Filled with character and expression, artist Una Pett’s portraits connect her viewers to her subjects. Visit her website to see more of her work.
I’m an American artist living in Toulouse, France. My interest in portraiture began well before I pursued my MFA in painting. It has turned out to be a lifelong love affair and a theme I continually return to, no matter what else I’m working on.
During graduate school, I met an Irish artist named Brian Maguire. His portraits brought visibility to individuals who were marginalized, institutionalized, or invisible. His work inspired me to create portraits of people who traditionally might not be asked to sit for a portrait due to means or position. I set off on my first series, an homage to the staff at a café at the heart of the small mountain community in which I lived.
For that project, I was captivated both by my subjects’ inner attributes and by their faces and features—which is often where it starts. I especially love profiles. They are distinctive to each person, and often we don’t recognize our own, as we so rarely see them!
In my classes, I invited my students to approach portraiture in this same spirit. I asked them to create similar projects that paid homage to someone who might not ordinarily be asked to sit for a portrait.
I discovered that I both loved and was a little bit terrified by the endeavor, of spending time with someone, experiencing their ease or discomfort with the live portrait process. With a goal of honesty and attention, I’ve found that it can be profound on both ends, both for artist and sitter.
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Often a successful portrait comes together unexpectedly; freedom with materials seems to be a critical ingredient. Once, during a figure drawing session, uninspired by our model, I turned to my right, and saw my friend Boris’ terrific profile, and drew him instead. You never know!
I love that a portrait can honor a moment, or a person; that’s where commissioned portraiture comes in. It’s an honor to work on these projects, which often become family treasures. My friend Alix wanted to commemorate her second pregnancy and was adventurous enough to pose for me. In creating custom portraits, I work with clients to discuss practical questions of size and medium, then find a pose that suits us both. It’s a wonderful challenge, with communication essential to the process.
Recently, I began a series of women artists, endeavoring to not only present just their images, but also echo each woman’s artistic style in the piece.
My work is expressive, grounded in tradition. I love the process of problem-solving on a drawing level, which is my foundation—scrutinizing the piece for accuracy and likeness. Sometimes it’s so close, but not quite there yet; maybe it resembles a sibling or family member. I set off on the hunt—can I pinpoint what’s not quite right, and find a solution?
It’s a privilege to study my fellow human beings in such an intimate way. I love being part of this long and evolving practice.
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