Sunday, August 23, 2015

Jazz Legend: Lionel Hampton... or How I learned to paint teeth

"Jazz Legends | Lionel Hampton" 16x20" Acrylic on Canvas. Giclée prints available.
I always notice people's teeth. I think it's because mine are on the large side... seriously, when I smile they take up half my face. You can't help but notice, and if I'd have to guess, I'd say that's why I always notice other people's. I envy those with nice, even, white chicklets... My horse sized chompers are functional and strong, but not an insignificant feature. I also had an accident as a teenager that did a bit of damage to my mouth... broken teeth and a cracked jaw and a fair bit of time spent in the dentist's chair as a result. Things like that change the way you look at things... what you notice.

I've been painting, off and on, for a long time. I love painting people, but I have always avoided painting teeth. I think every artist has something they avoid... I know a few who avoid hands like the plague. While I have no problem with hands (one day I'll do a tutorial to show my technique), I have always managed to make the teeth look like they somehow don't belong in the mouth they've been assigned to. When I started the Jazz Legends portrait project my first thought was how on earth was I going to be able to do it making sure everyone had their mouths closed. I managed with the first few... then I got to Count Basie. I can't paint him not smiling... it wouldn't show his personality. Ok, so I gave him a slight smile. It worked out ok. Next came Cab Calloway. OMG, there's no way I can paint him with a closed mouth... his teeth take up most of his face and he's smiling in every picture. I have to just bite the bullet and go for it. Took a bit of fussing, but in the end, they looked ok. Charlie Christian? No detail in the photo, so no detail in the painting. Problem solved. Billie too... on that angle, didn't seem like much of an issue.

A young Lionel. Even in a suit he looks like he's
about 12....
Next up.... Lionel Hampton. The gap between his front teeth is a defining characteristic. It makes him seem to look young, even in his advanced years. The guy was a serious cutie.... and the disarming smile was a big part of that. But even 4 successful sets of teeth later, I was still a little hesitant. Turns out I had no reason to be concerned. It was easy... and I got it on the first try. When I was in art school and was having trouble with representing something complicated, my instructors would always tell me to just "treat it like everything else". Turns out, that really is the key. I like to paint light on dark, so that's how I approached it. A dab of white paint on a brush the right size and voila! Teeth! And they actually look like they belong in there.

Silly that it took me so long to figure that out. Sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not avoid it... but just tackle it head on. Just treat it like everything else.