The art of military portraiture

Story by Jacqueline M. Hames, Soldiers magazine

Patricia Rice’s creative space is welcoming. The square, one-panel windows are curtained in white sheers and the concrete floor is softened with oriental throw rugs. Small paintings are displayed on tables covered in red-and-white checkered cloth. There is a ceramic tea set and family snapshots on a side table across from a cushioned bench and wing-backed armchair. Everything smells faintly of oil paint and turpentine.

“I’ve always drawn,” Patricia Rice, portrait artist, said with a smile. “My mother says from the time I picked up a crayon she knew I was going to be an artist.”

Rice didn’t begin her professional life as an artist, however. Though she took art classes throughout high school, she decided to follow in her father’s footsteps and pursue a career in medicine. Rice attended nursing school before dropping out to start a family — 10 years and six kids later, she started teaching a neighborhood art class as a way to pass the time. Teaching helped her rediscover her love for art.

“In the process of preparing for these classes, I found myself thinking all the time about light and shape and form, and how to communicate that,” Rice said. “And I started drawing myself and couldn’t stop drawing. It was as if the wall of a dam that water had been building behind, silently, just came down and there was no stopping the torrent.”

Rice’s studio is decorated with various portraits painted in oil, the largest of which depict servicemembers. Rice has a special interest in painting service men and women: all of her children have served.

Rice’s children, from oldest to youngest are: Air Force Airman 1st Class Rebecca Rice-Johnson, Marine Sgt. Patrick Rice, Army 1st Lt. Mary Ann Rice-Saxton, Army 1st Lt. Elisabeth Rice, Marine Lance Cpl. Christopher Rice and Marine Cpl. Philip Rice. Patrick and Philip are still on active duty, but their siblings have separated from the service.

Four of Rice’s children joined their two older siblings in service around the same time the studio opened.

In 2009, she landed a studio at the Workhouse Arts Center, a converted prison in Lorton, Va., helping her gain exposure as an artist.

“That was a time of a whole lot of transition. I was thrilled, I was shocked that my two youngest got in, to tell you the truth.” Christopher was the survivor of childhood brain cancer, while his brother Philip used to be asthmatic, Rice explained.

The middle sisters, Elisabeth and Mary Ann, had never really expressed an interest in the military. They graduated from nursing school one day apart and decided to join the Army.

“The younger one said, ‘I’ve heard a lot that the Army has a new great nurse grad training program, I’ve got loans, this looks like a perfect option for me,’ so she signed up. And that led the last one, she kind of looked around and said ‘wait for me!’” Rice said.

Elisabeth deployed to Afghanistan with a forward surgical team during the troop surge in 2009, Rice said. The first night she was there, the hospital had a wave of mass casualties, and her first patient was a double below-the-knee amputee.

“That was her introduction to six months of just wave after wave after wave of Marines and mass casualties.” Elisabeth also worked with Afghan nationals and local people, Rice explained.

Christopher, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, had an improvised explosive device hit his MRAP — the vehicle saved his life.

“So, through my children, I see all sorts of aspects of the war,” Rice said.

Rice first became intrigued with the idea of military portraiture when her two youngest sons graduated from boot camp. She explained that the two couldn’t have been more different, but with their uniforms on, radiating a military persona, she couldn’t pick them out in a crowd. She decided she wanted to paint a picture of all three of her sons together, in their dress uniforms.

“I thought, I want to paint a picture of the three of them together and I want the picture to communicate their sameness, but also their subtle differences,” she said.

The painting has her sons posing in profile, all looking in the same direction. It’s painted in varying shades of red-brown, creating a sepia effect and lending the painting a timeless quality.

The painting took up residence in her studio as a display piece, sparking discussions about military life from visitors, many of whom are stationed at area military bases.

“Someone who was retired, an Army major, said to me ‘Why aren’t you painting official military portraits?’” Rice said. She thought that was a great idea, however, she learned that in order to paint official portraits, you have to have examples of them. So Rice asked for military volunteers to help build her military portrait portfolio.

“(Brig.) Gen. Belinda Pinckney, a retired Army general, was one of those very kind (volunteers) that let me come in her home and spend the day with her, and talked with me about her service, and we put together this composition,” Rice said.

The portrait depicts Pinckney wearing her Class A uniform in her home, in front of a Lladro sculpture and a print of a Buffalo Soldier. Pinckney’s command was the Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command.

“I wanted to try and say something about what her command is. She collects Lladro sculptures, so we chose the Lladro family, and then she also collects Buffalo Soldier prints,” Rice explained. The portrait tells the story of a feminine woman who is comfortable with military command as well as being a familial caretaker.

Another portrait opportunity came by chance, when Rice met Maj. Gen. Hawthorne L. Proctor, retired Quartermaster General of the U.S. Army, on a flight from Ohio to Virginia. The flight attendant happened to see a small pastel piece Rice had been working on and asked to show it to a person in business class. Proctor came back to meet Rice after a few minutes, impressed with Rice’s skill and the fact that all six of her children had served. Rice asked if the general would pose for a painting to help build her military portrait portfolio, and he agreed.

Proctor’s portrait had to be assembled from several reference photographs. Rice was able to adjust the background, lighting and smaller details, exercising her skills as an artist, to achieve the best portrait.

“That’s where portraiture is such a wonderful thing, because there is no way, even with all the Photoshop in the world, you could have done that,” she said.

Rice’s first official military portrait was of now-retired Gen. William E. “Kip” Ward, the first commander of U.S. Africa Command. Ward is pictured at his desk, wearing his Army Combat Uniform.

“The hardest thing was painting that digi-cam,” Rice said with a laugh. “I had no idea what I was getting into. It takes me at least 12 hours to do just one section, maybe one 4-by-6-inch section.” Painting the ACUs was one of the most technical things she has ever done — she had to account for color changes with lighting, the fold of the fabric, and the angle of every square, but she believes the effort was worth it.

Ward’s portrait will be displayed in the AFRICOM headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany.

“I think one of the reasons why I enjoy painting military portraits is that, regardless of rank or branch of service, I’ve been very privileged to see inside the price that they pay,” Rice said.

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have played a large role in her consciousness as an artist. Rice sees many aspects of war, from combat through her children’s eyes, to familial bonds at home, to non-military individuals puzzled by a military lifestyle, and she believes that insight is an honor.

“That’s a very special world with special bonds, and something that I enjoy most: paintings that move me, painting things where I have some kind of connection,” she said.

To see more examples of Rice’s work, visit http://patriciaricestudio.com.

  • Diedre Windsor

    Thanks for taking the time to tell Patty’s story. She is a remarkable Artist, wife and most importantly, mother. I look forward to the day that her body of work is known to the world.