Selina's new dress

Selina Marie Rivera-Espendez (now Selina Marie Almodovar) at her college graduation in the summer of 2008.

Spring 1993
Selina's New Dress

Selina is my daughter, but this painting was not intended as a portrait; it is a painting about the dress. On her seventh birthday, her grandmother sent her a beautiful dress from Puerto Rico. Selina loves clothes. To this day she plans her next day's wardrobe with the care and attention to detail as a Dior on a Paris fashion show. And, she has great taste -well, she is my daughter!

This was 1993 and I was completing my last year at Cleveland State University (I had returned to college after a ten year hiatus). I needed a painting for a studio class and this was the result. That same year I entered the work at a show at the CSU Art Gallery and won first prize in the painting category (I think the prize was a $50 check). Later it became a part of my admission portfolio into the MFA in Visual Arts at Vermont College. The painting was done in oils on a smooth masonite panel 20 inches by 38.


A rare photograph of one of my "easel paintings" in progress. At the time, I was staying with my brother Ricky and had painted a mural of Lake Como on the back wall to cheer up the place. My palette and brushes were set on my painting wheeled cabinet, and "Oscar", my wooden parrot, looked on. He was a great listener.

Now, to think that I would pick this subject for a painting just because I admire a dress is a monumental folly. I never do anything unless there is a stronger reason behind it. While observing her mother taking great delight in dressing Selina in her new dress, it occurred to me that grownups dress their children as if they were dolls.

I think this practice is universal. In fact, from time immemorial, and for generations, an entire industry was created around paper dolls. Books of various themes were printed for children to cut out and dress dolls with interchangeable cut-out paper outfits -which today are collector items for adults. These were the Barbie dolls before there was a Barbie.


Selina's new dress. 1993.
Artist's Oils on masonite panel, 20 x 38 inches (50.8 x 96.5 cm).

We have many visual references to the fact. Simply by reviewing a brief catalog of historical paintings, you will find this custom of dressing up children like dolls throughout every period of history. One of such paintings is Spanish painter Diego Velazquez's masterpiece 'Las Meninas', where the little princess and her dwarf attendants look like miniature dolls.

So my painting of Selina's New Dress is actually a commentary on this custom. All the clues are there to see within the painting. First, notice the expression on Selina. She is not exactly happy to be posing; she is displaying the stiffness and awkwardness of a child forced to pose. The foreground lighting is as harsh as a spotlight. I wanted the discomfort to show on her face. Like I mentioned, this painting was not intended as a "pretty" portrait.


My daughter and I shared many similarities. We were both multi-talented, headstrong, independent and wicked. But we also shared a great sense of humor. In this picture, taken on May of 2003, we are trying to out pose each other without breaking into laughter. I was not a conventional father.

Now, look closely at the composition. Notice how flat the background is; look at the plant and the pot; they are as flat as a paper cut-out. The back-lighting adds movement but mostly it further emphasizes the flatness. However, the area surrounding the subject is kept several values lower to isolate the subject from the background and make it stand out even more. Furthermore, the composition is arranged like an "X" that centers on the dress (how could you miss it?).

The dress is indeed beautiful -and in case you were wondering, it is a one-piece. In the painting, it is richly colored and modeled with thin glazes of tinted oils until you can almost reach in and pull it off, leaving only the doll behind. The dress looks so precious that it would be a shame to waste it on a child -lest it may get ruined. Better leave it on display over her night stand.


Selina on her graduation day from Ohio University, June 2008.

The shoes, socks, the little purse, and the ribbon on her hair are all perfectly matched. But really, how many children carry purses -well, unless they are Selina (where she saved her collection of color rocks, some candy and a small water pistol). Still, it was all her mother's doing -not that I'm criticizing (she does look darling); I'm simply making the observation.

I completed the painting in a week. I began by making a drawing on paper and then tracing it on the panel. Then, I inked the tracing to make it permanent. Next, I painted the background and applied a color wash to the figure (as shown on the photograph with the easel), keeping my colors thin to speed up drying. Lastly, I painted the subject in a series of color glazes with an added drier (Liquin). I kept my glazes so thin that the paint dried in no time at all. As soon as I was pleased with the results, I stopped. The painting was finished with a coating of spray-on Damar varnish.


Selina and Selina, December 2008. I decided to give her the painting as a memento when she got married; something personal from me to her.

Selina's New Dress is the only painting I kept with me other than my self-portrait. When she marries (which I hope is not too soon), I plan to give it to her as a memento. For now, I will continue to enjoy it.


On May 2013, Selina married her prince charming: the handsome Kyle Almodovar. And, as of this writing, they have two beautiful boys: William and Solomon John -who I call "Solojohn", a play of words that in Spanish means: "Only John". And yes, I gave her the painting of Selina's New Dress for her to keep.

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