To be a really good portrait artist, you have to convey who that person is. You need their spirit to come out.
by Gracie Pratt
For artist Ann Cowden, a portrait is not just a reflection of a likeness but a glimpse into an individual’s character and personality. Her portraits are born out of careful study and intentionality. She is determined to create pieces that will be treasured for generations, and her clients would testify that she has done just that.
Cowden has been an artist from the time she was a child, always eager to capture on paper what she saw with her eyes. It was a hobby that developed through her adulthood and continued as she raised her children, painting with them at the kitchen table. Throughout her career in interior design, painting was a love that persisted.
When she became a grandmother, her inspiration became more specific. She wanted to paint portraits of her grandkids. She recalls her first attempt at a portrait after years of painting landscapes and abstracts and remembers that her initial response was, I can’t do this. But instead of putting it aside, her lack of experience pushed her to study. So she began to visit museums, collect art books, and attend workshops with renowned portrait artists such as Anthony Ryder and Max Ginsburg. Her initial interest turned into an intense study of portrait artists and their techniques.
She found Nashville to offer a rich art community. “Nashville is unusual in that there are so many good artists here.” Even now, though she has produced hundreds of portraits, Cowden considers herself to be in the constant state of learning from other artists.
With a degree in art from Vanderbilt University, Cowden is experienced in myriad art forms. She has worked with mediums from watercolor to pottery, but oil painting has become her medium of choice because of its “permanency, richness, and transparency.” According to Cowden, it “passes down through generations beautifully.”
Cowden keeps an assortment of sample paintings and regularly adds to this collection with new landscapes and portraits, but the majority of her paintings are commissioned. Though Cowden often works from a photograph, she likes to see the subject in person so that she can capture details such as eye color, skin tone, and face structure precisely. As she works, she invites the family to visit the studio to see the portrait develop.
Not only has she painted pictures of loved ones for families, she has also been commissioned for higher-profile projects. When she was selected by the University of Virginia Law School to paint a portrait of President Woodrow Wilson, she recalls poring over photographs from old newspapers and records in preparation for beginning the portrait. She also read a full biography of Wilson, determined to capture not only the physicality but the personality of the president. It is a factor that characterizes all of her portraits, a component that Cowden believes is absolutely essential.
Ann Cowden’s portraits and landscapes will be on view February 6–8 at Lipscomb University. For more information about the artist visit www.anncowden.com.