Studio Visit: Don Bachardy

Don Bachardy; Photo credit Gary Brewer

Don Bachardy: Every Face Has To Be Important

“It is our task to imprint this temporary, perishable earth into ourselves so deeply…that its essence can rise again…”

Rainer Maria Rilke

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking. Recording the man shaving at the window opposite and the woman in the kimono washing her hair. Some day, all this will have to be developed, carefully printed, fixed.”

Christopher Isherwood

Written by Gary Brewer
As artists we often spend years searching for our subject; it is a journey of self-discovery to find a form large enough to encompass the complexity of our needs. For some artists they know what they are after from the beginning of their careers, and commit themselves to this pursuit.

Don Bachardy is an artist who has dedicated his life to the art of portraiture- it is a form in which the subject is always fresh and elusive. The human animal is a complex phenomenon: the ever-changing thoughts and feeling animating the features with a kaleidoscope of shifting emotion. His commitment to this form is full of the youthful enthusiasm that he had when he first began. It is the pursuit of capturing the likeness and inner life of his subjects and to explore and expand the formal and expressive means to do so.

When I visited the home and studio of Don Bachardy, nestled on a hillside overlooking Santa Monica Canyon with the Pacific Ocean beyond, it was like entering an enchanted world filled with a deep history of friendships and the love that he shared with the writer Christopher Isherwood. Though Isherwood passed away in 1986, his profound impact on shaping the course of Don’s life can still be felt. Don speaks with the deepest love and admiration for this soul with whom he shared his life for 30 years.

The home is filled with artworks from dear friends: every inch of available wall space in every room has paintings and drawings displayed. Billy Al Bengston, Peter Alexander, Paul Wonner and Joe Fay are just a few that I recognized from the hundreds of works that fill the home. As we walked from the house to Don’s studio: a converted garage with a spectacular view of the Pacific, Don spoke about meeting Chris on the beach that we could see in the distance, a magical detail from a tapestry of a life richly lived.

The studio is full of portraits done over the last 50 plus years. The development of his style and his use of materials and techniques can be seen in the transition from his early works- that tend to be pencil on paper in a highly realistic style- to the looser more expressive works that he began in the early 1980s.

Don has painted over fourteen thousand portraits during his lifetime, the range of styles changing over time. In his studio, there are drawings of Christopher Isherwood from the 1960s to 1986: the year that Chris passed away. The early pencil drawings are done in a clean realistic approach. The placement and amount of empty space surrounding the finely crafted passages are done with sensitivity and purpose- the empty space is an active player in the composition of the image. As one moves forward in time, Don’s style becomes more free and expressive. There is a beautiful portrait of Chris, done in a one-hour sitting. It is an acrylic on canvas, done with swift bold stokes. Don’s ability to capture his likeness in such a loose fluid style is a masterful feat. His color sensitivity is on full display with subtle shades of blues interacting with the hot earth reds and oranges. The painting captures the intimacy between the two of them; it is a painting done by one who knows every wrinkle and fold in that particular face and the life that gave shape to them. At the end of Chris’s life, Don was his sole caregiver. During the last six months, Don did four hundred and forty eight drawings of Chris, including eleven after he passed away. Don said of this experience, “ Chris was so ill I felt that through drawing him, I was feeling what he was going through. I felt as though sharing this experience so intimately, I was in some way becoming Chris.”

Don Bachardy; Photo credit Gary Brewer

As we spoke, I asked him about his life and work. “Early in our relationship, Chris suggested that I should go to art school. I was very reluctant because I was afraid- afraid of failure. After three years of encouraging me, I finally began classes at Chouinard. On the very first day during a life drawing class as I was working, other students stood behind me, admiring my drawing. It was so encouraging. I began to feel a new confidence in myself- that my work was good, better than most of the other students. Every night when I came home, Chris would ask to see what I had done in my classes. He would spend time looking carefully at my drawings, always encouraging me, telling me that my work was improving. He was so proud of me and I was happy to make him proud. His support was so critical to my becoming an artist. It was while I was a student at Chouinard that I decided to become an artist. I had found my vocation!”

