Why do we paint portraits?
It’s a question that has always fascinated me.
I mean it makes perfect sense in the pre camera days when the only way to capture a likeness of a loved one was to whip out the art supplies, but these days? Just take a photo, surely?
While the camera’s technology can create the perfect image, there is nothing that can replace the very human connection that is so evident in a painting. a painted portrait is more than just a physical likeness of the subject.
In any portrait, the hand of the artist is an inextricably woven into the image. And that too is the only way we can interact with one another, we see each other not so much as they are but as we are.
The artist must choose a colour palette, a background, a pose. In all these things they infuse themselves and their relationship with the subject into the overall feel of the portrait. The personality of the artist is in the choice of line quality, in every stroke of the brush.
When the art bug bit me, one of the things I wanted to draw most was people, and especially faces. When it comes down to it the most valuable thing any of us has is our connection to other people. If you are looking for interesting things to draw, faces are so fascinating they really are hard to beat.
All faces are constructed basically the same, aren’t they?
Two eyes at the top, one nose below and a mouth in the middle. What distinguishes one from another is the tiny nuances - wider set eyes, length of nose, roundedness of chin and so on. When it comes to drawing people it is so reflective of the way we really are - all so very much the same, and yet each unique.
There is a bravery required to take on a portrait, for it is such an intimate thing. If you draw a bunch of flowers and make them wonky… so be it. Do the same with a portrait and it feels like a possible insult. To show someone how you see them is bold.
Of course, most of the time making someone’s nose too big or putting dark circles below the eyes is more to do with the challenge of bending the medium to your will than intentional representation.
Like anything portraits get easier the more you do. It is with practice that you increase your skill at conveying the facial features in appropriate proportion for the particular subject. I consider myself a portrait beginner. Even though my journey into portraiture has just begun I can already see that it will hold my interest for the forseeable future. The more I learn the more I discover there is to learn. (I love that, don’t you?)
My aim is not to draw a perfect likeness. The pursuit of perfection is enough to drive anyone crazy.
So I aim for creating something recognisably human. On a good day it might approach a likeness. On most days, not so much. But there is always a blend of reverence and delight in watching a face come to life on your page.
If you are even slightly tempted to give it a try I can’t recommend it highly enough. But give yourself a chance by unburdening yourself of the requirement to achieve a likeness so that you can experience the joy of creating a face.
Some portrait artists will trace a photo to get the proportions right. If this makes attempting a portrait feel more approachable for you, then go right ahead I say!
Even using a traced image, the artist will infuse some of their own personality into the way they complete the image with paint. The artist cannot be removed from the portrait. It is this little extra something that makes a painted portrait so special.
To paint a portrait is to celebrate life.
A photo might capture a perfect physical likeness, but a painting honours it. So much time, care and attention involved in pulling a resemblance from a blank page.
Sit down to draw or paint a thing and you are forced to do some very careful observing of it. You end up thinking a lot about it too.
To draw a face is to spend some time considering what it is to be human, what a glorious piece of engineering the face is and most importantly, how that outside facade both reveals and conceals the real person within.