Mapping the Human Face – A Local Artist’s Stunning Portraits

July 10, 2013

by Bree Collins

George Strasburger's self-portrait.
George Strasburger’s self-portrait.

Portraiture is a unique choice for artists because of its difficulty. “Artists often shy away from portraiture because it’s more work,” says internationally known, Tucson-based artist Shana Zimmerman. Her portrait work has been featured in galleries both here and in Santa Fe, and her work was featured on the cover of Zocalo’s March 2013 issue. She has been selling professionally in markets like Santa Fe since 2000. “You capture their energy as well as their likeness,” she says. “It takes a lot of practice to express a person.”

Zimmerman recognizes the skill of local portrait artist George Strasburger. Strasburger, who works out of his gallery at 174 E. Toole Ave, painted his first portrait at the age of six. “It was a baseball card,” he recalls. He took his first painting lesson at 12. He was impressed by the old masters and wanted to be a part of the tradition.

The level of detail in Strasburger’s art makes you take a second look, and Zimmerman notes that Strasburger develops the sense of skin through light very well. “People’s faces are like topography,” says Strasburger. “You paint the light as it’s interrupted by someone’s features. In this way, a portrait and a landscape are related. When I paint, the person’s face begins blurry as if you’re seeing them from far away. The more I work on it, the more in focus they become.”

"The Trafficker" by George Strasburger.
“The Trafficker” by George Strasburger.

The portraits start with an idea. For instance, ‘The Trafficker’ began as an urge to work on a project about the desert. Strasburger was new to Tucson and drug trafficking was a local, pertinent issue that he wanted to explore. The painting depicts a man lying in the desert, on the edge of death from a gunshot wound. “It was kind of a romantic idea – dying by the sword he lived by,” says Strasburger. But as Strasburger worked, the idea broadened. It quickly evolved into expressing ideas about ‘meeting your maker’ and thoughts right before death. Strasburger questioned what he might think about if he were lucky enough to be conscious for his final breath. “It came from wondering about those last moments.”

Even paintings with a lighter tone become more than what he started with. ‘The Chore’ -a painting of a woman holding a child and picking up a piece of fallen laundry – came to describe futility as well as love of family.

Strasburger describes his style as tightly executed, but loose as well since he takes liberties with his colors. His color choices have turned grayer in recent years, something Strasburger says is an interest he indulges. “There’s an infinite choice of colors between red and gray, for example – mauve, etc. – the balance is to make it just gray enough to suggest a color.”

"Laredo" by Shana Zimmerman.
“Laredo” by Shana Zimmerman.

Zimmerman explains that the way an artist applies paint speaks to their personality. While she describes her approach as more aggressive, she says Strasburger’s application of paint gives his paintings a soft, blended transition. And Strasburger admits that he is constantly trying to find ways to make his subject dissolve into their environment. In his piece ‘Fear’, a warrior has been spotted by something out of our view. “It’s a kill or be killed thing,” says Strasburger. The warrior’s skin and clothing match the gray, brown and orange rocks around him, allowing him to blend in. “He’s just a half shade away,” says Strasburger. But the look on the man’s face is clear. “Fear is always a part of our lives,” says Strasburger. “The most destructive things we experience can be traced to a fear.”

Strasburger takes portrait commissions, and can paint from subjects or photography. When painting portraits from a photograph, Strasburger tries to determine the person’s character. “I will never meet these people, but I end up trying to express their best qualities,” says Strasburger. “I’ll think ‘that man looks like a loving grandfather’ or ‘that child looks intelligent’ and put that in the painting.”

You can find Strasburger in his gallery 11-4 Wednesday through Friday, by appointment, and on First Saturdays. Check out more of his work at georgestrasburger.com.

To find out more about Shana Zimmerman’s work, visit  http://www.shanazimmerman.com/.