The making of a painting

Lately I have been working on a new painting in my series ‘The mothers before’ about my direct female ancestors. An artwork starts by doing research. I want to learn more about these women who lived decades to centuries before me. Who were they? What was their position in life and their role in relation to others?

It all starts by genealogical research. Once I selected a direct female ancestor to capture, I start to collect information about her. In some cases there are paintings or images available. Or correspondence, newspaper articles or other pieces of text. Sometimes there is nothing more left than some life events recorded in the municipal archives. Often the only information about the private lives of these women is to be found through their husbands activities. Some of them are rich upper class people, like wifes of city or country administrators or of rich merchants benefiting from colonialism. Others are of lower social status and run households with little income or wealth to buffer against negative impacts. I hardly ever know the color of the hair or eyes, whether someone was tall or short, fat or thin. For those things I mainly appeal to my imagination.

Once I have formed an idea of this ‘mother before’ I start making a number of sketches. In this way, the first compositions and ideas for materials and color use are created. The final result can still deviate completely.

Whenever I feel ready for it, the real thing starts. I’d often go on and on for hours and hours, until the work is finished. But sometimes the work needs some rest for a while, for instance in order to let the paint dry.

When the artwork is finally finished, it really feels like I portrayed a family member. For a short while I was very close to her. Although the physical characteristics of the depicted ancestor may not be accurate, it almost feels I knew her. The final artwork can be seen as a visual translation of the information I found and the imagination I had about her.

After a while my limited memory lets me down and I forget the details of this former life again. But at least I can introduce her to my daughter now.

In general history gives us the opportunity to learn from past mistakes. And can help understanding the many reasons why people may behave the way they do. As a result, it helps us become more compassionate. Knowing more about family connections, previous generations, historical events and other interesting related facts can help put your own life in perspective in order to learn more about yourself and others.

So, understanding the transgenerational orientation of my family might help me and my daughter to gain insights in our own behavior, characteristics and views.