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Thoughts On Portraiture



Lately I've been seeing more painted portraits, or perhaps I've been noticing them more. With the proliferation of photography, especially in the high definition digital age, I'm somewhat surprised that there is still a desire for the painted portrait. Apparently there is still something special and irreplaceable about having one's portrait painted. Some might consider having one's own portrait painted to be the lowest depths of vanity, reserved only for the uber-wealthy, ultra influential, or just plain arrogant. However, I paint commissioned portraits for common folk and the more well known alike, not because they are full of themselves, but because of the love of family or friends. They know that those close to them value such paintings, and they themselves value specially created images of ones they love.


So what is the purpose of painted portraits when there are so many mediums from which to choose? There is of course photography which can produce stunning results. There are drawings of various kinds, relief work in wood or metal, sculpture in stone or cast bronze, and probably several other forms that the human mind can conceive. Any of these mediums can be used to recognize a life achievement or milestone of a person such as serving in public office, to celebrate a life event such as a birth or wedding, or sometimes as a memorial of a person. Once I did a painting for a Sheriff's and City Police Department to commemorate their joint efforts in a manhunt that crossed state lines and cost a good deal of resources, lives and shed tears. The painting was to remind them that their efforts were not in vain and to remember their fallen comrades and their families. In another painting I helped piece together for an older gentleman meaningful images from his past into one. It depicted him and his wife together in front of her parents' house shortly after his service during World War II. It required lots of questions, thought, and discussion with him in order to peer into his past and paint what was meaningful to him. For others desiring portraits, it is simply due to a special relationship with the person or persons being painted.


Before the dawn of photography, the hand crafted image of a person developed over the centuries, both in skill and understanding. One can see this development from early cave paintings to depictions in ancient Mesopotamian, Mediterranean, African and Asian cultures. Development also continued in the Roman, Greek, and Byzantine cultures. The purpose of much of this ancient art was not purely aesthetic, but as part of recorded history. Consider the art of ancient Egypt. It is the subject of not only exquisite beauty, but also historical records unearthed by archeologists. Depicting realism in portraiture through perspective and representation of three dimensional form with light and shadow developed more during the Renaissance and opened the door to illustrating the natural world. I remember my life drawing professor declaring that Michelangelo was his hero because of the sculptor's ability to reveal the beauty of the human form in marble. Indeed he and Leonardo da Vinci were great pioneers in the understanding and depiction of human anatomy. My purpose here is not to give an exhaustive dissertation on art history. For more on this subject one may explore Gardner's Art Though the Ages or other sources.


During the later 19th Century and into the 20th Century classically trained artists who were skilled at portraiture began to experiment with their images of people. From the Impressionists like Henri Matisse, Claude Monet and Mary Cassatt to Cubists like Pablo Picasso and Surrealists like Salvador Dali, artists began to paint outside the box in their depictions of the human likeness. Today there are limitless ways in which images of people not only are produced, but in the techniques employed to achieve those images. One of my favorite artists of the 20th Century was Norman Rockwell, one of The Saturday Evening Post illustrators. Even though we may now look back on his pictures as "old timey" or quaint, his images expertly captured life in action with a point to which many of us can relate, whether it is humorous or sobering. Not only was he a masterful classically trained artist, he used photographs along with his numerous live sketches as an aid to his art. Even though some looked down on his techniques as "cheating," no one could have achieved the kind of narrative images he did without his innovative use of this tool. As a painter the pictures were just too complex and full of action to capture live in one fell swoop.


My purpose in painting portraits not only is to produce a good and recognizable likeness of the person, but also to portray the subject in a pleasing way for the client, the way they are known. I have found that photorealism or technical accuracy is not all there is. In order for me to achieve a good portrait, I often find that a single snapshot of the person is insufficient, even if it is the client's favorite snapshot. Quite often I do not know that person the way the client does. I prefer to meet the person and even take some photographs and do some drawings of my own in order to get to know who they are. If the subject is deceased, studying several photographs as well as eye and ear witness accounts can go a long way. My purpose is also to show the special qualities of the individual, to portray one's essence as a unique person.


According to Genesis 1:27 these qualities are inherited from God: "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them." (King James Version) The New Living Translation reads it like this: "So God created people in his own image; God patterned them after himself; male and female he created them." This is ultimately why I am so fascinated by painting portraits. It is as much a spiritual experience as it is a technical one. To me it is far more than simply replicating photographs. It is a privilege and a high calling for me to depict fellow human beings who bear the image of God. It can also be terrifying in the sense of wanting to do it well so that it would please both Creator and the created one. This may sound silly to some, but I try to approach each painting prayerfully and with reverence, realizing that I cannot do it in my own strength.


If having a custom portrait painted of someone interests you, please contact me so I may give you a free consultation. I'd be happy to discuss with you the details and how you would like the person or persons to be portrayed. Also, if anything else in this article has piqued your interest, I welcome your comments or questions below. Thanks for reading!

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