Jonalyn's Watercolor Blog

How Do Artists Do That?

“How do artists do that?”  They transform a blank sheet of paper into a scene that stops you in your tracks. They create a portrait that isn’t just the photographic replica of the person, but captures their soul.  These alchemists with paint, how do they do it?  I believe it’s more than technical skill. It begins with the soul of the person.

Art with Soul

If you’ve read my first book, Ruby Slippers, you know how valuable, unique and powerful our soul is. Our souls animate our bodies and reveal who we are, uniquely men or women. But more on that in Ruby Slippers. When I paint, I’m looking to capture this life of a person, not just in their eyes but in every feature of their appearance. Therefore, when a colleague recently contacted me to paint her three children, I wanted to see her children in several angles. Seeing a person move, watching them relate to their world, their soul shines out with its unique melody. This is more than precise copying. Too many portraits capture the bare features without any soul.

I have a perfect example. The poet and novelist, Robert Louis Stevenson, married Fanny, an amateur artist. She simply adored him and tried to draw her husband. While skilled, Fanny was unable to capture his soul, as you’ll see. Compare Fanny’s pencil drawing to the photograph of Stevenson below. Then, take a look at John Singer Sargent’s painting, in which he paints Stevenson in motion.

Sargent captures the tiger-stalking intensity in this man, his lankiness suddenly propelled into pacing as he strides across the room. Sargent helps us glimpse Stevenson’s soulful eyes and nervous, almost twitchy genius. The picture shows this anxious intelligence, but even pictures don’t capture what Sargent has painted. Look at all three and you’ll see precisely what I mean.

Robert Louis Stevenson, pencil sketch by Fanny Stevenson (his wife).
Robert Louis Stevenson photograph
John Singer Sargent’s portrait of Robert Louis Stevenson and Fanny, 1885.

What’s their Secret?

When artists paint they are showing you what they see; they should not be copying a style or technique, or even just replicating nature. A great artist will arrange something carefully so you can glimpse their own vision. I have no doubt Sargent knew Stevenson and had the ability to convey that knowledge to us.

“The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy and religion, all in one.”

John Ruskin, 19th century artist, poet, Christian philosopher.

How does an artist capture the soul of a person? They must be moved by what they paint. This is why so many commissioned paintings (even by brilliant artists) end up falling flat. Unsurprisingly, the painting looks route or forced. But if you find an artist who cares enough about knowing the subject, even commissioned art can become a masterpiece.

When I finish painting a person, I know so much about this person, from the way they hold their mouth, the shy glance they give to the camera, the particular depth of their skin tones.  When I’m finished painting, I feel like I’ve met them. As I envision them in life, moving in the world, this study blossoms into a final painting. Here’s an example of this process in a young boy I’m painting for a commission this month. (Learn more on commissioning).

Portrait of Fleet, age 11, still in process, shared with permission by his parents.

Gallery News

I’m delighted to share that my “Saving Lives” show through the COVID years was asked to stay another month at the Foundation Art Space in Downtown Exeter. You can still see my art show through the end of August. If you had your eye on a painting and would still like to see it, I’m available for appointments until August 31.

After August, my paintings will move back to my online shop until my next show. Currently, I am working with the Exeter Hospital, the Exeter Public Library and a community center in the Rocky Mountains to host “Saving Lives”.  Should you want to bring “Saving Lives” to your community, I will be taking bookings for the next few months. Then, my Saving Lives exhibition will break apart as I ship these paintings to their new homes across the country.

New Paintings

So many new pieces to share and, as always, you get to see these first. Can you see the vision I saw?

Sunset on Kimball Island and Kimball Island Glow are two views of a carefully preserved colonial home built on the island reached by String Bridge. Our home faces this island. For the last two years, I’ve watched the way the sun made those ancient yellow boards glow. These paintings are an homage to the way the right light can make the oldest face beautiful.

In about a week these pieces will go into my shops and galleries. See one you like? Send me an email before the week is up, and I’ll work with you for framing and delivery.

Kimball Island Glow“, Exeter, NH, 20.5 x 16.5”, $900 unframed, framing available.
“Exeter Bandstand on the Fourth”, 3″ x 4″ mini landscape, $49 unframed, $79 framed
Kimball Island at Sunset“, Exeter, NH, 11″ x 15”, framed in black with a cream mat board, $650
“Rodeo at Sunset”, Steamboat Springs, CO, 3″ x 4″, $49 unframed, $79 framed






2 Responses

    1. Thank you for sharing your love for this blog and my paintings! Oh yes, indeed. I’ve already been thinking about recording my painting adventures on the boat. Maybe a YouTube channel “Watch Jonalyn Paint” and hopefully not get seasick. 🙂

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