The preparation for a Mary Villon portrait involves a Zen-like photographic session, where, in a calm atmosphere, children can be themselves; the photographs are then analyzed to help the artist achieve a synthesis. Whereas she used to agonize over using photography, it has evolved into both a technique to deal with restlessness and boredom in children as well as a way to focus her impressions.
"I don’t paint what I see; I abstract what I like." Children’s faces are so full of hope and trust. I like the round fullness of their cheeks, their big eyes, the contrasting texture of hair, skin and fabric, and the volume and form revealed by the play of light and shadow. The mood – be it wistful, mischievous, serene or stormy, radiant or defiant – emerges from the search to capture all this."
While she strives for objectivity, she also recognized that other elements inexorably find their way into her paintings: "Whether you’re working from nature or photographs, there’s always a kind of filtering going on. I try to keep myself out of the work and not impose myself on it. You try to be objective but the work is ultimately coming through you."
Like many artists Mary sometimes sees herself as "a conduit" for the images that emerge, "its solitary work – the abstract elements of the composition – shapes, line and the texture of the medium itself, paint or pastel. Then, there are the textures of my subjects such as skin, fabric, or hair. Gradually a work takes on a life of its own. I become a mere witness to the process."
One of the problems of creativity is the realization that a work of art many not be considered complete until all the extraneous elements are stripped away. Mary Villon de Benveniste experiences this phenomenon most vividly when she wields her sanguine pencil, a red ochre tool favored by many of the Renaissance masters.
"When you work in sanguine, you lay down a certain amount of pencil on the paper. Then there comes a point where what is most important is what you take out. I press a soft eraser onto the surface in order to lift colors from the paper. It doesn’t remove the pencil completely there’s always a trace left behind – a memory – and a luminous quality that I love.
I like to work in mediums that I can change and build. In oil I work in transparent layers; in pastels I develop its velvety texture.
Regardless of the medium in which she works Mary immerses herself in the interplay of light and shadow, "The light flows over the forms revealing them, the volumes and textures emerge, and the composition evolves into patterns of light and shadow.
Mary has no qualms about viewing her portraiture in a collaborative light. "Sometimes a client will request a specific background. For instance, with one commission it was the mother’s idea to use their old stone spring house as the backdrop for her daughter’s portrait. I want the parent to be involved; I really do appreciate their ideas and viewpoint. Together we choose the background, the clothes, the medium, and whether it’s going to be full length, to the hands, or head to shoulders.