Oil Painting: Carolyn Egeli's Impressionistic Approach

16 Aug 2007

0710egel6_450x600_2This Maryland oil painter, renowned for her portraits, seeks the essence of her subjects and settles for nothing less.

 

by Janice F. Booth

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Evening Pasture
oil on linen, 24 x 30.
Collection the artist.

When we remember a friend’s face, we don’t see the eyes, the smile, the mouth. We feel that friend’s touch, hear her laugh, recall his courage. Maryland oil painter Carolyn Egeli’s portraits evoke that essence. How does she imbue her subjects with life and soul? “Carolyn’s work has an honesty about it that cannot be taught,” observes renowned portraitist and former Egeli student Thomas V. Nash. There are, however, some useful suggestions we can extract from her observations on portraiture.

First, consider carefully how to position the figure in a portrait. Egeli cautions against the artist, and thus the viewer, getting too close and looking down on the subject, especially if the portrait is three-quarter length, including the subject’s hands and lap. If the focus is the eyes and the artist looks down, the eyes and the top of the lap cannot be seen simultaneously without distorting the perspective, which results in the subject appearing to float above the chair or couch in the painting. However, a viewpoint with correct perspective, looking down at the sitter, conveys vulnerability and drama.

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Mr. & Mrs. Stanley J. [Sandra] Sweikar
2005, oil, 50 x 40.
Collection Mr. and Mrs.
Stanley J. Sweikar.
More Portraits
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To view more examples of portraits, check out galleries by Elizabeth Pruitt and Dawn Whitelaw.

A viewpoint looking up at the subject can give the impression of nobility and authority, but that perspective can also cause elongation of the features at the bottom of the face. The third option, and perhaps the most customary, is keeping the sitter’s head at the artist’s eye level. Seating the subject on a platform may be necessary to achieve this. Most important in choosing a perspective is that the pose must express the subject’s personality and capture the spirit of the sitter.

Another crucial key to compelling portraits: Make time your ally. Egeli takes frequent breaks as a painting progresses—she works on another painting, plays the piano or exercises, and then returns to the painting refreshed. As the piece takes on its own life, “I assess and compare what I’ve done with what I’d envisioned. I adjust the drawing with better proportions, sometimes pumping up or modifying the value differences. I make sure the action is enough, is interesting. I keep comparing and building up all over the canvas, staying general as long as I can stand it, then I begin to pin down things as I work over the painting. At this point in the process, I don’t paint more than 20 minutes at a time. And I make sure my lighting source is steady; I don’t chase the direction of the light.”

Third, Egeli urges artists to seek a coordination of eye and heart. In part, she avoids relying on photos for more than reference. “Slavishly copying photos means you’re copying distortions,” she says. “Often the centers of faces end up too big or faces become too long, depending on the lens and the distance from which the photo is taken. The artist chases his or her tail, unable to figure out why the likeness is missing the mark.”

Her fourth tip: Exaggerate the feeling of movement at the beginning. “As I correct or modify the drawing it becomes a lot more accurate,” says Egeli. “But without attention to movement and motive, the painting falters, the passion fails.” She relies on her instincts—grounded in skill and courage—to capture the feelings that can infuse a painting with life.

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Frozen Still, Vermont
2006, oil on linen,
30 x 40. Collection
the artist.
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Henry T. (Tom) Waring
2004, oil, 32 x 38.
All artwork this article
private collection
unless otherwise indicated.

And finally, Egeli recommends that artists take care not to focus on one particular feature. Don’t be beguiled, for example, by the eyes. As Egeli cautions her students, “You have to build the house before you can put in the windows.” Every element of the landscape or the face and body holds interest and demands patient attention. When the curves of the ear, the angle of the brow, and the shadow of the chin have received the artist’s close scrutiny, the portrait becomes organic.

In the double portrait of Stanley J. and Sandra Sweikar, Egeli first sketched the couple’s general shapes and positions on the canvas. Often she sketches in charcoal, capturing the values in the process. As she does this rough sketch, another creative process goes on simultaneously: Egeli listens to her subjects. She listens for what they think and feel; she observes the messages they convey with their bodies, their expressions. There is something to be learned even from what is not said or what is not done.

Egeli is an astute observer; she interprets motive and meaning instinctively. Her visual vocabulary expresses both parties’ feelings—the finished portrait tells something of the sitter’s story as well as the artist’s. All that Egeli sees and feels becomes part of the portrait. In the Sweikar portrait, the angles of the couple’s postures reflect the openness between them; their clasped hands resting close to each other’s bodies suggest intimacy and the triumph of a successful marriage. Their gazes look out at the viewer, confident, unguarded, and at ease.

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White Hydrangeas
2000, oil on linen, 24 x 30.
Private collection.
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Laura Elizabeth
1994, oil, 55 x 36.
Collection the artist.

As the portrait took shape, the coloring of the forward figure emerged. Egeli is careful with the flesh tones. “Sargent used ochre, black, and white and then dropped some Indian red in the fingertips. Smashing!” the artist says. “My father, Bjorn Egeli, taught me to use Mars violet and cobalt blue for the darks, blending into greenish umbers for the halftones. The halftones move to the peachy-ochre of general flesh tones in the light. The warm planes are dropped in with red cadmiums where the cheek turns, and the value moves to the dark side. The warm side of the cheek, closer to the light, is a warmer red, and the other cheek, closer to the shadow side, has a cooler red going into the shadow.

