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Painting from Life Vs. from Photos « Portrait Artist from Westchester, NY – Anne Bobroff-Hajal

Archive for the ‘Painting from Life Vs. from Photos’ Category

To paint smiles or not to paint smiles: Where do you stand?

Thursday, June 4th, 2009

“…the truth is, it’s hard to suggest freedom of choice for artists and [then to] advocate hard and fast rules.”
Timothy C. Tyler

___________________________________________________

One rule many portrait artists follow is to never paint their subjects smiling, especially if the smile is wide enough to reveal their teeth.  These artists generally feel that since a smile involves muscle contraction, it produces uncomfortable tension in the portrait.  A fully relaxed face, they feel, allows the viewer’s gaze to wander over and appreciate the subject’s features.  Some portraitists contend that only the unsmiling face can have lasting appeal across many years.  The wonderful contemporary Dutch portrait painter Rene Tweehuysen wrote, “A broad smile (showing of teeth) is not really to be recommended, and in the long term can lose its appeal.”  American Bart Lindstrom said: “Great art is about subtlety. That’s why, when I paint portraits, I prefer the quiet, timeless expressions of a relaxed face over one with a large smile.”

The historic development of photography has made it much more possible for artists to paint fleeting facial expressions, including smiles. Some top portrait artists are now painting smiles full of character.

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Will by Simmie Knox

Catia Chapin by Everett Raymond Kinstler

Today’s portraitists’ widespread use of photos as reference tools has added a new twist to the debate over whether portraitists should paint smiling subjects.  Margaret Carter Baumgaertner, a leading American portraitist, has provided a quintessential description of the limited role traditional portraitists feel photography should play:

Clare

Clare by Margaret Carter Baumgaertner

“My policy is to work from life as much as possible. In the event that one needs to work from photographs, the photographs should represent life. When taking photographs, I place the subject in a pose that they could hold for 40 hours if they had to. Some people I paint with a pleasant smile. But the photographic “Say cheese” smile is actually a fairly recent phenomena. You want to stay away from the candid shot. Something that obviously came from a camera.

“What do you do if the client insists that there be a big grin?  I talk them out of it. I explain, in a very nice way, that we are making a painting not a photograph. I bring a big book of masterful portraits (Sargent, the Early Portraits is a very nice volume) as well as my portfolio, and ask them to envision what their painting will look like. I explain that if we do a big grin, we can’t see their child’s beautiful eyes. I explain that in time they might become tired of seeing this toothy grin, while if we have a more pleasant smile or contemplative look, that they will be drawn into the eyes, the mood, the moment of the painting. I explain that we are creating something that their great grandchildren will cherish, that we are together producing a work of art that might someday hang in a museum.”

Mary by Linda Nelson

A lively debate over portrait smiles and teeth has taken place on the online Portrait Artist Forum, marshalling the best arguments on each side.  It’s very worthwhile reading through this thread because whichever type of portraits we paint, we can learn something from “the other side” to apply to our own work.

For example, Alexandra Tyng feels that wide, toothy smiles often appear static, while other artists note that smiles distort some facial features, e. g. making the eyes smaller.  On the one hand, I personally feel that the “distortions” caused by smiles, looked at from another perspective, are actually our language of emotional communication.  At the same time, the Forum discussion reminds me that however we paint, we need to be sure our subjects’ faces don’t appear static, and that their features, especially their eyes, aren’t obscured by facial expressions.

One Forum participant gave an intriguing, insightful explanation of why some artists might feel broad smiles cause unease in the viewer:

“Subconsciously, we know that a photo was taken in a fraction of a moment, and so smiling that long is normal….  A painting, however is not done in a fraction of a moment. It takes hours of work to complete. So a big smile is “unnatural,” as it would logically be impossible for the sitter to have sustained it. [W]e’re subconsciously bothered by the logic.”

Other portraitists in the Forum point out that many famous paintings portray positions that could not have been held for more than a fleeting moment.  These paintings, wrote Michele Rushworth,

Saint George and the Dragon by Rubens

were meant to convey a transitory moment.  I was studying Rubens’ Saint George and the Dragon the other day, which I have attached as one example.  I wouldn’t avoid painting smiles simply because people can’t hold one for thirty hours. The model for Saint George didn’t hold his arm in the air for thirty hours either.

