Readers of this column already know that March 15th was the third and final anniversary of my Daily Portrait Project (DPP), in which I made a non-photographic image of myself every day for three years. One of the best things for me about the DPP was that my commitment to it was by definition a commitment to a daily art-making practice. I had never had that in my life before, and it was terrific. So even though I was ready to stop putting myself in every picture, I wasn’t ready to stop making a picture every day. I decided that I’d let myself have a different theme every month, and that it could be anything – a subject, a media – or even just a color. It would be whatever evolved in my work that I would like to focus on for a month.

As a transition from staring at my own face for three years, I thought it would fun to throw a portrait party and look at some other faces. A portrait party is usually a get-together where artists draw each other. Originally I thought I would have a traditional live portrait party, then keep it going on Flickr. Flickr is a ‘photo-sharing’ website which also has a rich international community of non-photographic artists posting and commenting on each other’s work. Since I’m generally more interested in figurative work, and since self-portraits had been my focus for so long, most of the artists I was in contact with on Flickr were also figurative artists. Therefore, I thought I might be able to interest a few of them in posting photos of themselves for me to draw from, and in drawing me and each other.

Unfortunately, as the DPP was winding up, I found myself in the middle of a family medical emergency and in no position to throw a live party. I still wanted to start drawing other artists, however, so that left Flickr. A week before the end of the DPP, I started a Flickr group called “Julia Kay’s Portrait Party”(JKPP) and sent around some invites. I crossed my fingers and hoped a couple people would post photos by the time I was ready to start.

Well, apparently I wasn’t the only self-portrait artist in the world hungry for another face to stare at.

In that first week, before I even began drawing anyone myself, 60 artists jumped on board and drew more than 200 portraits of each other, including two dozen of me. After 6 weeks, we had 150 members from around the world who had posted more than 1400 portraits of each other, including more than 75 of me. Everyone was jazzed. Steve Huison told me this was the best fun he’d ever had with the internet, and another artist quipped, “..thank you for inventing this insane pas de millions… I love it”. And when I recommended another group to Flickr newcomer Elizabeth Hall, she told me “They’re not having nearly as much fun over there.”

Anne Watkins summed it up with this poetic metaphor: waking up to find new portraits of herself was like finding love notes in a bottle – treasures flung across the unknown – from people she could not hear or touch, only see and imagine. And then, some of the portraits became concrete objects in our hands – flung not just over the internet, but through the postal service- as purchases and as gifts, from me and to me, crossing borders and crossing oceans.

Not only the portrait count was growing – even as it expanded, the group was also growing closer as a community. Group members were commenting extensively on each other’s work, having conversations about different art processes, telling jokes. There was a funny moment early on when one of the iPhone digital artists asked a watercolorist “What App did you use for that?” Usually the digital artists posted to digital groups and the watercolorists posted to watercolor groups, so they weren’t used to seeing each other’s work. But here artists in all media were mixing it up and being inspired by each other. A wide range of styles also emerged — from realistic likenesses to wild and crazy semi-abstracts that are perhaps only conceptually portraits.

Portrait of Artists Michel Guerin & Andrew Mirzoian

Portrait of Artists Michel Guerin & Andrew Mirzoian

In addition to mixing up media & stylistic boundaries, JKPP has also crossed some national and language borders. Although the majority of active participants are from North and South America, Eastern and Western Europe, we also have members from Asia, the Indian Subcontinent and North Africa. I make extensive use of Google to translate my JKPP invitations, comments and guidelines. It gave me a kick to draw a double portrait of two artists in a cafe together who have never actually met. Michel Guerin is a French artist living in Italy, Andrew Mirzoian is a Russian artist living in Moscow. I drew them on my iPod Touch after an oil painting by Cézanne but in a style more similar to the flat planes of British pop artist Patrick Caulfield, who I had never heard of until British JKPP artist Martin Beek commented on the similarity. I liked the way this piece brought together different media, styles, and nationalities. Despite all the variety, I have found the JKPP to sometimes be strangely in-tune — one day everyone is drawing the Dutch artist known as Razor_nl and another day everyone is drawing the American artist Sandy Schmidt. Although I have heard of a couple instances of subjects being uncomfortable with their portraits, for the most part people have been able to accept even some pretty far-out interpretations of their photos.

