My Father the Clown

by Laura Brink | June 30, 2023

Everyone has a crisis of some sort at sixteen, right? I’m relieved to say I didn’t end up acting like a clown, but I did paint a portrait of my father as one. This was not my initial plan when I decided on ‘performance’ as my theme for an extended art project in school – I actually intended to indulge my current obsession of Queen fan art. As much as I enjoyed fangirling, though, I was also starting to develop an awareness of what it meant to be an Artist, how important it was to me to be taken seriously. I was ashamed to realise that submitting fan art for a mark was not a ‘mature’ artistic choice. And anyway, I needed a subject I could photograph myself. 

These reference photographs were a tricky business. Not really a photographer, this requirement to seemingly get as close to my subject as a camera lens would allow was stumping me. I googled the exam board’s assessment objectives again. They were stipulating that I show ‘sustained interest’ and a ‘personal relationship’ to my work, so really, the drummer Roger Taylor would not count. However intimate I felt my connection to his droopy doe-eyes and long blond locks to be, and despite the fact that I had made an Instagram account where I posted one hundred drawings of him one hundred days in a row, I had to begrudgingly admit that our relationship was classically parasocial. 

Reluctantly, I began to search for other subjects to photograph on my phone, hoping to add some drama later: my gymnast sister’s feet (on tiptoes in such a way that it vaguely suggested ballet), one of my friends photographed in a five minute slot between school and her dance class (who begged me to not paint her unshaved armpits), my own face in a harsh makeshift ‘spotlight’ (my phone flashlight in my bedroom late at night, with as little light as possible on my pubescent, chubby jawline). I ended up asking my father for help. He is the kind of man who makes me feel guilty for enjoying ‘Daddy Issues’ by The Neighbourhood, and, as it happened, he didn’t mind being painted and prodded and asked to turn his face at inconvenient angles. I knew then I had made the right decision in asking him to be my clown.

I remember being taught at a young age that asking boys at school to play Barbies with me was a social faux pas, but my father, the clown, had no problem playing with whatever toys I asked him to. He sat down on the playmat next to my small, pale frame with his comically large, tanned body: a cricketer, previously an officer in the army despite secretly being a pacifist when conscripted. The worst crime he committed in my eyes was when he teased me for giving two dolls the same name by accident, but I was shocked to learn that many people in my conservative hometown would have been more disgusted that he deigned to learn the names of his daughter’s dolls in the first place, or that he enjoyed both rugby and Rachmaninoff, both beer and Basquiat. 

Knowing all of these things, it’s not surprising that he agreed to let me paint him as a clown. I gave him an old palette of face paint and a decently clean brush. I sat on the edge of the bathroom counter, and he stood by the sink in front of the mirror. I directed him to stand nearby, facing the mirror behind the sink. 

First, I painted his face: primary colours, all bright and reminiscent of childhood nostalgia (though I cannot remember attending a real circus), purest white so blank it scared me to see it on his warm, sun-tanned face. The sad lines curved down, making him frown comically like a kid theatrically building up to a tantrum. It was a funny (both ‘funny haha’ and ‘funny strange’) look on such a temperate man. 

Before completing the look, I hopped off the counter and stood back, asking him to pretend to be painting on the finishing touches in the mirror. Snapping at the camera, I thought how privileged an event it was, to see my father with a painted face, a ridiculously garish clown variety at that. Unafraid of camp, unashamed of his love for his daughters, about to casually wipe off this makeup in a few minutes and join a Serious Business Meeting: my father the clown. 

I remember being plagued then by the idea that everyone was wearing a full face of paint, that the people I thought I knew were at risk of vanishing with the wipe of a tissue. But I knew my father, and he wasn’t putting on an artificial dad-face with me because he pitied my shyness, just as he was never begrudging about spending time with me on the playmat when I was too little to be so self-aware. He was never the kind of man to ‘teach me a lesson’, or claim he had all the answers. In fact, he needed a lot of help learning to pose with the brush to make the photo look like he was actually doing his own make-up. But what I learnt from him then was very similar to what the professionals always say about art: when you’re trying to draw something, focus on seeing what is there, not what you suspect might be there. Draw the shapes you see in a face, not what you think a face looks like.

Observing just the shapes in front of me when I returned to my reference photographs later, I ended up painting my father’s face three times: ‘putting on’ clown makeup, making a sad face directly at the camera, and cleaning his face calmly. I got out of my head. My work was better off for not thinking so much about the pressure to capture his likeness, or whether this artwork would finally be mature enough. I sat back to look at my work after hours of bending over my desk and mixing colours on the palette, thickly encrusted with shades of clown. I smiled, as I still smile now when I look at it. My father is himself in all three versions.

Words by Laura Brink

Photography by InChan Yang