SPARHAWK – Portraits

I’ve been painting portraits since the sixties. It remains an enormous challenge filled with instruction. I have never painted a portrait that didn’t turn into a master’s course on anatomy or lighting, shading, hue, and color.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

In 1972-3 (when I was incredibly young) an odd and wonderfully serendipitous series of events put the marvelous William F. Buckley, Jr. in front of me and my easel. I had been commissioned to paint the great man’s portrait (life size)  and went at it with great fervor and loaded brush.

He is sitting at his National Review desk, his Olivetti typewriter at his side, a sheaf of papers being held for inspection, a pencil drawn up by his cheek, and the contemplative look he often wore. He was entirely grace and charm. He wanted the answers to 3 questions before he decided to undergo the process which was done largely from photographs but also three remarkable sittings. Those questions were: 1. Can I read during the sittings. 2. May I bring my dog. 3. What will it cost if I like it. I qualified on all three counts.

Chris Borgen was one of New York’s finest reporters and a good friend of mine. I had the great fortune to be writing news at CBS when he was there and learned an enormity from him. His words were a cross between Lord Byron and Mark Twain. The city loved him. I did several portraits of Chris, and later also of anchors Rolland Smith and Jim Jensen.

Joan of Arc: Listening, Dying, Burst Heart

The constant tranquility of the depictions of Joan of Arcadia, St. Joan, Joan of Arc, wore heavily on me. She is always shown resigned, composed, and feverishly obedient. I wasn’t having any of it when I painted this portrait.

I read the transcripts of her trial and she was all fire and fury. The substance was, did she actually hear the voice of God or was she making it up. The record shows a ferociously bright anger from St Joan who frequently silences the church prosecution with “Not relevant to my case! Next question!” She made a failed escape out of the tower window where she was being held prisoner, breaking her leg in the fall and being recaptured. She didn’t sound to me as if she was resigned to anything. This is called St.Joan: Listening, Dying. I’m sure God was with her and speaking to her in those final minutes. And the betrayal from his earthly guaranteers burst her heart. That’s what I painted.


Mary Shelley was 18 when she wrote Frankenstein, and won the horror story contest devised by her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and friend Lord Byron. The beautiful threesome were roughing it in a rented lakeside castle between Italy and Switzerland that summer, bored, indulgent, oversexed and looking for something to occupy their extraordinary intellects. Byron and Shelley were as famous for their brilliant poetry as for their unconventional lives. It was a time when poets ruled like rock stars, pursued by all strata of society in a dozen countries. For young Mary, a trailblazing independent in her own right, it must have been like camping out with Mick Jagger and Lou Reed. Frankenstein was quickly published, but under her husband’s name. Their lives were scandalous enough. That an English woman of breeding wrote about monsters was over the top. Eventually, Mary got credit for authoring the legendary monster. The summer was soon tragic. Young Percy Shelley, who could neither swim nor steer, rented a sailboat on the far end of the lake to make the voyage back home. A storm rose up fast and furious. Percy Shelley drowned. Following 2 horrific days of searching the coast, Mary went back to the castle. Shelley’s body washed up, discovered by the madly distraught Lord Byron. He dragged his best friend’s corpse up on sand and rocks, and in the grand if not uncommon tradition of the times, set Shelley on a funeral pyre built on the spot. Then in a mad impulse, though also not uncommon to the times, Byron briefly pulled the body from the fire and cut out Shelley’s heart. You have only to read Byron’s words to glimpse the heightened sensitivity and extraordinary depths of his ideas. Great drama as well as a touch of cruelty were his companions. Lord Byron later placed Shelley’s heart in a beautiful box and had it delivered to the unsuspecting widow Mary who was cloistered, beyond grief, not imagining any life for herself without the man she loved with all the intensity in this fabulous young girl. She opened the box, understood its content, and never spoke to Byron again. Mary Shelley is worthy of study.

