look like it was painted from life. But it's a lot easier to paint from photographs. Instead of my having to translate from three dimensions into two, it's already translated into 2-D."

Early on, I was presented with an aesthetic challenge — Geoff told me he wanted his portrait to have the eyes looking at the viewer/me. His reasons, personal, were fair enough, but there is, indeed, a limiting factor to such art direction. I now have to adapt what I have come to know of him and his characteristics to the somewhat restrictive and sometimes more alarming eye-contact portrait. —drd

According to the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the truth of the face isn't what it looks like but rather the simultaneous manifestation of all of the face's possible appearances. This is a beautiful idea, and I'm reminded of it when I ask Darrow which mood of mine he's going to capture in his painting. I ask him this because I imagine that all of my thoughts and feelings are going to be passing through my face in some way as I sit there, day after day, posing for him. "I guess what I'll paint will end up being an average of all of your moods," Darrow says.

Painting, which happens
over time, may be more
truthful than photography.
In painting, the whole,
gradual process is still
visible even in
the final result.
—Geoff Bouvier, author

And it occurs to me that this is the reason why painting from life is more truthful, if not also more realistic, than painting from a photograph. (And perhaps this is why owning a painting of myself might be better than having dozens and dozens of snapshots.) The painting will be an interpretation by a human being, yes, but instead of a momentary rendering of a single mood, it will be the living average of many moods. Painting, in general, which happens over time, may be more truthful than photography, which extrapolates its truth from an instant. In painting, the whole gradual process is still visible even in the final result.

* * *

Load of stuffOn the first day of painting, bright and early, Darrow shows up at my house with enough equipment to paint a chapel ceiling. Watching him set up is like seeing an army prepare to storm a fortified beach.

It should be pointed out that I got Geoff's permission to bring lights, microphone, tripos, and video camera, plus his permission to record the painting process and his likeness before I arrived. Future clients need not worry about me hauling all my techno-stuff to your house. —drd

Lights, paints, an easel, rags, cameras, tripods, wires, even a microphone. "I'm going to film this," he says, sounding as though he's seizing an opportunity. "Since you're going to have me talking about my process, I figure I might want to use this session for an instructional video."

Darrow has even set things up in such a way — with his video camera on a tripod — that I can watch him drawing and painting me on my own television set. The act of watching myself being rendered falls somewhere between fascinating and distracting. Throughout the next few days, I try not to turn my head too much to watch Darrow's progress.