Why did the community aspect of this group grow so much more and more quickly than many other Flickr groups? One reason is probably that it started with people who already had something in common — I not only liked their work, but had enjoyed my previous online interactions with them. But I think there was something else as well. Back in the 1980s there was a cartoon circulating of a dog sitting at a computer sending an email. The caption was, “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” This internet anonymity has, for better or for worse, been a fact of “meeting” people online. But when we decided to draw each other, we chose to show our real faces. One of the many things that I didn’t predict about throwing this party was how seeing each other’s faces, and giving them the attention that artists making portraits must, also changed how we “knew” and interacted with each other. Although it’s still not the same as actually meeting in person, spending time with photos of each other with our families and pets, in our studios and neighborhoods, wearing silly hats or making silly faces, brought us into much closer contact than merely saying “Great painting – fave!” In addition, when someone makes a picture they claim is based on your face, whether or not you like it, whether or not you see yourself in the image, you have a more personal investment in the artist and their work.


What has the Portrait Party meant for me artistically? Ironically, I was looking forward to a less structured daily art practice when I completed the DPP. But while I could post any old thing and call it a self-portrait, I had to be more careful when posting images of other people. Even if there wasn’t a likeness, I felt there had to be a clear relationship between my image and it’s source. As the party host, I wanted to set a standard of respect for the source images and artists. I also wanted to say a little bit about what I appreciated in the work of each artist that I drew. In other words, I actually had a much more structured and time-consuming project on my hands.

What I’ve really liked is that it pushed me to look much more closely at the work of the artists I was drawing. The process made me think more deeply about what I liked in their work, and how their work differed from or was similar to my own. I’ve also really enjoyed drawing from all the different photos and learning from all the different styles. It’s especially fun to look at the many different interpretations of the same photo by different artists.

Where does the Portrait Party go from here, for the artists, for the body of work, for me? Many artists, myself included, prefer drawing from life to drawing from photos. Some artists were reluctant to join the party for this very reason. Although we’ve had fun working this way, a few of us have started discussing the possibility of using Skype or online video conferencing to have “live” portrait parties over the internet. One artist would sit and be the model while other artists in nearby time-zones logged in to draw. Or perhaps people would pair up, drawing and being drawn simultaneously. Obviously there are questions of security, and also the question of whether video would really provide a high-enough quality image to draw from. It’s another adventure to be explored.

Meanwhile, we already have almost 1500 drawings and paintings from 150+ JKPP members. It’s a fantastic body of work but it’s never going to fit in a gallery in the traditional way. It would also be hard to gather the pieces from all over the world into one place. So here’s how I imagine showing the party portraits. The way we’ve already experienced each other’s work is digital. It would do least justice to the paintings, but I think the best way to show this work as a group would be in a gallery full of  iPads. Although more than 150 artists have joined JKPP, there is a smaller core group of artists who are fully participating by making images of all the other artists, and who might want to participate in a group show.

Portraits of Marga Perez (Venezuelan Artist Based in Belgium) and Marina Mozhayeva (Russian Artist based in the USA)  2010.04.15

Portraits of Marga Perez (Venezuelan Artist Based in Belgium) and Marina Mozhayeva (Russian Artist based in the USA) 2010.04.15

I imagine one iPad for each artist, loaded with their images of the other artists. The images would be loaded in the same order in all the iPads — alphabetically or geographically or perhaps randomly — but always in the same order, andsoftware would set them to flip images in the same sequence. So when you enter the gallery, all the iPads would be showing pictures of one artist, for instance Patricio Villarroel, a Chilean artist based in France. A short while later, they all switch and show images of a different artist, maybe Jerry Waese from Canada. While all the other iPads show portraits of Jerry, Jerry’s iPad might show a self-portrait, or a montage of the source images artists worked from. There could also be a few iPads set up specifically for viewers to interact with — choosing for themselves which artists they want to see, for how long, and in what order. There are many possibilities, and many details to be worked out. It would take organization, galleries, technical expertise and especially funding — but I think it would be an exciting way to display the Portrait Party. Please do let me know if you have leads to making it happen.

