Chroma Portrait Series Overview Ben Wolstenholme

Why paint the ‘Chroma Portraits’?

Like many people in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, I wanted to do something.  

Simultaneously, I realized how ignorant I was. I am a white, male, cisgender brit living in Oakland, US, with only a basic understanding of the cultural and historical issues around racism - here, or anywhere else for that matter. I later learned that this is an unearned privilege in society.

I thought that a good starting point would be to study a few civil rights leaders and the history of their work. I first watched the film ‘I am Not Your Negro’ about James Baldwin. As I watched the film I experienced multiple epiphanies through Baldwin’s perspective - Simple, irrefutable facts on equity and civil rights - there was nothing to discuss - only real action that needed to be taken.

One particular interview in 1968 really struck me - not just the facts themselves - but the startling thing was the lack of change in the issues. James Baldwin could have been speaking ‘now’, just weeks after the George Floyd Murder... and yet this was going back over half a century ago.

This lack of change really hit me. I wanted to understand more. I wanted to contribute and decided to listen to some of his talks and readings and to paint a portrait of him. Committing to a painting was my way of sitting with the subject, the person, the injustice... literally ‘a sit in’ in that sense.

The portrait would be based on a photograph - so to do it any justice I knew I needed to get at least enough knowledge to have a sense of his story - to then try and convey some of that story through the choice of portrait and through his eyes or perhaps his posture.

That was my goal.

What did I learn painting the portraits?

Once I had painted the James Baldwin portrait I posted it online and asked for recommendations on what to read, watch or listen to next.

Maya Angelou and her first novel ‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings’ was the suggestion; she became my next study. The series and the portraits went from there.

It’s been a pretty random journey into different people, and realistically, I have only made a small start in exploring the dense lives of each. It is an education and has been a life-spur to delve into each person. Despite how incredibly vivid their work is, it is a real challenge to project into someone else’s shoes - to behold obstacles you’ve never considered or encountered, in that respect true empathy is hard when it is not based on a lived experience.

I find staring at a face, having read some of their story, to be a really revealing process. The eyes, the subtle expressions then speak so much. It is a challenge to try to capture that sentiment in the painting.

After Maya, the journey of recommendations went onto civil rights leader Malcolm X; politician, statesman and civil rights activist Representative John Lewis; poet and musician Gil Scott-Heron; contemporary Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan; actor and playwright Chadwick Boseman, also his portrayal of the icon and superhero Black Panther - a departure into pop culture. The series led me to Diplomat and Secretary-General of the United Nations, Kofi Annan who led the creation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Later the series led me to the Baptist minister and civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr; NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, and politician and humanitarian Graça Machel.

Over the recent years I have gained a better understanding of civil rights and the challenges around equity, diversity and inclusion. It’s clear that real change has not happened anywhere near fast enough. Merlene Davis an African American writer recently quoted in the Chicago Tribune said to rid America of racism would require more than the efforts of people of color: “Only when white people stand up and say, ‘This has got to stop’ will it stop.”

What am I doing about my learnings?

Whilst painting the portraits I was video recording the process. The posted videos ended up getting interest in particular from teachers, many of whom asked if they could use the portraits and videos to aid teaching. These requests spanned a few aspects of learning: Art, literature, music, history, humanities, civil rights and the subjects of diversity, equity and inclusion. I was very happy to see the videos used and later teachers and schools also asked for posters of the portraits for classrooms.

The last portrait in the Series happened to be of Graça Machel, and it was a quote of hers, alongside the response of teachers, that got me wondering if I could do more with the series;

“Preventing the conflicts of tomorrow means changing the mindset of youth today.”
—Graça Machel

This rather random series was really about the steppingstones I took into these vital subjects. They’re big, daunting topics to enter. Perhaps these portraits could be an easy visual entry point into each person’s life and lead to more materials around their body of work?

One teacher wanted to place novels and writings next to each poster so students could freely learn more. Others wanted to use the materials to provoke students into their own research and interpretation of their work. Another wanted the videos for art and to provoke a visual project around civil rights.

I am very fortunate that as the series grew ViaTalenta agreed to support the work; to amplify its message and enable a more international reach. This enabled us to start to scale the materials we can provide teachers and schools.

As my learnings evolved, I found myself wanting to bring more vibrancy to the paintings and to try using intense colour to convey some of the energy and huge impact each person has had in the world. I wanted each painting to be a vivid celebration of their lives and achievements.

The subject of colour in racism and in art led me to researching the human perception of colour. This is where I found what I think is a fascinating title for the series, ‘Chroma’. Chroma as an attribute is not a physical measure of colour but a psychovisual perception of colour in changing light. Chroma is ‘The Perception of Colour in Light’.

As the Chroma series started to take shape, we were introduced to two incredible organizations making a huge impact in the US and wider world; Lightship and Howard University.

At this point I realized the work had started to find its place.

What’s next? And how to get involved.

Art has the unparalleled ability to bridge divides, spark dialogue, and amplify the voices that often go unheard. With Chroma, we not only celebrate diversity, a testament to the strength found in our differences, but take a collective step towards engaging artists and entrepreneurs with little access to the world of art.

Today, we stand united in a collective endeavor that transcends the boundaries of conventional philanthropy, forging a path where art goes beyond artistic aesthetics.

Engaging with the tour

The Chroma Portrait Series is touring throughout 2024 –2026 to raise funds for its cause – the future artists and entrepreneurs. Through Chroma, we resonate in classrooms where eager minds are nurtured, in communities where opportunities flourish, and in the transformative projects that honour the many causes and initiatives of the people depicted in the portraits. We invite you to join us and make a difference beyond the walls of your home.

1. Art Auctions: Purchase a print or an original Chroma masterpiece and surround yourself in the powerful narratives that fuel the engine of change. As a Chroma Patron, you can follow new, emerging talents and be part of their success.

2. Art Exhibitions: Explore the exhibitions, where passion and purpose converge. Immerse yourself in a world of history and the powerful figures that made today happen and share insights with fellow Patrons through the purchase of unique collection items.

The proceeds
Two world-changing organizations, ViaTalenta Group and Lightship Foundation in collaboration with Howard University, are driving the Chroma program.