During the Pandemic: A Conversation with Eli Portman

By admin on November 13, 2020

Pictured above: Outdoor Terrace Over Granary Burying Ground, watercolor on paper, 9.5″x 22″

Boston Athenaeum Residency Piece, 2019

Written by: Francesca Sinnott


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Pictured: Eli Portman, Self-Portrait

When one looks at Eli Portman’s extraordinary and incredibly detailed pen and ink drawings, watercolor paintings and murals, one has the privilege of viewing Boston through a very special lens. “I love drawing and painting the raw, every day moments of people living in the city that are visually fascinating to me”, Eli tells me excitedly. “Sometimes these images are of things that people see but don’t really see.” Eli’s finely calculated renderings reflect his own vision of modern Boston life that he wants to help others see.  A Copley Artist Member, two of Eli’s works are in Co|So’s Holiday Small Works Show. He is grateful for the opportunities the organization has given him to both exhibit and teach.


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Pictured: Tower in Hyannis Port, pen and ink, 13” x 15”


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Pictured: Swimmers at White Wharf in Rockport, watercolor, 22”x 18”

Eli’s realist, impressionistic style is inspired by Robert Henri and John Sloan of the early 20th Century Ashcan School. The Ashcan artists told truths about the New York City working class and the middle class that were previously ignored.  The “comic book art” that Eli read as a kid also resonated for him.

Eli has worked from his home studio throughout the pandemic. “As a freelance, full time working artist I know shifts in the economy can affect my livelihood; so I am always planning ahead, seeking ways to get out in front of people with my art”.  While Eli loves painting his own impressions of the Boston area, he also paints commissions for people wanting to capture a memory of their brownstone, a favorite park or childhood home.  Eli is a mural painter as well. 


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Pictured: Subway Portal, Mural for Punto Urban Art Museum, 2018

The pandemic cut short Eli’s year long Community Fellowship with the Boston Athenaeum However, he worked quickly allowing him the opportunity to create a series of plein air works that celebrate the space and its history.


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Pictured: Children’s Library, pen and ink, 14.75″x 13”

Pictured: Second Floor Hall, watercolor on paper, 30″ x 22″

Boston Athenaeum Residency Pieces, 2019

Eli teaches individual and group drawing classes via Zoom for kids and adults. Currently he is completing a mural for his synagogue and continuing to teach 15 classes. “I am busier than ever as people are housebound and either want to put art on their bare walls or learn how to draw”.  Before Covid, Eli taught live watercolor and oil painting classes with the Boston Center on Adult Education in Bay Village. He also taught an Adult Ed landscape drawing class at Brookline High School. 

Eli starts with a pencil sketch, then uses a dip pen in ink to shade in the details. The works range in size from 8 ½” x11” to 22”x30”. “I use the dip pen to create my more dynamic urban scenes; the lights and darks capture the brooding and detailed energy. Every piece draws upon a series of photos of a scene. I then recreate the scene to reflect my own impressions and mood of the moment. I want the viewer to see things they might not notice but they relate to.”


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Pictured: On Prince St in Late Sunlight, Boston’s North End, Pen and Ink, watercolor, 16″ x 12″

 “My watercolors have an impressionist style whereby I am able to depict more idyllic and traditional scenes in a loose and bright way.


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Pictured: Chinatown at Night (Boston), Watercolor on Paper, 22″x 30″

My murals are a mixture of bright colored hardware store spray paint and brushwork.  “I love the variety of work that I do. But the greatest reward is when I sell a painting that is my story to someone else and it becomes their story.”

Eli received a BA in Studio Art from SUNY Binghamton where he was most inspired by his printmaking teacher, Alexandra Davis. “When I graduated college I wanted to pursue art as a career full time. I’ve spent 6 years focused on building on the business side of my art, getting myself out there, making connections. You can be an incredible artist, but this won’t serve you if you don’t manage the business side.”

His advice to young artists, “Work as much as you can, be willing to try new things.  Creating art and selling art for a living means finding a balance between doing the art you love and going after work not in your wheelhouse. This can be hard at times. But when the tough times come around (as in this pandemic) my clients, who like my work, have remembered me and I am busier than ever”.