When I was growing up, we had a little calendar sitting in the kitchen window with a quote from Catherine Doherty for every day of the year. I remember my parents telling me to do the "duty of the moment". Her small snippets of wisdom blessed my childhood and continue to inspire and challenge me to this day. When I was asked to do a portrait of her, I felt no hesitation!
There are lots of photos of Catherine online, but few of decent resolution. I only found this one photo which, although small and in sepia tones, so beautifully captured her joy. Other tiny photos showed her wearing a BRIGHT "Russian red" dress and shawl. The person who commissioned this image requested that the shawl be included. I know several people who have had this shawl placed on their shoulders when they visited her poustinia in Combermere, Ontario. Pretty neat!
As per my usual, I created a digital composition first. I felt awkward asking anyone of shorter... more rotund... stature to pose for a photo, so I once again played the model. I found a cheap shawl at Value Village, and with some heavy liquifying and colour adjustment in Photoshop, had myself a suitable reference to work from.
Originally, the background was going to be plain blue, tying in the Marian blue that Catherine had painted on the doors at Madonna house. As I prayed about it, though, that just didn't quite capture enough of her story.
One element of Catherine's spirituality (which, in turn, comes from Eastern spirituality) is the poustinia, which means "desert". It is, in essence, a quiet place where you can go to hear God speak. It may be a physical location, such as a hermitage, or a secluded corner of your home. It may even simply be within the silence of your heart. Whenever I've contemplated this concept, I imagine a vast misty forest—not unlike the forests of Ontario where Madonna house is nestled, or the forests of Catherine's native Russia. So that is what I decided to put into the background of this painting. Already I've had others, familiar with the poustinia, immediately point this out upon seeing it.
The painting process was slow going, with a truckload of graphic design projects keeping me busy and restricting my painting time to the weekends. Also, certain elements of the painting challenged me in new ways, such as the shawl (I'd never painted a knitted texture before and it required much experimentation) and her hands (which were, of course, actually my hands and needed to be rendered about 40 years older). Her face was also a challenge—albeit, a thoroughly enjoyable one. For one, the overall size of the painting is only 11x14" (quite small by most standards), making her face hardly larger than a coin. She has very distinct features, and it took many hours working with a *very* small brush to perfect each detail and get her likeness close enough to my satisfaction. In the end, she's not perfect, but I think you can tell who it is. You can see her joy, which was my foremost goal.
It also took a while to decide on a song to accompany the time-lapse video. I kept dropping music files into my video editor, but nothing felt quite right. Once again, it was the poustinia that inspired me.
My all-time favourite hymn is Hosea (Come Back to Me), and in particular the version by Steve Bell and his daughter. When I enter "the silence of my heart", this song comes to mind. Come back to me with all your heart, don't let fear keep us apart... Long have I waited for your coming home to me and living deeply our new life. When I connected the dots, no further questions were asked; this was the perfect song to accompany this painting.
Throughout the duration of this painting, I read her autobiography, Fragments of My Life. I read it way back in my teens, but I had forgotten how wild her life was! She spoke like eight languages as a child, lived all over Europe and eastern North America, survived wars and starvation and extreme poverty. Although married into wealth and nobility, she gave up everything to live with and serve the poor. If you want to read her crazy story, told with her own quirky sense of humour, I highly recommend this book!
I can always tell when the Holy Spirit is working in and through a painting, and there is no doubt in my mind that this was one of them. Although she is not yet canonized, to us Canadians she feels like "our saint", and I know so many people who have been blessed by her writings and spirituality. It was such an honour to journey with and paint this beautiful woman. I hope this image blesses you too.
Watch the time-lapse video for "Catherine Doherty"
PLUS! How to paint a misty forest
COMING SOON! Are you interested in learning how to paint a misty forest, as seen in the background of Catherine Doherty? I have a short and easy tutorial video coming out August 9, 2019.
Available NOW to patrons!