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Senior Project: Painting On Faces
Posted 05/28/2015 12:04PM


What if Rembrandt had a smartphone?

Madison Kahn ’15 drew inspiration for her senior independent project from Rembrandt’s self-portraits, which she studied this year in Riverdale’s Integrated Liberal Studies (ILS).

Having taken studio art once, and photography and drawing twice, she proposed a project that incorporated drawing and photography, sought to reveal something little known about her subjects, and used social media as an exhibition platform. Her canvas would be the face of her subjects.

But how to define her subjects’ identities? She created a written survey of 10 questions to elicit details about her subjects’ lives such as their passions, hobbies, collections, and routines. She invited her classmates to participate, and more than 45 people signed up.

The works start with a detail: a collection of plastic ducks, a dependence on alarm clocks, a beauty ritual, a favorite place. One girl talked about how she reads the newspaper daily, so Madison painted an image from a front-page photograph from The New York Times on her face, and then placed the portrait in the center of the original photo. Another girl described how she likes even numbers, which lead to an abstract black and white portrait in which the numbers seem to come to life.

For each subject, she created two photographs: a portrait of the painted face, and a portrait showing the painted face in a setting or with a prop. She posted the pairs on Instagram as she completed them, developing a following that now numbers more than 250. You can find her work on Instagram at portraits_by_madiizk.

As part of her project, she gave an oral presentation on Wednesday describing her process and what she learned. She said she enjoyed using the “face as not just a blank canvas but as a space to interact with.” She didn’t want the portraits to look “Halloweeny,” but it was challenging to create images that were visually appealing, imaginative and also accurate portrayals of character. “They have to make sense to the people looking at them,” she said.

 The project has been so rewarding that she hopes to continue it when she attends the University of Pennsylvania in September. "I love the portraits that I produce, and also the relationships I form while painting on my peers," she said. "One to two hours of alone time with someone creates an extremely personal connection. It's like we are in our own little painting bubble for that hour, and then we return to our separate friend groups. But we will always have the connection we formed when I was painting them. It's been a great way to get to know a lot of my peers at the end of senior year, right before we go our separate ways."


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