Local painter creates intrigue, beauty in portrait

Published in The Denton Record-Chronicle on Feb. 14, 2016

Behind the bar at 940’s Kitchen and Cocktails is an oil painting.

The painting depicts a woman with bright red lips set against a smoky background. It’s flanked by colorful bottles of expensive liquors.

The bar’s centerpiece, which shows three perspectives of the unknown woman’s face, is like a memory of another time — a throwback to the great tradition of paintings of beautiful women behind bar counters.

The portrait feels like a modern Mona Lisa. Like Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait, the subject of Daniel McCullagh’s Sight Unseen is shrouded in mystery. Nobody knows the identity of the model or what’s behind the curiosity of her expression — though she looks a little like Michelle Dockery, Lady Mary of Downton Abbey.

Bartender Tyler Jenkins, 26, said much of his clientele asks about the painting. The bar recently held a gallery event featuring McCullagh to give the artist a chance to answer their questions.

“It’s very striking, and the first thing that caught my eye when I came in here to apply,” Jenkins said. “She follows you around the room in a dizzying way.”

Sight Unseen was meant to capture the details that are often lost in motion.

“It’s like when you see a girl out of the corner of your eye and turn to look at her,” he said. “You pick up little pieces of information. Your brain, influenced by your emotions, creates the rest of the image.”

McCullagh said the idea to have the subject turn came to him just after Christmas 2014 while sitting at Paschall Bar talking about art with friends. In the past, he had painted images showing the subject as if it were dripping down and stretching across the canvas.

“Spiraling would give more dimension and depth to her face, emotionally and visually,” he said. “My friends encouraged me to do it.”

McCullagh did not use a model for the painting, he said.

“People tell me that it looks like their friend or family member,” he said. “It could be a real person, but even I’m not sure if it is.”

Working at Jupiter House, McCullagh sees many people every day. Occasionally, he said, someone will come in and look familiar — like a subject of a painting long since finished.

“It will be funny if this woman walks in to get coffee someday and it turns out she’s real,” he said. “Or maybe the face is derived from different people I’ve seen.”

Art critic Bill Marvel, 76, attended the event as a friend of McCullagh’s mother. Marvel said the woman looks curious as she faces forward. Her eyebrows are raised. Marvel argued that the subject is turning away from the viewer; other viewers think she’s turning toward the viewer.

“The painting really left it open to which direction she’s turning,” Marvel said. “If she is turning away, her eyebrows lower, indicating that she’s shy or uninterested. If she’s turning towards us, it indicates that we sparked her interest.”

McCullagh won’t say which way the woman is turning. But, he gave this clue: He did not paint the faces individually; he painted them as if they were one.

The artist would start the brush on the in-focus face and immediately paint the same feature on the next faces, without pulling the brush from the canvas.

“Blurring from one face immediately into the other, instead of painting three distinct faces and blurring them together, makes the movement look a little more organic,” he said.

“It’s the kind of painting that demands you to look at it,” Marvel said. “It does everything a painting like this is supposed to do on a sophisticated level. This is sophisticated bar with sophisticated drinks, and it deserves a sophisticated painting.”

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