Portrait of a (fat) Lady

I have crashed a party exactly once in my life.

It was New Year’s Eve and rumor had it THE most fabulous miniature gay man on the face of the planet –I mean he out-Capotes Truman Capote– was having a little shindig and I’d heard so much about his legendary house I simply HAD to go or I would just DIE.

So I charmed, finagled, and finally begged my way into being someone’s plus one. The big night came, my ticket had to bail. Well. By that time I was already in sequined cocktail gown and white Dior tailcoat and by GOD I was going to this party, so I waltzed in with my lynx coat and hastily gift-wrapped box of Walker’s shortbread and I crashed that party like a pro.

I cannot even begin to describe to you this house, other than I accidentally knocked my handbag against one of the many Picasso harlequins on the walls that were tessellated floor-to-cathedral ceiling with art. Because why have ONE Modigliani when you can have three, plus some Dali etchings to fill in the spaces and a few Cecil Beaton photographs OF YOURSELF just for good measure.

Above the story-tall fireplace in the great room was a huge painting of our host as a young man, painted by his brother who apparently was something of a Big Deal back in the 30’s. My friend –who had also finagled his way into a plus one– commented:

“It takes a certain type of person to have their own portrait hanging in their living room.”

to which I replied, slightly hurt but for no good reason “Hey! I have my portrait hanging in my living room!”

“…Of course you do.”

And this is why I’m of two minds when it comes to the art of Les Toil, the artist behind the Toil Girls, a series of mostly individually-commissioned drawings of plus-size women in the pin-up style.


Francesca was a fan. I am definitely not.

On one hand, I totally get it.

I understand why women –maybe women who don’t necessarily get a lot of positive feedback about their desirability– would want to be transformed into a cheesecake cartoon.  Lord knows I’m all about the vanity and as far as vanities go, it’s a relatively cheap and harmless one. On par with those tack-o but inoffensive Glamour Shots you get in the mall.

On the other hand…sheesh. Low. Brow.  Now I understand that for some unknown reason you all aren’t required to share all my tastes YET (say what you will about Fascism, at least they had a unified aesthetic) but…sheesh.

BUT, all indications to the contrary, I’m not here to hate on Les Toil.

He seems like a decent enough fella. He certainly loves the big girls and, perhaps more importantly, is willing to monetize that love.  More power to him. It takes all kinds.

And who knows, maybe he’ll be the next Art Frahm and then someday you can entertain your grandkids with the photo the same way Frahm’s models (if indeed he used models) probably tell their grandkids about how they had to pose drop-knickered with a bag of celery for a five cents an hour.

However.

This whole thing just smacks of yet another case where instead of getting what they really want –say an oil portrait of your reclining nude self– big girls settle for what’s available and acceptable.

Funk

That

Noise

Houses settle, bets settle,  benches settle.

You? Don’t have to settle. Not about most things, and certainly not about this.

If your soul yearns to be a Toil Girl and only a Toil will do, by all means, get one. Get a dozen and make a freakin’ calendar and cherish the crap out of that hot kitschy mess.  BUT if what you want is a mixed media painting of yourself in the nude (and I firmly believe all women should sit for a nude painting or drawing at least once in her life) then kick the kitsch to the curb and get what you want.

“But what about the money?”

Mister Toil charges between $400 and $500  and to me that’s perfectly fair.  I know some women have this idea that if you sit for an artist you are being his muse and not only will he probably fall madly in love with your beauty, he will paint you for free.

These women are high.

BUT,  getting a fine art portrait (I view Mr Toil’s work as illustration, and there’s certainly no shame in the illustration game, but fine art it ain’t) doesn’t have to be that much more expensive. It just takes a little legwork.

If you want to drop a grand or more for a traditional oil portrait but don’t know where to start, you might try calling your city capitol building. Ask a docent who painted the portrait of the sitting governor. If he or she isn’t taking commissions, you might ask who they would recommend.

If you prefer a hipper more impressionist –though potentially less polished– portrait,  go to the coffee shops, teensy galleries, bars, wherever they display local artists. If there’s an artist you just loooove on Etsy, ask them if they’ll take a commission. Heck, even Craigslist works if you live in a relatively artsy town.

Meet with your potential artist, get a feel for the artist’s work and personality. I’ve found many if not most artists genuinely prefer to work with women with a more traditionally voluptuous build. If it clicks it clicks. If not, move on. It will help if you’ve got an idea of what you want and what you don’t want.

Just don’t settle.

In eighty years you (or your children or your great grandchildren) will love to see how gorgeous and vibrant you were in all your beautiful curving glory. Make it something you want them to see, especially above the fireplace.

39 Responses to “Portrait of a (fat) Lady”

  1. Thea June 30, 2010 at 4:56 pm #

    Thank you! I saw another site a few months ago singing the praises of Mr. Toil’s work because he ‘did fat girls’ and when I saw his work I was queasy. His stuff is so cartoonish – I’d say a half step below the sketch artist at the local Ren Faire. We deserve better (unless of course you like his work).

