When my husband Steve started working at Temple University eleven years ago, little did I dream I would ever be working with his boss. After all, Steve's work is in medicine, mine is in art. But last fall, Dr. Robert Fisher, Chief of Gastroenterology, asked me to paint his portrait, and I was honored to accept the commission.
From the very beginning of our collaboration, there was one thing Dr. Fisher was adamant about: he wanted the portrait to include a painting he owned of the G.I. tract. Now this seemed logical to me considering Dr. Fisher's specialty, and I when I paint portraits I like to incorporate evidence of people's professions and interests. But, then, a painting of a G.I. tract--well, that could be tricky to say the least! Dr. Fisher said his brother, a sculptor, wasn't keen on the idea. My husband told me people at work liked to joke about it. At this point I had never actually seen this famous painting, but I was getting a little worried.
So much buzz was circulating about this G.I. tract painting hanging in Dr. Fisher's office that when I actually saw it, I was relieved. I could kind of see why Dr. Fisher liked it so much. It was also a landscape. And if you squinted, you could also see it as a jolly face. A very clever painting--metaphorical rather than graphic. It would actually be fun to include it. And I like a challenge.
We also ended up including books, family photos, a college football, and other objects, visual clues that tell a story about Dr. Fisher, his history, his personality and character. These things, when they are chosen and arranged carefully, can add to the visual interest of a portrait. On the other hand, it's always important to make sure the parts are subordinate to the whole. A portrait can contain many things, but the artist can make sure the focus of the painting remains on the person, by controlling the composition, edges, lighting, and massing of light and shadow. In this way, a portrait containing many elements can be brought together in a unified, simple whole.
By the same process, the "odd" object can also be brought into the whole. It has to first be thought of and fully accepted by the artist as an integral element in the composition. When I first saw the painting of the G.I. tract, I had to contemplate it and envision how it would be placed in the composition, what level of importance (i.e. what value and level of detail) it should have, in relation to the subject. The end result is that it should not "stick out like a sore thumb" or be banished to obscurity in the dark background. As the artist, I've got to go so far as to even embrace it as a necessary part of the symphony that will culminate in the celebration of the subject.