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Notes on Portraiture

Here's an old text I discovered at the bottom of the Sent box in my Hotmail account. It's a question from a student about portrait painting, and my reply. Perhaps you will find some of what I say here of value. Cheers, M.

From: Robyn Westcott Date: Thu, 7 Oct 2010 12:17:55 -0700 Hello. I go to a middle school on Bowen Island, British Columbia called Island Pacific School. Each year the grade 9 students work on a year long project called Masterworks that is not unlike a thesis. The student picks a subject that greatly interests them and then throughout the year they write an essay with their masterworks committee (three advisors). In June their year-long work is then presented. I am doing Portrait Paintings. I want to answer the question: what makes a good portrait painting. So I would like to know what it is that you think makes a good portrait painting? Is it character? Emotion? And what techniques do you use to capture these things?

Hello Robyn What makes a good portrait painting? A wonderful question. I'm flattered that you would solicit comment from me -- this is a first. I don't think I can offer an exhaustive answer, but I am willing to share some thoughts. To some extent the answer to this question will always lie 'in the eye of the beholder'; all art is, to some degree, subjective ['I don't know much about art but I know what I like']. However, having said that, over time consensus does, in general, tend to emerge. That is, a majority of people will tend to agree that a particular work of art, a portrait, let's says, has quality, is 'good'. This is similar to the way in which society as a whole determines standards for ethical, or at least legal, behaviour. Exactly how and why portraits, as an art form, carry meaning is a vast topic. Of course, if you, for example, commission a portrait of your mother, that portrait will, presumably, carry more meaning for you than it will for me or some other stranger. Yet we find that many countries have museums and galleries devoted exclusively to the art of the portrait [Canada is still working on this] -- which means that we don't need to know the person directly, or perhaps even know anything about them at all, to find the portrait affecting in some way. Before photography was invented portrait paintings were important historical documents; but the art of the portrait still has importance and relevance 200 years after the invention of photography. My feeling is that the reason that this is so has something to do with the fact that portraits somehow confirm our shared humanity. Looking at fresco portraits from Pompeii, the feeling you get is immediate, as though they are speaking directly to you in the here and now. What's this all about? Lots of theorists of art speak about the moment of abandonment or transcendence in the presence of the artwork -- you may find this when listening to wonderful music -- that somehow time is suspended and your individuality momentarily disappears, you somehow 'lose yourself' in the experience. This seems to be the ultimate goal of all art. I talk a bit below about how in the act of creation an artist gets into 'the zone' -- I think that the essence of artistic communication is here: the viewer mysteriously accesses 'the zone' that the artist was in when she created the work -- again, time disappears -- which is why a Pompeiian portrait is just as likely to be powerful and relevant as a portrait painted yesterday. I think anyone who has looked at a lot of paintings tends to know right away when he or she is in the presence of something that has real quality. It's pretty much a visceral thing; a painting may hit you from forty feet away and make you approach, demand to know it better. That is my first criterion for painterly excellence: at a glance, in a second, it declares itself and makes you want to know more, to explore further. I would also add that the clause which began this paragraph -- 'I think anyone who has looked at a lot of paintings' is also important. In the visual arts, and the arts in general, there is this elusive thing called 'taste' and it can be educated. If I give my ten-year-old son a sip of my beer or wine he makes a face and spits it out. It's an adult 'taste' and it takes time and education. Just so in the arts. There's an anecdote from a Kurt Vonnegut novel [I forget which one] that goes like this -- 'How can I tell a good abstract expressionist painting from a bad one?' Answer: look at a thousand abstract expressionist paintings. There are no shortcuts to becoming a good painter and there are, similarly, no shortcuts to becoming someone who can deeply appreciate fine artwork. I'd also say that to some extent the ability to appreciate the artwork is a gift as much as making it is. I see this all the time when I do my 'sits' in the gallery -- the wife looks at all the paintings with interest while the husband stands there looking bored, say. She's got an innate interest and is actively educating herself, while he's remaining stoically uninterested. Over time, her taste will become more sophisticated, while