Rethinking Light in Portraiture: Portrait #2 of Kellie Snider’s 100 Faces Portrait Project

Picture of woman in blue digital light, tabby cat wrapped around her shoulders
Picture of woman in blue digital light, tabby cat wrapped around her shoulders

2 of 100 Faces

Amber Sisson-Manuel

Blue Light

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The Model

Amber Manuel is my niece, my brother’s daughter. She is a banker in Hammond, Louisiana, married to Jon Manuel, and a serious cat lover.

The Project

I didn’t set a lot of parameters when I started this project. My only unassailable rule was that I would paint 100 Faces. I toyed with the idea of setting a time frame in which to paint them, but I hoped that I would be so busy with commissions that I would constantly be behind, so I didn’t do that. It worked out anyway since I haven’t had enough commissions during 2023 to interfere with this project. I really need more commissions, so I’m hoping that this project will lead to money-making ventures.

One of the challenges that occurred naturally with the project was that I would be working from photographs taken by people who really didn’t have the creation of a painting in mind when taking the picture. Most of them have no idea what would make a good photo for that purpose. To complicate things further, even among artists, the preferred lighting and other parameters will vary based on their experience and preferences. Plus until quite recently, phone photos were always pretty grainy and blah, so photos that weren’t taken with the latest devices weren’t great to work with.

Amber sent me this photo of herself with her cat draped around her shoulders as I began the project. I spent some time thinking about whether I could use it because of the blue light from the devices she was lit by. Historically, lighting was carefully planned by the placement of a model in light, perhaps from a window, or filtered through trees, or professionally staged lights in a studio. The challenges of these well-planned natural lighting situations include the fact that the light outdoors constantly changes. Even on a clear day, the sun will briefly be behind a cloud, and the sun constantly moves slowly across the sky, changing the angle of shadows and highlights on the model.

Working with photos brings up different issues, like the blue light. Lots of us spend a lot of time with blue lights these days. If you happen to peek in a neighbor’s window as you take a late-night walk or drive, you can tell if the TV is on, even if you can’t see the TV, because of the color of the light in the room. Interior light is often blue in our era because of computers, TVs and cell phones.

A lot of artists still like to paint in the style of old-school artists, with the same kind of traditional lighting. Many of them also paint the same subject matter. A woman posed stiffly with a cat in her lap, her face frozen in boredom after many hours of sitting for the artist. Or they have the model pose stiffly for a photograph that will be used to paint from. I find those paintings redundant and boring. Now, to be clear, I am not saying that these paintings don’t have a place in the world. They do. As long as artists paint them and collectors buy them they have a place. But they’re not interesting to me. And I’m the main person that matters when I am planning a painting.

To me, the most interesting paintings are the paintings that paint our contemporary lives in some way. One thing that I liked about the photo this painting was created from is that it is very much a moment in our contemporary lives. We sit at screens in the evenings, so our faces are often lit in blue. Many of us are recuperating from a long day at work, so we lounge rather than pose stiffly upright. And of course, those of us who are animal lovers have missed our pets all day and want to snuggle with them while we unwind.

That’s what this painting is about. It’s about a banking executive relaxing with devices of personal-entertainment at the end of the day with her cat happily snoozing around her neck. This is a snapshot of modern life.