What is a portrait? What needs to be considered if you are thinking about having a portrait painted?
The oldest known portrait drawing is estimated to be about 27 000 years old, and was discovered in a cave near Angoulême, Western France. It is drawn in black calcium carbonate and uses the relief of the cave wall to help give form to the face. There are two short horizontal lines for the eyes, one of which connects to the long vertical nose line. The mouth is also a short horizontal line. The portrait compares to the abstract works of Picasso and Mondrian pictured below.
The most modern form of portraiture is probably the selfie. Anyone with a mobile phone can capture an image of themselves at any time and in any place, in an instant. Digital software programmes allow these images to be manipulated with the use of filters and graphics. Every day millions of selfies are shared and posted on social media platforms.
Robert Cornelius, below, is credited with taking the very first photographic self portrait in 1839. Since then a multitude of photographic portraits have been produced. Professional portrait photographers generally control the lighting and staging. They will also have an input into the colour combinations and contrasts. Many portrait photographers take compositional inspiration from the artists of the past, and emulate the great masters. Tim Walker's portrait of Margaret Atwood is a great example of portrait photography at it's best.
Many homes throughout the world have portrait photographs on display. These range in size and vary from natural and unposed to styled pictures. A professional portrait photographer can produce images on canvas emulating the painted portrait. It is now also extremely easy to have any photo of your choice blown up onto canvas, and so more and more people have large photographic portraits on display.
The painted portrait aims to capture more than the photograph and is generally the culmination of several hours of carefully observed painting from life. The artist will look to capture a likeness that perhaps communicates a mood, an emotion, and the character or spirit of the subject. Sometimes the portrait sitter will have very strong ideas about the way in which they wish to be represented, but more often than not, the artist will have a free reign in deciding what form the composition will take and ultimately how the portrait will look. Obviously there are certain parameters, including size and budget, which will also impact upon the finished product.
Things that should come under consideration include:
- Size. Most people forget that Leonardo's Mona Lisa, arguably the most famous portrait in the Western-Hemisphere, is only 77cm x 53cm
- Medium. Will it be a charcoal drawing, an oil painting or acrylic?
- Support. Canvas, panel, board or paper?
- Will the portrait be for a formal or an informal setting?
- Who is the painting going to be for? Who will the audience be?
- What is the purpose of the portrait? Is it to commemorate, celebrate, record or memorialise? Or perhaps it's just for the sake of art and creating a likeness?
- Will the style be abstract, representational or realist?
- Is it a group portrait or an individual. Should it be head and shoulders, 3/4 length, or full size? Are the hands going to be included? (Detailed hands can take as long as a face.) Might it be a profile view?
- Will the portrait have a specific background? This might include buildings, pets and relevant props.
- Should it be a still image or should it capture movement?
- Are there particular qualities of the sitter that need to be defined?
- Will the portrait engage with the audience through a direct gaze, or will the look be more introspective? Perhaps the line of sight will focus on another point of interest within the painting or outside of it?
The artist will also consider the colour scheme and lighting. Will it be a limited palette or something more vibrant? Dramatic lighting can make a painting so much more powerful. Also, clothing will be given some thought, and this will relate to the portraits eventual setting, therefore taking into account formality or informality? It is even possible to tie a colour scheme in to match the decor of a particular room.
Owning something as unique as a portrait can be very exciting, and rewarding. In 2020 it is still a rarity to be transformed into a work of art! However, you don't need to wait for an artist to ask you to sit for them! If the idea of being interpreted in paint and represented on canvas appeals to you then consider commissioning a portrait artist. You know what you look like in photographs but there's an added dimension and a greater depth to a painted portrait. The artist will spend time focussing on you and will very carefully consider your uniqueness. Hopefully, in the future, the resulting work of art will become a treasured heirloom.