Erin Fitzpatrick navigates the precarious piles of clutter in her sun-drenched Charles Village studio with ease. Fitzpatrick says one of the previous owners designated the studio, located in the northeast corner of her rowhome, to be a Buddhist prayer room. The natural light and intricate lattice door serve as a meditative backdrop for her work here: painting faces.
Dozens of portraits are stacked under tables and along the walls; they're also hung around the space. Fitzpatrick works on a small panel, a commission of a man with glasses. She builds the face up from the grid to get the key facial landmarks placed correctly, through the underpainting sketch, then through the gradual buildup of form and tone, making her marks decisively once she has sketched out the general features. Her two cats, Gunther and Diesel, wander in and out of the studio, occasionally demanding attention, which they frequently get. She says she almost always has a TV show that's interesting but not too engaging streaming on her laptop as she works. "If I don't have something like that going on, I find myself on my phone, checking my email . . . it's enough to keep me distracted and focused."
She's been in Charles Village for 14 years, having graduated from MICA in 1999 with a BFA. After that, she spent time teaching high school, giving herself some time in between art school and professional practice. She had always been drawn to portraits and did some in school, but after graduation she worked on street art with Buddha imagery and patterns. Then in 2008, she focused more strictly on portraits of friends, and her practice grew from there (including portraits of City Paper staffers). "I started off just doing paintings of people I knew, and then as people became familiar with my work, I was able to ask people that I maybe didn't know but they knew what I was doing." She says that portraits give her something to focus on in her work, otherwise she gets distracted because she gets so many ideas. "It gives me a starting point, but there's still so much material," she says. "I'm never going to run out. It's about having a subject matter for painting."
Fitzpatrick meets a lot of people through her portraits, networking, but not in a schmoozy way. "I really like meeting people and I like having brief encounters with people," she says. "I feel like it's almost come full circle, where I've met so many people painting portraits, at least in Baltimore, that now a lot of people know my work and they know me."
Fitzpatrick's portraits are generally standard, straight-on views of the face, sometimes including the rest of the figure or an object. They're simply composed and cleanly executed, but they captivate because she has put in so much time and care. The artist David Hockney has talked about how the amount of time you can spend looking at a work is directly related to the time the artist put into it, and despite the simple graphic nature of her style, Fitzpatrick's work is complex. To capture what makes a person's face unique, she has to notice and accurately paint the idiosyncracies, like how arched the eyebrows are in relation to the curve of the eyelid, or the distance between the corner of the mouth and the edge of the nostril. These are the things that make a person's face recognizable, and not getting the proportions correct results in an inaccurate portrait.
Spending hours painting someone also makes her feel like she knows them better, even if they've only met for a few minutes for a reference photo shoot. She enjoys being able to see the subtle differences in everyone's faces. "I mean, everyone is interesting," she says. "And when you're painting a face, you might think someone is kind of average-looking, but the more you look at them when you're painting them, you see these beautiful things in their faces that you don't see when you just look at them on the street." Because she puts so much time and care into bringing a person to life in paint, usually somewhere between two days and a month, the viewer gets the benefit of seeing what Fitzpatrick sees.
Still there can be a disconnect when thinking of portraits as fine art. Many people put portraits in a separate category and see them as somehow inferior to abstraction or lanscapes, making it easy to lump all portraiture together as a stylistically homogeneous thing. Fitzpatrick wants her work to be perceived to be just as much about the physical object of the painting as it is about the subject, the sitter. "When you look at a bunch of portraits, you remember the portrait and not the artist," she says. "It's not an ego thing, like I want them to remember my name, but I'd like it to be known that I can paint. I use the portrait as my subject, but really I just want to eventually be a really good painter."
Over the years, people have begun to recognize the quality of Fitzpatrick's painting. After she was featured in a short blurb in Baltimore magazine in mid-2011, the commissions started rolling in. "Once my work really started to get known more and I started to get a little bit of press, I started getting steady commissions," she says of the piece. "So I went from painting all just unpaid to getting hired and actually starting to make my money off of it."
A portrait commission has the potential to be more of a chore than anything: Some people have a specific idea of what they want the portrait to look like and might ask for it to be done in the style of a particular artist. But Fitzpatrick's customers are looking for her signature style. "People who hire me hire me because they want something that's done in my style. So they are not going to tell me, like, they want it to look photorealistic or they want it to look like someone else's work," she says.
Her portraits don't look like the typical stodgy oil paintings hung in the great hall of an ancestral family mansion. They're lively and feel fresh, and that's what her clients like. Her brushstrokes are chunky yet refined, her color choices graphic and bold, and she has the ability to capture the expression of each sitter. "I like something to look like paint," she says of her work, and she's succeeded in that.
Commissioned portraits are great as a way to make a living, but Fitzpatrick is always striving to do more and after a year of painting over 30 commissions, she relished in the opportunity to make work for herself, which is up at Metro Gallery through the end of the week. These pieces move her work toward her goal of making paintings that are about more than just accurately depicting a person; they're about the anonymous aspect in painting a person, as contrary as that sounds. "There's the recognizable portrait, and then there's the anonymous figure," she says. "It still is a portrait, and it's a painting of a person, but it doesn't matter who they are." She says it's like a painting of Obama positioned next to one of a guy looking off into the distance. They're both portraits, but when the viewer doesn't have a recognizable face to latch onto, they see more of the formal elements of the painting. For this past show, that was her goal. "I tried to take more of a step into the anonymous portrait so that it makes the painting relatable to more people."
If she were ever to show outside Baltimore, she'd want her portraits to stand on their own as paintings. An audience not familiar with the subjects should be able to appreciate them all the same. "Ultimately, I'd like to be a really great painter technically," she says.
Erin Fitzpatrick's Portraits are on view at the Metro Gallery through oct. 19