The squint and the smile of an SOB

A self-portrait

Fall 1993

"John Rivera-Resto -self portrait"

While serving four months of an internship in Washington, D.C., I attended a great number of cocktail parties. Cocktail parties at the nation's capital are an invaluable tool for "networking" and taking the political pulse of the latest headline issue. They can be invariably stuffy or incredibly fun. It all depends on the mix of the attendees. Once, while attending a party at the Australian embassy, I busied myself studying the art placed on exhibition, keeping away from the crowd. Smartly dressed servers where passing drinks and appetizers and they never failed to stop by me. You see, I spoke their language –Spanish.

Washington has a community of over one hundred thousand Salvadorians who settled in the city escaping from the Central American conflict in the 1980’s. And, being the latest immigrants more often than not, they were employed in great numbers by the service industry. So, once I greeted them in our native tongue, "I was one of them".

While admiring one of the Australian pieces of art a gentleman joined me and we had a few laughs, making fun of our accents while exchanging a few anecdotes of our impressions of "DC". He was the nicest sort of fellow you could ever encounter, easy going and with no pretensions. When the formal part of the event was about to start, he excused himself; we shook hands and exchanged parting greetings. As the crowd began to tighten around the speaker, I moved in for a closer look. He was introducing the new Australian ambassador to the United States, who was none other than the gentleman I had been speaking to a few minutes earlier. This is one of the things I loved about Washington -it was never boring.

During another party in the private home of a Washington civil servant, one of my girlfriends leaned over and whispered: -"D'you want to know what that guy said about you?" I looked over and saw a middle age bespectacled man in a sports jacket, waving a drink and holding court to a small group of people. He looked so ordinary you could throw a stone and hit one of them in any Washington street. I've never seen him before and I was sure he didn't know me.

"Who is he?" -I asked my friend. "Oh, I heard he's some kind of art critic". Still at a loss, I finally asked: -"Okay, what did he say?" She giggled and told me; -"He said you have the squint and the smile of a sonofabitch!" I was first startled by the comment. It was catchy! Then I looked back at "the critic", and, when I caught his eye, gave him one of my smiles. For the rest of the week I could not get the incident out of my mind. I had to do something to get back at the critic. So I called my friend and met her for dinner. I asked her: -"Is there going to be another party at -so and so-?" Her interest peaked, she replied: "Yes, next week." Then she added: "-Want me to get you an invite?" I smiled: "-Yes, and I would like you to do something else for me…"


A smiling but mischievous look…

I got lucky. The day of the party the gentleman critic showed up too. But this time attention from his followers was being diverted by a painting placed on a small easel with a covering cloth draped around the edges, artistically arranged as to reveal the subject. People were leaning closer to study the painting and then got a good laugh after reading the title card.

I stayed in the background waiting for the fish to bite the bait. It was simply too enticing not to. At last, he walked over to take a look. For a few seconds he studied the piece. Then he leaned forward and read the card. His friends thought it was very clever; he didn't smile. Continuing the conversation his eyes wandered around the room. Finally he spotted me looking back at him. I gave him one of my smiles. He then raised his glass in silent acknowledgement. My girlfriend giggled and pinched me. The look on his face had been priceless!


A kind smile with a hint of sadness…

Now that you know the background story, I will share some details about the painting. It is my self-portrait. It was done in oils on a masonite panel and painted during the night in my college dormitory. I placed a mirror over my writing desk and used the desk lamp as my lighting source. I wanted a less traditional lighting scheme to add a touch of mystery and eeriness to my features. So I positioned the light from below.

I drew the likeness on the panel and then I "inked" the outline with a brush and diluted burnt umber paint. After the outline dried, I proceeded to work the paints in tones of grey. Once I was satisfied with the likeness and the values of lights and shadows, I added monochrome layers of browns and black until the painting was completed. My paint layers were so thin that it took very little time for the painting to dry during those warm late summer days.


A cold and terrible side…

I was very pleased with the portrait. But recording a photographic likeness was not my ultimate goal. I was in the middle of writing my first English-language play –Death of a Mercenary, where I explored certain aspects of my personality brought about by past experiences. The realization that a one's true portrait results from the consequences of one's decisions in life, weighed heavily on my mind.

I surmised that a person's face is a composite reflection of those experiences. The painting thus became an exploration into my inner self. I ended up depicting three representations of my character blended into one likeness while still maintaining their own individuality. Notice the image details where I separated the image into parts. Seeing separately each aspect of my personality becomes clear.


The squint and the smile of a son-of-a-bitch.
Oil on masonite panel. 1993.

The finished painting is like a puzzle coming together; an extreme close-up of a person inviting scrutiny. It is the complexities of character that make us human what also makes us interesting. Capturing these complexities in a painting is what makes a good portrait. I believe this portrait is a true representation of me at the time, perhaps it still is though we have a habit of changing with time.

This self-portrait is one of only two paintings that I kept for myself (the other one is "Selina’s new dress"). It hangs on a wall next to my bedroom, away from prying eyes. I still look at it from time to time and smile at the memory of that first showing and the incident that sparked its creation. The title caused quite an impression fore it was very catchy: -"The squint and the smile of a sonofabitch."

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