Referring to his style as “deliberately awkward,” artist Ron Kammer’s rough line work, contrasting colors and splashes of humor animate his portraits.
Using mainly acrylic paint as his medium, Kammer gets “a kick out of making something look somewhat abstract but still recognizable, sometimes with a bit of humor or a little charm in it, but never anything cruel.”
Since retiring from nursing in 2015, Kammer paints nearly every day in his studio, a tiny house on wheels his daughter built a few years ago. For him, it’s an ideal place to spend hours brainstorming and painting.
“I truly enjoy having this space to paint my portraits. It has everything I need — heat, air conditioner and especially a smart speaker to play jazz,” said Kammer.
Fascinated by historical biographies of politicians, artists and activists, he captures these famous figures on hard board or stiff canvas panels.
“I like to learn and read a lot ... and you learn a little bit when you pick a subject to paint. You have to look up the image, and when you look up the image you’re going to see something about the person too, so you pick up tidbits.”
Kammer enjoys portraiture so much because a face has a unique relationship to the complexity of the subject. Along with painting people he admires, he also chooses controversial figures who are known for their complicated — and often negative — reputations.
“I like to paint people who are consequential, but not necessarily in a good way. Some might be saints and some are scoundrels, but they all have faults ...
“And sometimes with the distance of time, the less you know about the person, the easier it is to paint them since you don’t overthink it.
“You’re just painting a face and you’re trying to capture a bit of personality in them and maybe it’s not their true personality but it might make people think about them a little differently.”
He also takes portrait suggestions, or challenges. Oftentimes, family, friends or strangers will challenge him to paint a certain subject, such as Mother Teresa or Mr. Rogers.
Kammer has recently been inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement and has begun producing portraits of George Floyd and Emmett Till, both of whose brutal deaths — that are nearly 70 years apart — reveal the long legacy of racism and violence against Black people in the U.S.
An important part of all his portraits is his intentional inclusion of color. With his painting style of “colorful clumsiness,” he does not hesitate to experiment with color and create through trial and error.
“I find the colors I like, or the combination of colors that work well together. I have various successes, but not all of my paintings work, so I put them aside and sometime later I’ll pick them up and redo them.”
Above all, Kammer says that it’s always an interesting challenge to begin painting a new face and finding the right color composition.