Leslie Ficcaglia observes,

No one can sustain a natural-looking closed mouth smile for very long either; it ends up looking forced and stiff….  The same argument … could be applied to many classical paintings, including Degas’ ballet series…; no one maintains a ballet stance that long either.  Brueghel … attempted to capture complex activities … as though they were frozen in time.  Eakins has a woman with her mouth open in song and a man in mid-leap at a swimming hole.

And there are those classic paintings of ships on roiling seas, yet waves can’t hold a pose.  Other Forum artists point out that Van Hals and even Sargent painted fleeting expressions, including smiles and teeth; examples are posted by Tyng and Mike Dodson here.

Leonardo Da Vinci wrote, “Try to be a calm spectator of how people laugh and weep, hate and love, blanch from horror and cry out in pain; look, learn, investigate, observe, in order that thou mayst come to know the expression of all human emotions.”  He dissected facial muscles of corpses, and the annotations he wrote to his anatomical diagrams reveal that he was trying to understand which muscles helped to create certain emotional expressions: “h [Lateral portion of the frontalis] is the muscle of anger; p [median portion of frontalis] is the muscle of sadness; … o t [procerus] is the muscle of anger.”  (You can see one of his facial muscle diagrams here.)

Rembrandt studied and drew himself with a variety of facial expressions: fear, anger, laughter.  You can see these sketches here (scroll up slightly to see the drawings).

There’s no question that in the days before photography, it was extremely difficult for artists to study their subjects’ fleeting expressions, including smiles, in order to paint them.  The time required to observe and capture them would have been prohibitive for many artists.

So in the centuries before photography, artists painted many more “holdable” expressions (or non-expressions) than fleeting ones.  I’ve written about this in previous posts, so I was delighted to discover that others in the Portrait Forum have had the same thought.  Rushworth wrote:

It seems to me that the reason the “old masters” painted more subdued expressions (no teeth) is because they didn’t have photographs to work from that captured those brief flashing smiles. We think of these traditional old portraits and that’s what has created the aesthetic we often try to emulate today.

Ficcaglia agrees: “if the masters had had Nikons we’d see a lot more teeth in their paintings.”

Another likely factor was observed by Michael Georges: in “‘Olden Tymes’ people generally lost their teeth quite early on. Those teeth that remained were not always the nicest to look upon.  George Washington was particularly known to have very bad teeth. In the civil war, the requirement for being a soldier was that you have two good front teeth to bite the paper casing off the bullet cartridge.”  Marvin Mattelson concurred: “The old masters probably didn’t paint smiles because most of their subjects were missing their teeth.”

So when today’s portraitists strive to emulate the look of masterpieces over a century old, their painting must appear to be created entirely from live sittings.  There can be no teeth or real smiles because a broad smile is a giveaway that photos were used.

I suspect that another reason portraiture in the US often tends to have a conservative esthetic is that many Americans commissioning portraits want to present themselves within an old world ethos.  They are striving to establish “aristocratic” credentials in a country too young and individualistic to have a centuries-old hereditary aristocracy.

By Andrew Tift

By Andrew Tift

Ironically, parts of the world with centuries of antique portraits on their manor walls are the most adventurous today in experimenting with new forms of portraiture (see Portrait Composition: Old World vs New? below). A British example by Andrew Tift takes toothy smiles beyond what I’ve ever seen by any serious portrait artist in the US.  I personally feel Tift’s portrait utterly captures the joyous, free quality of childhood.  (Tift is a winner of multiple British National Portrait Gallery awards, including first place in 2006.)

One of my favorite portraits of children was created by the Canadian David Goatley.  These boys’ fleeting expressions are highly specific to each child and to this moment. Generic smiles these are not.  The boy on the left has a gentle warm smile above his blue sports shirt.  His oldest brother nurtures the impish youngest one in an embrace.

Brothers, West Vancouver by David Goatley

To me, the very specificity of these boys’ expressions conveys far more understanding of their characters than would a standardized slack gaze.  This painting gives me a rich sense not just of who these boys are now, but also of what they may become as they grow up.  They are completely “at home in their skins” – a combination of masculine-sports-blue and warm caring for each other.  The way these boys are painted gives me a sense that they will grow up to be – well, the kind of men I would want my daughter to marry!

