How to Paint a Portrait
July 26, 2007 7:54 AM   Subscribe

Ever wondered what it is like to have your portrait painted? How would you pose ... "sidelong glance, coy grin, gazing into the distance, serious and stylish"? Here's an interesting perspective on the subject, describing the process start to finish, written by a sitter, but published on the website of the painter, together with his added commentary on the process. And how did the subject like his finished portrait? "In a word, the painting makes me uncomfortable. ... It must be a terrific portrait." (via)
posted by woodblock100 (11 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Cool article. Thanks.

One thing I find is that his commentary is hit-or-miss. I took objection, for instance, to his belief that painting from a photograph isn't "cheating." Obviously, there's no such thing, but it removes one of the fundamental aspects of painting that make it a process of interpretation, rather than one of facsimile. He even points out that it makes things "easier" because the photograph is already in two dimensions, somehow not realizing that that's exactly why it's cheap.

That said, the point he makes about facial recognition is a really good one. It's funny how a portrait can seem to reproduce with complete fidelity every feature of a face and yet not look like it, and it's probably true that the basic shapes of the face are what cause this to happen. As a portrait artist, the intermediate shapes are probably the most difficult thing to pay attention to, as outlines are solid enough to grasp, and details are small enough to think about all at once. The mid-level proportions seem to be in that no-man's-land of fuzzy boundaries and poorly defined spacial relationships. It's not something I'd ever really thought about before.
posted by invitapriore at 8:29 AM on July 26, 2007

What a good read; loved the part about the artist flipping the unfinished portrait upside-down next to an upside-down photograph of the subject to stop seeing it "as a face" and focus more on the abstract shapes. Thanks for posting.
posted by Zephyrial at 8:35 AM on July 26, 2007

Good stuff, interesting story. Hearing stories from artists is always interesting. I had a painting teacher, very good, who described a commissioned painting he did of an old house. The clients were children who had grown up in the house. Upon seeing the painting, the felt it was "too light" and didn't capture the house as they show it and demanded that the painting be redone. So he threw a coat of something I can't remember over the painting, making it darker, waited a week and called up the clients. They loved it and marveled over how he was able to do the exact same painting.

On preview:
, but it removes one of the fundamental aspects of painting that make it a process of interpretation, rather than one of facsimile.

Not really, any good artist can still interpretate the portrait, it's just a question of whether it's an accurate interpretation.

And being an artist is ALL about "cheating" i.e. using various tricks and methods to accomplish the goal
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:37 AM on July 26, 2007

Neat post. In NYC there are all these street artist portrait painters on the sidewalk. It never ceases to astound me their ability to create portraits and damn good ones too in no time, with people/passersby watching every stroke and in the middle of street mayhem.

David Darrow seems like a really likable guy. Love his Juliette painting, great look on her face, hard to capture that. Enjoying his rock balancing site too.
posted by nickyskye at 8:39 AM on July 26, 2007

Brandon Blatcher: Yup, "cheating" is what it's all about, which is why I said that it doesn't really exist. Still, the fundamental difference between painting from a three-dimensional subject and a two-dimensional one is that the painter must make decisions on what to include. You're never really looking at something from the exact same angle in any given glance, and so there's an amount of perspective fudging that's impossible when painting from a photograph. The end result is, of course, what matters most, but who doesn't like choice?
posted by invitapriore at 8:44 AM on July 26, 2007

Here's a gruelling account of sitting for a much better artist. Also, accounts of sitting for Modigliani.
posted by fire&wings at 9:17 AM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

Or you could just take a crap photo and get it Simpsonized. Pepsi yellow.
posted by anthill at 11:27 AM on July 26, 2007

Thanks for this website. I was clicking all over the place. I love sketching and just plain idolize painters, which to me seems so difficult because I fear I don't have the patience for it!

I enjoyed that the artist was so moved by his teacher's comment on his artwork when he was seven years old that he credits her with starting his career, and went back to tell her so.
posted by misha at 12:25 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll chime in on the "cheating" debate. My thoughts are that it's not really a matter of cheating, but a matter of whether the resulting work of art maintains integrity.

Learning to paint or draw from life, in a representational style is all about learning how to process complicated (and sometimes seemingly contradictory) visual information and stimuli and make editing choices based on what one's end goal is. A photograph is an artifact that already has flattened out three dimensional space, and broken its subjuct down into discreet forms of light and dark, line and mass.

Reproducing a photographic portrait in any media (even if it isn't directly traced over verbatim, as, for example, the Wall Street Journal stipple portraits are, but used as a reference as in this case) simplifies (in the worst sense) the process. Most other artists can immediately tell if a painting has been created relying primarily on a photograph.

People forget that the camera is a mediating device that tends to flatten space in a way that is unnatural to our own lived experience of our visual world, and so most work created from photographs feels flat and brittle. Depending on what ideas/messages/emotions/concepts the artist is trying to communicate, this flatness and sterility can be very effective (see: Pop Art and many Post Modern works).

If it's a connected, evolved, carefully contemplated portrait in the tradition of the masters that one's going for though, working primarily from a photograph will tend to lend the finished painting a shiny veneer of "hack".
posted by stagewhisper at 12:30 PM on July 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

(I "tend" to have a lot of typos today)
Thanks for the links, though, lots of good ones in this thread!
posted by stagewhisper at 12:33 PM on July 26, 2007

I would also like to chime in on the cheating debate specifically in defense of the wonderful Wall Street Journal portraits.
Classic style live painting or quick spot illustration? It's about the purpose, time, and how much of the artistic interpretation is the subject open for (or has an appreciation of).
Illustration is art but in no way is it cheating when one needs to produce an exact likeness from a photo reference in a matter of few hours (as it's usually the case in printed media).
Camera not only flattens the face, it alters the light and color. It takes a good artistic eye and understanding of facial features and dimensions, to interpret a photo into a great illustration. Yes, you can tell if the illustration is done from a photo, but you can also tell if it was done by a good artist or a not very skillful or observant one. Same as in live painting.
Maybe I wouldn't be so amazed by the Journal portraits if they were pencil or even watercolor sketches, but they are also technically impressive, done as line drawings but resembling engravings. As I understand it takes a long time to just master the technique, let alone understanding the face in the photo.
posted by dellonarts at 6:36 PM on July 30, 2007

« Older Zotero -- a free, open source research tool   |   Peanuts, by Charles Bukowski Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments