By Eric Messinger
People expect a lot from the photography and videos of their wedding journey—but even more so when a memory is captured in paint. They want to look at them with unreserved joy and feel lucky that they’ll always have them to look at again and again in years ahead. Painting a portrait that memorable is a very high bar for an artist, but a few years ago, mostly as a matter of good fortune, the painter Maxine Orange began to cultivate a style of portraiture that brides and brides-to-be—and, yes, their significant others—have fallen in love with.
Orange’s approach stakes out a romantic middle ground between the figurative and the abstract. Her subjects are recognizable, but their faces are opaque and sometimes even left out of the frame altogether. Instead, Orange evokes them by artfully delineating their bodies and bridalwear or other stylish dresses, and highlighting telling gestures like a forever kiss or a sunflower dangling from a hand. Set before backdrops of lush color that are also more expressive than literal—like marine blue of the ocean meeting a cloudless sky—the portraits capture people at the height of love, looking and feeling amorous, sexy, free, and whole.
Orange mostly paints couples but also does individuals. She feels the use of abstraction in her work helps bring out the essential connection between two people, or between a person and their environment.
“There’s a Japanese aesthetic called wabi-sabi that’s about appreciating the beauty of the imperfect, and as an artist I’ve always loved that idea,” says Orange, who tries to infuse her unique renderings with the concept. “No relationship is perfect, but I believe the imperfections add up to a kind of perfection,” she adds. “And I think that’s what’s going on in these portraits.”
I myself was not on the road to marriage when I first came upon Orange’s work two years ago. I was a recent widower with two teens, who was focused on very little except trying to stabilize our lives. But her portraits must have made an impression, because earlier this year, when I wanted to give my girlfriend, Maria, something extra-special for her birthday, I immediately recalled those paintings and how resonant they are with joy and love. Perfect! I ended up commissioning Orange to do a portrait of Maria, who was also drawn to her work and was excited at the prospect of Orange doing her portrait.
With formal training in both painting and graphic design, Orange has worked for almost two decades in a variety of creative jobs, most notably as a retail designer for the adventure sports and active lifestyle brand Quiksilver. She has also pursued her own side projects, including a line of handbags and a give-back brand of necklace pendants in the shape of states (which naturally started with Orange’s home state, Alabama). As an adult, Orange, who has been married to her husband, Neal Bern, for 10 years, has lived and worked in New York City, Huntington Beach, CA, and for the last nine years in Destin, FL, where she helps out managing Bern’s Allstate insurance agency, while also being active in the local creative community – juggling a multitude of projects – like curating the wall art at local co-working space called Beachworx (@artworxdestin); acting as a board member of the Mattie Kelly Arts Foundation (mkaf.org); and, most recently, collaborating with photographer Sean Murphy (seanmurphyphoto.com). Through it all, the one constant in her life has been her passion for painting.
“I’ve been painting for as long as I can remember,” says Orange. “And when there’s been a period when I just couldn’t do it because of other demands, there’s a bizarre balance to it because I’m always driven back to painting again.”
The story of her entry into wedding portraiture began in early 2017 with some positive feedback from an old friend of a painting Orange did of three women in long marine-green gowns with only partly revealed faces. The friend was so taken with it she asked Orange if she could do one in that style of her and her two bridesmaids. Orange agreed but ended up making one of herself and her own bridesmaids first. She then included it in her next art show, where it was promptly scooped up by a buyer who didn’t have any relation to Orange or her bridesmaids but loved the painting all the same.
“That’s the moment I realized that maybe there’s something here,” says Orange about painting people who have decided to marry. “For the next year, I sent a portrait to everyone I knew who was getting married, whether I was invited to the wedding or not. If I heard that you were getting married, you got a portrait based on a photo I saw on Facebook or Instagram.”
The clever bit of self-marketing worked so well that since then Orange has enjoyed a steady stream of commissions, most of which have come from the word-of-mouth of happy patrons. There are two options to work with Orange on a bridal portrait. The most common one is to send her a handful of photos you’d like her to use for inspiration. While there may be some added uncertainty in hiring an artist whose portraits are abstract, Orange prides herself on being an artist who can be true to her vision and also offer good customer service. For the bridal portraits, she does this by welcoming her customers into the process at several key checkpoints, so they can see how the painting is evolving and give feedback.
For the portrait I commissioned of my girlfriend, for example, I sent in some of my favorite photos I’d taken of Maria on two occasions: One of her sitting on a boardwalk bench near Coney Island on a gorgeous summer day, and another standing on a promenade along the East River at dusk with the 59th St. Bridge behind her. (Yes, I’m from New York.) Both photos are endearing, but the latter was especially fun as Maria had been hamming it up by striking poses in the spirit of a model on a cover shoot (even though I was just a guy using his cell phone to photograph her).
Orange must have liked the vibe of the latter photo too, because she ended up taking most of her inspiration from a photo of Maria casting her hair to the wind, as she did for fun by the bridge. But our glorious day in Coney Island was also represented in the portrait, as Orange preferred the dress from that day. I appreciated the various checkpoints too—one when the backdrop was completed; one when the figure was roughly in place; and a version that was close to the final. Along the way, I offered little feedback because I wanted to respect her vision, which came together in an altogether delightful way. At the very end, when I mentioned that the part in Maria’s hair seemed a bit too stiff, Orange readily addressed it.
Just my opinion: If you like Orange’s aesthetic approach to portrait-making, don’t try to micro-manage the process. Be honest with her, but be open to her instincts as well. Most of her customers end up being really happy that they went on the journey with her. We certainly are: the portrait captures Maria’s lively spirit so well I’ve titled it La Dolce Maria.
And for those who are up for adding another attraction to their actual wedding, Orange will also work her magic in person on the big day. How it works is she sets up a paint station at the reception, and ends up completing most of the portrait in the course of the wedding, typically working from a photo of the bride and the groom she takes when they first enter the reception area as a newly married couple. As one could imagine, lots of interested people come by in the course of the party—sometimes again and again—to see how the painting is evolving. Between her sunny manner and her novel presence, Orange brings another layer of fun and cool to the special day.
“ ‘How do you do that?’ They always ask me at weddings,” says Orange. “I look at it and paint what I see. It’s hard to teach or explain.”
For more on Maxine Orange Art, visit:
To contact Maxine Orange: 714.658.9491 or email@example.com
Eric Messinger, who loves collecting affordable art, is a freelance writer and editor mostly focused on subjects related to family life, democracy, and pop culture.