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.)


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.


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).


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!


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.








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.


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.


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)!


*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.


22 responses to “You paint me, I’ll paint you

    • Thanks very much, Jeff! It was great to pose and paint in the same session; it gave me a sense of what was reasonable to expect from someone who isn’t a professional model.

  1. you’re right – her hair is AWESOME. And I love the fully finished work she gave you. The background is amazing and fits so well with you. 🙂

    Such a wonderful thing you both have found. 😀

    • Hehehe. That’s what I think every time I see Masha’s hair! I so love the portrait of me — it looks even better in person and even more like me. 🙂

    • Me too 🙂 I’m not normally into butterflies but I adore what she did with a butterfly motif (my glasses have a kind of butterfly shape to them). And you’re right, it was tons of fun!

      • I can’t draw but I would love to be drawn some day. Would be interesting to see how I’m seen through someone else’s eyes/mind.

        P.S. I just saw an excellent exhibition featuring Lucian Freud in Vienna. His paintings, especially the portraits, are amazing!

  2. You both did beautiful work! (Isn’t it hard to focus when you are surrounded by the activity of a cafe?) I do love the color she used around you — it’s like she painted your colorful and expressive personality!

    • Thank you so much, Sherry! I love the colors too. They are perfect, and it’s funny because they are not colors I use a lot in my own paintings, but they look just right. Strangely enough, it was not hard to focus in the café (at least I didn’t find it so). Some cafés have a very distracting energy and some are very conducive to work, and this was one of the latter. I attribute it to its proximity to two universities, and yet on a side street so you wouldn’t go there unless you knew it was there. I think people settle in there to really talk to friends, or else to really get some work done!

    • It was so much fun! I suspect it’s very much like finding a good date… there needs to be a personality compatibility and also a creative compatibility, and I think we have that, so it was wonderful. 🙂

  3. Not being an artist, can you tell me what you mean by ‘vertical distortion’? I’m curious. I think you both did very good jobs, and you’re right about capturing something in your portrait of Masha. Without knowing her, I got a sense from your painting of someone earthy, grounded, and with a calm spirit. May not be her at all, but that’s just what I got from looking at the painting you did. As far as the one she did of you, I’m delighted that she gave you what I see as butterfly wings, and wings that seem to come out of you rather than just being a background. It seems so appropriate for all the flights you have taken, physically and metaphorically, lately. Plus, choosing what I see as butterfly wings rather than a bird’s, gives me the sense of change coming for you. This seems like something you should do more often. Painting someone you connect with in the places you are.

    • Hi Lisa! The vertical distortion (of which I am too often guilty) refers to the elongation of my drawing due to it lying flat on a desk or table, rather than standing up in front of me on an easel. There is something about one end of the lying-down paper being farther away from me than the closer end, that makes it much too easy to draw a distorted image. But unfortunately easels are not always practical for watercolor.

      I like your impressions of Masha from my painting. 🙂 Honestly, since we’ve been friends such a short time, I don’t know that I can say I know her deeply either — but she said that both she and her mom think my portrait looks like her. And that’s one of the magical things about painting someone. 🙂

      I love your interpretation of the butterfly wings too! I am not usually a butterfly person (just because there was a phase in the early 2000s when all the girls seemed to be gaga over glittery, pastel-colored butterfly decorations, and I hated it) but you’re right, Masha’s incorporation of the butterfly motif into my portrait is very fitting, and it does indeed feel like me.

      I suspect finding someone with whom to do a portrait exchange is a bit like dating — there’s a lot of compatibility involved, personally and creatively. I would love to do it again, but I’m not sure such things can be found just because we want them. 🙂

      • Thanks for explaining the vertical issue to me. It’s something I would never have thought of. With an easel you’re painting, upright, a representation of something that’s upright. Do you think you’d have the same problem if the paper was lying on the surface before you, and your image was also lying on a surface? Seems like something lying down would also look elongated. You’re making me look at things differently, and it’s interesting.

        • I do think I’d have the same problem — it has to do with the difference between the angle of seeing and the angle of representation. I’m glad I’m poking new places in your brain. 😉

  4. Pingback: Inward focus: Notes from an at-home retreat |·

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