There’s something really powerful about the face,” says artist Larry Madrigal, a Phoenix painter who has been gaining a reputation as a portraitist of uncommon skill and depth. In his oil paintings of family, friends and self, Madrigal combines technical flair with a deep humanity. With his carefully observed and rendered details–tactile skin, emphatic gazes and casual gestures–his work hints at complex lives. “Being able to capture my subjects on the canvas is very special to me,” says the painter. “And there’s so much to learn.”
Although he drew his first self-portrait in ink around age 10, Madrigal became enamored with oil portraiture while studying the old masters as an undergrad at Arizona State University, where he’s currently completing his Master of Fine Arts. “There’s a sacredness in those older paintings,” he says. “At their very foundation, there’s this feeling of awe that we’re in this world.”
This sense of reverence comes through in all his paintings, including his many self-portraits. In the oil-on-canvas Melancholia, he echoes Self- Portrait by Albrecht Durer, who, in 1500, daringly depicted himself in a full-frontal pose–then almost exclusively reserved for Christ. Like Dürer, Madrigal confronts his changing face as well as his evolving sense of self. “Growing up Mexican-American, I’ve always wrestled with identity,” says Madrigal. “I’m always thinking, ‘Who am I? What’s the essence of me?’ So, I found a kinship with his retrospective questioning of himself.”
The artist’s curiosity isn’t only directed inward. When depicting friends and family, “I try to aim for the feeling I get when I see them–something about who they are,” Madrigal says. “It’s not just a likeness.” In his “Sainthood” series, he conducted interviews and photo shoots with his subjects, all artists and activists “who are using their creativity to better their communities,” he says. The final portraits, rendered in lush detail, sometimes portray the figures with faint halos, referencing classical paintings of saints. “I wanted to depict them in a way that monumentalized and ennobled them,” Madrigal notes.
While the artist’s early technical approach was also attuned to the Renaissance–he used undetectable brushwork and thin glazes–lately, he says, “I’ve become interested in retaining evidence of the brushstroke. I want a little more gesture and movement.”
Recently, settings have taken on a greater significance in Madrigal’s work. Renaissance painting remains a touchstone, and he keeps a reproduction of Las Meninas by Diego Velazquez in the studio. But instead of the Spanish royal court, the artist memorializes modern life, as with his painting The Madrigals, which shows the painter at his canvas in a corner of a messy room with his wife, Melinda, and their toddler. The painting meditates on the constant “balancing of family and creative life,” notes Madrigal. But the work also insists on marveling at mundane moments. “It’s hard to take that kind of perspective in today’s world,” says Madrigal. “But I believe you can still find wonder.”