PORTRAITS OF FRIENDSHIP: Oil on Canvas
These past few years, my work has been fueled by two passions that tugged me between them. The first is that I want to be a painter of great skill. And the greatest skill takes years of continuous training and practice, which I still need. The second is that I want to paint life. I want my works to be so real they almost breathe, and so fluid they seem caught in motion. So when I focus on the ongoing problem of increasing my skill, I often have technical realizations that allow me to see the world as if I have never seen it before. After a few days of being stunned by the overwhelming beauty of everything, I am desperate to capture what I see in paint. Which leads me right back where I started, because inevitably there is something wonderful about the physical world that I don’t yet have the skill to reproduce.
This cycle is what led me to produce my most recent body of work. In these past few months, I painted a series of three portraits: a self-portrait accompanied by portraits of two of my close friends. These paintings are very personal, because they commemorate two important relationships from this phase of my life. And what better way to capture life than to capture my current friendships? I got to honor my friends and express everything that made me care about them while at the same time honing my skills in one of the most exacting and traditional forms of art out there. I love portraits, because I love faces. The human face is unique in its ability to reveal so much while concealing almost everything concrete.
Portraits are very much collaborations between the painter and the sitter, and with these pieces much of the structural decisions were spontaneous. I painted the clothes they happened to be wearing, because people’s daily presentations reveals so much about them. I painted their hair as they wore it. In the painting of my friend Myya, this meant I had to change her hairstyle halfway through the piece. Myya has an eclectic sense of fashion and is always changing her hair. In this case, she left for spring break with caramel extensions and came back with her hair natural. So I altered the painting to match.
I try to strike a balance between the structured and the spontaneous with my work. I am very aware of structure and think it’s hands down the most important element of art—more than idea, more than technique. This is because structure provides a body to house the soul or spirit of the piece. But structure that is too composed often houses dead art, I feel. So I have been training my eye to pick out patterns and shapes from real life that are strong enough to support a piece, so when the time comes to plan a composition for a painting I can trust my instinct and not overthink it. With these pieces I put my friends through a variety of poses until I found ones I liked. When people sit for the first time they are often shy, and this makes their poses stiff and unnatural, something I try to avoid. Once I have the right pose I let my friends talk to me while I work, even if this means they move around a bit, because I want them to be alive in my paintings.
These pieces are studies of reality as much as they are my way of capturing people I care about so that I will always have record of who they are at this moment. For this same reason I am drawn to self-portraiture—you never fully see your immediate self, at least not as clearly as you can see the person you were a year or more ago. Self-portraiture is my attempt to preserve that immediate self. Change is constant, but the present is beautiful and is worth honoring. As I continue to grow and study, I hope I will be able to render life’s beauties and complexities in paint.
- Self-Portrait in Profile, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 20, 2014.
- Myya, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 20, 2014.
- Elisa, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 20, 2014.
- Elisa and Liv, Oil on Canvas, 16 x 20, 2014.
- Helen, Oil on Canvas, 11 x 15, 2013.
- Self-Portrait, Oil on Canvas, 8 x 11, 2013.
Ilana Ellis has just graduated Williams College, where she received her degree in studio art. She is excited to attend the Florence Academy of Art in Italy next fall, to begin academic training as a professional realist painter. Ilana Ellis was recently the recipient of the Frederick M. Peyser Prize in Painting.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #6.