Portraiture Particulars

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Portraiture Particulars

From Virgil Elliott

Published before 2005


Robert,

A good portrait painter knows how the muscles in the face react to the various emotions and indicate personality traits, and thus is able to adjust and manipulate the expressive features and muscles to make the face in the picture read the way he or she wants it to read. Cartoonists and caricaturists call on this knowledge all the time, and the best portrait painters have always done so as well.

The trick is to record what we are after in a charcoal drawing executed while carrying on a conversation with the subject, clicking the mental shutter when what we are after appears, and then retaining what we observed at that moment long enough to get it down in the drawing. When the subject is involved in conversation, he is being himself; his intelligence is engaged, and that is when we will see what we need to paint in the portrait. We might not see it if a camera is pointed at the subject, because most people are uncomfortable when cameras are pointing at them, and all naturalness disappears. One could waste a lot of film trying to capture that one particular fleeting expression, and if the shutter clicks an instant too soon or too late, it will miss it even if it appears, which it might not with a camera present anyway. If we get it in a photograph, we should consider ourselves extremely lucky.

The real subject of a portrait is a personality, not a topographic representation of the physical contours. A face can look many different ways, as it is underlain by many muscles that act in concert with one another in animating the face as the brain is working. When the brain is engaged, we see the real person, the real subject of our portrait. We get to know a person by spending time with him or her. We get a chance to observe the different aspects this particular face assumes when expressing whatever is characteristic of the person. We must see this person at his or her best and most characteristic if we expect to be able to paint a good portrait. That is best facilitated by drawing the subject while conversing, not by having him or her pose motionless. The life drains from the expression very quickly when one is asked to freeze, because holding still is unnatural. It's a challenge for an artist, working from a moving target, but it is possible to master it with enough practice, and it's worth the effort.

I do these studies in charcoal and white chalk on grey pastel paper, which enables me to work very fast. It's important to keep the sittings short and stress-free for the sitter. Usually I can get what I need (sans color) in an hour or so. If I need a second try, we'll schedule another sitting on some other day. Once I have it, it serves as a guide in executing the portrait, supplemented with a small color sketch also done from life, in which only the colors are noted down (no details, no features, just shapes of color as observed). The color sketch usually takes me 45 minutes to one hour.

One establishes a rapport with the sitter when working with live sittings. This increases the subject's appreciation of the portrait, by virtue of having participated in its creation, and of the portrait artist as well, if we have conducted ourselves well and made a positive impression. We could gain a new friend from this process. I hope you can see how much more satisfying it is to do things this way.

My eyes are superior viewing instruments compared to a camera. I can trust that what they tell me is true and accurate. I cannot say that of a camera, because I'm acutely aware of its shortcomings. I pose clothing on mannequins. I sometimes sculpt the subject's head for a posthumous portrait, so I can light it the way I think is best. I will go to great lengths to get what I need. On my web site there are photos of sequence steps in the execution of one such posthumous portrait.

There were no good photographs of this man. I sculpted his head by first observing a poorly lit videotape of him as a fat, sick old man a year from death, and modeling his head as I observed it, then proceeded to reduce the fatty deposits and reverse the manifestations of age and ill health until he looked the way he did in his late fifties, helped by verbal input from his widow, son and daughters, until all agreed that I had him. I could then light the clay head in Rembrandt lighting, and I was off to the races. His family considers the results miraculous, and they have been singing my praises ever since. I was reasonably well paid, too, of course.

It's very rare that I see a photograph that I feel would serve as a good basis for a portrait. I have a highly critical eye. I will go to great lengths in an effort to do better.

Virgil Elliott