(I wrote this post over a month ago at this point, but I have held off on posting until I received my print, assessed it’s quality, and then sent prints to my parents and my siblings. Those prints are finally in their hands, so I can make this post without spoiling anything).

I’ll get to the title of this post in a bit. Be forewarned, this is going to be long, and perhaps emotional.

On June 8, 2020, my last remaining grandparent, my memere, passed away, two weeks to the day after her 99th birthday. I knew it was inevitable, we all did. But it was still a hard blow for me, not just because she was my last grandparent, not just because I would miss seeing and talking to her at family functions, but because throughout my life, she was always the same. To my mind’s eye, she barely aged in the 43 years I knew her. She always had that curly, died-reddish hair, the same “memere shoes” and “memere sweaters”, had the same smile, and the same mannerisms. Maybe there were a few extra wrinkles, but still, she had always been there, and it felt like she always would be. She had some significant health issues last year that landed her in the hospital for weeks, and then in a rehab facility for several more. But she made it home, shocking everyone, though I secretly expected it. She was a strong woman (and I hear she passed down a touch of stubbornness…). After several trips visiting places around the world with my pepere after he retired, when she should have been enjoying her “golden years”, she found herself caring for her husband after he suffered a series of increasingly debilitating strokes over a span of ten or more years. I think she would have stayed strong and mentally sharp regardless, but I think taking care of him for so long made sure of it. He passed away in 2009, in the home he built himself, surrounded by family. Memere was adamant that she didn’t want to wind up in a nursing home, she wanted to stay in the house pepere built until the end, and she did.

Being an artist, one of the ways I cope with, well, life, is to make art. Especially when I’m feeling strong emotions. When my nana died in 1999, she was the first person I was close to that had died (prior to that, it was my memere’s mother, who we called “the other memere” because to us little grandchildren, they looked the same. I was about 4 when she passed away, too young for it to be an emotional experience for me). It hurt, obviously. I wanted to paint or draw a portrait of her, but I didn’t feel I had the skills to do it, and I was still mired in one of many cycles of depression in my life and hadn’t been making art (that spell lasted for two years post-college before I picked up a pencil again). For xmas 2004, married with one kid and another on the way, I decided I wanted to try that portrait of my nana as a gift to my grampa. I hadn’t been in the studio much at that point, being a new father (and a stay-at-home parent), and I didn’t get my act together. I knew my grampa still dearly missed my nana (when he passed away, we discovered he had saved a few strands of her beautiful silver hair in his wallet), and I wanted to let him know that I did, too. Not long into 2005 (I can’t remember if it was a few weeks or a few months, but I think it was still winter), my grampa passed away somewhat suddenly. Sure, he was just shy of 90, but we had all just seen him at xmas and seemed quite healthy. I had never drawn the portrait to give to him. That stung, a lot. It’s something I still regret. I ended up drawing a portrait of them both and gave it to my parents. When my pepere passed away in September 2009, I wanted to make sure I did a portrait of him in a more timely fashion, and I gave it to my memere as a xmas gift that year.

After I got off the phone with my mom that Monday afternoon, as the tears started, I knew what I was going to do. As I said, memere was the last of my grandparents, the last living connection of that generation to some of the happiest memories I have of my youth. I couldn’t paint a portrait of just her, I had to paint all of my grandparents, together.

I knew it would be challenging, and I knew it would be time consuming, but I had to do it to say goodbye, to keep the memories but move on. With the help of my sister and one of my cousins (and my wife who tracked down a picture I knew I had but couldn’t find), I managed to get my hands on some really perfect reference photos.

This is what my nana and grampa will always look like for me. I’m 99% sure this was taken for their 50th wedding anniversary, but that 2005 date stamp is misleading. Nana died in 1999, and grampa died in 2005, so I’m guessing that’s an artifact from my digital camera, which I must have used to take a picture of this picture for reference to paint their portraits.

Memere and pepere will eternally look like this for me. I’m not sure of the story behind this photo (I’m sure my mom or one of my other family members can tell me). I originally thought it was a 50th wedding anniversary, but then I remembered when that was and (thanks to my cousin Cheryl) saw some pictures of it and realized this picture is older. Given the prop in the foreground, I”m wondering if had something to do with a cruise they went on.

It was difficult to capture their likenesses. I made a rough sketch, but decided to “cheat” and lay the photos in when I noticed my proportions were wrong.

The rough sketch. I knew I had some proportional issues at this stage, so I resorted to adding the photos under the sketch so I could see where I was off.

After making a few corrections, I then did a tighter sketch.

In the tighter sketch, I left out certain details, like nana’s blouse pattern and the stripes on pepere’s jacket, as well as everyone’s hair. I figured I’d be tackling the hair with a special brush to help me achieve the right texture anyway, but I ended up mostly using the same chalk brush.

