North Grenville’s resident nature artist took up the challenge of sketching one portrait a day for the entire month of January. Aleta Karstad got the idea from her friend and Ottawa artist, Laurie Foster. Laurie is known for her botanical art, but is also a courtroom artist who illustrates court cases for the local media. Just before the start of January, she posted something on Facebook about challenging herself to do one sketch a day for an entire month. “She didn’t directly challenge me, but I thought it would be a good exercise,” Aleta says.
Although she already had some experience with doing pastel portraits back in the 1980s, Aleta says that sketching people is not something she does very often. At first, she found that it was taking her a while to get a good likeness. However, as the month went on, she has become faster and more precise with her drawings. “I insist on a likeness. I have to be ninety eight per cent right with a portrait sketch before I’ll let it go.”
All the portraits are sketched from photos, which allows Aleta to choose a moment in time that shows emotion and really speaks to her as an artist. “I can choose really candid photos and gestures and smiles and situations that somebody who was posing live wouldn’t hold for that long.”
Capturing the feeling, emotion, and a person’s spirit in the moment in her portraits is extremely important for Aleta. While most of the portraits have been of well-known biologists, family members, and friends (including local indigenous and environmental rights activist, Lorraine Rekmans), she also sketched a particularly striking portrait of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on inauguration day. “In that case it was a spirit of closeness, trust, and affection, and to see that between the President and the Vice President, between people that are going to be working together in such an important position, I have never seen affection like that expressed in a photograph of politicians. I was really caught by that, the feeling in that picture.”
Aleta enjoys the challenge of sketching from photos, as it allows her to play with lines, creating a likeness, but also ensuring she has her own unique stamp on the drawing. “[A] photograph is made out of shapes. You can find lines to follow, but, with the sketches, I like to play with the lines, I like to look for them and see the movement of the surface of the person’s face or hair and follow it with a line. It ends up being more musical in a way.”
That musicality and artistic license is something Aleta really respects in an artist’s work. “The art that I enjoy looking at is when I can see the artist’s brush stroke or pencil stroke, or something that the artist has done that shows their hand in it. It doesn’t have to reduce the precision or reduce the truth. It shows a kind of dance. It shows the rapport between the artist and the subject. It’s a kind of dance, or a kind of music that the artist contributes to truth.”
Aleta has really enjoyed feeling her work evolve over the last month, and she has also found people’s pleasure with the portraits extremely gratifying. “The sketching challenge has been particularly rewarding in this time of COVID isolation, as it’s a way of reaching out and touching people’s lives, both the subjects and people who know them.”
To see all of Aleta’s portraits, find her on Facebook under KarstadArt. At the end of the month, she will also be uploading all of the sketches to the painting journal on her website: www.aletakarstad.com.