So for me, the decision about whether to paint a subject smiling – broadly or slightly, with or without teeth revealed – should be based not on a general rule, but on the character of that particular human being.  Every good portraitist seeks to reveal character as well as superficial appearance.  And I think people’s characters are visually revealed through their facial expressions more than in any other way.  The smile – including the toothy grin – is part of human beings’ infinite repertoire of emotional expression, so I would never want to rule it out as appropriate in portraits.

The smile may even be the expression most particular to each individual over their lifetime.  According to Gary Faigin, author of The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression, the smile is the second expression that appears in the human newborn (crying is the first).  And it’s “the expression that we carry the most intact from infancy to old age.”

The smile is also the expression of nuance.  There are more, and more subtle emotional shadings possible with a smile than with any other expression.  Smiles can contain elements of other expressions like sadness or anger, creating faces of fascinating ambiguity and complexity.

Like sadness, smiles can register as a powerful expression even when just barely visible on the face.  (Faigin p. 188)

*       *       *

As I think of my own artistic passion for human expression, it occurs to me that portraitists who favor unsmiling subjects often use the word “introspective” to explain their preference.  These artists find more truth revealed in the face of a person looking inward rather than connecting outward.  For example, Baumgaertner wrote, “most of my own favorite portraits are contemplative, reflective, and, at times, introspective.”

I happen to be a person who needs a lot of time alone to listen to and follow my own brain’s inner workings.  I can happily spend three or four workdays at a stretch alone painting, researching, or writing.  I wonder whether my need for aloneness during work time is part of what results in my personal preference for subjects who are engaging and connecting with other people.

Conversely, I wonder whether artists and clients who need to be out and about in public more than I do prefer quieter, more contemplative subjects.  After being around the hustle and bustle of life, perhaps these extroverts are looking for some quiet introspection.  It would be interesting to hear from different portraitists about whether their underlying values regarding extroversion or introversion in their portraits relate in any way to their own basic temperaments.

*        *        *

While I can find wisdom in most of the arguments in favor of unsmiling portraits, the one rationale that makes no sense to me is the idea that only an unsmiling face can withstand the test of time.  I’ve never seen any evidence provided for this claim (please write a comment if you have some!).  What I know is that the portraits I’ve painted of my own children all involve very characteristic smiles – toothy or subtle – that have never ceased to enchant me over the years.  The two photos of my son and daughter that I would run back into a burning house to rescue each have joyous, toothy grins that capture the entire essence of their childhood in a single image.

*        *        *

Because smiles still appear in a minority of portraits, I’ll close this post with a few more images of them (click on these images to go to the artists’ websites, where you can find more of their smiling portraits).

Mabel Caruth by Everett Raymond Kinstler

Margaux

Margaux by a Portraits, Inc artist

portrait

Jonathan by David Beal

Louis W. Sullivan, MD Chair, National Health Museum, by Everett Raymond Kinstler

Sumantra Ghoshal by Laurence Kell.  Commissioned by London Business School

Sumantra Ghoshal by Laurence Kell. Commissioned by London Business School

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Robert Guriton by Dean Paules

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By Tom Donahue

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Ben by Dean Paules

Mrs. Tony Bennett by Everett Raymond Kinstler

I feel all these subjects convey a sense of warm engagement.  I feel invited to interact with these very appealing people.  I’d like to spend a nice chunk of my non-alone time with each of them.

NOTE: Since I wrote this post a couple of years ago, a controversy has erupted over the 2012 portrait of Kate Middleton, in which she’s painted with a subtle smile.  This has brought a lot of new readers to this page.  I’d  like to steer readers to two discussions of the topic on other websites.  One is by the artist Katherine Tyrrell, on the British blog Making a Mark.  The other is on the facebook page of the portraitist Sophie Ploeg.  Each includes a lively discussion by portraitists such as Alexandra Tyng and others.

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

portrait

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:

portrait

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

 

Fine art from snapshots? (part 2)

Monday, June 9th, 2008

(Haven’t read Part 1? Click here.)

