Archive for August, 2008

The engaged portrait subject Part 1: Expression of emotions

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

“The face is the primary signal system for showing the emotions”

Portrait of Mrs. Irondell & granddaughter, by Simmie Knox

Portrait of Mrs. Irondell & granddaughter, by Simmie Knox


Detail of Mrs. Irondell

This spectacular painting by American portraitist Simmie Knox (most famous for painting the official Presidential portraits of Bill and Hillary Clinton) is, to me, one of the ultimate role models for the creation of profoundly humanistic portraits. The expression of pride and suppressed merriment in Mrs. Irondell’s face conveys so much more than if she had been painted in a traditional pose gazing into the middle distance. Her clothing and surroundings express elegance and wealth as well as any more formal portrait, but the look on her face – and that of her mischievous granddaughter – raises this portrait far above the standard pose.

To capture this kind of expression in a painting is no easy matter. To begin with, it’s impossible for a subject to produce an expression like this on demand while an artist paints. I don’t know how Knox created this portrait, but it’s hard to imagine he didn’t look at photographs to help. (To read my earlier entries on photography, click here.)

In addition to photos, there’s another resource that can help in painting human expression. The human face generates expressions via many different muscles functioning together under the particular flesh of each person. So for an artist to paint expressions, it’s important to have a working knowledge of the basic facial movements that create them.

Because my own central aspiration in portraiture is to learn ever more about how to fully convey human expression, I’ve relied on THE ARTIST’S COMPLETE GUIDE TO FACIAL EXPRESSION, by Gary Faigin. This book analyses the myriad movements of facial muscles which construct the expressions we recognize as joy, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, sadness, and various nuances of these emotions. In a future blog post, I’ll describe the crucial role Faigin’s book played, for example, when I faced the challenge of painting an impish little boy based on a terribly over-exposed family photograph.

In addition to my trusty copy of Faigin, my daughter Nastassia Hajal, a Ph. D. student in Child Clinical Psychology at Penn State, recently introduced me to another book about facial expression: UNMASKING THE FACE, A GUIDE TO RECOGNIZING EMOTIONS FROM FACIAL EXPRESSIONS, by Paul Ekman and Wallace Friesen. It’s used by psychologists researching e. g. mothers’ emotional responses to their babies. (I later discovered that Faigin himself had utilized Ekman and Friesen’s work in his ARTIST’S COMPLETE GUIDE.) Ekman and Friesen’s roughly 45 years of research on human expression have been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health.

But why should portraitists bother studying movements of muscle or flesh or anything else? Isn’t portraiture about stillness? Don’t portraitists almost always paint their subjects in repose, sitting as motionless as humanly possible for the painter? Why not leave facial expression to other kinds of artists who deal with that sort of thing?

My emphasis on human expression in portraiture is not the traditional view, nor is it widely accepted today as the primary goal of portraiture. Much of the accepted “wisdom” about expressionless portrait subjects is based on our collective image of a person posing immobile for hours while an artist paints them – an image which is no longer generally true because most portraitists nowadays work from photographs. But one way or another, there are portraits created which – like the ones we will look at below – capture uniquely wonderful facial expressions.

To me, the most miraculous aspect of the individual human face isn’t its surface appearance, but its capacity to convey true human emotion as nothing else can – not words, not any other part of the body. Ekman and Friesen note that many professionals such as trial lawyers must learn to focus on visual signals from the face because words can lie while faces usually cannot.

Both facial expression and words, wrote Ekman and Friesen, are used for communicating information among people.

“Words are best for most messages, particularly factual ones. If you are trying to tell someone where the museum is, who played the lead in that movie, whether you are hungry, or how much the meal costs, you use words….

“Words can also be used to describe feelings…. Here, however, the advantage is with the visual channel, because the rapid facial signals are the primary system for expression of emotions. It is the face you search to know whether some one is angry, disgusted, afraid, sad, etc. Words cannot always describe the feelings people have…. If some one tells you…he is angry and shows no evidence facially, you are suspicious. If the reverse occurs and he looks angry but doesn’t mention anger feelings in his words, you doubt the words but not the anger.” (18)

If emotion is better expressed visually than through words, how about the rest of the human body? Do we see emotion expressed through movements of the body’s muscles?