Roberta Sari Kaplan, Oil on Linen, 12 X 18

Auguste Rodin, French Sculptor, Oil on Linen, 9 X 12 inches

Dr Isabel Wright and Her Blind Cat, RippleDr Isabel Wright and Her Blind Cat “Ripple”. Oil on Linen, 14 X 18 inches

Chris Borgen, CBS CorrespondentChris Borgen, CBS Correspondent, Detail, Oil on Linen, 25 X 22 inches

Jim Jensen, CBS Correspondent, AnchorJim Jensen, CBS Anchor, NYC, Oil on Linen, 25 X 19 inches

Steve McQueen, Race Car Driver, Actor

Steve McQueen, Racer, Actor  Oil on Canvas, 18 X 24 inches “Speed is all there is. Everything else is just waiting.”

Rudyard Kipling, Storyteller, PoetRudyard Kipling, English writer, storyteller, lyricist  Oil on Linen, 20 X 24 inches

12 thoughts on “SPARHAWK – Portraits

  1. holycowgirl – I absolutely love your paintings and your writing style. I think I saw a portrait of Rachael Weisjahn, and couldn’t find it this time. Anyway,did you come in with your husband to Lucia restaurant, a couple years ago? Your picture reminds me so so much of the woman I met that night-blond and beautiful. We talked about my husband Al, from Carmel and also Shannon Moses? Anyway, every time I see your picture I wonder if that was you. Good luck to you..take care …Jamie

    • Hello, Jamie. thank you for this visit. I’m so glad you like my work, heartwarming to hear.
      The portrait of Rachel Weisjahn is in here, maybe under portraits or previous blogs. I don’t have a husband but may have been in the restaurant with a friend. I knew Shannon Moses, so sad….Big Sur is a fabulous, dangerous place. Hope you’ll keep visiting, I post a lot of stuff; and come visit the gallery. Rachel’s portrait, and a tribute to Shannon both here, and tons of new work. Best to you….

      UPDATE APRIL 5, 2013 I had to take the portrait of Rachel down, someone was posting it for sale in prints and cards and posters on an internet site. If anyone’s interested in prints, let me know. Thanks again.

  2. “It is the mission of the artist to make evident what is known in the heart of all but few have the ability to lay out tangibly in front of the eye and the hand.”

    I am continually stunned by the enormous gift you have for art and prose – to say nothing of your apparent Zorba-like vitality for life & adventure – and would only urge (once again) that your musings & insights be collected and published for the rest of us mere mortals to savor.

    • This is very kind and encouraging of you, John. Thank you so much, I will treasure these words from you. And I do plan PLAN PLAN to get things collected that I’ve written. I’d forgotten what I’d said here, I still think it’s true. I love the Zorba connection! Yes, I love new experiences (your own life shows you do, too), bring ’em on.

  3. Thank you, wise woman, for the insight. I sincerely appreciate reading what you wrote over and over. I wish there was some wat to send you a few progression pictures, its taking time, but its worth it!

    • Thank you, Howard. Hoorah for progress! My email is hawk@hawksperch.com, if you do want to send photos. Mostly I’m really proud of you for not only launching again but for sticking to it. As I said when you visited my gallery, it’s the moment of not turning away, not throwing up your hands, not letting frustration win….but solving the dilemma. Which you can do.

  4. About color and form….
    There was a time long ago when I barely saw color at all. I in fact described it as a kind of false wash over reality which was black and white. A brilliant and thoughtful friend, appalled at my limits said, NO!! Color IS life!

    It didn’t happen at once but ultimately changed everything for me. Now, much later, I believe I start to see color and form on a kind of molecular level. Also that it is someplace I believe I am going and not fully into yet. But I like that I am heading there.

    So I would suggest if I may, that you continue to observe carefully. And describe. That is, everything you find yourself drawn to looking at closely say to yourself what color you would be painting it. What color IS that. What is that what is that, and look and look and look until the intricate internal parts reveal themselves to you…look until you see the pale lime greens inside the violets and the blue grays inside the reds and the browns in the blues, or whatever is appearing to you. Study shadow and see what you uncover of movement inside things which is not just dark nor just empty. I would recommend that far more than a scientific laying of the palette or learning color theory. Looking will provide all the truth you require.

