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The thought -portrait of Miss Karyl Kniepper

           Just as the Nefertiti bust has captivated the admiration of viewers since it was first discovered, this painting has captivated many people too. It is easy to understand why: they are both testimony to the beauty of the subject. Among a gallery of beautiful women that I have encountered in my career, Karyl Louise Kniepper ranks among its queens.

           I met Karyl by chance –or Karma. It was in the summer of 1993 and I had returned to Cleveland State University to complete my degree in education. I stopped by Morse Graphic, and art supply store a street across from campus, and there we met. Karyl had just earned her Bachelor of Arts from Miami University in Athens, Ohio, and had been working at Morse for that summer.

           She was standing behind the service counter, dressed in one of the most casual outfits you can imagine: an old baggy pair of denim farmer’s coveralls with bib and suspenders, with a pink t-shirt underneath. But the contrast with the rest of her couldn’t have been more striking. Her manicure and maquillage were flawless (signs of the fashionable and refined person that she was); her smile and the sparkle in her captivating yellow-green eyes irresistible.

           I took my items to the counter, she flashed a friendly “hi” and I nodded back. I quietly studied her as she wrapped the purchase. This girl perspired charisma and her features were amazing, both delicate and strong; a combination of fire and ice –also an apt description of her personality. Many people would to point out through the years that she was the other side of the coin –almost the female version of me. Little did they know how accurate this turned out to be.

           I asked her: -“You are new here; what is your name?” She extended her hand and smiled warmly: -“It’s Karyl –with a ‘K’; pleased to meet you.” She then proceeded to wrap my purchase and after completing the transaction, I pulled out a business card from my wallet and said: -“Hi, I’m John Rivera-Resto –a painter. I would like to make a portrait of you. Ask around about me and then call me.”

           She was both surprised and flattered. After favouring me with another of her giggling smiles she took the card and we said our good byes. I am very forward in this type of encounter. Growing up very shy I turned to acting as a way to overcome this condition. I invented “John Rivera-Resto” and then the character took over me (though back then the process needed this experience to be completed). I had consciously become the person I had once envisioned from watching old Hollywood movies.

           As part of my training I memorized quick responses for different scenarios until they became reflex-reactions. So instead of stuttering or going completely blank when someone addressed me, my training took over and an automatic reply from my “repertoire” would be uttered from my lips before my mind could blink. That sunny summer afternoon, my training paid off.

           People who know me can not believe that I was ever shy. They tease me and laugh about it thinking I’m pulling their leg. To them I must look like the most confident person on the face of the planet -but this evolution began with years of practice in front of a mirror. The method that cured my shyness was tremendously effective. If you need further proof of this, go back to the ‘Painting’ page, click on the ‘Maria Espendez de Rivera’ thumbnail, and read the commentary.

           Two weeks later I got a call from Karyl. She asked around about me and was convinced I was the real thing and not just a “pick-up artist”. We scheduled a meeting and the following week I stopped by her place in Avon Lake, Ohio. Back then Avon Lake was god’s country and the wilderness, a small tight-kneaded community that has since evolved into expensive suburban developments. It was here that I was introduced to Middle America.

           I took reference pictures of Karyl, made notes and we talked. I basically interview my subjects to get a sense of who they are. I do the same thing with clients. The conversation turned into hours and we ended up going to a local mom & pop restaurant for dinner. During all this time I was memorizing every feature of her face in trying to figure out –almost with scientific curiosity, what were the elements that made her so attractive to me? I needed an answer to this quandary or I would have no hope of capturing this in the painting.

           Fast forward one year. I’m doing an internship in Washington D.C. and Karyl just flew in for a visit. The just-finished painting rested on an easel in one corner of my tiny dorm. We had become close friends and colleagues working together in some of my commissions. The early 1990’s were good years and the team of “John & Karyl” was a striking vision of talent and exotic looks that captivated people’s imagination. We graced many parties and had the time of our lives being the centre of attraction.



At the Stouffer's on the Square New Year's Eve Gala, 1993


           In spite of our age difference –I was twelve years her senior, we shared a strong psychological bond. I think this was because we were at a transitional stage of our lives. Memories and scars from a nasty divorce were fresh in my mind and Karyl was still healing from a failed relationship while in college. We both needed to learn how to trust and confide in someone else. Though not romantically involved, we were inseparable for the better part of two and a half years. Art was our therapy.