Ekman and Friesen’s research shows that emotions “are shown primarily in the face, not in the body. The body instead shows how people are coping with emotion.” The body might be tense, constrained, withdrawn; it may attack physically. But none of these body postures are unique to particular emotions. Ekman and Friesen wrote, “The face is the key for understanding people’s emotional expression, and it is sufficiently important, complicated, and subtle to require a book to itself.” (7)

Well, if facial expression is the primary locus of the most truthful emotional communication among people, shouldn’t it be the territory of portraitists? The human face is our turf! Now that photos help make it possible to paint fleeting expressions, we portraitists can move into this territory and stake our claim to it. The face holds the key to the highest peak of human experience. Why should portraitists – specialists in the face – cede its expression to other artists?

Now that I’ve vented on that subject, let’s see what insights Ekman and Friesen give us into Knox’s portrait. Here is is again:


What do the body positions of each subject in Knox’s portrait convey about how they will handle the emotion expressed in their faces? As we’ve said, Mrs. Irondell’s face conveys delight and pride, a sense of fulfillment in a life well lived. And what does her body tell us she will do about those emotions? Well, her arms quietly dominate the chair as they rest there. And her completely relaxed, non-erect body posture tells us she’s not going to do – doesn’t have to do – a damn thing but enjoy herself! This relaxed yet dominant body posture conveys a sense of life achievement as much as do her rich surroundings and expensive clothes.

Her granddaughter doesn’t yet dominate the piece of furniture she rests her arm on – it’s almost bigger than she is. But her mischievousness as she hides behind her grandmother clearly dominates Mrs. Irondell’s heart. The smile on the little girl’s face tells us she’s having fun sneaking up behind her grandmother. Mrs. Irondell is having a ball knowing perfectly well she’s there. The two people are fully aware of each other, able to relate intensely even though they aren’t facing, because they know each other so well. (Their close relationship is conveyed also by their hats, identical except for color.)

In this painting, Knox has captured expressions that may be fleeting, but in so doing, he has expressed the profound essence of the relationship between Mrs. Irondell and her granddaughter.

Let’s look at another portrait, this one by Colorado portraitist Judith Dickinson, which also captures a delightful facial expression combined with unique body posture.

Portrait by Judith Dickinson

Portrait of Olivia, by Judith Dickinson

Detail of Olivia by Judith Dickinson

Detail of Olivia by Judith Dickinson

This is one of the most charming portraits I’ve ever seen of a child. It captures something deeply true about childhood. The little girl’s eyes are somehow both dreamy and alert. Her chin is tilted up with gentle expectation and an unassuming sense that good things are ahead in her life.

What can we read in Olivia’s body about what she will do about the emotional expectations we see in her face? The very specific position of her arms, hands, and body gives me the sense that she has just sighed with contentment before settling into this pose. She is very relaxed, suggesting that she will move at her own pace and in her own time toward life’s pleasures. She is oblivious to the fact that her pretty dress is slightly twisted, in the way all children’s clothing is. Her feet don’t reach the ground, but she’s not wriggling to get them there.

(And harking back to my earlier post, Portrait Composition: Old World vs. New? – click here – the use of empty space above and beside the little girl adds tremendously to the feeling both of her smallness in the world, and of her sense that good things will come in their own time. They aren’t here yet – the space is empty for now – but her relaxed expectation tells us she feels they will come and make her life good.)

Portrait of Dean of Women Students, University College Dublin, by Conor Walton

Even official portraits can have wonderful facial expression. In this portrait of Carmel O’Sullivan, Dean of Women Students at University College Dublin, the face radiates intelligent warmth. The twinkle in O’Sullivan’s eyes makes me feel she’s the adult I’d want turn to if I were a student with a problem. One could imagine no better quality than this in a portrait of a college dean.

What is O’Sullivan’s body showing about how she will deal with the emotion her face exudes? She is opening the door into her office, welcoming us in. Facing us all the while in her cheery outfit, she’s alert and ready to help. She’s holding a couple of books in her hand, including one about Rembrandt, conveying the sense that she will bring intellect and culture to bear.

To me, this painting expresses so much more about the relationships this Dean has with her students and peers than would a formal portrait in a traditional official pose.

Below are several more portraits that accomplish beautifully the portrayal of unique personal facial expression. You can click on any image to see a larger version on the artist’s website. I’ll leave the fun of analyzing these to you!

For myself, I hope that looking at these unusual and very special examples will help me learn to portray ever more complex and singular expressions in my own paintings.

Note: Please see Postscript for a wonderful interchange I had with Judith Dickenson on her painting of Olivia (above) after completing this post.

© Richard Whitney, Buster Navins.