    I have my portrait in my living room. It’s a beautiful oil done by a dear friend. She took an old casual photo of me and transformed the reality of me in jeans and a t-shirt lying on a old quilt into me wearing a beautiful robe, in repose on a fainting couch (cause it’s art, not a documentary).

    I’d also recommend people check with art teachers. I had one absolutely hound me to model for him in college because he wanted to paint a Renaissance figure. Unfortunately I was too shy then. I still regret not having my 19-year-old self immortalized in oil.

  2. cedar June 30, 2010 at 5:11 pm #

    More interesting, at least to me, would be a detailed how-to on “crashing parties like a pro.” I haven’t yet encountered a party I wanted to crash…but it seems like one of those skills that you should have at your fingertips should the need arise.

  3. dcsurfergirl June 30, 2010 at 5:17 pm #

    Les Toil’s style isn’t my favorite, but it does have a kitsch charm to it.

    I would love a really good photo of me. I want great makeup and the same good lighting that follows models and actresses as they go through their days. That’s so much cooler than a Glamour Shot!

  4. Carmen June 30, 2010 at 5:18 pm #

    Something else…

    I’ve been doing figure modeling for a few years now. It’s fun, and awesome seeing yourself in paint/charcoal/pencil/ink/clay/etc., as long as you’re comfortable with the “getting naked for art” thing.

    Also, while you can never assume that an artist will send you a scan of something that they did, sometimes they do offer. Recently, a guy at a drawing night did this gorgeous watercolor of me during a reclining pose, and when he showed it to me afterwards and I almost cried (in a good way – it was seriously beautiful), he got my email address and emailed me a scan a few days later. It was super cool!

    So, not necessarily a sure thing, but definitely an option.

  5. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 5:19 pm #

    @Thea. Exactly. I mean to each her own, and as much as I love to make fun of people for having bad taste, it’s technically not a crime. And anything that’s not self-destructive and makes a girl feel better about herself is a-ok in my book. But this isn’t our only option. There are artists of every stripe who are ready and willing to do pretty much anything for money (including producing art) and we shouldn’t feel limited.

  6. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 5:24 pm #

    @Cedar: I think there are two schools of thought when it comes to crashing parties: Do it with a bang or a whimper. Obviously I prefer a bang. The quick and dirty rule would be “Look great, show no fear and bring a wrapped gift.” The wrapped gift –no bags– is important because it’s got a bit of panache. You can get away with murder if you’ve got enough panache.

  7. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 5:27 pm #

    @Carmen: Excellent counsel! I did more artists modeling than any other sort back when I modeled regularly. I never did the traditional “life art” modeling for a class. I really need to have a rapport with my artist and pose for them, specifically, not a class. I’ve got a couple of really great etchings (and some not so great) in my book to show for it.

  8. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 5:48 pm #

    @DCSurfergirl: Well get one! Hire a hair and makeup artist and a good photographer and have at it. Just be very very clear you don’t want wedding hair or wedding makeup or wedding photography. Wedding stuff is all well and good, but you want a photo of YOU, not Pink and Pretty Princess.

  9. dcsurfergirl June 30, 2010 at 6:04 pm #

    H-e-double hockey sticks, I might just shoot it myself. I did pretty good on my Skype photo…

  10. Harri P. June 30, 2010 at 6:12 pm #

    If I were to be immortalized as a comic book character, which is what Toil’s art looks like, it wouldn’t be in lingerie.

    Anyway, I have nice conte crayon drawings of my children on the wall. That’s who I want to look at, not myself.

  11. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 6:15 pm #

    @Harri, and book jacket tops mantel anyway!

  12. Whitney June 30, 2010 at 6:59 pm #

    Hubby is an illustrator by self-definition (and always, ALWAYS cringes with the whole “illustration v. fine art” thing, but in this case I very much get it) but I’d proudly put him up against any of the “fine” artists in his genre. I can’t tell you how many times he’s asked to do portraits (including by me) but it’s just not his gift and he’ll happily recommend someone else local. There are illustrators’ and artists’ groups in any town that can steer you, and even if you spot an artist whose work you like but doesn’t do diddly with portraits he or she can 99% of the time point you to several locals who do the kind of work you’re looking for.

    Though mine’s too embarrassed, I think, to have one of his friends see me all nekkid. :D

  13. Lisa June 30, 2010 at 7:17 pm #

    I never really thought Toil’s work is really the “above the fireplace” concept, so I am not sure Plummy’s comparison really works–between sort of a tasteful nude versus what is happening in these. Aren’t these more of a naughty picture for the boudoir kind-of-thing–like hanging in mom and dad’s closet or something? A for-your-eyes-only kind of indulgence? That’s what I always thought.

