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Modern-day portraits: Ottawa artist turns selfies into oil paintings

Mark Stephenson blends traditional portraiture with Facebook, Twitter in 'Social Portraits' series.

Ottawa artist Mark Stephenson is painting 100 portraits of people based on their social media photo galleries for a new series called "Social Portraits."

lucy schole / Metro

Ottawa artist Mark Stephenson is painting 100 portraits of people based on their social media photo galleries for a new series called "Social Portraits."

Many social media profiles are carefully curated versions of our best selves – pictures from that perfect wedding day, a backpacking trip, a ski trip with the kids. And, of course, those ubiquitous bathroom mirror selfies.

Now an Ottawa artist is looking to capture those Instagram-worthy moments in his new crowd-funded portrait gallery.

Mark Stephenson’s goal is to paint 100 oil portraits of online profile pictures for his “Social Portraits” project. So far, he has painted about 18 or 19 people from his inner circle – including a picture of artist Darcy Whyte blowing bubbles, Nuit Blanche co-founder Megan Smith wearing several white hats and “Daniel” grinning under a furry hood.

“I enjoy the stories behind them,” Stephenson said, standing in his studio at the Enriched Bread Artists’ collective on the second floor of an old bread factory on Gladstone Avenue. “The picture that you choose to put on your Facebook, put on your Twitter, put on your LinkedIn … you’ve chosen that photo for a certain reason. It’s a little more crafted. You might be projecting yourself a little bit differently than you would be if you met someone in person. Or it might be a direct match.”

With lights hanging from the ceiling, and CBC Radio One playing in the background, Stephenson’s easel sits sandwiched between an iPad and a “Parallel Palette,” which is a special paint palette that sits upright and is easy to clean and transport (coincidentally, Stephenson backed this device on a crowd-funding site.). Each 11-by-11-inch square takes at least a few hours to paint.

Mark Stephenson / facebook

So far, Stephenson has picked each online photo himself. He usually chooses based on popularity – the number of Facebook “likes,” for example – but he leans towards photos of happy folks. And he notices patterns in people’s profiles, like the one of “Chris” and his toddler that currently sits on his easel.

“Just about every one of the pictures … that he posts is either him and his child or him and his wife. They’re hardly ever him by himself.”

So far, all his subjects have roots in Ottawa, but Stephenson wants his series to include people beyond the city’s borders, especially if he tours his exhibit.

That’s where the Kickstarter campaign comes in. Anyone who donates at least $85 will get a custom social media portrait to be included in the gallery.

Stephenson figured crowd-funding was the right fit for a portrait series based on social media.

Mark Stephenson / facebook

And, like many modern artists, he’s looking for funding avenues beyond grants and his day job in design.

“Design is kind of how I earn most of my paycheque and art is kind of how I spend my paycheque,” he said, with a smile.

This gallery stems from a love of portraiture and an appreciation for online community-building. Stephenson is posting the photos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Ello, and others, to try and get his subjects interacting with one another.

He’s hoping to have 100 small oil paintings finished by November, with his first gallery opening by the end of this year or early 2017.

“I’m probably going to have little heart and thumbs-up stickers and little thought bubbles,” he said. “It brings that online into the traditional, just like I’m bringing the traditional into the online. I think that’ll be kind of fun.”

Perhaps a better compliment than any Facebook “like” or Instagram “heart” – many of his subjects have changed their profile pictures to Stephenson’s oil-painted rendition.

Anyone who wants to back this gallery can look up Stephenson on Kickstarter. 

Mark Stephenson / facebook

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