As for myself… I intended the Portrait Party as a six-week transition to a more open-ended daily art process for myself. Now that the six weeks have ended, I find myself in a bind. I’m the party host, and there are many portraits I would like to make that I haven’t made yet. But there are also other themes I want to pursue in my daily art, and many evenings when I really don’t have the time to do a considered portrait and write-up of another artist. How am I going to resolve these conflicting pulls? I guess I’m going to have to see what evolves… and let you know about it next month.

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  • Kim Schuster July 2, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Loved reading this! You are gifted both in word and in deed. This party we all lovingly call JKPP has done more for me than words could express and so much of it is due to the respect and encouragement you have instilled from the beginning as the party hostess. Any growth in my art has been a result of being a part of this very unique community of artists. I still would not call myself an artist, but I have been welcomed into this place and given the respect that has been afforded to the best artist among us all. I also believe I have made real friends in this virtual world. Tears came to my eyes as I looked at the photos of the Oxford meetup and I was quite surprised at my response. As I am writing, our friends in Barcelona are having their own version of meeting in person. I am very happy for them and sad for me at the same time! When we all heard of Randy Johnson’s passing I could tell we were all affected. It is unexplainable, but to those who are participating it is completely understandable! With you at the helm this party called JKPP has taken on a life of its own and you, our dear friend, have taught us all a lot about life! I would love to see you write another essay about JKPP!

    Reply
  • jkruehne May 20, 2011 at 8:46 am

    An very interesting article about the beginning of JKPP. I’ve made similar thoughts about presenting digital art in a gallery, but using iPod touches instead of iPads – because they are so small, as contrast to “real” objects, presenting these tiny little bits and bytes onto tiny little devices. (small vs big, but in the same way expensive vs common materials. Does it make sense?)

    Anyhow, a great party and lot of fun – let’s go ahead 😉
    (it would be interesting, if the book project will be realised…)

    .jk

    Reply
  • Maureen Nathan December 13, 2010 at 1:31 pm

    Thank you Julia for starting this party! it’s a pleasure to be part of such a great group of artists and a delight to exchange portraits with people all over the world. There have been two real time meet ups of artists from the party – one in New York and one in London in recent months and the opportunity for artists to meet in the ‘real world’ was both challenging (in drawing terms) and inspiring- Party on!!

    Reply
  • jane sherwood December 13, 2010 at 6:04 am

    Can’t believe I’ve only just found this great article. Well done Julia!

    Reply
  • Jerry Waese December 12, 2010 at 12:49 pm

    I have been very happy to be active in this virtual and sometimes actual community of human beings and artists.
    Every day I keep checking if someone else has joined so that I can add another to my collection and to the group at large
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/waese/sets/72157623589245788/

    Reply
  • Julia Kay September 21, 2010 at 3:16 am

    Thank you to Kim, and everyone else – it’s you guys that make the party great!

    This weekend we had some numeric milestones:

    6 months
    40 countries
    350 artists
    5000 portraits

    Party-on, portraitists!

    Reply
  • Kim Schuster September 19, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Julia Kay, just read this article and love it! I am a newcomer to Flickr and to your portrait party and am having a blast! I haven’t tried art since junior high school because I thought I must be horrible since my art was never picked to hang on the wall. I wonder how many people felt that way and stopped trying? I am now 51 years old and my last child just left for college this fall and I needed a challenge, so I decided to try something that seemed impossible to me. I found your wonderful party early on and have so appreciated the warm welcome and help I have received from many of your attendees. From a grateful heart I just wanted to say thank-you!

    Reply
  • Chris Lombardi June 27, 2010 at 6:17 pm

    Time for an update, perhaps?

    Reply
  • Julia Kay June 26, 2010 at 11:23 am

    May 9TH, when I wrote this, we had about 1500 portraits. Less than two months later, we have more than 3100!

    Reply
  • ANDY May 21, 2010 at 7:59 pm

    really great idea julia.
    you turned strangers into friends.

    Reply
  • Anne Watkins May 19, 2010 at 7:11 pm

    Jerry is right on. That leap into the kiddie pool of warm and fun loving artists depicting Rick made me realize that there was a community, just ready to bounce things around.
    That made the entering the depths of this one possible for me.

