The folds of the fabric, the lines in the lips, the soft wisps of hair resting on the face, all translate well from real life onto paper. But what about the face of an Afghan refugee girl whose eyes tell of unrest and loss? To show an element like that through a drawing, demands another medium: empathy. An artist needs to be able to empathize with their subject in order to work in this medium. It isn’t one that you learn in an art school because if you lack empathy, you’ll never achieve this depth and connection. People always tell me they feel as if my portraits are looking through them, with an eerie feeling almost as if they’re alive on paper. I want my portraits to be alive, and full of three dimensional life all while retaining the properties of two dimensional art. This however requires a sense of control, almost a distance, because after I capture my subject I must disappear.
There’s a certain tension between empathy and control, a battle between passion for my subject and the coldness needed to sever the umbilical line. I’ve found that to someone with a creative spirit even the most mundane aspects of life can be artistic. What’s more artistic than someone simply existing? A portrait captures exactly that: someone existing at a point in time. The portrait-making process is extremely subjective, but it seems to somehow capture every technical aspect of art in a tight grasp. Although this process is different every time, I find myself creating a way to encapsulate the beauty of a human being.
This undertaking begins with finding a subject, one willing to be captured and rewritten in my own artistic vision. When people are living, and existing all around you it’s easy to find inspiration. Women of other cultures inspire me the most, often with haunting eyes and compelling gazes. I find that their eyes are the most telling features; they convey a sense of time, and a wonderful story full of life and hardship.
When someone looks at one of my portraits, I like them to be able to see clearly past the guise of simplicity. Although I use fundamental principles of design like composition and elements of art such as line, color and value, I keep my subject three dimensional so that their spirit does not get lost in the technical two dimensional medium.
As I draw, I’m constantly pulling from the world around me. I observe the little things, the nuances, that differentiate one thing from the next. The girl sitting next to me turns around, the folds on her fabric shirt shift and the light changes as she moves. The light on her face reveals new textures as she shifts direction. I sit and observe people doing unremarkable tasks because that’s the best way to capture the essence of a human being. Human beings aren’t usually doing spectacular tasks, they’re usually just existing, getting by.
What portrait- making really does is open up a new lens through which to observe the world. Before I did portraiture, I never stopped to look at the sheer beauty of a human being existing at one point in time, surviving for themselves. I never really gave people the depth that they deserved. But I feel that now I allow myself to build someone’s character around them, allowing me to dimensionalize their being. This to me is the most artistic process there is. But the process has not been finalized until the artist can disconnect from their subject, and with that, I must disappear.
– Kayla Underkoffler
Kayla Underkoffler is a 17 year old senior here at Canton High School. She has been drawing and painting since she was a young girl, and plans to
continue this passion through college by minoring in fine arts. Her career aspirations are to become a surgeon, which requires good motor controls that she exercises by painting. Kayla also enjoys cats, The Beatles, space documentaries, and her pancake eating record is an impressive 17 in a single sitting. The essay she has published in The Arrow is the one she submitted with the common application to the colleges she applied to.