Friday, December 18, 2009

Frances O’Farrell and the Dream Painter

Frances helped me create the luminescent flowers, the iridescent head feathers, and the wonderfully out-of-focus background foliage of the "Sunbird."

In a time long forgotten, in a land called Sherman Oaks, a radiant, exuberant, beautiful, wise, and always upbeat actress and portrait artist gave oil painting lessons. Frances O'Farrell held weekly evening classes in her studio on Ventura Boulevard. In that studio a novice could produce, after a mere four or five sessions, a painting that could be proudly hung in their home.

Frances kept things simple. She provided new students with a one page handout listing all the required art supplies and paints. Included in the handout was a small graphic labeled with the palette location for each paint color. With supplies in tow, and breathing air perfumed with linseed oil, students set out on their creative explorations.

Because her classes were small, Frances provided ample instruction. She stealthily watched over each student and if your painting went amiss in a flash she was there, at your side, redirecting you and encouraging you to add a “nitnoy” of red or blue or purple. Frances never critiqued, she never criticized, she never compared, she never demeaned, she simply suggested, she simply guided.

With this straightforward supportive approach, I tried my hand at depicting a person's visage through the traditional techniques of grisaille and glaze. I learned to begin a portrait by troweling a tinted ground on canvas and smoothing the fabric’s texture. I learned to underpaint a portrait in values of gray, and then slowly build upon that underpainting with glazes of delicately tinted Copal medium. Layer atop dried layer, the glazes fused into glowing flesh tones. I learned that one should, when creating a portrait of a woman, flatter her by painting her eyes just a little larger than life.

Painting a realistic portrait did challenge my color deficiencies. I was unable to readily discern the delicate pastel pinks and greens that created my subject’s subtle flesh tones. To help me, Frances formulated a series of color dabs. It is true I have not attempted traditional portrait painting in a very long time, but I still keep those formula notes and dabs of color within easy reach.

Yellowstone Falls
I attended Frances’ class once a week for about year. During that time close friends asked me to paint a picture of Yellowstone Falls from a photo in their souvenir booklet. Frances, of course, provided guidance as I launched into capturing the dynamics of cascading and crashing water. My friends, Don and Ingrid, promptly framed and prominently hung the finished painting. The painting still hangs in their dining room, but that’s not the story’s end.

Of their two daughters, Teri became a culinary artist and Traci became an artist of murals. Traci became “the dream painter.” After graduating the Art Center College of Design, Traci went on to establish a successful business painting happy murals on a wide range of interior walls. Her wall art has included magical fairy tales painted fancifully in children's bedrooms.

Through the years, Traci repeatedly related to me, that as a young girl, she would sit enthralled in front of the waterfall painting, exploring the scenery and looking for the little people walking up the distant path - somewhat like a fairy tale. She recently emailed me these kind words, “I know you find it hard to believe, but seriously…you were the only artist that I knew growing up and you were much of the reason that I decided to follow my passion for art. It is cool to see what you do with your talents!”

The waterfall painting would not have happened without Frances and, albeit indirectly, Frances helped guide the vision, passion, and career of a young girl she had never met.

Still Painting
During the period of time I took lessons from Frances, she was commissioned to paint a portrait of President Gerald Ford’s wife, Betty. The portrait of Betty Ford, leaning against a White House railing, appeared in the Walter Foster publication, “How Frances O’Farrell Paints Portraits.”

I had the pleasure of recently speaking with Frances. She still paints and shares her skills with others. And Traci, well she can be contacted at her website, “the dream painter.”