Older people are often overlooked and marginalised, says Dallas painter, Amy Werntz.
“Our culture is obsessed with the idea that youth equals beauty.”
But Ms Werntz believes life lays an imprint on the faces and bodies of older people that is beautiful: it’s the reason she has developed a self-described “obsession” with painting portraits of older people, especially women.
It started with an image from a book
“The first one I painted was an older woman whose image I found in a book,” Ms Werntz told HelloCare in an email exchange.
“It was very different from what I had been painting but I was very drawn to the photo, and still love the painting.”
After the success of that painting, Ms Werntz began thinking about her own grandparents.
“I was fortunate enough to have all of my grandparents the majority of my life, and still have a grandmother who will be 93 in a few months.
“I began thinking – obsessing – about finding a way to get photos of my grandmother to paint.”
Her grandmother had expressive hands, and Ms Werntz wanted to find a way to capture the way she used them when she spoke.
“My whole life I loved the way she used her hands. I wanted to find a way to get a picture with her hands and face.”
Ms Werntz says the hands that appear in her paintings are like a second portrait, and she always tries to include them in her works.
Finding inspiration in the everyday
Because her grandmother didn’t live nearby, Ms Werntz began to take more notice of the people around her, people living out their everyday lives – whether at the grocery store or the book store. She wanted to work out a way she could paint these people.
“I’m not good at approaching people, and have found older people do not understand why I would be interested in photographing or painting them.
“I would never want to make them feel uncomfortable… so I decided (using) candid photos was best for me.
“I started keeping my camera with me the majority of the time and taking photos of people I would see while I was out. I am always on the lookout for someone whose posture, expressions, catches my eye,” Ms Werntz said.
She now always paints her portraits from photos taken of the subject without their knowing.
“I love the un-self-conscious moments I am able to capture in candid photos.
“In my experience, people, especially older women, become very self conscious at the idea of being represented.
“I find them beautiful, so I would not want to make them feel uncomfortable wondering why I would want to photograph or paint them, so I prefer to paint them unknowingly.”
Familiarity can breed compassion
Ms Werntz says she hopes people may recognise something familiar in the portraits, and that might help to generate greater compassion for older people.
“My goal with these paintings is to represent these (primarily) women in a way that shows how beautiful the physical imprint of life is on us.
“I want people to look at the works and see a loved one, a friend, or something of themselves in the subject,” she said.
“If people are more aware of this in themselves, it may make them more compassionate and respectful to those around them.”
Inside, old people feel young
As people grow older, they often comment that the past – and therefore their younger selves – seems not so distant.
Ms Werntz commented that people often say ‘it feels like it was yesterday’. As she grows older, she said she feels the sensation herself daily.
“As people in my life get older, I can see that while they may physically feel their age, inside they feel young,” she said
“I think it is important that people take a closer look, and see that people can be beautiful at any age, and that we are all the same.
“In my opinion, every line, wrinkle, spot tells a story, it represents the life that person has led. Removing them takes away their history.
“Also, I love the idea of taking a simple, seemingly unimportant moment in someone’s daily life and giving it importance. These little moments are what truly make up our lives.”
Why would you want to paint an older person?
Ms Werntz said the paintings have elicited mixed responses, with some finding it difficult to understand why she would want to paint older people.
“Many people look at the paintings and see someone they know or love, or feel they can personally relate to the subject, and I think they find that comforting.
“On the other hand, I have had some people who don’t like seeing older women painted. It seems to make them uncomfortable,” she said.
“Maybe it’s that I would want to paint them as they are, not taking away the wrinkles or spots. I think some people do not like the idea of being confronted with this reality.”
Ms Werntz said she doesn’t have a favourite – each painting becomes her new favourite. But the portrait she eventually did of her grandmother remains the most special to her.