           We were soon to spend another year working on the Thinker’s Mural (see the “Murals” page). During all our days and nights of work I got to know her well, probably then the only person who knew her best –though she was an enigma in the same way I still keep things buried deep inside me. But for the first time in years I was able to trust someone and disclose harrowing experiences from my past and she was able to recount hers. Slowly, painfully, we managed to resolve some of our issues and move on.

           But this inner turmoil could at times erupt unannounced. Tempers flared and we both had a capacity for passionate pettiness and ruthlessness toward each other. For example, we both dated and -through polite insinuations, we tore our dates apart. We would also bicker about what she perceived as my “flirting” with waitresses, to which I countered about her “flirting” with bartenders. Our friends used to say we behave like a married couple.

           But we cared and respected each other deeply. We were perfectionists and workaholics. I became a friend and mentor; she became a friend and gifted student. We were a good team. Her taste was impecable. Sometimes she would go through volumes of wall paper samples for a decorating job, and days later I would go through the same books and we ended up making the exact same choice.

           Besides art, I would teach her about my world and she would guide me through hers. We made work fun and, along with a close group of friends, enjoyed many carefree and happy times. It was a time of artistic growth and maturity. A defining moment in ones life when the one begins to think about the future. Thinking back about those days, it is safe to say that our time together was an experience that would affect us for the rest of our lives.

           This painting is a reflection of that closeness. This deceptively simple portrait is a psychological study. The composition is simple: a close up of Karyl gazing into the distance. There is not distracting background, no props, and no gimmicks; it’s just her and her thoughts. In fact, “the thought” is the title of the painting. But what is she thinking? And, without any knowledge of who she is, can we say about her? Fore there is much to tell…

           Notice the background. Is it empty? No. It is filled with light! But what kind of light is it and where is it coming from? Figure out these clues and you will know where she is at. Let’s begin with the direction of the light source. Study her face for the answers. She is turned almost in profile and the left side of her face is set aglow by radiance coming from the right of the painting.

           The strong reflections in her eyes and the subtle filtered shadows of her features tell us that the light source is set at a low angle in the horizon. But while the light is strong and bright it is also cool and distant. And yet, it is the kind of "white light' that warms the chills and brightens the day of cold mornings in spring. She is in fact gazing at the sunrise.

           Now that we know she is being illuminated by natural light, and we have determined that the light is coming from a specific direction, we can answer the question about her location. Look at the background again. The strong brightness that shine on her is not reaching it. Therefore we must assume that while there is a passage for light to reach the subject, there is also a restriction that shuts the light from spilling into the background. So if this passage is the only opening where light comes through then the rest of the space must be an enclosure.

           So what have learned? We can safely deduce that the subject is sitting (more about this later) inside a room directly in front of an opening that we can assume is a window. This assumption that the opening is a window is clued in by noting the temperatures of the inside and outside space (as will be explained in the next paragraph). What separates these two environments is a barrier that allows light through. A barrier with such a characteristic is clear glass -as in a window glass.

           Let's recap: It is early morning and Karyl is in her bedroom -a space with a high probability of having only one window. She is facing the sunrise. The rich burnt umber tones of the background shadows and the fact that she seems warm and comfortable in spite of the coolness outside her room (as we earlier established by when we analysed the type of light) adds further credence to this scenario.

           So far we have uncovered information that is relevant since the environment has an effect on the matter. It is time now to concentrate on the subject. Let’s first begin with some basic visual observations. The subject is a young woman of fair complexion. Her skin tone is not pale but healthy, bronzed, toned and wrinkle-free. She looks fit and at the prime of life; she probably enjoys the outdoor.

           Her honey-blonde hair is cut short, somewhat stylish but loose, one side tucked away behind her ear to keep it away from her face. It is the less-maintenance type of cut that someone who is always on the move would have. This, along with her healthy glow may suggest that she is also athletic.


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           At this point let’s analyse her maquillage -makeup. It is perfectly applied to further enhance all that makes her face remarkable, specifically her smooth tanned skin, her captivating eyes, and the shape of sensual lips. Karyl approached her makeup with the care of an artist and she refined it through years of practice. It was designed for effect.

