Mary Challinor was successful and bored. For 25 years she worked as a science and medical illustrator and designer. “Just before I turned 50, I was getting jobs but it always felt like, `I already did that,’” she said. “I decided if I was going to change my career, I should do it then.”
Although she was a gifted artist—”I could draw right from the start; there were a lot of things no one had to show me”—she had never learned to paint with oils. She took several years off to take classes at the Corcoran Art School. “That was where the idea of doing portraits came to me,” she said.
Mary submitted a self-portrait to a contest sponsored by the National Portrait Gallery (shown in the photo at top). In a field of 4,000, she was named one of 100 semi-finalists. “Once I won that recognition, I said it’s time to do this career; so I began to accept commissions,” she said. Since then, Mary has done more than 40 portraits, pencil sketches and oil paintings. Five years ago, she began doing landscapes as well.
Mary’s process for producing a portrait is detailed and deliberate, not surprising for someone who worked in the science area for demanding clients on deadlines. Sitting in her windowed dining area (“the inside-outside room”) Mary explained the process by displaying the many photographs she takes before she puts pencil to paper or brush to canvas.
For a drawing, Mary has the subject come to her home for a photo sitting. For a painting, Mary will scout locations within the client’s home. (If the client is in a different locale, she will travel to them.) “I work with natural light so it has to be near a window,” she said. In about an hour, Mary will take 500 photographs. Once the photographs are developed, Mary will go over them with the client, finally selecting the one that she will work from to sketch or paint the final portrait. “They sign the back of the one they want,” she explained. “What they are signing is this pose and more specifically, this face.”
When she is commissioned for a portrait, Mary gives each client comprehensive instructions regarding appearance and what to wear, but there are always surprises, particularly where teens are concerned. “There are things you just can’t think of,” she said. “One of the girls that I photographed had a bar stamp and a partial manicure on her hand.” To identify minors, bars use a hand stamp that doesn’t wash off. Mary had to return for another round of photos.
Mary advises that clients keep their clothing simple: “You will be looking at this for a long time, you risk growing very tired of some current trend in fashion. Aim for classic and simple.” Again, with teens, there are always challenges. One young woman showed up for her photo shoot wearing a favorite tank top that had holes in it. “I wanted to weep,” Mary said. She now meets in advance with the parent and child to agree on the clothing as well as on what jewelry will be worn. “Everyone is much calmer once [there’s agreement] and it makes the photographing go much better because no one is arguing,” she said.
Although Mary has a website, she doesn’t have a gallery and does all her work on commission. She was asked to visit a client on the eastern shore of Maryland not to paint the house, but the scene from the windows. “They would then have a picture of a view from their house that they could then hang in their apartment in the city,” Mary said. “Most people really love their country homes and I think that’s a really good idea.” Other landscapes are sold by word of mouth. “When I have one done I ask people if they’d like to come see it.”
Mary was born in Houston, Texas, but moved with her family to New Haven, Connecticut, when she was four. “My dad was simultaneously getting a PhD and working at the Peabody Museum,” she said. “I used to go and hang out on Saturdays and watch the man who painted the diorama backgrounds at the Peabody. His name was Rudy Zallinger and he was very famous. I used to watch him work.” In 1967, her father was hired by the Smithsonian and they moved to Washington. “Because my father worked in museums, I was aware of science illustration as a career,” she said.
For nine years, Mary has been in a group headed by Steven Cushner, a well know abstract painter, that meets once a month at the Corcoran for five hours, the bulk of the time involves critiquing each other’s work. “That’s incredibly valuable because otherwise you work in a complete vacuum,” she said. “They know my work and can see things I can’t because I’m too close to it.”
In the age of Facebook and cellphone photos, why do people still commission portraits? “With teenagers, and I’ve done both boys and girls, I think [the parents or the grandparents] want to catch the moment in a way that’s more deep, more rich than you can with a photograph,” she said. “You’re looking at an instant with a photograph, but the portrait takes weeks, months to do, so there’s more in the portrait than there is in the photograph. They want to capture that.”
Mary said that she had her portrait done when she was a little girl and later had the artists do a portrait of her infant son. I” asked her at the time what happens when you deliver a portrait and the client says, `I don’t like it. I don’t think that looks like my cousin.’ She said, `the worst thing that can happen to a portrait is that it lives in an attic.’ I have held that in my head for 30 years because I know exactly now what she was talking about. Your client needs to be happy and my job is to make sure that they get a portrait that makes them happy. I want my clients to say, `this is better than I imagined.’ And usually that’s what they say.”
For more information, please visit the website for Mary Challinor.
Woman Around Town’s Six Questions:
Favorite Place to Eat: Palena and New Heights
Favorite Place to Shop: Neiman Marcus (with Bea Birch)
Favorite D.C. Sight: The entire city as seen from the grounds of the National Cathedral
Favorite D.C. Memory: Getting engaged on the banks of the Potomac
What You Love about D.C.: Easy navigability and great museums, especially the National Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum
What You Hate about D.C.: Department of Motor Vehicles