According to the contemporary philosopher Giorgio Agamben, the truth of the face isn't what it looks like but rather the simultaneous manifestation of all of the face's possible appearances. This is a beautiful idea, and I'm reminded of it when I ask Darrow which mood of mine he's going to capture in his painting. I ask him this because I imagine that all of my thoughts and feelings are going to be passing through my face in some way as I sit there, day after day, posing for him. "I guess what I'll paint will end up being an average of all of your moods," Darrow says.
And it occurs to me that this is the reason why painting from life is more truthful, if not also more realistic, than painting from a photograph. (And perhaps this is why owning a painting of myself might be better than having dozens and dozens of snapshots.) The painting will be an interpretation by a human being, yes, but instead of a momentary rendering of a single mood, it will be the living average of many moods. Painting, in general, which happens over time, may be more truthful than photography, which extrapolates its truth from an instant. In painting, the whole gradual process is still visible even in the final result.
On the first day of painting, bright and early, Darrow shows up at my house with enough equipment to paint a chapel ceiling. Watching him set up is like seeing an army prepare to storm a fortified beach.
Lights, paints, an easel, rags, cameras, tripods, wires, even a microphone. "I'm going to film this," he says, sounding as though he's seizing an opportunity. "Since you're going to have me talking about my process, I figure I might want to use this session for an instructional video."
Darrow has even set things up in such a way -- with his video camera on a tripod -- that I can watch him drawing and painting me on my own television set. The act of watching myself being rendered falls somewhere between fascinating and distracting. Throughout the next few days, I try not to turn my head too much to watch Darrow's progress.
He's decided to start off with a quick "color-sketch," as he calls it. "I'm going to give myself 20 minutes," Darrow tells me, after his setup is complete. "A quick little study on a gessoed plywood panel. It's just so I can loosen up a little bit and feel like an artist. It's another place to go mentally. And it'll get me thinking abstractly about the shapes I'm seeing. It's not so much about capturing who you are or anything like that. It's just going to be real fast and furious, and ugly. But don't take that remark personally. I'm making comparisons and measurements, and later when I'm painting you for real I'll be able to use what I learn now. This is about going over the territory once, for future benefit."
Good, in theory. But I keep distracting him, so Darrow lets the timer run, and the sketch lasts for more like an hour. "You've got to stop moving your mouth," he tells me, more than once. Finally he jokes, "I bet you hear that a lot."
And so I do...
But I have tons of questions to ask, and instead of filing them away, I keep on asking them.
Who are Darrow's clients? Who pays upwards of $1000 to have their portraits painted nowadays?
"I don't even want to speculate on that," Darrow begins. "I mean, who are you? That's a whole funny thing by itself. I never ask why people want portraits. But I can tell you that I've never had a woman approach me about a portrait of herself. I think portraits of women are bought by husbands or commissioned by boards of directors to immortalize them and say that they're important and should be remembered."
I mention how I've seen advertisements littering the Internet saying that I could have my portrait painted for as little as $100. So why would I want a $1000 portrait? Or a $15,000 portrait, for that matter?
"Well," Darrow says, painting away. "You could have a nice copy of a photograph made in paint, but I wouldn't want one. There's generally no quality there."
I notice that Darrow has put on glasses to paint.
"Ten years ago," he says, "when I turned 40, I gradually began to realize that I needed glasses. So I had special bifocals made so that I can look up and over at my subject and see well and then look back down at my canvas and see well as well. The lower part -- the reading part -- is set to a focal distance that equals my extended arm plus the length of a brush handle. Regular reading distance is too close." Then he reflects, "It sucks to need glasses, especially because I use my eyes for my livelihood. But at least I got to design my bifocals the way I needed them."
And what about that hat? Why is Darrow wearing a hat to paint?
"It's because I look dashing," he says, diverting into a characteristic joke. "The chicks dig it." And then he turns more serious. "Actually, I need to keep the glare of the overhead lights out of my eyes. I want light on my subject but not in my face."
Later on, Darrow mentions his jeans and his shirt. "I wear a black shirt when I paint because the paint's reflective, and I can't get the values right if there's light reflecting back at me." And "Every once in a while, by accident, I make myself a new pair of 'painting pants.' And these are my painting pants now because I accidentally got paint on them one time and I couldn't get it out, so they've just become that pair of pants I put on for painting because now I don't care what happens to them."