In a nutshell, portrait painting is an artistic representation of a person. Not only are you trying to capture a likeness, but you are also attempting to convey the individuals’ mood, so the whole face should be included. This is also why most portraits have the sitter gazing directly at the viewer. It is a composed sitting, not a snapshot from the camera. (I’ll get into that later, because these too can make for a great portrait)
Portrait painting goes back a long ways. We’ve found funeral portraits from Egypt that date back to the 1st century BC. The portrait painting was alive a well by the 4th Century Greek and Roman time frame. Patrons wanted very realistic, even unflattering paintings of themselves and loved ones. This changed a bit thereafter as folks wanted a more idealistic view, and true representation of the individual didn’t reemerge until the Middle ages. Paintings were done in egg tempera which gave us some fairly good depictions and brilliant colors. Then Van Eyck came along with adding oils to the egg tempera to allow for better blending in the shadow areas. This resulted in some magnificent works!
Portrait painting however, still memorialized the rich and powerful, and the common man wouldn’t be included until the mid 18th century. This came about after the American Revolution, and folks realized we needed a record of some of the leaders and founders of the time, so early American portraitists depicted their subjects in patriotic and modest ways. (as opposed to luxury and aristocracy) Although artists wanted to throw off the appearance of luxury and monarchism within their works, the elite were the only ones that could afford a portrait. It wouldn’t be until years later, with the Industrial Revolution and photography, did the “average joe” get his picture on a wall!
During our modern times, impressionism, cubism, abstract art, all have
had their hands in the portrait, so from here, the waters get really
muddy. Traditional portrait paintings continue to exist, but
experimentation and new ideas have broadened the field to include so
much more. Today’s portraits not only tell you what a person looks
like, but can depict a whole story around this individual.
A good portrait will give you the essence of the person. It can show you what they did for a living, what they wanted to be remembered for, even where they have come from. It could be iconical in nature by representing a wider group of people by ethnicity, and culture. It can reflect a particular period in time. The portrait can show a person’s hobbies, it can reveal bits of their personality, or their political and religious beliefs. Or, it can be very simple and formal with a monotone background and just the individuals’ face.
Interested in some crazy good portraits? See them here at the
The profile view, the full face, the three-quarter view. These reference the particular orientation of the head within the portrait.
The profile view = the side view, strictly showing the side of the face.
The full face view = from directly in front. Looking straight on towards a persons face.
The three-quarter view = when the person has turned slightly to give you more view of the side of the head. Will usually include a better view of the ear.
There are several methods to use in painting portraits. If using the Flemish technique, you want to make your dead layer have a more greenish, olive color. This allows for a better contrast and believable shadow play within the face.
This depends on if this is a commissioned work, or a portrait that you are doing on your own. The same questions will need to be asked when approaching either one. But the main guestion remains, How does the person want to be depicted?
Mood: Angy, sad, happy, or contemplative?
Pose: Sitting, standing, or with some form on movement?
Dress: With or without (nude) their clothes? Formalwear, work clothes, play clothes?
Place: Within their office? Indoors, outdoors, work place, kitchen, living, dining room?
Objects: Holding something, sitting in a fancy chair, reclining on the sofa? Objects can be nearby on a table, in the lap, on the chair.
All these should help answer the basic question of “How the person wants to be depicted” in a historical sense, because when done right, the painting will last for generations!
Portraits can be realistic to impressionistic/expressionistic. Think about the person’s personality and match the style to the person. Most will want a realistic view when it is a commissioned work, but if this is something you are doing on your own, the sky is the limit!
Here's a great example of a portrait done with a much modern look with the background that has great significance to the sitter, but not known to most viewers.
I would include this image, but it is a very fresh image and copy righted. Click the link to see this painting.
This is fairly easy. Your size will be dependant on your pose. The other issue will be if you are painting realistically or not. Realistic depiction will keep your painting to same size or slightly larger/smaller then the subject. Then whether you want just the face, the shoulders included, the shoulder, arm and hands, or the whole body with legs and feet!
In these examples, I used just a photo snap of myself, and in the other, a more formal arrangement showing shoulders and arms but no hands. The first is an 8” x 10” sized portrait, and the other is a 24” x 30” painting with a ¾ pose, and the 3rd is a 18” x 24” contemporary painting in that the face is magnified to larger than life.
Portrait painting the truth, or stretching the truth just a little?
Do you paint every thing you see, or do you kindly omit the flaws you perceive? This is basically something the sitter will tell you if it’s a commissioned work. Otherwise, it’s up to you.
Be aware however, portrait painting can get you in some hot water! Just ask Lucian Freud. His usual style of painting has always been a bit controversial. When he painted the Queen of England back in 2001, it set off a bit of a fire storm. Read the article here:
BBC News: Freud Royal Portrait Divides Critics
What can be considered a flaw in a persons face? That changes throughout history! A scar, wart, mole, crooked nose, what ever, can be painted or not be painted. Sometimes it’s a great idea to exaggerate one of these features.
In today’s world, pimples, wrinkles, and skins tone imperfections are usually air brushed out for the fancy magazine covers. Sometimes so much so, the likeness of the individual can be lost!
My personal view is that the wrinkles make the face, but your sitter may not agree. So tread lightly, and ask lots of questions (if this is a commissioned work). Remember, the viewer of the portrait you are painting is seeing a reverse image of themselves.
What do I mean by this? Think about it, when you see yourself, it’s usually in a mirror. Some folks can’t stand to see their photographs because it just doesn’t look right. Some of this is because when they wake up in the morning, the face they see in the mirror is a complete reverse image of their actual self and of photographs!
Allow for this by allowing the sitter to view their portrait from a mirror, which will reverse the image again to match what they usually see.
And one last parting statement. In painting the portrait, it's something that shouldn't be jumped into if you're a beginner.
The human face is one of the most recognizable items the human brain is wired to receive. Very tiny imperfections in your painting will cause the loss of the likeness. Not until you've trained your eye to see exactly what is before you, and you have a great command of the medium (oil paint) should you attempt one.
Here's where you can upload your masterpiece! Do you have a portrait painting you'd like to share. Please include (at a minimum) the size of your painting. What is it done with (oils, pastels, pencil). Your inspiration and/or technique used in its creation. And any tips or things you discovered in the process! And if at all possible, can you include a picture of the subject or reference photo! This will gives folks a good idea of how close you came to a likeness!
Click below to see contributions from other visitors to this page...
Portrait of a General
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