Don’s portraits capture something essential about the sitter. He looks carefully, striving for a good likeness, but it is the inner life of his subjects that animates his portraits. His inquisitive mind and ability to capture the personality of the sitter and simultaneously to express his own personality, gives his work a poetic force.

During our conversation Don said of his work, “ From the very beginning, I have always known what I wanted to do. There was never any doubt- I wanted to paint portraits of people from life. I have never grown tired of it or lost my enthusiasm and excitement. I never take the easy path. I always challenge myself and find deep satisfaction in meeting the challenge.”

As our conversation was nearing the end, Don asked me if I would like to sit for a portrait. I was thrilled and deeply honored and replied with an enthusiastic “Yes!”
He began organizing his materials, placing my chair just so, selecting a piece of paper, his brushes and ink etc. His drawing board had an accumulation of ink-covered fingerprints covering the back edge. It was ink built up from the thousands of portraits that he had made over the years. I jokingly said, “Did you buy this drawing board at Chouinard?” He replied, “I bought this board on my first day of classes at Chouinard in 1957.” All of his tools: his stool, the large container for water, the seat/easel, and the paint spattered floor of his studio, exude an aura, an aura of time, dedication and the alchemy of taking the most humble materials: ink, water and a brush and creating something original and new.

After I was seated, Don scooted up very close- we were two to three feet apart. When he began painting, he asked me to look directly at him. It was psychologically compelling to sit so close, gazing into his eyes as he worked with tireless energy on my portrait. It was a two and one half hour sitting without a break. As he worked, I was fascinated by his eyes- returning to scrutinize my features every 5 to 10 seconds. At times, leaning back to access what was going on in the painting, I could sense his mind organizing the details- what to emphasize, what to leave as just a suggestion. He worked with Sumi brushes and black ink thinned with water, spending a great deal of time on subtle details. Each line was carefully considered: darker here, lighter there, using his thumb swiping a wet ink line into a subtle transition. Small areas became hypercritical in order to create the effects of space, contrast and light. It was fascinating to watch his thoughts flicker through his mind and eyes in his focused, energetic pursuit to capture my image. Every time he met my gaze there was a look of intense searching- a quest to capture that fugitive essence of one’s being: his drawing hand, mind and eye choreographed into a single state of consciousness.

After we stopped, it was wonderful to see my portrait. It has an excellent likeness done with an economy of means; but more than that, he captured something of my soul. At its best, portraiture is as an act of conveying a quality beyond appearance, of looking deeply and reflecting what is seen and felt about someone.

Portrait paintings from ancient Egyptian and Roman funeral portraits to the present, can capture something about their subjects that is deeply moving to us. We can sense a quality about them: who they were, what they did, the time that they lived in. It is astonishing to feel the subjective presence of someone from hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Portraits seek to suspend the ephemeral nature of our world. In a portrait, our likeness can be fixed through the power of painting, to give our reflection a few more moments of time on the stage of life.

In Don Bachardy’s studio, one is surrounded by countless souls, many of them dear friends, some of them no longer with us. As I think about Don’s work, and reflect on my experience as one of his subjects, I can sense his desire to capture some ineffable essence: a quest that is sublime in nature.

When Don was young, he had always wanted to be an actor. In the beautiful 2007 documentary film *Chris & Don: A Love Story, Don said something deeply insightful about his state of mind while he is painting. “In a way, I have been able to satisfy my acting ambitions, because what I am really doing is impersonating my sitter when I am painting. Every face has to be important.”

As artists we are searchers on a quest to capture a radiant presence, something that will shimmer through time. In Don Bachardy’s paintings one meets the gaze of another, from yesterday or sixty years ago. As we look, they look back at us, and an aspect of their personality has been captured through the lines and brushstrokes of Don’s hand, eye and mind. Within those lines, the poetry, intelligence and aesthetic impulse of the artist leaves its imprint- a record of a moment in time.

Chris & Don: A Love Story, 2007 by Tina Mascara and Guido Santi can be seen on Amazon Prime Video.


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