  14. Plumcake June 30, 2010 at 7:35 pm #

    @Lisa, I wasn’t making a comparison (because there isn’t any), I’m saying girls should get what they want, and if they want the Les Toil, let ‘em have it, but if they want something that’s actually fine art, not to settle.

  15. G-dog June 30, 2010 at 7:40 pm #

    I am not a fan of the Toil girls style either, but certainly support the models’ business & the business model. Personally, I don’t even like getting my photo taken, much less getting all nudified in front of others……

  16. Twistie June 30, 2010 at 8:50 pm #

    @Thea: Just as Ren Faires vary in quality, so do sketch artists at Ren Faires. I have a portrait of myself and Mr. Twistie done at the Ren Faire (Hey, it was where we met!) that’s really quite good. In fact, the same artist did a beautiful portrait of my mother, which also hangs in our living room. It’s absolutely wonderful. He completely captured her.

    OTOH, I’ve seen the work of just such sketch artists as you describe at more than one Faire.

    Topic: I’m completely with you on this one, Plummy. If you want a boudoir cartoon, by all means. Les Toil is your man. If that’s not what you’re looking for (and I, for one, am not), don’t choose Les Toil because you know he’ll paint you at your current size. Find someone whose work speaks to you and see what you can work out.

  17. EllaMenopy July 1, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    Have you seen Dawn French’s series ‘On Big Women?’ I’d like the artist from this segment to paint me… http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=isCaMYKOwP8&feature=related

  18. Lisa July 1, 2010 at 2:23 am #

    @Plumcake. I see. On the one hand, it’s annoying that fat woman are assumed to be cheap-looking and assumed not to deserve fine things, and so having this done in pop-art style in some ways conveys cheap. On the other hand, I resent pressure (not coming from you, just from the world) that I *have* to be or do particular things in order to disprove to the world unfair assumptions made about me by other people. It’s not my job to spend my time thinking about how to not live up to whatever crap stereotype people have of me because of my weight. It’s *their* job to get their heads out of their hind ends.

    However, I don’t like these (I’m not crazy about pop art anyway), except as some some sort of hidden-boudoir Elizabeth and her randy 85 year-old billionaire chasing each other around the jacuzzi kind of deal, and I really hate the name printed in cursive.

  19. raincoaster July 1, 2010 at 6:21 am #

    A LOT of artists are entirely willing to paint you for free. The thing is, they then keep and sell the paintings. If YOU want the painting, you’ve got to pay the artist.

    Baby needs a new pair of stretchers!

  20. raincoaster July 1, 2010 at 6:22 am #

    Please, ladies; this isn’t Pop art. This is just Bad Art. This is the Thomas Kinkade of the boudoir.

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  22. biscuit July 1, 2010 at 8:30 am #

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  23. ChaChaheels July 1, 2010 at 11:19 am #

    I’d like Botero to paint my portrait. He is the Andy Warhol of plus sized girl imagery.

  24. zuzu July 1, 2010 at 12:07 pm #

    I was once in the home of a daytime talk show host (I knew the husband of her stylist, and he was housesitting), and she had an ENORMOUS oil portrait of herself in the living room. It was a little unsettling.

    However, I think what was unsettling about it was that it was AN OIL PORTRAIT, all caps, of the formal, wants-to-be-hanging-in-some-manor-home’s-portrait-gallery sort. I’d have been a lot less struck with the oddness of it had it been something of her that was, I dunno, more artistic. More loose and less stiffly posed.

    If I had my druthers, I’d have Mucha paint me.

  25. Thea July 1, 2010 at 12:47 pm #

    Twistie: I’m an old Rennie so I understand completely the variables you find there. Some are true artists who do amazing work, others – not so much. PS I also have full Victorian mourning (3 foot veil, it’s year 2) :-)

    One of the things that bugs me about Toil is that I feel like he’s looking for women to praise him for what seems to be his personal fetish. I don’t like the fact that on his website he disses women who don’t meet his standard of beauty.

    I don’t want to be objectified. Period. Whether for ridicule or worship – it completely missing the point that I am a whole person with wicked since of humor and a killer peach pudding recipe.

  26. Thea July 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm #

    that would be a ‘wicked sense of humor but failure to proofread occasionally before I hit send”

  27. Lisa July 1, 2010 at 1:22 pm #

    @ raincoaster I said “pop art style.” Be fair. How about this: I don’t love things that are generally considered to be good pop art, so anything that derives from that I’m not going to crazy about.

    @ Thea I’m with you on the whether this would be something I’d like to do, even in fun. No.

