Portrait of a scooterist

I’ve been loving doing portraits with the clients at Manifesta, my hair salon in Old Oakland. Yesterday’s was a particular treat, as my subject was not only rocking a sharp new hairdo (courtesy of KC, who cuts my hair too), she’s also a friend and inspiration. I met Stephanie in 2013 in Boston, when Erik and I were winding down two years of travels, and she was planning a solo cross-country tour on her Vespa. We spent a memorable afternoon-turned-evening talking about traveling, drawing, food, and boots. Not long after we settled in Oakland, Steph started her journey. Four months and 3000+ miles later, she decided to spend winter in the Bay Area, so we’ve been happily seeing a lot of each other (and she’s cat– and apartment-sat for us twice). But she’s about to head out again, and I was delighted to get the chance to paint her portrait before she went.

Alas, I forgot to bring my good camera to the session, so all you get is (outdated-model) cellphone pics.

The initial pencil sketch took 15 minutes. I am not a very precise draw-er; I dislike measuring for proportion and angle, preferring to eyeball instead. This usually works well enough for my purposes, since I’m aiming for an evocation rather than a precise representation. But my first attempt didn’t look like Steph, and my eye wasn’t good enough to figure out why. So I had to step back (literally; taking a step or two back helps us see the big picture rather than details), then measure, then erase and try again.

Portrait of Stephanie (first process photo), by Lisa Hsia

First paint: the lightest layer of skin tone (which came out a bit orange in this photo), then her jacket — because it’s the only area of the painting that doesn’t touch the skin area. If you put two wet areas of watercolor next to each other, they’ll bleed. When I do my pencil sketch I set a timer so I won’t go too long for the sitter’s comfort, but after that, I don’t need the timer; the moisture in the watercolors provides its own restrictions.

Portrait of Stephanie (process photo), by Lisa Hsia

Some skintone shadows, lightest tone of hair, detail on piercings, part of her hoodie, shadows and detail on jacket. Her battered leather jacket would make an amazing still life, but I didn’t have that kind of time. At first I was only going to render it in a single color, but after painting a quick approximation of its folds, I realized I’d have to add more detail — otherwise its color and bulk would suggest a graduation gown! So I added the contrast piping (which is actually on the jacket, though not in that precise color).

Portrait of Stephanie (process photo), by Lisa Hsia

We were joking about the painting looking evil at this point, due to snowy hair and blank eyes.

Portrait of Stephanie (process photo), by Lisa Hsia

KC is great with color, but she didn’t actually do Steph’s red streak; Steph did it herself. I took some care mixing the color and I think it’s a good approximation: very bright, a little toward magenta, but with a hint of something darker.

Portrait of Stephanie (process photo), by Lisa Hsia

For the background, I was going to do a couple of red stripes, but KC overheard my musing aloud and jumped in to suggest the blue of Steph’s Vespa. Steph and I considered various shapes and positionings, and decided on two flanking shapes vaguely reminiscent of the scoot’s contours. I also got Steph’s input while mixing the color — I could see the scooter clearly from the window, but it was getting dark outside! It was a collaborative effort and the blue is a million times better than red would have been.

Here’s Steph holding up her portrait. This wall serves as the actual backdrop when I’m painting portraits at the salon.

Portrait of Stephanie (and her hand!), by Lisa Hsia

I’m pleased. I messed up somewhere in the top-of-head proportions but this looks like her, and what’s more, it captures a particular quality of tightly focused energy that I sense in Steph. It’s funny; after we hung the portrait on the wall with the others, I stood back and compared them and this composition is noticeably more compact than the others. It’s the same size paper, and there’s not much you can do to change the essential pose of a head-and-collarbone portrait, and yet — there’s a compactness here, and Steph is a compact person, so it’s appropriate. And yet she actually moved around, while sitting, far more than anyone else I’ve painted.

I honestly love doing portraits; I think this is the closest thing I do to magic. And given how much I love my pies, that’s saying something.