Portraiture Through The Eyes of Artist Nicholas Pearce

Painter teaches the art of the portrait and exhibits students’ work

  • Mar. 6, 2019 7:00 a.m.

-Story by Deborah Pearce and Photographs by Lia Crowe.

The first time my husband said he wanted to rent the big hall in Sidney’s Mary Winspear Centre and put on a show of his paintings plus 30 pieces of his students’ work, I thought he was nuts.

That huge space? The one that holds the Sidney Fine Arts Show, with hundreds of artists producing 400 works? The one that costs $5,000 to rent for four days?

Yep, that one. And nuts or not, that show, back in 2016, came off beautifully. Students pitched in to hang paintings and do the myriad jobs behind the scenes, as well as put on demonstrations of the Nicholas Pearce painting technique, using a single, huge brush and limited palette of four acrylic colours plus white.

The feeling of community was amazing. So was our collective exhaustion. I swore it would take me seven years to recover — the amount of time to replace every cell in my body.

Fast forward three years. The scene: Nicholas’s North Saanich studio. This time he was proposing another show with his students, same venue as the first, to run March 29-31, 2019. It would be called About Face, and it would be entirely portraits.

“Would visitors be interested in portraits of people they don’t know?” I protested.

“How many people go to see the Mona Lisa?” he countered.

As it turns out, Lawson A.W. Hunter, chair of the Ottawa Art Gallery, backs him up. “What’s in a portrait?” Hunter asked in a recent Globe and Mail article, arguing for a Canadian National Portrait Gallery. “The quick answer: a story …there is no substitute for a face-to-face encounter with a portrait. Isn’t the sustained popularity of the ‘selfie’ a testament to our intuitive desire to put faces to our shared experiences?”

Lia Crowe photograph

Over the past couple of years, more and more of Nicholas’s students have taken on the challenge of doing just that. I’ve marvelled at the paintings they’ve produced, and the stories behind the paintings.

For example, there’s the story of a son who hadn’t liked having his picture taken and died in a car crash at 17. The only recent photo of him was small and blurred. His mother used that image to paint a portrait.

At the end of the class, she said to Nick, “Thank you for helping me bring him home.”

Or, the retired counsellor who captured all seven of her grandchildren — and then went on to do portraits of her husband and herself.

I’m not an artist — just a fly on the kitchen wall. I’m the one making coffee and cooking lunches for Nick’s classes in his studio, right around the corner.

And what I see and hear in every class is courage.

Portraiture is tough. As New York teacher Marvin Mattelson tells his students, “Portrait painting isn’t brain surgery; it’s much more difficult.”

UK artist David Cobley goes further. “Painting someone’s portrait is, of course, an impossible task. What an absurd idea to try and distil a human being, the most complex organism on the planet, into flicks, washes and blobs of paint on a two-dimensional surface.”

Lia Crowe photograph

So why try?

Nicholas has several theories. “Artists are adventurers, especially those willing to take on the single, one-and-a-half-inch brush, and a limited palette of four colours,” he says. “Painting a portrait is arguably the biggest challenge any artist will undertake.”

A second reason to do portraits is the need for connection through art, common to many artists.

His third theory?

“When we paint a portrait of someone we care about, it’s an act of love.”

Nicholas says his goal is to capture the person’s essence — “their spark” — as well as their likeness. One of his favourite instructions to students is to let go of any aim to create perfection through photorealism.

“Indicate, don’t illustrate,” he says. “As the Impressionists discovered, absolute definition of anything can take the magic out of a painting, creating a technical exercise. Give just enough detail to imply rather than to state.”

Nicholas says a portrait is working when it morphs from an image of a person’s features to a sense of the person’s being: “You don’t see an eye; you see a soul shining out through an eye.”

Most of the 150 works in About Face will be from Nicholas’s portrait classes, the rest done in a new one-day workshop called painting with pencil.

For that class, students build an image using a 3B pencil and Nicholas’s scribble technique.

“You start with a light hand and build the whole image at once rather than moving from one detail to another. If a line is in the wrong place, you learn how to incorporate it into the rest of the tone scribble.”

Throughout the show, Nicholas and his students will demonstrate both techniques. Draws will be held for the portrait intensive and painting with pencil classes.

Each portrait, or group of portraits, will come with a story so the viewer can learn who the subject is and why the work was created. Visitors will be able to sign up for classes with Nicholas — or commission a portrait, done by Nick or one of his students.

Everyone is invited to the official opening, being held partway through the show to accommodate some of the portrait subjects who have offered to speak at the event. Green Party leader Elizabeth May and agriculture minister Lana Popham are both scheduled to say a few words, with their portraits beside them.

Admission: Free

Location:

Mary Winspear Centre, Bodine Hall

2243 Beacon Ave W, Sidney

Show dates and times:

Friday, March 29, 10 am to 9 pm

Saturday, March 30, 10 am to 7 pm (opening ceremony, 7 to 9 pm)

Sunday, March 31, 10 am to 4 pm

More information:

pearcepaintings.com

778.426.0150

Lia Crowe photograph

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