Portrait of an Artist: Catherine Prescott

Legacy: Portrait of Val / Oil on canvas, 2010 / Collection of the artist
Legacy: Portrait of Val / Oil on canvas, 2010 / Collection of the artist

Q: Where are you from and where do you live now?

A: I was born in Washington, D.C., raised in Wisconsin, and am currently living in Pennsylvania.

Q: What medium(s) do you work with?

A: Oil paints are my preferred medium. I have also worked in charcoal, watercolor, pastels, pencil, and various combinations of them all.

Q: Tell us about your technique/creative process

A: Most of my work is portraits. I discovered after painting from life for many years that I much prefer working from photographs for several reasons: they give me more time; they allow for a greater variety of models; working with a model is too social for me; and accessing my own interior in order to bring it to the act of painting is best done when I am completely alone. Of course I can fulfill all of those things if I am the model, so I never use photographs for self-portraits.

The model I choose for a portrait may have been on my mind as a subject for years, but the painting doesn’t begin to exist as an image until I have an idea for the content—emotional, narrative, or otherwise. Often the person says something or tells a story or makes a gesture that I connect with and the painting starts up in my mind. Sometimes I ask a stranger to pose, but rarely.

When I photograph, I end up with perhaps 200 images, including a variety of poses, diverse lighting situations, different dress, and a lot of details. My aim is to maximize my choices for the painting. Drawing with these options is a way of beginning to compose the image, and eventually I stretch a canvas to fit the proportions of the drawing. The details come from the photographs, but the idea drives which parts I choose to put together.

Q: What is your background (education, career, etc.), and how does it contribute to your art?

A: I went to school in the 1960s, so abstraction dominated what was valued in art. My personal interest in portraits and the figure was not considered relevant except as a drawing exercise. I became a Christian when I was twenty-six and suddenly felt free of the pressure to fit into the established art world. I stopped looking at contemporary art and started making large figure paintings. A few years later, when I was beginning to exhibit, I saw the work of Alice Neel, Philip Pearlstein, Alex Katz, Jack Beal, and, most important, Fairfield Porter. I saw I was not alone in my pursuits and thought that perhaps I might be an artist after all.

Since I was trained in abstraction, my orientation is first to formal concerns like color relationships and compositional dynamics, rather than to painting technique and drawing accuracy. My goal is to paint a convincing portrait, but making it convincing and making it accurate are not the same to me. Leonardo da Vinci called portraits “vehicle[s] for expressing emotions of the mind.” I’m always negotiating with the forms to get at interiority, and I tend to trust my own distortions.

Q: How did you learn about the Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition?

A: I was teaching in Italy in 2005 when a friend e-mailed me with a link to the OBPC. I had been interested in the [British National Portrait Gallery’s] BP Portrait Competition, though I didn’t know Americans could enter it. I always thought I was born in the wrong country because we didn’t have anything like that in the U.S. Apart from my studio work, I teach portrait painting and have written and spoken on the subject of portraits as art, so I was thrilled to hear that our own National Portrait Gallery had reopened and was having a competition. I was very excited to be a finalist in that first exhibition and am most grateful to be able to participate in 2013.

Q: Tell us about the piece you submitted to the competition.

A: Legacy: Portrait of Val. For several years I wanted to paint Valerie, but I didn’t have an idea for the image. Val inherited her father’s artistic gifts and a powerful desire to make things, but her father was never able to complete a project. Both the house she grew up in and the house he started after the children moved out were perpetually unfinished. She told me that throughout her childhood a table saw took the place of a family dining table. When her father died, the family was left with what had become an albatross around his neck. The story, to me, became that of a poetic, even epic struggle between Val’s father and his house and reminded me of Captain Ahab and Moby Dick.