  28. SusanC July 1, 2010 at 1:55 pm #

    Art schools have been mentioned, but you might consider not only the teachers but also the *students.* Each institution will have a different approach, but one way would be to contact the professor who teaches portraiture and ask for recommendations. Also, schools typical have open their exhibitions to the public, so that’s also a good way to see a selection of artists’ work and make contacts. Meet with your potential artist to make sure that not only the artistic but also the interpersonal style suits you.

    I’m with raincoaster on the dubious artistic merits of Les Toil. But it’s not a Kinkade without a waterfall, lighthouse or cottage, is it? Maybe more like a Patrick Nagle…

  29. Josie July 2, 2010 at 6:08 am #

    Not a fan of Mr Toil or his Girls. But I love me some Hilda http://www.toilgirls.com/hilda/gallery.html which I feel is a nice balance of kitschy and cute, with some artistic merit!

  30. Plumcake July 2, 2010 at 9:44 am #

    @Josie, I love Hilda too! I plan on wholeheartedly attempting to get my fleshy redhead pal to be Hilda for Halloween. I won’t win, but at least I will have tried.

  31. The gold digger July 2, 2010 at 10:14 am #

    That’s so much cooler than a Glamour Shot!

    You mean you don’t want a photo of yourself overly made up, with Big Pouffy Hair and your hands in an unnatural position next to your face, that you can send to all your friends who will then wonder what the heck they are supposed to do with it as they almost don’t recognize the cowgirl in the picture?

  32. Plumcake July 2, 2010 at 10:28 am #

    @Gold Digger: HA! My mother for some bizarre reason had one of those. I believe there was one with a motorcycle jacket involved. She was naturally a very pretty woman, so she would’ve been beautiful and alluring if they’d just washed her face and took a photo. Instead she looked like –and I say this with all affection due my mother– a worn-out hooker who followed the carnival.

    In full disclosure, my senior portraits were of the Glamour Shots variety, but I insisted on the traditional drape and then for fun a back shot in a huge white boa and pearls which, while not in the best of taste, I was Peggy freakin’ Guggenheim compared to most of the pap they produced.

  33. raincoaster July 2, 2010 at 3:06 pm #

    I’d kill to get my portrait painted by Francis Bacon. Too bad he’s dead and hated women anyway.

    John Curren paints an awesome portrait. I hope one day to be rich enough to afford him.

  34. Amy Liegh Johnson July 2, 2010 at 4:33 pm #

    As an artist, and a plus size lady. . .I LOVE what you have to say here. Why compromise? Especially why compromise when you are purchasing ART?! If you are commissioning you should get exactly. what. YOU. want.

    I’m a children’s illustrator. . .And, I’m just sayin. . .You -the buyer- should be selective and get what YOU want.

    Love it Lovey!

  35. Whitney July 2, 2010 at 8:29 pm #

    My portrait? John. Singer. Sargent. He did the most beautiful skin.

    And hubby confirms that Toil suxxorz and he’d be a bit squirmy if one of his friends saw me nekkid.

  36. Madame Suggia July 2, 2010 at 11:57 pm #

    Aaaah, yes…when I get around to having my portrait done (as I certainly will) it’s going to look like an Augustus John http://www.npg.si.edu/cexh/brush/index/portraits/bankhead.htm; It’s going to be HUGE; and it’s going to hang in my red red red drawing room, which will look just like Mrs. Vreeland’s. http://www.housebeautiful.com/cm/housebeautiful/images/red-living-room-xlg-22203997.jpg
    Yes indeedy.

  37. Margo A July 3, 2010 at 1:25 am #

    I have a lovely little watercolor sketch of myself, acquired from a Haight Ashbury artist who specialized in the “want to get your portrait painted?” method of seduction. I suppose that sounds a bit sordid to some , but once one is of A Certain Age, these things magically transform from tawdry incidents into exotic memories of one’s Bohemian past.

  38. Regina July 3, 2010 at 4:45 am #

    Hmmm…I’m not really too sure if the women that hired this artist Les Toil feel as if they’re settling for second best. I’ve been a fan of his work for about a dozen years now and his Toil girl clients seem as sincerely excited about their portraits as I would be if I could purchase his time and talent. I think he’s got a great kitschy cheesecake style that really isn’t worth any deep aesthetic or social examination. And as far as his preference to mainly do pinup art of large ladies, we’ve dealt with a very unapologetic planet that has blatantly shunned big women for many, many years. And I for one see their obsession for thin women no more of a personal fetish than Les’ affinity for thicker women. And he seems to be a lot more visible and vocal about his appreciation for big women than most men who really do keep their lust for fat women on their computer screen and behind closed doors.

  39. Fabrisse July 3, 2010 at 7:58 am #

    Just piggy backing onto Susan C.’s idea about art students — If your town has a university or other institution that offers degrees in fine arts, the painting students are required to show their work. The exhibits are often free, but I recommend seeing if you can get on the guest list for the opening party which might involve a contribution. The students are often at the opening and you can discuss things with the ones whose work intrigues you.