Reflections in Oil

In the studio with Eileen Mayhew


When portraitist Eileen Mayhew reflects, it is usually through a mirror or a pane of glass, changing the space in one of her generational oil portraits. The Bristol resident paid her dues, making a living for 15 years sketching countless numbers of people at fairs and festivals throughout New England, sharpening her skills. That experience evolved into a formal portrait artist career.

Forever a figurative painter, Eileen uses reflections and reflective surfaces in two-dimensional space in order to extend it out, so that the viewer becomes involved. The image exists both in front of and behind the viewer simultaneously, calling into question several perceptions through the same work. As she says, reflection “creates shapes that would not ordinarily reside,” not to mention the psychological content that a mirror may add, especially in a portrait.

“When I do a portrait commission, my goal is to achieve a ‘speaking’ likeness. The portrait has to feel alive while still a fine art painting,” says Eileen. “I sometimes incorporate reflective surfaces or mirrors in a portrait, but rarely in a commissioned work.”

A native Rhode Islander, Eileen spent eight years in Washington, DC, then came back to open a studio to paint full-time in 1974. A superb teacher and a member of many art associations, she is the co-founder of IMAGO, a Gallery of Art and Fine Craft, at 36 Market Street in Warren, a non-profit run by artists.

Her work is a direct reflection of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez, which is not only a portrait of the Spanish Royal family of King Philip IV, but also a self-portrait of the painter. “The king and queen can be seen in a small mirrored image in the background,” Eileen says. “It is a very complex and conceptual composition. It’s said that the canvas that Velazquez is working in the painting is Las Meninas. I took a cue from this work and started thinking about the portrait in a very different way. I took the idea of reflections in my work as well.

Eileen says a great portrait must also be a great painting, including all the elements of depth, such as color and composition. It also has to include specifics about the individual subject, whatever makes that person special or unique. One such portrait is of Warren’s renowned Luther Blount, owner/founder of Blount Marine and Blount Seafood, standing in a wheat field, so alive it seems to breathe and speak.

“A portrait captures a moment in time and has to be kinetic, especially when working from a live sitter rather than a photograph. A sitter cannot remain frozen in time, so the artist must capture whatever is specific about the expressions of the face and body language,” says the artist.

She has painted countless likenesses, from Blount to George Sisson (Father of the East Bay Bike Path) to her “most memorable,” a recent painting of Abraham Lincoln on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Eileen’s path was already carved by age three when she began to draw. Her grandfather, Joseph Ward, was an artist who painted religious murals in various Catholic parishes. Ward was a devoted early mentor. As she grew older, inspired by the portrait genius of Norman Rockwell, she went to hundreds of art festivals, fairs, malls and craft shows, learning to draw quickly and spontaneously.

Photographs can lie, she adds. “It is not an accurate likeness, sometimes, and the darks are too dark and the edges are too sharp. There are very few hard edges on a person, so an artist has to look for these things,” says Eileen. “Only experience from life can compensate.”

Her choice of oils cannot lie, however. They will tell the truth for centuries because of her meticulous preparation and study, leading to what is called ‘generational’ art. “I have studied how to paint work that will last more than a generation and, after painting for over 40 years, my work has stood the test of time,” says Eileen. “I use the best oils, canvas, mediums, etc., build my own painting supports and make my own frames to complete the work. If a painting is kept clean and out of direct sun light, it will last for hundreds of years.”