Val took a sculpture class a year after her dad’s death and told me that the class was a revelation; suddenly she realized what all the tools and machines in her father’s workshop could do for her as a sculptor. I pictured her there, in his workshop, a place that had always confounded her. The image in my mind had the potential for the emotional weight I was looking for. Every element that I brought into the painting had to serve that. The hardest part was the still life on the left side. It is strongly influenced by the Spanish Bodegon painters, whose figure paintings such as Velasquez’s Woman Frying Eggs of 1618 have a still life that dominates the canvas, almost subordinating the figure. I had to paint and repaint those shelves and the objects I put on them to make them support her presence rather take it over.

Q: Tell us about your larger body of work.

A: The driving force behind my portraits is the conviction that a person’s interiority can be articulated visually, and that carefully chosen particulars of the visible world can, conversely, point to or even reveal what might otherwise be thought of as invisible.

The impetus for a particular painting is very often a narrative, sometimes told by the subject but not always. Sometimes the character of the person is enough to suggest a strong visual image, with no context. Other paintings call for situating the subject, and in those cases elements such as furniture or landscape are chosen with the hope that they would serve, indeed enhance, the content. I am not trying to illustrate a story or create an anecdote.

I also have made a lot of landscapes. The landscapes were, for a long time, all from nature and were a way of practicing color, both mixing colors I had never seen before and dealing with difficult relationships of colors. More recently, landscapes have suggested to me the same kind of content I hope for in the portraits.

Newer still, is a series of still lifes that I plan to continue. They originate with objects I love or that fascinate me for the same reasons that I paint everything else. They have history that raises my consciousness. So far they have all been from life, but I think eventually photographs will help me do some flowers or other things that change too fast for me to get everything I want.

Q: What are you currently working on?

A: I am working on a commissioned portrait of a donor couple. The painting I made just before this one was also a commission, of a retiring bank CEO. Commissions are really a challenge for me because I don’t know the subjects well, and yet I want them to have a measure of interiority, what Hilton Kramer called “a face expressive of experience, a face marked by life and thought.”

Further, the painting has to have an official and somewhat flattering presence. I’m interested in the way those values relate to the history of the grand portrait painters, but it’s hard to know what to emphasize.

I love the Chapter Room in the Toledo Cathedral. It has at least four rows, one on top of the other, of portraits of the bishops that stretch around all four sides of the room. They are all head and shoulders, all wearing similar garments, and all the same size. As you walk along you can easily identify the ones by Velasquez, Goya, or El Greco that were made from life.

Most of them, however, were done post mortem and are completely anonymous and unspecific, identifiable only by the conventions of portraiture from that time, and the painterly wisdom of the particular artist who made that group. That, for them, was enough.

Q: How has your work changed over time?

A: Slow painting has brought the biggest change, along with using smaller brushes when I need them, rather than spending so much energy on facile brushwork. A character in John Updike’s The Witches of Eastwicksaid, “Precision is where passion begins.” For me, the bravura brushstroke, which I once thought was the most important aspect of painting, was distracting and distancing, and something I had to give up in order to get closer to what I really wanted to make a big deal of.

The classical realists have influenced my work in that they are not interested in originality. Jacob Collins once said to me, “Who is to say I can’t imitate?” That was truly a shock to me. I am firmly rooted in tradition by virtue of being a portrait painter, but only because portraits are a traditional subject for artists. I still thought, for a long time, that they should be painted in an original way. That idea had me backed into a corner, and I think I’m less bound by that than I was. A lot of what you have to do as an artist, over and over, is to break those rules in your head about what is and is not allowed.

Q: Who is your favorite artist?

A: When I was twenty, I went to Spain to study at the University of Madrid. The first time I went to the Prado and saw the seventeenth-century Spanish painters I decided that they were at the center of what it means to make a painting. I didn’t go back to study them as a painter until much later, but the visceral response stayed with me. It wasn’t only the art, but the entire culture of Spain that altered my vision. The expression of tragedy in pure flamenco and the drama of both the religion and the religious made the paintings true. I’ve been back to the Prado many times, where I learn over and over what I love.