As I said at the end of my last post, I’d like to bring a new perspective to personal snapshots as the basis for portraits. I believe that, treated properly, a client’s snapshots can indeed be the core of a terrific work of art. This post will explain why. (Future installments will talk about how.)

A caveat: I believe snapshots can be used successfully only by an artist who has a huge bank of visual knowledge of how the 3-dimensional world works, together with lots of experience drawing and painting from life. Some one who never paints from anything except photos is unlikely – I would think – to have the skills and experience they need to create fine art portraits from snapshots.

But why even bother with snapshots? If an artist is using photos, why not just use technically perfect ones taken by the artist under controlled conditions?

Well, sometimes photos taken by the artist can make wonderful portraits. There are some subjects who “come alive” in front of any camera. These people produce captivating expressions no matter who’s taking the photo. But often that’s not the case.

To explain why I feel that capturing personal expression is so important, I need first to describe my personal artistic goals in portraiture.

I am passionate about painting how my subjects relate to other people. To me, painting an expressionless face for its physical characteristics alone is to paint a person isolated from human contact. It makes me lonely just to think about it.

To connect with other people, human beings use words, the voice, touch, body language, facial expression, and so on. But portraiture is a visual medium. We can’t paint sound or touch. So if we want to paint the way a person engages other people, we need to paint their facial expression and body language. These are how we visually communicate our needs and emotions to each other.

I recently took two nearly-identical snapshots of my grown daughter. The first shows the serene smile of the young woman my daughter has become. In the second photo, underneath her grown-up smile I can see the breathless, excited smile she had as a little girl. The differences between the expressions in these two photos are very subtle. If I were commissioning a portrait of her, I would want that very particular expression in the second photo: the one in which I see both the mischievous, merry little girl and the self-confident young woman. But I doubt that an artist who didn’t know her could have elicited that expression so personal to her while posing her in artificially perfect conditions.

Snapshots taken by family or friends are often more likely to capture expressions like this. Such expressions are frequently intimate, brought forth only in particular surroundings and situations. That is why I would rather work from a defective snapshot that captures the subject’s unique expression and surroundings than work from a technically perfect but impersonal photo I’ve taken myself.

Human expressions are very complex and subtle. It requires great skill to capture them in paint. How does an artist paint a relaxed smile differently from a smile that looks forced? What makes eyes appear to twinkle? What are the facial changes that take a face from routine sadness to the most profound grief?

What subtle changes in line and shadow gave one photo of my daughter the additional layer of childish excitement under the young woman’s smile? How would an artist paint the second expression differently from the first?

The ability to capture expressions in paint is partly built on understanding the human language of expression. A relaxed smile, for example, is conveyed partly by the lower eyelids moving up over the pupil as the cheek muscles contract to pull the corners of the mouth upward. Painting a smiling mouth without this effect on the lower eyelid will create a false-looking smile.

So to paint expression, the artist needs to be able to analyze the effects of subtle changes in the shading and shape of facial flesh and muscle while forming the brush strokes that portray them.

My daughter’s mouth, chin, and lower eyelids in the first photo are very relaxed, expressing adult self-confidence. In the second photo, her lower lip, chin, and lower eyelids are all pushed very slightly higher on her face by the muscular tension of suppressed childish excitement. These subtle changes in the various parts of the face are the language in which humans communicate visually with each other.

Even beyond being able to paint expression, I would argue that creating a work of art from a snapshot requires at least as much artistry as does a photograph over which the artist has had control of lighting, pose, clothing, and so on. Snapshots are often faulty in multiple ways. Making up for a snapshot’s deficiencies requires tremendous technical skill. It also requires that the artist make constant artistic evaluations of the snapshot’s challenges as the painting develops. The painter must make continual artistic decisions about how to turn the snapshot’s deficiencies into artistic strengths.

Creating art from a client’s snapshot requires a lot of artistic skill precisely because the artist begins with an element so out of their control. It’s somewhat similar to using found objects to create sculpture. How the artist puts all the elements together determines whether something awful or something wonderful results.

In short, beginning a portrait with some one else’s snapshot creates all kinds of artistic issues that don’t occur when the artist begins with a photograph they’ve taken themselves under perfect conditions. In coming posts, I’ll describe a number of these issues that I’ve run into and how I’ve dealt with them technically and artistically.