    Reply
  • jerry waese May 17, 2010 at 8:23 am

    hi

    I think Rick Tulka in front of the white house was a bit of a test run preview of things to come, at least for me it seemed to represent that:

    His daily cartoon studies of people snacking and lost in thought or taking refuge at Le Select has brought him a huge regular following.

    When the artists saw his goofy photo in that image stream it took little coercion by example to have scores of artists interpret that photo in their medium of choice. ( http://www.flickr.com/photos/21371034@N07/4381319003/ )

    In a way I think this unplanned event set us up well for what followed at the JKPP.

    What you have done is a pure stroke of genius.

    Reply
  • Greg Durrett May 14, 2010 at 9:35 pm

    Great article Julia, and I can only echo what others have said here. This group helped me get over my fear of painting portraits, and exposed me to a plethora of amazing artists – and a great bunch of people to boot.

    Reply
  • Julia L. Kay May 14, 2010 at 6:46 pm

    Thank you all for sharing your experiences with JKPP, either as artist or viewer, and for your many kind words.

    To the many wonderful portraitists of JKPP, I should clarify that I have no intention of leaving the party! However, I was rigorously producing a portrait a day for the first 6 weeks and I’m being more laid back about it now.

    I’m so glad that this project has turned into so much fun and become so meaningful for so many people – myself included. I really had no idea when I started it that it would grow like this! Speaking of which there are now almost 200 artists at the party and we have now made more than 1800 portraits!

    More soon – off to draw!
    Julia

    Reply
  • Elizabeth Ingebretsen May 14, 2010 at 12:59 pm

    Great article Julia. Just one comment–don’t leave the Julia Kay Portrait Party after just six weeks! We’d miss you horribly. MargauxB

    Reply
  • Rita Flores May 13, 2010 at 4:56 pm

    This is a wonderful article. I have thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this group and find myself checking the group pool and discussions daily. I have discovered so many artists on Flick who are working in so many different mediums who I might not have found if I didn’t join this group.

    I just started fingerpainting on the iPad right after joining the group and this has helped me to bring more variety to my work. I’ve been working with different iPhone and iPad apps such as Brushes, Toonpaint, Photoshop Mobile and addLib to either create paintings or digital collages. I try to look at each artist that I am creating a portrait of and find something in their photo stream that gives me clues to who they are.

    Thanks again, Julia, for creating this wonderful group!

    Reply
  • Margarita Pérez-García May 12, 2010 at 4:29 am

    Dear Julia,
    You could not suspect how your Portrait Party would take you, would take us. Far now from a transition project from your Daily Portrait Project to something else, it has become a fantastic adventure of sharing. You have reunited a community working in portraiture in a non-egocentric and very egocentric exercise: ‘the more you give, the more you receive, you have connected people from all around the world, you have opened for many the doors of finger painting with mobile devices, and you have even encouraged people to use social networking sites, like Flickr, to share their artwork.

    I understand how difficult is now to pull out or to stop the JKPP. I suggest to take it slowly, weekly and not daily. Also to share the responsibility of the animation of the group. You don’t have to do everything alone!

    As a personal note, I wanted to tell how deeply grateful I am because your invitation and your interest in my left-hand blind portraits. Finding free time to paint with traditional media was becoming impossible. Now I paint every day with my phone. Thanks!

    Reply
  • Dottie Kay May 11, 2010 at 11:12 pm

    This is fantastic. I loved reading about it and seeing all the paintings. You are super. Thank you

    Reply
  • Estie Hudes May 11, 2010 at 9:36 pm

    Julia, this is all fabulous. I’m not sure where you get the time to do everything…Sorry, I don’t twitter (yet)
    Love,
    –Estie

    Reply
  • Liz Mamorsky May 11, 2010 at 4:29 pm

    What a wonderful project you’ve created, Julia! The portraits are delightful and the variety, amazing. – Liz

    Reply
  • razor_nl May 11, 2010 at 11:36 am

    Great article Julia! ….I still feel privileged to be part of the JK portrait party on flickr. It’s one of the best examples of internet-enabled collaborations I’ve seen in a long time. We share and enjoy and connect. Being the subject of a portrait drawing is always exciting, but for portrait artists among themselves it’s a two-way affair, so it’s also a way to express gratitude and admiration for our colleagues. So much fun!

