More than a likeness
Nov 21, 2019 11:23AM
By J. Chambless
Linda Harris Reynolds in her Centreville studio. (Photo by John Chambless)
“I just love doing portraits of people,” Linda Harris Reynolds said, sitting in the Centreville studio where she has worked for 30 years. “I’m always questing after personality. I want something that actually says something as a painting, in addition to being a representation of a person.”
Growing up in Wilmington and drawing since the age of 3, Reynolds said, “It was always my thing. I’ve always had a hand in some kind of art. In high school, I was experimenting more with theater and singing and dance, but in the end, I went back to painting, because I didn’t have to rely on anybody else to do it.”
She planned to be an illustrator, and attended what is now the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, “But I wasn’t really sure I wanted to be an illustrator. I wanted to pursue painting. Which was even crazier, because realist painting was really not in vogue at all at the time, which was the late 1970s,” she said. “I went to the Pennsylvania Academy for a year, got a scholarship, and then decided I had to get out of Philadelphia. So I worked in advertising for about 10 years in New York City. When I got married, my husband wanted to move back to Delaware. I said OK, but if I did come back, I wanted to start my portrait studio. I’ve been here 30 years.”
Self-taught until she went to art school, Reynolds had an inauspicious start in her first summer after college. “I needed a job desperately at the beach in Stone Harbor, and I was the worst waitress on earth. I literally got fired after two days,” she said, laughing. “So I showed a piece of my artwork to a gift shop owner and he asked me if I did portraits. I really didn’t have any formal training doing them, but I got some supplies and just started a week later. I always had the ability to draw faces, so I just jumped in. The owner had a walk-in business, and people would come and watch me do portraits in the gift shop. People would have scheduled sittings for a half-hour or an hour.”
In her longtime studio, surrounded by “lots of stuff,” as she put it, Reynolds has rooms filled with preliminary sketches and drawings, and the walls of the studio are pleasantly packed with art, notes, scraps and photographs. A raised platform, a chair and lights serve as a place for models to pose while Reynolds teaches participants in her art classes.
“Since 2009, I’ve taught classes in classical oil portraiture, in which we start with black and white drawings, and then we transfer them onto a canvas and start doing an underpainting, then add color on top of that,” she said. “It’s a process-oriented class.”
But for decades, Reynolds has made her living by capturing people’s likenesses, one on one. It’s a way of working that’s centuries old. The delicate dance between the person paying for a portrait, and the artist creating it, hasn’t changed at all.
“First, patrons have to like my style,” Reynolds said. “And 90 percent of the time, there are no problems. I do try to present people in the best light.”
Reynolds has been asked to leave out some details in a portrait, a request she usually grants. “That’s why people have portraits done,” she said. “It’s not that it’s easy, but it’s still something where, as an artist, you can use your imagination and fill in the blanks a little bit for people that really aren’t particularly photogenic. There are plenty of people – and I’ll include myself in that – who really don’t love pictures of themselves. I just try to capture what I see, but in a positive light.”
Reynolds particularly enjoys working with children, and her portraits of them capture both innocence and energy. “I pose them outside a lot, with no props,” she said. “I like the sense of children being free.” She also captures families or groups, working at their homes, or working from photos she takes on site and refers to as she draws and paints.
But the kind of close observation required of artists who paint portraits is a rare commodity in today’s world. “People have no time to sit,” Reynolds said, sighing. Photographs are a frequent way of keeping a person’s likeness in front of her while she works, “but I’m never trying to do a photorealistic image anyway. I’m trying to be as accurate as I can with my subjects.”
While her technical skills are dazzling – her subjects often appear just about to breathe – it’s the indefinable spark inside each person that is the goal, Reynolds said. “Painting serves an emotional need for me, or I wouldn’t want to do it all the time. I know some artists hate doing commissioned portraits and don’t like getting input from people. But I feel that everything I do is collaborative effort. I want to be proud of the finished work, but also, the client must be happy.”
Toward that end, elements of a portrait can be changed, revisions can be made, and negotiation is always a vital part of the process. In the end, the result is a piece of art that captures a moment in time and will be passed down for generations through families. Reynolds has built long-term relationships with several families, having painted portraits of the parents, and then the children, through the years.
The acclaim for her work continues, and she will be painting Delaware First Lady Tracey Quillen Carney’s official portrait that will hang in the Governor’s Mansion. She’ll be the first female artist to have a portrait in the collection. In 2019, she received a certificate of excellence from the international Portrait Society of America in a competition of 3,000 entries from all over the world. She also recently was selected to participate in the International Figure Painting Exhibition at the historic Salmagundi Art Club in New York City.
Reynolds is always eager to share ideas with other artists, and to pass on what she’s learned. Her Centreville Art Student’s League is a continuing education group that helps regional artists hone their skills in a particular area. “Generally, people who come to me have had some art education, but don’t really have a lot of specialized training,” she said. “So they want to get better at doing portraits, or the figure.
“My philosophy on teaching, if I had one, is that art should be about sharing information with other artists,” she said. “I think of this space as a cooperative, in some ways. So often, you go into art classes and the teacher -- that you’re paying -- is not telling you much. I don’t see any other reason to teach, other than to share information. So I talk about everything. All of it goes into making art.”
For more information, and an online gallery of work, visit www.Lindaharrisreynolds.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.