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Les Artistes: Face to Face
Lafayette portrait artist Mary Morvant brings out the personalities of her subjects one brush stroke at a time.
Adrift in voluntary silence and seclusion, Mary Morvant doesn’t rush her approach as she attempts to artistically lasso a girl always on the go.
Next to the 6-foot unmarked canvas, a recent photograph of 19-year-old Kristen stares back at Morvant, an artist-turned-mother-turned-artist. With everything muted but her mind, Morvant thinks back: Was it really a decade ago that I painted Kristen last? My, how she’s changed. So self-motivated. So mature. And most of all, so busy.
A college girl happily burdened with social and scholarly demands, Kristen’s wired to a generation whose thoughts are confined to 140 characters and accented by hashtags. Photos of her comings-and-goings fade farther down the page with each status update, a digital log of impermanence – and Kristen’s alibi as to why she couldn’t peg down a time to pose for a photo shoot and meet with Morvant when this project was initially commissioned more than a year ago.
“Things come up,” Morvant says through a smile. “I was her age once, so I understand.”
So it’s Morvant’s job to beautifully freeze this moment in time, before all these tomorrows ahead of Kristen pile up into yesterdays. This painting, in a way, is a pause button for Kristen’s parents.
In a scene teeming with artists who lean against the brilliance of Acadiana’s terrain and spirit like a cultural crutch, Morvant is a bit of an outlier – a pure portrait painter whose lifelike renderings don’t leave much wiggle room for interpretation but nonetheless brim with feeling. Compiling a healthy catalog since fully devoting herself to her craft in 1999, Morvant’s portraits capture something a camera simply can’t – the inner essence of the subject.
“It’s personal because you’re painting a person – not a hillside or a bowl of fruit,” says Morvant, whose portraits were recently exhibited at the Zigler Art Museum in Jennings. “You wonder: ‘Are they going to like this? Can I please this client?’ Because some people are easy to please – they love everything. Others are more demanding. You have to remember: You’re painting for them more than you’re painting for yourself. My clients have all been happy, but yes, I’ve been asked to fix a brush stroke, adjust the edge of a sleeve, round the corner of his shoulder.
“Some people can paint, but they don’t paint people.”
And, as Morvant can testify, to paint people, it’s paramount to know people. It’s not only beneficial; it’s practically essential. That’s why applying a single brush stroke without meeting with Kristen again wasn’t an option in Morvant’s opinion. There’s something to be gained, Morvant says, by spending substantial time with people in a comfortable environment, encouraging their personalities to spring forth. Physical features – eyes, hair, build – are easy to pluck from a single image. But the makeup of a subject’s soul – the fabric of truly great portraits – usually only appears in person.
“Don’t get me wrong – I can paint from a photograph of a person I’ve never met before; that’s not a problem,” Morvant says. “But it’s helpful to get to know the person, get to know the personality. You see things, pick up on things, and those elements can pop off of a painting. It’s not just point-click, like a photo. It’s so much more involved.”
The daughter of an art teacher, Morvant chose to let her career take a backseat to the duties of motherhood for decades. In fact, other than doing some drawings and paintings for companies prior to the birth of her first-born, Morvant barely touched a paintbrush for years. In 1999, though, pushed by the urgings of a supportive husband and comforted in knowing her kids were old enough to take care of themselves, Morvant re-explored her lost passion.
“But I didn’t know the first thing about how to market myself,” Morvant admits. “I didn’t know how to get into galleries or anything.”
All she knew was her backyard neighbor, the owner of an upscale children’s clothing store. Morvant’s proposition: She’d paint a portrait of the neighbor’s child. In exchange, that portrait would temporarily hang in the neighbor’s store as an advertisement of Morvant’s painting services. Oh, it’d be great, Morvant added, if the neighbor left a stack of her business cards by the register.
The neighbor thought about it for a brief period of time and then agreed.
Armed with confidence and easily able to shake off the artistic dust after such a long layoff from portrait-painting, Morvant received calls from prospective clients within days of her work finding a spot on the shop wall.
“I went into it saying, ‘Hey, we’ll see what happens,’” Morvant says. “Well, what happened was a stream of steady work. It never snowballed, which I preferred. I never wanted it to overrun my life or time because the process to paint one portrait is so involved.”
Once Morvant completes construction of the blank canvas, she tends to spend substantial time in quiet reflection and intense observation (whether it be of a photo or live subject who’s chosen to model) before lightly marking a grid in pencil. Proportion is vital in portrait-painting, Morvant says. The slightest miscalculation spoils the realism.
From there, Morvant lays down an “under painting,” usually in a transparent oxide brown. Using a large brush to start and a fine brush to finish, Morvant is tangled in a “constant dance to get the darks dark enough and the lights light enough.” Upon completion of this step, which Morvant calls “drawing with a paintbrush,” the portrait subject’s features are vaguely defined.
Finally, Morvant applies layers of colors; more realistic portraits require more layers.
“But it’s not just the steps, not just the mechanical process,” Morvant says. “It does help if you feel like painting.”
Asked to expand upon that concept, Morvant takes a second before offering: “Oh, wow. A lot of people would use the word ‘inspired,’ but that’s kind of too easy. I feel like painting when I look at the photographs from the shoot, and you get excited about what is about to begin. And you think back to talking to the subject, and you recall how interesting they were. Maybe you think of pulling off a different angle or a different look. … Of course, that is if the family is OK with that.
“I need to be alone,” Morvant continues. “Everyone needs to be cleared out of the house. I’ll look around: ‘OK, Everybody is at work, now I can go to work.’”
Heightening Morvant’s profile is her association with Portraits Inc., an art broker providing exclusive representation to the world’s best portrait painters since 1942. Prospective artists wishing to join Portraits Inc.’s roster must submit a portfolio of their work. In 2010, Morvant’s portfolio passed the test – the only one Portraits Inc. deemed worthy that year.
“It’s quite an honor when you look and see that this agency represents some of the finest portrait artists in the country,” Morvant says. “It’s humbling when you go to one of their seminars and they have work displayed from the other portrait artists they represent. I look, and I go, ‘Wow, there’s some talent in this country.’”