Portrait of Buster Navins, by Richard Whitney

Ann, Countess of Yarborough, by John Ward

Portrait of Jordan, by Susan Strauss

Portrait of Olivia and Oscar, by Paul Brason, Royal Society of Portrait Painters


Adding to the drama of the sport

Sunday, August 10th, 2008

“Pleasing others is not a limitation unless one lacks imagination and personal integrity….”

I was very sorry to hear recently that Tim Allen-Wise has stopped painting portraits. For one thing, he created  one of the most unusual and elegant portraits I’ve seen:

Tim Allen-Wise, Untitled

I had looked forward to seeing more of his work.

In addition, Allen-Wise wrote one of the most intriguing portrait artist’s statements I’ve found (

Before I get to that, though, a few words about his bio. Born in 1962, British Allen-Wise earned a BA in Psychology and Philosophy from the University of Exeter. He is a practicing Buddhist (I wonder whether that has something to do with his unusual artist statement). He studied at the West Surrey College of Art and Design, but considers himself largely self-taught. Among his portrait commissions are Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahearne, Richard Branson, Lady McKearney, Lord Derwent, various Oxford types, and the Amir of Bahrain.

In his artist statement, Allen-Wise addressed a couple of issues that have niggled at me for a while. One is the opinion held by some in the art world that portraits painted by commission aren’t really art. Allen-Wise wrote: “To imagine that working for commissions is necessarily limiting is mistaken. Indeed, the achievements of commissioned artists such as Velazquez and Sargent disprove this misconception.”

Another of my niggly issues is the relationship between painter and client, also addressed with rare wisdom by Allen-Wise, as we’ll see below.

The background against which Allen-Wise wrote his artist statement is the widely-held view that portraitists must be careful to maintain control over artistic decision-making in the creation of a portrait. I’ve heard portraitists say it’s their role to explain to clients that certain standards – e. g. the slack, unsmiling face when the client asks for a smile – are imperative in creating a portrait that will stand the test of time. Some sign paintings with only their initials if they feel they have had to compromise their art to please a client in order to pay their bills via a commission. That way, the reasoning goes, artistic posterity will know that the portraitist did not consider such paintings to be art, only commerce.

This view seems to define art as separate from the client’s wishes.

Allen-Wise, in contrast, turned this perspective inside out. His artist statement defines artistry in a way that doesn’t involve artists’ control:

“The profound and skillful artist can please themselves and others without compromising either. To please oneself in ones painting and simultaneously to please a client is an interesting discipline. It is no limitation – it only adds to the drama of the sport. To do this well is not easy….

“I also disagree with those who say that any interests an artist has beyond pleasing himself are corrupting. Pleasing others is not a limitation unless one lacks imagination and personal integrity….”

In other words, says Allen-Wise, it takes greater artistic profundity, discipline, imagination, and integrity to create a work of art that meets all the client’s wishes along with the artist’s. The creative agility and versatility needed to please both involves far more artistry than does the artist insisting their own training trump the client’s sense of what is meaningful to them.

Allen-Wise’s view reminds me of the idea that poets can find more liberation within the constraints of the sonnet form than when they take complete control over a poem’s structure. The sonnet form’s rigors spur the poet to greater heights of imagination to express what he or she wants to say within the given number of lines and rhyme scheme. In the same way, I believe that the wishes of a client can spur an artist to greater heights of artistry and imagination in order to embrace them.

There are, after all, infinite ways a beautiful portrait can be created, if one has the imagination to envision them. I don’t believe there are formulas that a portrait must always follow. To me, constant adherence to artistic rules is the death of artistry, not the manifestation of it.

I’ve always tended to feel the client may have their own pretty good sense of what will please them in the long run. I think that, if I enter into the clients’ heart and soul, I will find my way toward artistic solutions that will meet a client’s deeply-held wishes.

Allen-Wise has made me think more directly about vague ideas that have been floating through my brain for a while. These days, I’m beginning to wonder whether – at least for me – the work of art might include the web of connection between artist, client, and subject: the human desires of the subject as well as of the artist. As Allen-Wise says, he disagrees with “the many artists and commentators who wish to separate art from the straightforwardness of human feelings.”

So it seems the concept of “artistry” in my mind may be expanding beyond the physical canvas to embrace the relationship between artist and client. What is art? Is it paint on canvas alone? Or might artistry also include the artist’s skill in interweaving and merging the varying strands of human desire that precipitate into a painting?

Perhaps in my own view of what art encompasses, I’m becoming a bit Buddhist myself.