Arts Scene – Sketching Beyond the Surface: Stephanie McColl

by Jo Barnes | photos by Kathryn Alvarez Photography – 

Angles. Proportions. Spacing. In drawing a good portrait, there are plenty of things to measure. But one thing that can never be fully measured is the impact on the person who receives the portrait.

Typically, a portrait is a representation or likeness, but for Sidney portrait artist Stephanie McColl, it is an opportunity to go beyond, to reflect the core of the person or animal she is drawing and to share that with the viewer.

“I like to capture the essence of an animal or person,” shares Stephanie. “I try to capture their uniqueness.”

Her portraits are typically eight-and-a-half by 11 inches and feature either one or two subjects. Customers request a portrait for various reasons, like celebrating a loved one or preserving the memory of a pet.

“People have animals that have passed on, and they would like a portrait as a memento or memory,” says Stephanie.

Portrait drawing offers the chance for a glimpse into the soul. This is something, however, that is familiar to Stephanie. As a long-time animal intuitive, or an animal whisperer if you will, Stephanie has both a real affinity for her four-legged subjects and an innate ability to communicate with them.

“I love all kinds of animals. I remember a bee or bug would land on my hand and they wouldn’t fly off instantly,” she says. “A friend’s dog or cat would typically jump into my lap.”

Clients provide Stephanie with a photo of the subject. They choose the size of the portrait, colour choices and shipping details. As it is detailed work, completion time can vary.

“The length of time needed really depends on the size of portrait,” remarks Stephanie. “On average, it takes a day or two to complete.”

Stephanie uses artist’s pencils to create her work, and each piece goes through various stages. “I mostly use coloured pencils. I use Staedtler or Prisma Colour which is my favourite due to the diverse colours it offers,” she says. “I use a lot of layering. I start with a light or dark colour depending on the background of the portrait.”

Stephanie has honed her craft over the years through hours of practise. It all traces back to her high school days. While she really enjoyed drawing at that time, a request one day from a school administrator opened up a new artistic opportunity which had a lasting impact.

“My principal commissioned me to do portraits of his cats, and he supplied me with sketch books and pencils,” says Stephanie. “Then, another teacher wanted me to do portraits of their cats. After that, people were interested in my portraits.”

For Stephanie, the face has always held a special interest for her.

“I find faces fascinating; every wrinkle tells a story,” she says. “People live such complex lives, and it comes through in their faces.”

Whether she is creating a portrait of a person or a beloved animal, she will focus more often than not on the subject’s eyes.

“(Eyes) are very important,” she notes. “They speak about how an animal or a person views themselves.”

Portrait work is very detailed and challenging. Whether it’s getting the right proportions or accurate shadowing, you can get stuck in the process. “Sometimes when I run up against a block, I look at the photo from afar,” comments Stephanie. “Walking away is a key component. Sometimes, you can get too wrapped up in details.”

She has done a number of portraits over the years and discovered the whole process is both a wonderful creative outlet and way to connect with others.

“I like to be able to express my creativity in a way to inspire someone else,” shares Stephanie. “I hope the portrait speaks to them or inspires them in a certain way.”

Those who have commissioned the portraits often comment on her ability to tap into the heart of the person or the animal. “When people receive the portrait, often they say “Stephanie, you really captured her joy or his spirit.”

And, sometimes a portrait can evoke deep emotions and gratitude in a recipient. “A friend of my mom commissioned me to do a portrait of her guru. I loved his face because he had a loving demeanour. I wanted to capture his love,” she shares. “When she saw the portrait, she burst into tears.”

It took hours for Stephanie to work out the proportions, define the features and determine the colours and lighting on that face. But doing a portrait always takes time. What cannot be calculated or rendered is that reaction of gratitude or depth of emotion from the person seeing the portrait for the first time. It is a worthwhile reward for any artist.

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