Archive for the ‘Traditional Vs. Contemporary’ 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.


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 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 by a Portraits, Inc artist


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


Robert Guriton by Dean Paules


By Tom Donahue


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.

Postscript to Portrait composition: Old World vs. New?

Monday, September 22nd, 2008

When the portraitist begins by focusing simply on the subject’s surface image, of course the tendency is to place it front and center. When one begins by thinking about the subject’s other qualities and other objects central to his or her life, a more complex composition may naturally evolve.


In the Comments following my blog entry “Portrait Composition: Old World vs. New?” portraitist Alexandra Tyng provided a link to a forum description of her process in painting her mother, the architect Anne Tyng (see Comments below). I followed up with a further question to Tyng on the forum. My question related to both her portrait of her mother and that of the artist Edna Andrade:

“How did you make the decision to include an element that would necessitate placing the subject’s head relatively low on the canvas, with the element extending substantially above the head?”

Portraits of Anne Tyng and Edna Andrade, by Alexandra Tyng.  See earlier post for larger image.

Portraits of Anne Tyng and Edna Andrade, by Alexandra Tyng. See earlier post for larger image.

Tyng wrote such an interesting response that I asked her permission to quote it here. She agreed. Here it is:

“To answer your question, I don’t ever think, ‘I’m going to try a portrait with the head placed lower in the composition.’ The placement of the figure comes about on an individual basis, and is a direct result of what I want to say in that particular portrait.

“In the portrait of my mother [an architect], I wanted to emphasize that she is a very small woman with large (great) ideas. I started imagining what a portrait of her would look like, and ideas came to me. She always made a lot of geometrical models that hung from the ceiling of her studio. She also designed some unbuilt structures, my favorite being the Philadelphia city tower project. I played around with ways to arrange these elements in the composition, which led to deciding on the dimensions and size and placement of her figure.

“With the portrait of Edna Andrade, it just naturally happened that she had a very large painting in her living room that I wanted to use for a background. To give a sense of the size and impact of the painting I needed to move it close to the picture plane. She had Victorian furniture (inherited from family) whose shapes echoed the shapes in the painting, and I thought it was an interesting play between her traditional Southern background and her very contemporary work. She wanted to be seated in the portrait so it just worked out that way. The way I arrange compositions is mostly intuitive. A lot of times I see something that will work, that says what I want to say. There are limitless possibilities for placing the figure in a composition.”

I felt it was instructive that Tyng started the process of determining the composition for these portraits by thinking through the more abstract qualities of her subjects, not just their physical appearance. I suspect many portrait artists – myself included – tend to begin with the surface image of the subject, rather than right-brain associations with other qualities of the subject – the small woman with great ideas building models she hangs from her studio ceiling. When the portraitist begins by focusing simply on the subject’s surface image, of course the tendency is to place it front and center. When one begins by thinking about the subject’s other qualities and other objects central to his or her life, a more complex composition may naturally evolve.

For Edna Andrade’s portrait, Tyng began with shape components first – their similarity in the modern painting in the background and Andrade’s Victorian furniture. This then became a reference to the more abstract qualities of Andrade’s traditional Southern background and her very contemporary style of painting. The complex associations between shapes generated a wonderful composition and portrait.

Postscript to The engaged subject Part 1: Expression of emotions

Wednesday, September 17th, 2008
Portrait of Olivia by Judith Dickinson. See post below for larger image and discussion of painting.

Portrait of Olivia by Judith Dickinson. See post below for larger image and discussion of painting.

After posting my last blog entry, I emailed Judith Dickinson, who I’d never met or talked to before. I asked her how she had decided to include the large empty space around Olivia, the little girl whose portrait I analyzed in “Expression of emotions”.

Judith emailed back such a perfect description of her intent in the painting that I asked her permission to add it here, which she readily gave. What she wrote to me expresses clearly and easily what I had struggled to find words for:

“I wanted to convey this small little girl alone in this long hallway and yet she is not distressed; in fact she is intently and comfortably aware of the bigness of life around her. [I wanted to portray] her courage and peaceful contemplation in such a “lonely” surrounding.”

So the feelings Dickinson sought to convey in Olivia’s portrait were exactly what I received in viewing it. The fact that such emotions are visible even in her small, 72 dpi website image of the painting tells me how successful Dickinson was in conveying what she wanted. She used every element of the portrait – Olivia’s face, body, and clothing, and the overall composition of the painting – to express her meaning.

Interestingly, Dickinson’s painting merges the two subjects I’ve written about in recent posts: the expression of emotion in portraits, and the use of very large space around the subject. The way Olivia relates to the empty hallway around her – her facial expression and the way she holds her body in the space – adds to the emotional impact of the painting.

By the way, looking at the painting again, I’ve realized the importance of the distance between Olivia’s uplifted chin and her hands in expressing her openness to life. While her arms are relaxed, they’re also stretched out as far as possible in pleasure, framing her little torso. The chin, raised as distant as doable from her hands, exposes her torso maximally, leaving her little body entirely, self-confidently open to whatever will come.