    The ultimate use of study is that at some lovely moment the subject matter will firmly implant in you so that you no longer have to refer back to it in order to know the order of things. You will remember with accuracy where the ankle turns into the heel and the ball of the toe dives for the arch. And where the horse’s rump muscles attach to the backbone.

    After which you are freed to describe the life beyond the life that is.

    And then you will be painting what resonates in the universal experience of life. And that will happen because we all see it, and we all know it is there, and it is the mission of the artist to make evident what is known in the heart of all but few have the ability to lay out tangibly in front of the eye and the hand.

    If you think this is high falutin’ stuff and nonsense, have a study however brief of the work of the masters you admire, and you will see what they have accomplished on your behalf and why you love them.

    And for goodness sake, remember that those individuals only did the best that they could do, and your work ahead is to get to the point where you are doing the best that you can do (which is quite a damn huge accomplishment), and that it will be wonderfully original; it will be what the world has never seen before.

    And thank you, Howard, for the very useful benefit to me of thinking this all through and saying it. I hope it helps you in your work.

  5. A school would be intriguing! I must say, the interest in painting has not waned since I talked to you. In fact, I have started two new projects…including learning Horse anatomy. I have always enjoyed Southwestern/Western Art, so I am thinking along those lines recently. Thanks again for the inspiration, my “Space Cowgirl” should be done in a month or so….Idea compliments of Barbara Sparhawk, the “Holy Cowgirl” herself.

    • Hello Howard, always good to hear from you. I look forward to my introduction of your “Space Cowgirl” and any tangential Holycowgirl in the mix. Amazing. Bravo on all the moving forward, it’s very exciting to hear.
      Re Horse anatomy. If you haven’t come upon this yourself, and if you have forgive the intrusion…There was a photographer at the turn of the last century named Edweard Muybridge who painstakingly devoted years to record the action of humans and animals. The camera was still in its infancy when Muybridge either discovered or made use of time lapse photography. His books run many volumes. It’s fascinating to see the effect of movement and gravity. He spent a lot of time particularly on horses, and achieved the solution of some ancient mystery, i.e., what a specific equine leg does in a gallop or trot. And for the artist working on horses, there is no better endless variety of example of position and muscle use than the images Muybridge succeeded in producing. They are a rare and important scholarship.

      And if I may suggest this: don’t fail with all the work you do to consider the environment in which you place the figure. You can make direct references from life, or imagine it. Which is to say, in my opinion, the activity of grass, of clouds, of the very air is not unaffected by the central figure. Just as in life, we all really do resonate with everything around us, given (and taking) the chance.

      • Excellent reference material! I looked up the name, and WOW! I can use the reference material and then some! I have started the skeleton sketches, and will be working the 3 dimensions and perspective of the skeleton soon. Muybridge is an amazing reference, and I have found a new appreciation for Frederick Remington and Howard Terpening paintings and sketches. Horses are tough!
        I get your reference to the surrounding environment, the surrounding space is important to the effects of the figure or object I will be portraying. Reflections of color, shade and light all impact the figure, and tie the elements together in the painting. My biggest downfall is color (or lack of) in my paintings. I use a very limited palette….that needs to change. Viewing your paintings, and all the color that is in them, opened that door a little wider for me. Thank you!

  6. I wish I had a way to send you some progression on my newest project. Thanks for getting me started up again Barbara, you helped me more than you can imagine. I am sure you will find it entertaining….

    • Glad to hear from you, Howard, and especially that you are launched! Tell me about the new work you’re doing, the excitement is palpable, I know exactly how that works. And if you have any questions I might be able to help answer, please ask away. Our discussion in the gallery had a salutary effect on this end, too. I’m figuring out the hows and whats and whens of classes, maybe starting up a school here.

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