his will not. [There are lots of books on the philosophy of art which discuss these sorts of issues in greater detail. I'm just sharing some basic thoughts of my own. To be honest, I don't spend a lot of time reading about art, but I do spend a fair bit of time looking at it]. As regards 'character' in portrait painting, this is of course paramount. Character is what the painter is presented with beyond the mere physical nuts and bolts. One might say that the strongest characters make the strongest paintings. However, it is also true to say that even when confronted with a strong character a portrait artist may still struggle to find just the right expression of that character. Here are two of my favourite anecdotes about portraits. The first is from Yousuf Karsh [a great Canadian] and his portrait of Winston Churchill [a photograph, but still illuminating in its description of how an artist can capture character]: 'My portrait of Winston Churchill changed my life. I knew after I had taken it that it was an important picture, but I could hardly have dreamed that it would become one of the most widely reproduced images in the history of photography. In 1941, Churchill visited first Washington and then Ottawa. The Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, invited me to be present. After the electrifying speech, I waited in the Speaker’s Chamber where, the evening before, I had set up my lights and camera. The Prime Minister, arm-in-arm with Churchill and followed by his entourage, started to lead him into the room. I switched on my floodlights; a surprised Churchill growled, “What’s this, what’s this?” No one had the courage to explain. I timorously stepped forward and said, “Sir, I hope I will be fortunate enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion.” He glanced at me and demanded, “Why was I not told?” When his entourage began to laugh, this hardly helped matters for me. Churchill lit a fresh cigar, puffed at it with a mischievous air, and then magnanimously relented. “You may take one.” Churchill’s cigar was ever present. I held out an ashtray, but he would not dispose of it. I went back to my camera and made sure that everything was all right technically. I waited; he continued to chomp vigorously at his cigar. I waited. Then I stepped toward him and, without premeditation, but ever so respectfully, I said, “Forgive me, sir,” and plucked the cigar out of his mouth. By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.' [I couldn't capture an image for you but you can easily find it on the internet at]. A somewhat similar anecdote concerns John Singer Sargent, probably the greatest portrait painter of his time, and the difficulties he had with his commission to paint Theodore Roosevelt, the US president: 'Sargent's painting would be the official portrait of the President, but it wasn't the first. In 1902 Theobald Chartran was commissioned to paint portraits of the President and his wife. Although she enjoyed hers (a feminine portrait of her on a bench outside the White House in a wide brimmed hat) Teddy simply hated his. At first they tried to hide the blasted thing in an upper corridor in the darkest place on the wall. The family called it the "Mewing Cat." Teddy disliked it so much that he eventually destroyed it. What Teddy wanted was a man's portrait by a real man's artist. A year before the commission, Roosevelt found his man in the burly Sargent and said, "He is of course the one artist who should paint the portrait of an American President." But Sargent wasn't going to have an easy time with the Rough Rider, trusts-busting, Big-Stick-carrying, Panama-canal-building President. Teddy, having been stung once, would take no nonsense from the artist no matter how renowned he was. The two men surveyed the house and Sargent attempted to make sketches of his subject in various rooms trying to find the best lighting and pose, but nothing was working. This didn't sit well with the ever-restless President. As they climbed the stairs to try and find a better arrangement on the second level, Teddy brusquely remarked that he didn't think Sargent had a clue as to what he wanted. Sargent, also losing patience, shot back that he didn't think the President knew what was needed to pose for a portrait. Roosevelt, whom by then had reached the landing, planted his hand on the balustrade post, turned onto the ascending artist and said "Don't I !". Sargent had found his picture. If a person doubts the ability of Sargent to capture the essence of the man or woman, then they have only to look at the Portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt. It was informal but strong. It was modern but respectful. It was exactly what Teddy Roosevelt wanted and he would adore the portrait for the rest of his life. It had exactly captured, in the President's eyes, the essence of his energy as well as his presidency. Though Sargent would eventually hit a home run with the portrait, the rocky beginnings were but telling signs of the entire commission. Teddy wouldn't stay still and would only consent to a half-hour a day after lunch. Aides and secretaries