You paint me, I’ll paint you

During my recent Anatomy for Artists course*, I started to get to know one of my classmates, Masha. We share a love for art, food, and cats (among other subjects), and I admired her outfits every week. The week after the course ended, we were having tea together in a café in Cambridge, talking about everything from vodka to the afterlife, and it transpired that we both had some interest (but no experience) in posing for artists. After I got home I realized I would love to draw her, so I sent her an email, and it turned out she’d been thinking the same thing. So we set up another date, this time for drawing as well as tea.

We met at Andala, a charming and spacious place with friendly staff and good lighting, and sat for awhile chatting and sipping fresh mint tea, before setting up our supplies. All my daily painting had emboldened me to bring my paints, and Masha had brought clayboard, gouache, and markers. Masha sat for me first, gamely posing for half an hour. I was pleased with my progress at the end of that time, but dismayed to hold up the picture and realize I hadn’t remembered to check for vertical distortion. (This is why it’s preferable to work on an easel rather than on a flat table.)

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I then sat for Masha for about twenty-five minutes. I would have sat longer, but I had my head propped on my hand, and my hand complained about it. I didn’t mind just the sitting still part, though — I was able to do some brainstorming on a writing project!

After that we took a break from posing, and just worked on our pictures. I sketched in Masha’s clothes (messing up the neckline — careless of me) and added a red background. I chose red because Masha often wears red, and I thought it would go with her lipstick and the black clothes, but after I put in the wash I was no longer sure red was such a good choice.

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Later I deepened and brightened the red, and also made the black darker and more opaque (I’d originally been going for some kind of dry brush technique but since I have no technique, that was not a success).

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Eventually we went back to posing: Masha sat for me for about twenty minutes, and then I sat for her for about the same length of time. We then worked a bit more without the poses. We were having a very fine time. Masha had ordered a coffee, and I was thinking of the baklava in the pastry case, but couldn’t be bothered to pause work to order one. It was a tremendously satisfying evening — eventually we stayed at Andala for about four hours.

During all of this, people would occasionally drop by the table and comment on what we were doing. As the pictures shaped up, someone from the café (the owner?) made surprised noises, praised our work, and exclaimed, “I thought you were just fooling around!” I said, “We are!” Later, a customer came and looked over the pictures and said, “You’re badasses! You’re both badasses!” It is a secret goal of my life to be a badass, so I enjoyed that.

Here is the finished painting, hanging on my bulletin board. As my first attempt at a serious watercolor portrait of someone besides myself, I’m happy with it, but there is so much room for improvement! I adore Masha’s hair but wasn’t able to capture it at all; you can see my various efforts to render it in different styles, none successful. (It comforts me a bit that Masha finds my hair just as challenging — we have very different hair colors and textures!) I also made her expression much harsher than it is. It’s true that models’ faces do tend to settle into lines of tension after they’ve been holding the same expression for a long time, but it’s also the job of the portraitist to capture the person’s essence and not just the exact image what they see before them. My portrait has a directness of gaze that I think speaks to the real-life Masha, but it lacks her vibrant beauty. Yet another reason to be sad for leaving Boston: I won’t get to try another portrait of her, at least not anytime soon!

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And yet, you know… there really is something of Masha in this portrait — something so very much Masha that for all the week that I had the portrait hanging in the apartment, I felt that she was there with me. There is something uncanny about that. I would sit on the sofa looking at all my paintings, and I would look at the carrots and the sweaters and they would just be carrots and sweaters, but then I would look at her portrait and feel a little piece of Masha-spirit looking back at me, like a friendly greeting.

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On my penultimate night in Boston, we invited friends over for dinner (I made chowder and brownies), and Masha and I exchanged paintings. Masha had continued to work on her portrait of me, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I saw it, but I love it so much. It looks exactly like me — not the way a photo does, but the way a good drawing does, capturing essence.

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by Masha Shugrina

When we left Boston yesterday, I packed the portrait into my backpack (so it would not be separated from me), and before bed I propped it up on a side table, where it sits quite happily. A little bit of our Boston friendship and creativity to keep me company for the next week in Texas.

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Make sure to check out Masha’s website too — you’ll see more of her gorgeous artwork, and she also has a recipe site with her mom (which I look forward to exploring with my own family when I get back home)!

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*With Mark Lefkowitz at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education. Mark is teaching another class at CCAE starting January, focusing specially on the head, neck, hands, and feet: yet another reason I’m sad to be leaving Boston! He’s ridiculously knowledgeable, a good teacher, and a caring person in general. I’d definitely recommend his classes.

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