My portrait of Janie Hengst, retiring Principal of John Paul II Catholic School, was unveiled May 20th during a special mass and program honoring her many years of dedication to the school. I have yet to meet Ms. Hengst, but I know without a doubt that she is loved and admired by her peers. This portrait was quite a challenge, and I’d like to give you some insight into how I handled a couple of issues.
As I said, I was not able to meet Ms. Hengst. The Board of Directors of the school wanted the portrait to be a surprise… not an ideal situation. I was given a school photo in which Ms. Hengst was lit from both sides. While it was a flattering photo of Ms. Hengst, I prefer to have a light source that allows for interesting shadow shapes. The reference photo I was given had no shadows accept the ones cast by Ms. Hengst’s glasses. A plus was the photography firm was willing to sign a photographer’s release form which I felt was important even though I only used the head from the photo.
As for the rest of the image, I was asked to change Ms. Hengst clothing and jewelry. The reference photo showed Ms. Hengst wearing a scooped-neck blouse under a collared shirt which covered much of her neck and collar bones. I was asked to change it to an evening dress, with no collar and with long sleeves. We finally found an agreeable dress reference online, but it had cap sleeves, so I invented the long sleeves. I took numerous photos of myself to try to figure out the additional anatomy that would now be revealed and what it might look like under the double lighting situation of the original photo reference. The school sent me photos from around the office to help figure this part out, but in the end my own photos worked best. I could control the light and get into the same pose as the reference photo.
The jewelry I was to paint in the portrait included a sapphire and diamond, star necklace that was given to Ms. Hengst in honor of the school receiving the Blue Ribbon Award. I really liked the idea of tying in her leadership of the school and the symbol of this award in the portrait. The first reference I was given for this was a diamond-only star necklace that was said to be “close” to the one they wanted in the portrait. I really wanted to see the actual necklace to get it right, so the school enlisted Ms. Hengst’s husband to get photos of the necklace. I ended up getting a picture of only the pendant, so I enlisted myself again. I set up my two light sources and camera and put on a garnet necklace and matching earrings to get a feel for how the necklace would look hanging from a gold chain and how the jewelry would sparkle given the two light sources. Oh, and about those earrings… A pair of sapphire and diamond earrings were to be presented to Ms. Hengst at the unveiling, but the Board of Directors wanted them in the portrait. They did not arrive until I was almost finished with the portrait. Previously, I had been given a link to see the earrings on a store site, and ultimately I was sent a photo of one of the earrings on the ear of my contact at the school. I was really glad to get that last photo. It was what I needed to get the scale of the earrings right. A couple of final highlights to make the jewelry sparkle. Done.
The portrait of Janie Hengst (oil on linen, 20×16″) now hangs at John Paul II Catholic School in Houston, Texas. Congratulations to Ms. Hengst for the legacy of love and leadership she has given this school.