were constantly moving in and around him disrupting his concentration, and there was hardly enough time for Sargent to even reach his emotional groove for painting.' In terms of character there's something about the way that Roosevelt grasps the newel post on the stair that makes me think of the way America would dominate the 20th century, as if, somehow, the globe of the newel post is the world, and the forceful way he grasps it somehow symbolizes American ambition and power.... do you see what I'm getting at? And somehow, Sargent intuitively knew that this was the right pose when it appeared before his watchful eyes. Sargent and Karsh really knew how to SEE what was in front of them and seize the opportunities they were presented with. I think that is the essence of appreciation in the visual arts -- an ability and willingness to make yourself really look, to really see. If you can see it, you can paint it. It's a commonplace to say that clouds are white and the sky is blue, but are they really? If you look long enough you start to see pink, and yellow, and grey, and green.... I suppose in terms of character the moral of the story is that the more time the portrait artist spends with the subject the more likely they are to produce a work that conveys character. This is why portraits painted from photographs don't in my opinion work so well [as Alex Colville said, 'I don't use photographs as a reference because photographs don't, by and large, provide me with the information I need']. As you can see in the Sargent story, he had to spend some time with Roosevelt, even to get into a fight with him! before he could get at the essence of his subject. This is the point at which 'character' shades over into 'emotion'. Character is what the artist is presented with; emotion is what the artist puts back into the work, based on what she sees or feels. About emotion I have a hard time speaking -- I mean, how can blobs of colour on a piece of canvas, convey emotion? It's a mystery but they can. All the arts share that air of mystery, which is why a painter often can't [even if she wants to] explain how she did what she did. When she's in 'the zone' magical things can happen. Note in the Sargent anecdote above, the reference to an 'emotional groove' that the artist gets into -- it takes time to get there, but that's the mysterious place where real artistic expression comes from. [You can see that words are starting to become useless. Ultimately, I can't describe for you the emotional content of a painting if you can't feel it, the same way as I can't describe for you how a meal tastes. You have to be there and taste for yourself, you have to have your own sense of 'taste'.] Technically, every portrait painter has somewhat different tricks and techniques that she uses. In general, and you may have heard this already, portraits in oil, and to perhaps a lesser extent acrylic, proceed from 'lean' to 'fat', with thinner, more tentative layers of paint applied first, building to heavier and more opaque layers. The image tends to emerge from the canvas gradually, layer by layer. I have a romantic notion that this is analogous to the creation of the world, where form gradually arose from chaos. It's pretty common when working in oil to scrape or wipe off layers of paint too, because the paint is so slow-drying. So if you've done a good job on the already-dry underlayers but you don't like what you've done that morning, you just wipe off and start again. Sargent once repainted a face EIGHTEEN TIMES before he was satisfied. That's what separates the men from the boys [the women from the girls] -- an unwillingness to call something 'good enough' and to be willing to start again and keep at it long after most would have given up. I think the best portrait painters work fairly rapidly because they know that there is something about the spontaneously-executed brushwork that infuses a painting with life, and that something which is overly-polished can become dead in feeling; also, that working slowly and becoming over-invested in what you've done makes it 'precious' and makes you less willing to change it, which is also deadly. In the hands of the best artists, oil paint virtually becomes flesh. Oil medium is after all organic, and the pigments are mineral; the makeup of the paint is actually analogous to corporal reality. Let me close by suggesting you visit this website: Here is, assuredly, one of the premier portraitists and figure painters of our time. I'm familiar with your school and the Masterworks program, although I haven't ever managed to see any of the presentations. I read a few of last year's online. I'd also like to congratulate you on your performance as the Good Woman of Szechuan; I enjoyed it thoroughly. As for me, I'm the guy who played Hwel in the Wyrd Sisters, as well as Tim in Noises Off, and I've become a bit of a hanger-on up at Tirnanog. I love the vibe of that place. Good luck with your project and feel free to get in touch if you have further comments or questions. I enjoy talking about this stuff. Best regards Michael Epp

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