(Haven’t read Part 1? Click here.)

Fine art from photos, OK. But fine art from snapshots?

Monday, June 2nd, 2008

(Already read Part 1? Here’s Part 2)

So you’re going to have your portrait painted. That means you’ll sit in a studio for hours on end while the artist paints you, right?

Well, it used to mean that. But click “Procedure” on almost any portrait artist’s website – including those who get $10,000 and up for a portrait. You’ll find that these days the “portrait sitting” is commonly a photo shoot that happens before the artist’s brush ever strokes canvas. After the shoot, the client and the artist select a photograph on which to base the portrait. Then the client can disappear while the lengthy work of the actual painting is accomplished.

“Assuming that a portrait created from photo reference is intrinsically inferior to one painted from life is putting the responsibility on the process rather than the artist. If only it were that simple. You can paint from life until the next millennium and never do anything worthwhile.

I’ve seen incredible paintings done from life and beautiful paintings done from photos too. However, the vast majority of portraits I’ve seen are poorly thought out and ineptly handled regardless of whether from life or photo reference.

I believe that injecting the quality of life into a painting comes from the artist’s heart, intent, knowledge and talent.”

Marvin Mattelson, Portrait artist, permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Portrait Gallery. (http://forum.portraitartist.com/showthread.php?t=8582)

There are still a few portrait artists – such as Mary Minifie in Boston – who insist on the importance of working only from life. Some other portraitists accompany their photo sessions with quick, one-time studies (sketches) from life. Afterwards, they paint the portrait itself without the subject present.

Portrait by Jonathan Linton, full size at: http://www.jonathanlinton.com/painting-pages/chad_big.htmlWhen the painter is a terrific artist to begin with, painting from photographs can create exquisite portraits, the kind of art you want to gaze at forever. Look at this beautiful little boy (Full size portrait by Jonathan Linton here).  His eyes speak to you, appealing to you emotionally. Every detail of the background creates a very unusual atmosphere. The boy, chair, hangings, and window all hint at a mysterious story that engages us and makes us wish we could know more.

There are many good reasons why portraitists have shifted to using photos. Clients don’t want to take time or energy to travel repeatedly to the artist’s studio and sit motionless for the endless hours it takes to paint a portrait. A subject who poses usually gets tired and bored as time passes. The head droops, shadows shift, angles change, new wrinkles appear in clothing. All make painting problematic. So artists have always seized on technological tools as fast as they’re invented, to develop new ways of capturing their subjects in paint.

Of course, portraitists who successfully use photographs are able to do so because they have trained endlessly in drawing from life. They have a vast bank of experience observing and painting the myriad elements of color, line, human physique, and so on. When portrait artists paint from photographs, they are drawing on this store of knowledge and practice.

Copying a photo will not make a great painting, but neither will copying from life. It is the understanding that the artist brings to his work that makes it something more. How to strategize the construction of a painting is the commonality I believe that distinguishes the work of all great artists.

I think that if the old masters were alive today they would absolutely take full advantage of today’s technology and couple it with their extraordinary knowledge. Great artists are always looking to utilize whatever will make themselves more effective. Vermeer used optical devices. Bouguereau and Gerome both took full advantage of photography, and look how they raised the bar.

Marvin Mattelson

But how can art grow from snapshots?

Many in the art world insist that portraitists who paint from photographs use only photos the artist takes him or herself. Many portrait competitions stipulate this. The reason is to prove that the artist isn’t using some one else’s vision, some one else’s composition, lighting, color choices, and so on. Rather, the artist must make all these choices, based on their own artistry and technical skill.

It’s easy to understand the perspective that a painting based on a photo taken by some one else – or worse, some magazine photo of a well-known person – isn’t art. Online portrait factories (“send me your family snapshot and I’ll turn it into a portrait and mail it back to you”) have proliferated. You can have a $100 copy painted of your own photo without even meeting the painter. I would not argue that such an approach produces great art.

At the same time, I’d like to bring another perspective to personal snapshots. I believe that, treated properly, they can indeed be central to a work of art. I’ll write more about this out-of-the-box approach next post.

(All done with Part 1? Here’s Part 2)