“In reflected light the colors move to pale greens, yellows, or whites, depending on the color of the light hitting the subject,” continues Egeli. “Then, in the light, the values end up very high key with infinite modeling. Approaching the face through close modeling in the light is a very demanding task. A less demanding way to paint the face is with a generally darker range of values, with dashes of light to express the highlights on the face.

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Skipjack Race, Crossing the Wake
2005, oil, 30 x 40.
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Shannon Sullivan
2003, oil, 40 x 42.
Collection Mr. and Mrs.
Michael J. Sullivan.

“I always tell my students, ‘Hold onto the feeling you first experience when you looked at the scene or person you’re about to paint,’” says Egeli. “That feeling must remain when the work is finished. Harness your passion; process it. Passion is essential. Take the time to analyze, but be careful not to stultify and overanalyze what you see and feel.”

Egeli continues, “In part, the artist must mirror the subject. In the case of a portrait, I try to become familiar with the subject’s lifestyle and tastes. As an artist, I focus on the subject’s identity. I try to be honest, expressing what I see in my subject, keeping in mind what is appropriate for the purpose of the portrait. As the artist, I receive a commission because of my taste and insight, so I remain true to that, but I’m also open to the viewpoints of my sitter. Developing a relationship with my subject is one of the joys and benefits of portrait painting.”

Egeli’s parents, Lois Baldwin Egeli and Bjorn Egeli, were both accomplished painters, so earning a living as an artist came naturally to her. She recalls playing as a child in the offices of a Supreme Court Justice while her father painted the judge’s portrait. Over the last 20 years of her father’s life, Egeli accompanied him to sittings. Serving as Bjorn Egeli’s driver gave his talented daughter the opportunity to observe the relationship between artist and subject, as well as gain an understanding of the business of painting portraits of famous and important people—governors, corporate presidents, statesmen, and judges.

Bjorn and Lois Egeli’s legacy includes not only their careers in painting but five children who became successful artists as well. The dynasty they founded (three generations so far) has been compared to the renowned Peales of the 19th century and the Wyeths, whose generations are contemporary with the Egelis. Each of these painterly dynasties established a unique vision, a quality to their paintings that even the untutored admirer can identify.

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Tall Ship at Norfolk
oil on linen, 10 x 14.
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His Honorable Theodore
Edgar Cardinal McCarrick

2003, oil, 36 x 54.

Paintings by both parents hang beside her own pieces in the home Egeli built on the banks of Herring Creek in Southern Maryland. In that bucolic setting, her work is entwined with her private life. The home’s design provides light-filled galleries and studio spaces where clients and guests from across the country and around the world come to study, purchase paintings, and pose for portraits.

“I treat art as a job I respect,” says Egeli. “Painting has fundamental principles, a language that can be understood. One’s images and materials are the vocabulary; the characteristics of the materials and the elements of design and color are the grammar of painting. I urge my students to apply those principles of art to produce paintings imbued with the student’s own individual passion and energy.” If the pigment, canvas, and varnish constitute her vocabulary, design and structure are the grammar that provides order and control. Egeli speaks the artist’s language fluently.

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Andrea Rousseaux and
Daughter Amelié

1992, oil, 36 x 30.
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Gov. William D. Schaefer
2006, oil, 36 x 48.

She begins with the best quality materials available, including Old Holland paints, linen canvas, bristle brushes, and the classic mediums of turpentine, damar varnish, and cold-pressed linseed oil. “I use cold-pressed because it reduces ‘suedeing’ on the surface of the painting,” she says. The artist notes that contemporary art supplies, unlike the materials of her youth, tend to dry quickly, forcing the artist to plan ahead but saving time between the stages of painting.

Egeli is particular about the character of her paints. She mixes her own white paint using pigment from Sinopia, a San Francisco company. When made with the proper linseed oil, this homemade white has superior coverage and mobility. Old Holland paints are noted for their archival quality and drenching color.
Egeli usually applies a ground to her canvas or gessoed board, often a neutral hue of medium value. If she desires a cool backdrop, the artist may use a mixture of cobalt blue, raw umber, and white. For a warm ground, she’ll use a mixture of sienna and burnt umber. “As I apply the paint, I work in stages with thin glazes or a loaded brush, depending on the subject matter,” she says. The artist may repeatedly return to a landscape site or a studio arrangement to sketch and photograph her subject, sometimes doing two or three small exploratory paintings. “Sometimes I see the whole at once,” Egeli says. “But being willing to explore is extremely important. I call that the honest search. The honest search uncovers the artist’s skill and excitement about the subject matter, if they’re there. Enough truth should be in the painting to carry the day.”
The ongoing study of the subject matter is crucial to her approach. “Art is not in the technique or principles,” says Egeli. “It’s in the understanding—understanding what you see and seeing in three dimensions. Finishing a portrait or any painting is a monumental task. While going through the finishing stages I find that it compares to childbirth. There is no choice about finishing it, and there will be pain. But the outcome is most satisfying. The painting has acquired a life of its own.”

Janice F. Booth is a freelance writer who resides in Maryland.

 


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