A former boss and mentor once said that my desire for perfection stood in the way of actually getting things done. His words stung. The truth didn’t hurt as much as the fact that it came from someone I highly respected. Well, he was right, and now many years later, I thank him for that observation.
I never forgot it. Those words encouraged me to let go of House Key and set it free – for better or for worse – regardless of its myriad imperfections, some of which I spotted as soon as the book came off the press; for right there – on the first random page I turned to – a glaring typo laughed in my face! Aarggh!
Left to my own devices, I would probably rewrite the story over and over until it was perfect, but then again, it would never get done. So, warts and all, it’s in the world doing its job: getting readers to think about love and life, the places we live and the history and people that came before us in a new and different light. But it was hard to let go.
It’s no different with my artwork. I am loath to turn in completed commissions because… what if I could have portrayed the subject better? What if there is some detail I missed, or didn’t express accurately?
Since the beginning of House Key, I knew I wanted to paint its scenes, its characters, and its setting. The writing and the art were always holding hands in my imagination, encouraging and informing one another. The characters that spoke to me – often from the moment I woke up to deep into the night– wanted me to get their stories right. I didn’t invent the characters. They simply emerged. And as I got to know them, I wanted to paint their portraits and reveal their characteristics as honestly as they had revealed them to me.
So it happened that one of my favorite models, who coincidentally (if you believe in that) is also a Civil War reenactor, was dressed in 19th century attire for one of our studio sessions. Suddenly, I thought, “Oh my! There’s Glenfinch MacRae!”
Glenfinch did not show himself immediately while I was writing House Key. In fact, we don’t have any direct contact with him throughout the story; however, his role is singularly important in the shaping of things to come. He is a patriarch and a pacifist, a pensive man devoted to protecting his family, his legacy and the future of his country through reason and diplomacy. The strength of his character lies in his quiet yet bold demeanor. Liberal yet wise, he is ahead of his time in many ways. Ironically, the 19th century Glenfinch is exactly the type of forward-thinking man we desperately need today.
Maybe that’s why his character shone through our fabulous model and inspired me to render him as genuinely as possible. So, while far from perfect but in the spirit of sharing, here’s a preparatory study I just completed in red pencil for a portrait in oil. If you haven’t read House Key yet, I hope you will and maybe you will see what I mean.