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Observation point

by Sally Robinson, 19 December 2017

The Artist's Mother, 2012 by Sally Robinson
The Artist's Mother, 2012 by Sally Robinson

Every face is different and every face is fascinating, but I find an elderly one particularly intriguing.

Over many years the expression most worn affects our facial muscles and becomes etched into the skin, giving an easy clue to character.

The portrait illustrated here was the first in a series I painted of women at different ages throughout life. It depicts my mother at 89. This landscape of her face conveys her strength, stoicism and defiance, as well as her vulnerability and frail humanity as age and illness took their toll.

When Mum was diagnosed with ovarian cancer she was determined not to let it cramp her style. She was otherwise in good health, and low dose chemotherapy slowed down the cancer’s progress, giving her a few more years and a reasonable quality of life. Chemo robbed my mother of her beautiful hair, yet, despite this, she agreed to me painting her portrait.

During my earlier career as an artist I produced screen prints of the life and landscapes of Australia and Antarctica. The need for a creative challenge led me to start painting portraits. However, I had really enjoyed the process of using stencils in screen-printing to produce layers of mechanical textures, which became a feature of my work. So I adapted that technique to stencil paint on canvas.

In this portrait, I laid out the mountains and valleys of Mum’s facial structures on a mapping grid. Over broad areas of flat colour, I painted stencilled dashes and lines to build up the detail and tonal modelling. These patches flicker across the painting’s surface to create a synthetic reality.

This image is both personal and general. The colours are pastel, but not sugary. The outer edges of the image are deliberately blurred, and Mum’s bald crown is understated because this was not Mum – she felt no ownership of her cancer. She was always positive and loved life, so the portrait reflects her determination, good humour and bravery. At the same time, it is also a more general comment on ageing and illness, and their physical and emotional effects.

Mum lived long enough to see the portrait completed – and she liked it, though she suggested I might have overstated her wrinkles! She would have been so chuffed to know that a few months after her death it won the Portia Geach Memorial Award. 

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