The problem of low-contrast lighting in some snapshots

Sunday, June 22nd, 2008

The heart of my portrait style is capturing human connection. Because portraiture is a visual medium, this means portraying how people communicate with each other visually: through facial expression and body language. The truest “recording” of these often-fleeting expressions is frequently family snapshots (to read more on my unorthodox view of snapshots, scroll down to my last post, or click here.)

Using a family snapshot as the basis for a fine art portrait can present artistic challenges that wouldn’t come up with photographs taken under controlled conditions (the procedure usually followed by portrait painters today). One of the most common elements of snapshot images is the flash, which often creates seemingly unpromising lighting for portraiture.

The snapshot below, a quick candid taken of Chief Maurice Zard as he relaxed after an enjoyable family outing, was the basis for my portrait of him. It provides a perfect example of the technical challenge of flash lighting. It also illustrates perfectly why I am committed to finding bold artistic solutions for problems raised by cherished snapshots

Chief Maurice Zard, of the Zard Group of Companies in Nigeria, is a highly successful businessman who is continually absorbed by his many commercial, manufacturing, and philanthropic concerns. He did not want to sit still for even a few minutes to have his photograph taken under good lighting conditions, let alone sit for his portrait!

Meanwhile, the family had this snapshot, which his daughter felt captured the gentle smile that is most profoundly her father in his relationship with her. Because of her feelings, I felt it was important to base Maurice Zard’s portrait on this snapshot, and to turn to artistic advantage the challenges posed by the flattening effects of the flash.

Classic portrait lighting

In classic portraiture, the use of pronounced shadowing of some substantial portion of the face is considered crucial to creating the illusion of three-dimensionality on a two dimensional canvas. Tom Edgerton has expressed this view very well in the Artists’ Forum of

“I want to stress how really important shadow shape is. Accurately painting the … shape of the shadows, goes more toward capturing and defining form on a two-dimensional surface than anything else….  Anywhere in the general area [of] a roughly three-quarter direction off of center is the optimum placement for the light to describe form and mass. More shadow on the face [than given by the three-quarter lighting placement] diminishes the available contrast range to describe form, as does light coming directly from the viewer’s point of view–in other words, flash-lit photos…. The flat lighting from the camera-mounted flash kills all available shadow, and the contrast range available for describing form drops to nil.”
— Tom Edgerton, two-time finalist in the Portrait Society of America’s national competition

Below is an example of strong shadow cast by classic three-quarter lighting – both on the face and on the wall behind the subject – creating a wonderful portrait of Charles Volkers by Sandra Lawrence.

Jonathan Linton’s portrait of Chad in my first post is another beautiful example of classic portrait lighting.

Pam Powell, another portraitist, agreed with Edgerton in the forum: “The use of all-over ambient light makes it much harder to create the appearance of three dimensions, as it tends to flatten the form, so you have to be very subtle and diligent with the value changes. My examples here are William Merritt Chase (ambient light) and Zhaoming Wu (strong single light source).”

Powell’s examples of the difference between low- and high-contrast lighting make the point so perfectly that I’ll include them here:

The focus of the high-contrast-lit painting on the left is the different shapes and forms – hip, leg, arm, breast – that make up the woman’s body. The background in this painting is secondary. The fabrics surrounding the woman’s body produce an airy quality which is perceived peripherally.

Flash solution ideas gleaned from ambient-light paintings

In the low-contrast-lit nude painting on the right, in contrast, the body appears as more of a two dimensional shape that interplays rhythmically with the other shapes around it: flowered fabrics of various colors. Although the nude is portrayed in full realistic detail, its lack of 3-dimensional modeling makes it easy to experience it as an abstract form among other abstract forms that are almost as central to the painting as it is.

Thus, this low-contrast-lit painting – while not itself lit by flash – gives us a clue as to how fine art portraitists might make an artistic strength of the flatness that results from flash photography. The face of the portrait subject may be treated, at least in part, as one abstract element among several in the painting.

(Of course, paintings in high contrast lighting can also be analyzed as being made up of abstract forms interacting with each other. But it’s likely less the point of the painting than may be so in low-contrast light.)

Interestingly, a number of British portraitists, members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, sometimes choose low-contrast lighting on their subjects’ faces. Often these paintings also have patterned backgrounds or other important, complex elements against which the subjects’ flat-lit faces play. While none of these paintings are based on flash snapshots, their low-contrast, often frontal lighting can provide more ideas for how to handle artistically the flattening effects of flash. Below are several portraits by masters of this type of painting.

The first painting, by Graham Jones (who has painted portraits of British political figures in the House of Commons permanent collection), is of Lord Howe standing before elaborate patterned wallpaper.

A preeminent American portraitist, Ned Bittinger, has also used low-contrast lighting for some of his many major government and military commissions.

Here we see the effectiveness of flat, frontal facial lighting playing off elaborate military uniforms. In these paintings, the focus is not on surface form of the men’s faces. It’s on the visual interaction between the faces and the medals, which describe the subjects’ life work, not simply their appearance. The comparative lack of three-dimensional modeling in the faces gives the medals more importance in the paintings.

