Liking Painted Portraits

What’s to love in a painting of a face?

To understand what you admire in a particular portrait, you often need to examine what it was the painter had in mind to begin with.

painting of a blue eyed woman deep in thought.

Model in Thought – Oil Sketch from life by Ann Marshall Bailey

Remember seeing for the first time that “ugly,” hairy Postman in Van Gogh’s painted portraits?  And then, after learning all about the struggles and gains the troubled artist had with relationships, you maybe began to love the warm fat man for having befriended the most popular (post-morte) artist ever.

And who hasn’t bought at least a postcard of that painting in some museum… or doesn’t wish they owned the original today! Point being, knowing more about any art means feeling more of the connection the artist had. So if the artist liked it when they painted it, you can too.

What does the artist think of first?

The art of a portrait painter begins with the choice of pose to depict. Every angle of a face gives off a different feeling.

  • Which glance at the subject will tell all in the best possible way?
  • Where can the painting be cropped and how can it be balanced?

Although some theorists say that the paint and brushes can edit a good pose out of a mediocre one, this is not really possible. Only extra details like the background or drapery can be altered once the pose is set. The pose is the backbone, literally of the entire work!

So what comes next, after the backbone is positioned?

For some, what comes next is the light. However, light made the difference when you chose your pose, so the light choice has already been made – Move on with it! Besides, a huge percentage of current day portraits are painted from digital source photos.

With the ease of contrast adjustments for those photos, there is no need to worry about the light contrasts during the original stages of the process. The contrast can be sharpened at any point by simply adjusting the paints to lighten or darken according to preference.

For some, the next mental direction of the portrait painting starts with the color.

For me it starts with the feeling

Back to my original thought. If the artist liked the subject from the get go, any viewer can become fond of the portrait with a little extra input. I like people – I always paint people I like, so I sincerely hope and believe any portrait I paint will be liked.

Even when I don’t get to set the pose (which is invariably the case), my paintings start with my feeling: “like the model, like the painting.”

Of course, the reverse is also true

A work depicting an awful face is probably a reflection of the discomfort the artist felt with the sitter. The next time you feel uncomfortable viewing a framed portrait, ask it why it’s painter felt pissed!

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