Candice Bohannon: Portraits à l'huile avec Pathos

This article on Candice Bohannon, written by Selena Reder, originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Artist Magazine.


“Color plays a key role in Dementia (oil, 38×48),” says Bohannon. “The cold hues of the water against the fiery reds of the barren grassland reflect the inner turmoil and isolation of this elderly woman, Edith”

At an upscale assisted-living facility in Newport Beach, California, Candice Bohannon arrived with pencils and sketchpad. A woman had hired Bohannon to give drawing lessons to Edith, the woman’s aunt. The opportunity presented one of the most difficult and poignant subjects Bohannon had ever struggled to capture. Edith suffered from Alzheimer’s disease.

Depicting a Psychic Void

“It was hard to watch someone dealing with that amount of frustration—her mind and body becoming this prison,” says Candice Bohannon. “What the situation began to represent for me was the horror of dying without anyone knowing who you are.” The familial pain wrought by this cruel disease was personal for Bohannon, who had lost two grandfathers to Alzheimer’s.



Photographs record physical details, but drawings give Candice Bohannon a more visceral connection to her subjects. “The information I gather from life studies, such as Sketch of Edith (graphite, 14×11), is vital to the success of a large oil piece that I plan on creating with the help of photographic references,” she says.

In Sketch of Edith (above), Candice Bohannon renders Edith’s curls as a loose array of disorderly strokes. They hang over her face like a malaise. The small graphite sketch has the expressive naturalism of works by German Expressionist Käthe Kollwitz, whose work Bohannon admires. “The sketches of Edith,” says Bohannon, “focus on capturing the expression in her face, the feelings and mood of the moment—things a photograph cannot fully capture.”


candice-bohannon-Edith With a Silk Scarf

: ”The composition of Edith with a Silk Scarf (graphite, 24×15¼) is simple,” says Bohannon, “so that the many textures, values and patterns can shine forth.”

When Candice Bohannon doesn’t have the luxury of posing a model for an extended period, she works from photographs. This was the case with Dementia (at top), derived from photos taken outside Edith’s home. A brutal color combination of fiery orange grassland and a steel-gray lake makes the small woman smaller and transforms Edith’s surroundings into a “landscape of the mind.” For Dementia, Bohannon chose a birch plywood panel for her substrate, taking advantage of the smooth surface by giving her strokes an expressive forward thrust. She vigorously laid in the color and texture of the grasslands with bristle brushes. Thicker paint defines the directional movement of the grass, while color and light effects accentuate that movement. Mongoose and sable brushes, selected for their spring, allow for smooth and subtle applications of paint to add quiet detail to Edith’s face. Art historian Simon Schama writes in his book Rembrandt’s Eyes that the Dutch master often painted eyes obscured by shadow, thus suggesting the subject’s introspection or the “inner eye.” Bohannon, who admires Rembrandt’s work for its emotive quality, similarly veiled Edith’s striking green eyes with shadow. Bohannon, however, uses the technique to different effect; in Edith’s darkened gaze, the divine spark is gone.


Giving Vanitas a Face

Candice Bohannon faces the unsettling emotions of another illness in A Fall Come Early (below), a painting of an adolescent that expresses the anguish of a lost childhood.


In A Fall Come Early (oil, 42×34), Candice Bohannon wanted to tell the story of a brave girl in an extremely difficult situation. “Her clasped arms and resigned expression reg=present a solemn undertone,” says Bohannon.

The girl depicted in the painting suffers from Batten disease, a rare disorder of the nervous system. In addition to having lost her sight, she couldn’t spend much time out of bed because of impaired motor abilities. “She was so incredibly moving and gorgeous. I just had to paint her,” says Candice Bohannon, who found a spot in the woods near the girl’s home for a photo shoot. Before bringing the subject there, Bohannon had composed photographs in her mind while she sat and sketched a mossy patch of large rocks under the cover of trees.

Capturing her precise vision in a photo shoot isn’t always possible, however, so Candice Bohannon uses Photoshop to build what amounts to a technically generated mock-up or compositional drawing. She rearranges her images and sometimes even brings in different landscapes.

During a painting session, she’ll make use of all her reference material. She has sketches tacked onto her studio wall, and she’s also known to hold photographs and extra brushes in her right hand as she paints with her left hand. “It is a bit of a juggling act,” says Bohannon.

For a sensitive portrait like A Fall Come Early, Candice Bohannon prefers a canvas or linen substrate. She sized her canvas with rabbitskin glue and chose lead white primer because of its durability. Aware of the health hazards of lead white and other toxic substances associated with oils, she wears nitrile examination gloves (used by healthcare professionals), which allow for tactile sensation while protecting her skin. “I don’t want there to be any reason I cannot paint until I am old, gray and arthritic,” says Bohannon.

Nothing feels warm in A Fall Come Early, not even the girl’s gorgeous red hair. Her skin is so pale, it glows, and small blue veins whisper through her flesh. “A Fall Come Early is the darker piece of the series,” says Bohannon. The girl in that piece looks into the future at her coming death.” Like the vanitas genre of the Dutch Baroque, the painting is a tribute to beauty and transience. “The piece I’m trying to finish right now is more about the acceptance of death. This girl has an amazing amount of grace. She’s not at all angry about her condition or her lot in life.”

Candice Bohannon’s Change and Growth

Camdice Bohannon exhibits her own brand of acceptance and grace in regard to her art. She’s not afraid to make drastic changes at any stage in her work. The slightest incorrect angle can make her feel a painting is too tight and stuffy. An unsuccessfully mixed color isn’t tolerated. What she cannot remedy with a brush, she’ll sand down and paint over. It’s a gutsy practice she learned as an undergraduate at the Laguna College of Art and Design, where Professor Cynthia Grilli taught her to create with courage. Bohannon explains: “The professor would say, ‘If you can draw it once, you can draw it twice.’ She was famous for wiping out our drawings when we were on break.”



“Piles of clothing that seem to wrap around and consume the figure convey a sense of being overwhelmed,” says Candice Bohannon. ” I made Downpour (oil, 48×72) large because I didn’t think the painting would read as powerfully on a smaller scale.”

Such courage gives Bohannon the freedom to reach beyond her current considerable accomplishments and continue experimenting with media, methods and themes. She’s not interested in being defined solely as a portrait painter this early in her career. “I see myself as a representational painter,” she says, “but the subject of those paintings might be landscape, still life, portrait or a combination of those genres.” At this point, she chooses not to pursue gallery representation, avoiding any possibility of subordinating her artistic development to a client’s expectations. “I know that I’ll find the right gallery for my work eventually,” says Bohannon, “but the freedom to explore themes and ideas, such as those found in the Edith series, is invaluable to me at this formative stage.” For all Candice Bohannon’s grueling hours spent at the easel, she’s happy to be right where she is—at the beginning of a long career.


  • How” to paint flowers in oils> – free online demo by Candice Bohannon
  • How to Paint Portraits in Oil – emagazine
  • Painting Oil Portraits in Warm Light With Chris Saper – Watch the preview of this video download!


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