The painting of Debora Lehr, below, is unusual in that its low-contrast-lit face is in complete shadow rather than complete light. Again, the flatness of the lighting on the face reduces the centrality of its purely-surface appearance. The fact that it’s in shadow brings forward the more brightly-lit Chinese buildings viewed through the octagonal window, conveying Lehr’s work as US State Department Negotiator for Trade with China.

Two more British portraits, by Keith Breeden (who has painted many public officials, academics, and business figures), are of David McMurray, Headmaster of Oundle School, and Major General Adrian Lyons.
In each of these portraits, the multiple vivid colors Breeden used to paint the faces – in the almost total absence of shadow – relate to and play beautifully off the backgrounds of, respectively, military insignia and carved lettering. In each painting, the men’s clothing brings in a large, bold area of contrasting color. These are two spectacular, unusual portraits, great examples of flat frontal lighting.

A last low-contrast-lit painting with multiple complex elements is by Derek Clarke (an elected member of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters for almost 60 years). The subject is Dr. Aileen Low.

Again, the clothing and background elements play almost as important a role in the painting as the face does. And as in Breeden’s paintings, Clarke has used vivid color in the flesh tones – very discernable pinks, yellows, green and lavender – to define and enliven the face in the almost total absence of shadow. I don’t think anyone would doubt the three-dimensional quality of Dr. Low’s face in this painting, in spite of its almost total lack of shadow.

So both in this portrait and two by Breeden, we’ve observed another idea for how we might artistically define three-dimensionality of faces in portraits based on flash snapshots: the use of heightened color in place of shadow.

The last low contrast face I’ll look at is different from all the rest in that it has little surrounding pattern playing off the flat-lit face. What this painting has instead is the most intriguing, highly specific facial expression of any of the portraits we’ve looked at so far. Its subject is Theater Manager Mathew Russel, painted by Graham Jones.

While the subjects of the other portraits we’ve looked at have little expression, this subject is highly involved with the viewer. The central message of this painting is not its subject’s three-dimensional form or an interplay of shapes, but Russel’s unique, very intriguing way of connecting with people.

Beck’s summary

Portraitist Clayton J. Beck III, another PSOA award winner, wrote a entry that very briefly summarizes – without grinding any one lighting axe – the uses of various types of portrait lighting. (The emphasis is my own):

“As for lighting a subject, you must first understand what… you’re trying to bring out. If you’re interested in the solidity and the form of the object, [then the three-quarter] type lighting is probably very good. If you’re more interested in color or expression or any of a number of other things that we try to bring out of our subjects, other lighting make more sense.

“A flat lighting, that which comes from behind the painter, such as with Nicolai Fechin or Holbein, emphasizes an overall color design. Other times available light, such as we see in “snapshot” photography, gives a life and spontaneity to the subject that is gotten no other way.”

Painting Chief Maurice Zard

The artistic solutions I found for Maurice Zard’s portrait evolved organically as I painted. I eventually used all the strategies mentioned above.

As every artist knows, one of our most important right-brain skills is to know how to recognize a lucky accident when it happens, and to take full advantage of it. From the early planning stage, I knew I would change Chief Zard’s shirt color, because it would not enhance his flesh tones in the painting. I began by simply painting the shirt gray (it later evolved to a more nuanced blue-gray with raw umber-based stripes). I suddenly realized that the interplay between the abstract areas of warm color (the flesh tones and the leather chair) and cool (the shirt and wall) would form the basic rhythmic structure of the painting. While the patterns around Chief Zard are not as complex as those in some of the paintings we looked at above, the stripes of his shirt and the way the areas of warm and cool color dance around each other provided a similar effect.

As I focused in on painting Chief Zard’s face, I confronted the full challenge of the flat lighting. One of my strategies was to heighten every color nuance I could find in his flesh tones, using tiny brushes with bits of different colors. Greens, lavenders, yellows, pinks – all can be seen in this close-up.

At the same time, I wanted this painting to “read” from across the very large room in which it would be hung. For this, the best technique would have been that missing commodity, form-defining shadow. As Tom Edgerton described the delicious, almost miraculous effect of deepening shadow in his Artist Forum entry, “As a result of this discussion, I walked over and incrementally deepened and simplified the shadow under a subject’s nose, and everything in the painting suddenly became a lot deeper and more three-dimensional.” I also incrementally darkened all the shadows that existed in the Zard portrait, pushing each as far as I could without creating something that looked false. After countless layers of adjustments, taking care to balance every change with all other elements of the face, this portrait reads from a surprising distance across a large room, through the door and out into the entry hall of the Zard home.

In the end, I felt I had achieved my goal of creating a portrait of Chief Zard that was both pleasing to the eye, and captured his unique, appealing expression, by which he relates to his family and others around him.

Images in this post can be found online at:

Portrait Artist forum entries:

Ned Bittinger’s portraits:

Keith Breeden’s portraits:

Graham Jones’ portraits:

Derek Clarke’s portraits:

Sandra Lawrence’s portrait:

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. (

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: 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)