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Painting Faces: An interview with Janet Boltax

There is a lot to be gained from painted portraits. A true portrait is fuller and richer than simply an image on a flat surface. (Sam Adoquei)

Mary Oil on Canvas 36 x 36"

I am interested in the choices contemporary artists make when they choose what to paint. I personally believe all painters today tread between formalism, tackling the issues of form on an abstract level; light, color, texture the qualities of paint, and infusing meaning into our work, through representation of the people and world around us in the image. I address this issue with every blank canvas. I will be showcasing the work of artists I admire from time to time in this blog. Each of these artists address the same questions and achieve authenticity in ways that are very different from my approach and from each other. This week I am pleased to share the work of Janet Boltax. I am so happy that Janet agreed to answer some questions and share some of her work. I greatly admire her work. I consider Janet to be an 'observational' painter, someone who looks, pays attention and then paints what she sees. Most of Janet's work, that I am familiar with, is portraiture.

She is preparing to show 21 portraits in a show entitled "Aging in America" this month at Monmouth University. RMC I think in this day and age where cameras and cell phones with cameras are ubiquitous, artists must now more than at any other time in the history of art, strive to use their medium to communicate something that only art can. As artists working with paint we are aware that we are working to provide something beyond entertainment.

Janet, I find your painting clearly demonstrate this, you use your media to provide a visual experience that is different and unobtainable from any other media. Do you think it is the task of art to demonstrate some essence which is “unique” and “irreducible” particular or peculiar to art which only painting or art can communicate? JB In terms of the “big picture,” I think the value of truly great art is to communicate something unique about the artist and the period in which the artist lives, and is also universal (and bridges history) at the same time. Regarding the importance of painting and other art mediums in light of the ubiquitous use of cameras and cell phones, I don’t think it is impossible to create wonderful and unique art using modern technology. I have seen some amazing things created with cell phone photographs! But I think that people who create art using cameras and cell phones rarely attain the skill and depth required to create more traditional types of art work.

Walter Oil on Canvas 36 x 36"

RMC How do you pick your subjects, people or inanimate objects? Do you consider how your manner of working will contribute to the portrayal of the chosen subject? JB I find that my best painting occurs when I am truly interested in the subject. I am especially drawn to elderly people who have a lot of character in their faces, not to mention all of those wonderful wrinkles and planes to paint, and to younger people who have particularly interesting faces. I am rarely interested in painting someone who is conventionally attractive. For some reason I am quite obsessed with faces, although if they are not available I enjoy painting vegetables such as potatoes and pears because of their interesting planes.

Julius Oil on Canvas 36 x 36"

RMC Can you talk a little about your process? Do you scrape things down frequently and then build up or is your process more additive? Or is it half and half—additive and subtractive? JB My process is more additive, although I will scrape away an area that is not working. I have lately been working from the computer screen, and that has been a wonderful addition to my painting life. I guess the way technology changes an artist’s life is somewhat akin to the development of Impressionism after the camera was invented, although I forget how that evolved. I have a good camera, so I take many photos of my sitter, download them onto my computer and then work from one or two. It is great because I can enlarge the photo and reduce it as needed. Each time I begin I look at the entire photo to make sure my values and large masses are correct. I make whatever adjustments are needed and then I can enlarge a particular area of the photo to focus on more detail. Each time I paint, I see more and more; the subject seems to come more into focus, so the painting develops.

Gladys Oil on Canvas 36 x 36"

RMC Can you tell us something about the role your relationship with the sitter plays? Are these people you know? JB Many of the portraits I have painted during the past few years have been part of various projects that have included my interviewing the sitters. This has helped me to get to know them, and I think this influences how I paint them. I become somewhat emotionally involved with these individuals as I look at them intently, and what I have learned about them plays a part in this. RMC Would you say you are also trying to evoke an emotional presence in the paint? JB Absolutely, I love the paint itself, and when I can paint more freely it is very exciting to me. I try to achieve a balance between accuracy and freedom. Sometimes when I let myself go too much it doesn’t work (even though it is a release and is fun), and I have to scrape the paint away. But as I paint more, and get more skilled, I am able to be a bit freer with my paint.

Mamie Oil on Canvas 36 x 36"

RMC Do you start the painting with a concept of what the final painting will look like when completed in mind or does the painting have to evolve on its own terms? JB No, I do not start with a preconceived idea; the painting just kind of evolves. That doesn’t always mean I am happy with it! I just finished one where there was a lot of drama in the photo (dark vs light, like an old master’s painting), and I realized I did not achieve the drama I was aiming for in my painting. I still like it to some extent but I might try to redo it and make the dark side more subtle and darker. RMC When you are painting do you ever experience something that causes you to transcend the specifics of that sitter and abstract that individual to something more universal, beyond that person? JB Sometimes. Sometimes I get so excited by the paint itself that the person starts to appear abstract in some parts. I want to continue to work with that, while still achieving a feeling of form and flesh.

RMC Would you like to talk a little about your pending show, Aging in America which includes 21 portraits of and interviews with individuals who range in age form 90 - 100? How you came to decide upon the focus for this show? JB The show opens on April 15 at Monmouth University’s Pollak Gallery (the address of the university is 400 Cedar Avenue, West Long Branch, NJ). The opening reception is on April 15 from 6-8pm and the gallery hours are M-F from 9am to 7pm. There are some weekend hours as well; call 732-263-5715 for information. I have always had an affinity with older people, and of course they are some of the best subjects for a portrait painter because so much life is evident in their faces. I thought that interviewing them, and putting excerpts of the interview next to each painting, would add a lot to the exhibit. I mentioned this idea I had, to paint a series concentrating on the elderly, to one of my painting students. She teaches sociology at Monmouth. She told me that they teach a course on the Sociology of Aging in the spring and that perhaps the gallery would be interested, as it is relevant to the course work. She spoke to the school's art gallery, and voila! RMC How has the experience of painting this series differed from other series you have done in the past?

It was wonderful to get to know these people and as I painted them, what they spoke about during the interview played a part in my emotional response to them (and how I painted them). Most of these people were very positive about their lives, which is very encouraging to a person like me who is about to turn 60! Some lived rather conventional lives, but others had extremely rich and interesting lives. JB This project has been very significant for me, since after completing the first few paintings I permitted myself to do something which I have always wanted to do, but for some reason hadn’t been able. I started painting only their faces, which is really the part that absorbs me the most. I also made them quite large (36 x 36”) so I was able to paint with more freedom since I didn’t have to worry about tightening up with little details. RMC Thank you again, Janet for sharing your work and your thoughts with us. I wish you much success with your exhibit

AGING IN AMERICA:PORTRAITS AND COMMENTARY Apr 15-May 31 (opening on April 15 with a reception from 6 to 8 pm) Monmouth University's Pollak Gallery.

For additional information on the work of Janet Boltax please visit

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