There is a delightful new show on Art Hound’s sister site, Buy Some Damn Art, by Montreal-based artist Isabella Di Sclafani. The artist treads a gray area in terms of style in this series which is based on historical portraits found in museum collections. These paintings largely read as folk art with their flatness, simplicity and disproportioned features but modern elements are also present like the huge cartoony eyes and hyper-saturated colors. Whatever style they might be defined as, these portraits, and historical portraits in general, are wonderful to view and analyze.
Ann (Nancy) Johnson c.1770 (original by unknown artist)
Where did the source material for these portraits come from?
I look through art books at the library and online images from different museums. Pinterest is an excellent source as well because historical portraits are grouped by style and century. I’ve amassed a personal archive of various historical portraits…many I still haven’t used yet. Most source materials are in colour. I’ve also used many black and white images of historical portraits which forces me to invent my own colour palette. 3 out of the 6 paintings for BSDA were from black and white images of historical portraits.
In the end, all my historical portraits are interpretations. They’re certainly not exact copies of the original portraits. That’s never my goal when I paint a face whether it’s historical or not.
What I have realized is how much historical portraits have taught me in terms of technique such as how to paint an eye or how to shadow a nose or to paint a mouth. There’s something to be said about learning from the masters of the past.
Man in Striped Shirt (Original by unknown artist)
Do you select portraits from a certain period of time and place?
So far, I’d have to say that the early 1800s seems to attract me. When I choose to paint an historical portrait, I’m always looking at the composition and facial expression of the person in question. Who that person was and what they did really isn’t what I’m interested in. If something doesn’t catch my eye when I look at an historical portrait, I keep searching until I find the right combination that speaks to me.
Sir George Prevost c.1810 (Original by Robert Field)
Tell us about your style of painting.
I’ve been trying to figure that out for some time now. Can’t quite say that my work falls into any particular style. It seems to be a hybrid between expressionism, naive art, illustration, and folk art.
Do you have a formal art background?
Yes, I received my BFA (Drawing and Painting) from Concordia University in Montreal in 1989.
Elizabeth Campbell Marchesa Di Spineto c.1812 (Original by Sir Henry Raeburn)
Colonel Christian Daniel Claus c.1770 (Original by unknown artist)
What will you be working on in the coming months?
I’ll continue to work on both paintings and sculptures for the upcoming spring and summer season. I’ve begun a new series of work centred around portraits of my 2 children. I’m trying to figure out how to incorporate 2 people in one painting while still keeping the intensity of each person’s portrait intact and separate from each other without getting lost in the composition of the entire painting. At the same time, I can’t ignore the fact that these 2 people are my children. I’ve made portraits of both of my kids sporadically over the years since they were young. I think this new series will be more an exploration to see how far I can push the boundaries of the familiar and go beyond what I know and see.