I was still trying to figure out what I wanted the whole thing to look like when it was done. I thought about shading the whole thing with a digital pencil, but that just wasn’t working right for me. I ended up using my fallback brush: the chalk brush. I built up overlapping layers of tones, picked the blended tones to smooth the transitions, painted more, rinse and repeat. No fancy correction layers for shadows or highlights (well, maybe one of each for small sections to make final adjustments) like I normally might do, just straight up digital paint. The original plan was to keep the line art layer, but I ended up not liking that look, and I was painting fairly realistically so it wasn’t needed.

Close up of nana and grampa. Nana’s beautiful silver hair was a challenge, but I think I did okay with it. I think I managed to capture their likenesses and their life fairly well. I’ve always said the big difference between a photo and a painting is that a photo captures a moment in time, but a painting can capture a life. Even in a fairly photo-realistic painting, there are subtle things going on with brushstrokes and what the artist emphasizes that is just different from a picture.

A close up of grampa to show off some of the brushstrokes and details.

I enjoyed painting grampa’s tie.

Nana’s hair.

There was some really nice lighting in the reference photo of nana and grampa that I tried to punch up a bit, and then had to transfer to memere and pepere.

I remember nana’s dress/blouse (I can’t remember which it was). I always thought it had such a unique pattern and a great color (obviously mine’s not in color, though).

Close up of memere and pepere. My memory of pepere’s smile was that it always had a slight smirk to it, like he was almost trying to hold back his mirth.

Close up of memere.

Close up of pepere. I noticed when I drew a portrait of him after he passes away in 2009 that I pretty much have his nose.

The details of pepere’s suit and tie were pretty time consuming.

Art in general tends to be emotionally draining, at least for me. You’re expressing yourself no matter what it is you are doing: writing, drawing, sculpting, singing, dancing, performing, etc. That expression is theoretically out there for others to see, to experience, to judge. This piece was a whole other level of emotionally draining, though. In the first two weeks, I could only sit and work on it for a couple of hours at a time, and then I was done for the day. There were actually only a few exceptions when I was able to work on it longer, but the average was about 4 hours at a time, which drew this project out over about 4 weeks, for a total of 56 hours and 17 minutes (not including putting this post together and having prints made). As I was drawing and painting, all sorts of wonderful memories kept coming up, so I started a Word document and would take occasional breaks to jot down notes (with the idea being to flesh them out later). It was almost like one last, long conversation with them, remembering everything from the big life events, to their mannerisms or off-hand interactions. I know I have more to write down, and I’d love to sit with my family some time (once the pandemic clears up) to share pictures and stories and make sure these memories get recorded somewhere.

All of my grandparents were wonderful, loving people that I have, thankfully, tons of great, happy memories with.

Now, I suppose it’s time to address the title of this blog post. My whole family has always been a strong support network for me, always encouraging and believing in me. I am a better person for having them all in my life, particularly being so fortunate to have my grandparents in my life for so long, for so much of my formative years. I remember how good it made me feel as a kid when I would draw something and one of them would marvel at it. I remember one time we had gone to the airport to see memere and pepere off on one of their world adventures, I don’t remember where or quite how old I was, but I was a pre-teen. Like most 80s males, I was really into G.I. Joe at the time, and I spent a lot of time drawing the characters (Transformers and superheroes, too). I had been working on a larger drawing of one of the Dreadnocks, (Zandar, in case you were wondering)-

I used to think this character was really cool for some reason. I’m not sure if it was the facial tattoos, that sick hair cut, the random pauldrons, the pink bandanna, or all of the above. The drawing I was working on was my version of the art on this packaging.

-and I had brought it with me. I’m not sure if it was to have something to do while we waited for them to board the plane (back when one could do that), or if I brought it to show them. Regardless, my pepere wasn’t one to talk a ton. I had precious few conversations with him (though still lots of great memories, like him helping me with my Eagle project, or spending time with him at his WWII reunions in Myrtle Beach), but he would let me know he was proud. He looked at my drawing, got up, and started walking over to strangers in the airport to show off what his grandson had drawn, making sure they knew how young I was and yet I could produce something like that.

While working on this painting, I really feel like my skills leveled up. I’m notorious for hating much of the art I produce, at least eventually. I know it’s a perpetual cycle of getting better, but it’s rare for me to actually look at something and be impressed with myself. I struggled with this piece in the beginning, but I hit a definite point where I was actually impressing myself with what was coming out of my hands. I don’t say that lightly, and I don’t say it to brag. I know where I need to get better, but I know that working on this resulted in significant skill improvements. I’m a better person for having had all 4 of my grandparents in my life, and now I’m a better artist with their passing. I truly feel I have this one last thanks to give them, I just regret I can’t do it with a hug.