Making Faces

Toni Morrison, watercolor and India ink on paper

Toni Morrison – watercolor and India ink on paper

Faculty Guest Blogger: John Kascht

John Kascht: In his January blog post, John Meza wrote with a lot of feeling about snowflakes. I found myself smiling and nodding as he described having been inspired by their one-of-a-kind beauty since he was a child. He summed up his enthusiasm with a simple exclamation, “Behold the snowflake!”

I feel exactly the way John does… but not about snowflakes.  I say, “Behold the human face!”

Samuel Beckett, pastel on paper

Samuel Beckett – pastel on paper

Like a snowflake, each face has the same basic structure as all others and—like a snowflake—each one is utterly and astonishingly unique. I have been fascinated (okay, obsessed) with faces for as long as I can remember.

As a kid, I expressed my interest in faces by imitating them. I would stand in front of the TV and act out whatever was on: movies, football, the news, whatever. I drove my friends and family members crazy by imitating their facial expressions, and by walking and talking like them. I didn’t know it at the time but those pantomimes and impersonations were my first forays into portraiture. A portrait is a performance, after all. Like an actor getting into character, a portraitist has to slip into the subject’s skin before it is possible to perform a convincing drawn or painted likeness.

Eventually my instinct for impersonation merged with my knack for drawing and I began a life-long love affair with portraiture and caricature. Thousands of drawings later, I am still spellbound by how differently we each inhabit our faces and bodies. Those differences are the crux of any likeness, especially in the case of caricature, which takes a person’s identifying features and magnifies them. The goal is not to distort the subject’s appearance but to present an intensified picture of precisely what makes her or him unique and recognizable. That’s why a carefully observed caricature can seem more “like” the person than a traditional portrait or even a photo.

Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray and Ben Stiller, watercolor India ink

Whoopi Goldberg, Bill Murray and Ben Stiller – watercolor and India ink on paper

Over many years as a student of human appearance and behavior, I’ve come to understand just how eloquently our external features speak about who we are on the inside. We reveal far more about ourselves than we realize, even in the tiniest nuances of how we look and move. Some people smile with closed lips and down turned eyes while others can fill a room with open-mouthed belly laughs. Some people sit quietly while others fidget, munching their fingers and tapping their feet. Some people speak with their whole bodies while others barely move their lips and make us lean in to hear. Fact is, every detail of outward appearance tells its own little story about who you are and how you engage with life.

Trent Reznor, Susan Sarandon, Ricky Gervais, Edith Wharton and Conan O’Brien, watercolor and India ink on paper

Trent Reznor, Susan Sarandon, Ricky Gervais, Edith Wharton and Conan O’Brien – watercolor and India ink on paper

We actively shape our own physiognomy according to our conscious and unconscious choices. Keith Richards’ face is a perfect example of how, over time, lifestyle choices and habits mark up the canvas provided by nature and heredity. Richards’ woozy demeanor, ashen complexion, and deeply etched face read like a map through a thousand trashed hotel rooms.

Keith Richards – watercolor and India ink on paper

Keith Richards – watercolor and India ink on paper

A portrait always begins with observation. Noticing. I want to observe as many details as possible and incorporate them into a single, concentrated image. With any luck, some glimmer of the unique soul living beneath the skin will come through in the process.

(l) Eminem and Paul Simon (r) David Bowie, watercolor and India ink on paper

(l) Eminem and Paul Simon (r) David Bowie – watercolor and India ink on paper

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MAKING FACES, a retrospective exhibition of over 100 portraits and caricatures by John Kascht, is on display at the Everhart Museum in Scranton through May 7, 2018.  The show will tour through 2020 with stops in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Denver.

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