    Reply
  • martin May 10, 2010 at 5:52 pm

    Julia,
    You have obviously tapped into a world-wide, swirling vortex of artistic energy. An amazing use of personal connection coupled with technology. This will evolve in ways we can’t imagine. Congratulations!

    Reply
  • Timothy Schorre May 10, 2010 at 5:21 pm

    Wonderfully well-written, Julia. The Portrait Party is meaningful to me in many ways: an opportunity to meet all kinds of skillful, wholehearted and generous artists; a great learning experience, getting to watch as these artists show the sequence and process of their work; a chance to take some chances, working at the edges of what I feel conventionally capable of. Perhaps most telling, I find that having made portraits for six weeks(an activity I never before imagined doing) I find myself seeing in new ways. Thank you for making all this possible, Julia!

    Reply
  • barry farmer May 10, 2010 at 2:36 pm

    You write a wonderful story Julia. I have been transformed into a portrait maker from the daily interaction with your group. This was never one of my goals or expectations. Yet the practice and challege is a welcome diversion from the rest of my art making. There are times that is all I get done, and it gives me satisfaction. I am glad you put in the quote from Anne Watkins so I don’t have to feel guilty looking for pictures of myself anymore.

    Reply
  • david friedheim May 10, 2010 at 11:27 am

    I don’t have any particular insights to add to these other comments but I find this whole project wonderful. So many people, so many artist from all over the world interacting and communicating. Great.

    Reply
  • david friedheim May 10, 2010 at 11:25 am

    Wonderful. Just wonderful.

    Reply
  • Francesca Whetnall May 10, 2010 at 5:47 am

    Really interesting to hear how the party started. Great description of how inspirational it’s turning out too. I was late to join but it’s addictive now I’ve found it. I’ve always wanted to paint portraits, but it’s hard to find the sitters in the ‘real world’. So this is a great pool of resource – not only photographic, but also for style and technique. It’s such a motivation to have the encouragement and support of a thriving group of diverse artists like this!
    In the last couple of weeks I’ve painted and drawn in totally new ways than I’m used to. And now that I’ve added my photos to the pool it’s a whole new joy to see the amazing and creative versions of me – it’s like Christmas everytime 🙂
    Thank you Julia! Cecca 🙂

    Reply
  • Inma Serrano May 10, 2010 at 5:02 am

    Julia, you know I´m just learning english so it´s difficult to explain what this proyect means for me. You have just take all my feelings with yours words above. When I have drawed all your portraits I have felt I was sharing something of myself whith all you; and of course when I find a new portrait of me I feel relly happy and delighted. I think I have met more artist in the last two months than in all my life. Thank you for this and for your awesome idea. I hope this party will continue forever.

    Reply
  • Sue Hodnett May 10, 2010 at 4:46 am

    In an age where we sit and twitter, surf and blog, Julia Kay’s portrait party has connected an otherwise disparate group of artists and challenged us to look deeper than the screen of the computer and into the eyes of people we have never met or spoken to.

    So thank you Julia for instigating the liveliest and most talked about party on the net – it’s Flickr and dare I say it, social networking (!) at it’s best.
    Come and join the party!

    Reply
  • Virginia May 10, 2010 at 2:28 am

    What a fascination evolution the Portrait Party has had! While I wouldn’t expect you to keep it going indefinitely, I hope it will continue for as long as you find it creatively rewarding! I look forward to having more time to do more portraits…each one has been a joy to do, and I continue to be amazed and delighted by the diversity…I too thank you!

    Reply
  • Ann Kirschner May 10, 2010 at 2:06 am

    Fun, interesting, insightful drawings and paintings, more to look at every day. Who knew there were so many fine portraitists out there? Just dandy!

    Reply
  • Anne Watkins May 9, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    What a great description of the birth of this project’s birth and its growth. A wonderful example of the potential lift and sweep of the little things that we do just because we feel like doing them. I can think of a few more metaphors- or maybe some verbs. Are we Kay-ing? Yes, we are!

    Has it really been six weeks? Like all compelling passages of time it seems at once longer and shorter. There may be many other similar eddies of communication and connection out there, but I don’t know any like this one. It is a joy and an honor to be part of it, where ever it leads. Thank you, Julia!

    Reply

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