So our son Liam has his first acceptance letter from one of the art schools that he applied to. He’s turning 19 this fall, leaving home, choosing a trajectory.

I can hardly believe I had anything to do with his creation; I look at him, tall, confident, vulnerable, kind, beautiful, gentle, funny as hell, and I wish sentimentally in retrospect that I’d been a doting parent, a stay-at-home nest mother. It’s like wishing I were a green chair.

Random Liam sketchesLiam McKinnon, portrait studies, 2013

I’m grateful to Bill for wanting an armful of children enough to gladly take on every role; all he asked of me was to bring the babies into the light of Terra, to host them in my very flesh and blood, to contribute my bizarre, powerful DNA to the creation of life. To carry them, lay down my life (as women do) to birth them, to feed and change them tenderly until they could stand on their own and reach the snacks, to love them in and out of time and space, to be jointly responsible for their survival.

Other than all of that little has been required of me; I am a free human being. I’ve had the joy of having children without having to give up my independent life. I’ve had the joy of marriage without having to give up my fierceness, or temper my wolf-like nature. I’ve been able to indulge in longing with the knowledge that the lover I long for is always just over the horizon. Bill… He’s like a star, I’m like a planetary system.

And he’s the one with the 2D talent; in addition to the many other impressive genetic contributions of his father, Liam got a skill for rendering in the blood from him and has been drawing since he could hold a pencil.

Cartoon by Liam McKinnon, May 2010 "A School Morning"

I’ve really  envied his talent as a portrait artist. I’ve always wished that I had the facility to capture a likeness with pen and paper. I’m working both backward and forward to it, sketching every day, also working on top of photographs. There is something about doing each that is really good for my head.

This was yesterday’s work, from a photo taken in Boston by Ryan Anas. It’s gorgeous, but all of the crucial lines in the face and figure came from the original. I’m not sure if I will come forward enough to be able to make this with just my hands, and blank paper, but I aim to try.

kate mckinnon 2014
Kate McKinnon, illustration on top of a photo by Ryan Anas, Boston, 2014.

I’m short on language to describe digital and hand work (pencil, paint, etc.) on top of photos, I think we all are. It’s not really one thing or another; so many words are required to explain, to clarify what is created, what is altered from life. It’s simpler if the artist doing the altering also snapped the photo, but still not clear-cut.

“Mixed media” is an option, but not a good one. There needs to be a single word or two to describe the work that manages to communicate that it may not have been created from blank space. Suggestions?

And I have curiosity/mixed feelings about some of the techniques used to create from blank space. I know artists who project a photograph onto their canvas on the wall, and take their lines, their proportion, their dimension from the projection. What is that?

Liam is, in my mind, the real thing. He creates the piece in his head, and then transfers it, complete, to the paper. He can start at any point; no roughing in of general lines is required. With warriors, he often starts at the tip of their sword, or boot.

I think this Dali study started with a waxed end of his mustache.
The process of creation fascinates me.

liam dali framed

Liam McKinnon, Dali, 2014

12 thoughts on “portraiture

  1. Liam is so talented…not a big surprise considering his provenance! Where is he going to art school? My daughter is looking at RISD, Pratt, and Art Institute of Chicago among others. She’s a junior, so our journey is just beginning. She’s also looking at liberal arts schools with good art departments. So important to get your academics!

    • Hi! My guess is that he will be choosing between Mass Art, Art Inst of Chicago, Webster Groves (in St. Louis, has an amazing film program and he is interested in animation) and the Kansas City Art Institute.

      • All are great choices. I know students at all of them and they are all happy. All your children are amazing–but who’s surprised—look at the parents!

      • MassArt and RISD were my first choices when I contemplated art school. Both are fantastic. Has he looked into Montserrat? Small art school in Beverly (15 miles north of Boston). We’re going to visit RISD this spring. Lily wants out of Boston, so MassArt and Montserrat are not options D: She’s also looking at Liberal arts schools with good art depts. I think it would be wise for her to consider a university as she has lots of interests besides art..especially in this economic climate! I’m surprised that a lot of art schools focus on fine arts and don’t have digital arts programs. I’ll have her take a look at the schools you mentioned. Thanks!

  2. I have thoroughly enjoyed seeing every piece of Liam’s artwork that you’ve posted. Fantastic choice, to start out his college career in art. Art never lets you down. Liam is gifted.

    • Thanks! He’s such an interesting kid. I encourage him to view his undergraduate years as a time of exploration, and just go for everything he’s interested in. There is time to take on a more traditional career in graduate school, if he feels the need for a JOB.

      I just know that he can support himself creatively, if he wants to. Crossing my fingers he picks Chicago, or Mass Art, but that’s just my love of Chicago and Boston speaking.

      • Let me know if you want me to holler at any friends who went to various schools. Sometimes talking to a jaded alum out in the world gives you better impression of the program :) Also if he is interested in animation as an art – my good old RISD has a pretty epic Film/Video/Animation program. Unfortunately its also a more focused school so after your first year there’s much less of a chance to explore other media and disciplines.

        • Ah, RISD. We visited the campus, but Liam said no to Providence. Thanks for the offer to hunt up alums, he would love to talk to people who have recently gone to Kansas City, Chicago, or Mass Art, in addition to older alums.

  3. So glad to hear that Liam is doing so well, Kate! It is an anxious time for parents when they make their first choices, but he is obviously talented , so don’t worry. I can remember when my daughter had to choose between art and music( she was equally good at both) it was a very stressful time, but her final decision turned out to be the right one! Let them follow their hearts, they are usually right!

  4. yes, I agree – I don’t have any pre-programmed expectations for the kids other than that they are kind to others, aware of what they take and give in life, and that they enjoy their lives and feel productive… being happy (and good to others) is everything.

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