           By curling and applying dark mascara to her naturally long lashes she greatly emphasise shimmering yellow-green eyes. But then she also applied a line of shade on the upper lid which extended out and outward at the end, thus further enhancing her exotic look.

           She would then shape and accent her eyebrows and complete her eye makeup with the subtle application of amber and sienna shadows. Lastly, she outlined and lightly filled in the lips with a semi transparent gloss the colour of Venetian red which blended perfectly with the ambers and sienna rouge toning her cheeks.

           It was hard not to stare in fascination at the end result, but what made it so unique were those inner qualities that made it all come to life: a natural charm, the coquettish of her smile, and the obvious intelligence behind those eyes, her confidence and pride. The final effect was that of a work of living art. The challenge for me was to capture in with paint.

           I had posed Karyl in the appropriate light and shot a dozen photographs for later study, making sure I had close ups of her hands, lips and eyes. But I do not do colour sketches. Instead I write descriptive notes like a writer in a novel. For example: eyes are light reflectors that change with the time of day and their surroundings. They are never the same shade from one moment to the next. So instead of painting a study and applying the colour as they appeared at the time, I write down a description of the changing shades.

           In order to do this, one has to know colour and have a mental inventory to draw upon –which I do. Many inexperienced artists rely on a colour chart. If were making a “recording” of the exact situation, then I might use the tool. But a painting is not a photograph. When it is time to make the painting, I will select the proper colour and shade taking in consideration the effects of the light and surrounding colours “under my control”. I decide the conditions. The final results, as seen in this painting, speak for themselves.

           Of course, I take artistic license in the way I portray a model. For example, skin has texture but I chose to ignore this and think of it the way one “thinks” of a red rose. In our mind the petals are the softest of soft, and the saturation of the red is rich and luminous. This is not physical reality, it is poetic illusion. But in a painting such as this one I don’t want to capture the reality of a photograph but the memory of a beautiful sensation –my emotional response stimulated by a vision. The Karyl in this painting is a testimony to the perfection of that illusion that will remain forever in my mind.

           Now let’s concentrate on her attire. She is dressed in a course cotton shirt. It is a baggy old shirt and casually worn –not buttoned all the way. But it is a comfortable shirt; it is a shirt one wears in the privacy of one’s home. I purposely designed the unbuttoned look to expose more of her skin and thus add balance to the head. Combined they resemble a sculpted bust. However, one can draw psychological conclusions from the contrast between her careful attention make up and her casual attire.





           There is a Spanish saying that says: “a chimp dressed in silk is still a chimp.” Another very old but similar saying goes like this: “A pig dressed in pearls is still a pig.” But the reverse can also be true: “A beautiful woman dress in a burlap sack is still a beautiful woman.” Karyl could dress in rags and still look more regal than many women dressed by Versace! And, when she dressed in formal attire, she was devastating in her beauty (she was also blessed with good genes, regal posture, ample buxom, and a lovely figure –a result of constant days in the gym).

           In the painting I wanted to provide this visual contrast. But also I sought to emphasise that this is a woman confident in her appearance. She needs no artifice to further enhance –or distract- from the fact. Her earrings are two simple metal loops, one smaller than the other. I had pondered about choices in jewellery but decided to stay true to the taste of the model. But I selected this particular accessory to add a visual balance of weight to the tilt of her head. In addition, the simplicity of the loop earrings, as opposed to a choice of gem encrusted jewellery, did not distract from the jewel-like reflections of her eyes.

           At this point let consider the pose. It is a posture of contemplation. The finger of her left hand slightly touches the underside of her chin in an almost unconscious manner. This gesture of the hand is normally assumed while sitting, with the elbow resting on a surface such as a table or an armchair, with the arm in an upward pose. Notice now the precision of her manicure. The nails are left ‘au natural’ but they are carefully shaped. This adds a touch of elegance and refinement to the pose and sophistication to the character. It also helps to bring attention to the face.

           Finally, let’s study her expression. It is a tightly balanced façade -almost Greta Garbo; a combination of looks, intelligence and refinement. But what is she thinking? This we do not know, but one thing is certain, her thought is a pleasant one. Her face registers a pleasurable sensation; the corner of her lips curl upward into the slightest of smiles. And while she faces the sunrise her eyes gaze inwardly into a memory. Perhaps she is relieving a past experience. In essence, she is lost in thought...




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