I find portraiture to be a strange genre in contemporary culture. It’s not really my business as to why someone wants a portrait; if someone wants to commission me for a portrait, I’m happy to paint one. Do most people want portraits of themselves in their homes? I doubt it. A couple of times I’ve had guys wanting me to paint their girlfriends, as a gift for their girlfriends. I’ve felt obligated to ask if they had reason to believe their girlfriends would want a portrait of themselves. Do you see what I mean? Portraiture can be a tricky genre. I once saw a home where, in the master bedroom, a large portrait of the wife’s mother hung over the couple’s bed; Hmmm…I think I would hang a portrait of my mom somewhere else.
I can tell you several reasons why people might want portraiture. I’ve had several parents commission portraits of their children. (But I generally only do older children for reasons that will become clear later.) I’ve also had parents commission portraits of themselves to leave to their grown children someday, and I think this makes sense also. Some collectors simply love the human face – the psychological impact, or the personality or stories that a face might suggest. The human face is a powerful carrier of emotion. Oddly, when I first moved to Loveland, which at that time was even less racially diverse than it is now, my gallery sold 2 or 3 portraits of beautiful black women I had painted. I’m not really sure what was going on there.
A few times I’ve had the sobering honor of painting infants or children who have died, for the parents who lost them. I consider this a weighty endeavor because these parents will only have the painting, photographs, and memories by which to remember these children.
Finally, a lot of artists seem to especially enjoy a beautifully painted portrait. Portraiture is an unforgiving subject matter. If one can balance the technical aspects of good drawing, composition, values, color, edges, and paint-handling without losing the grace and sensitivity that painting a human face requires, that is something to appreciate. Over the years I’ve sold off a few unframed portrait studies to artists and students for a couple hundred bucks each, because I know they can’t afford a full price portrait, nor do they care who the subject is. They’re just interested in the art of it.
I’ve been participating in plein air festivals for several years, and I usually paint a portrait during the Quick Draw event (click here for a fun Quick Draw story.) I do this because the public seems to enjoy watching portrait painting. Despite the fact that the Quick Draw models are usually dressed in cheesy period clothing, I usually sell these, and I’ve won several awards for them.
My Approach to Portraiture
I generally only paint from live sittings when doing portraiture in oils. There are plenty of other artists out there who will do a portrait from photographs, and this is certainly logistically easier. However, I find there is an authenticity and spontaneity that results from a live sitting that is very difficult to achieve from a photo. Also, coming to my studio for a sitting creates an experience to go with the painting.
At the Kansas City Art Institute I studied primarily under a painter named Wilbur Neiwald. While my studio work has now taken a departure from Wilbur’s approach, I find his approach to be unparalleled when it comes to portraiture. Wilbur taught a fascinating direct-study painting approach that by-passed traditional aspects of art instruction such as anatomy, perspective, and color theory. In fact he believed these things can sometimes hinder a painter from seeing clearly. Even today, because of what I learned under Wilbur, when I teach a class I tell students it’s a “seeing class” as much as it is a painting class.
Boiled down to its simplest description, Wilbur taught that all we really see are color relationships. That pretty much encompasses everything else, if you think about it. So when I paint an oil portrait, I’m simply seeking to paint one color in its proper relationship to another. If I basically get down the color relationships in the size and shape as they appear in front of me, a likeness appears. It’s almost that simple.
The frustrated-Hallmark-artist portraits
My previous post describes my 10 years as a Hallmark greeting card illustrator and designer. For me, one of the enriching aspects about working there was that were so many great painters there. A lot of these painters ultimately desired to be full time fine artists, but many us had families to support, so we worked at Hallmark instead; because it’s notoriously difficult to make a decent living as a fine art painter. But we found outlets, and made opportunities to pursue painting “off the Hallmark grid.” One of these opportunities, open to anyone, was a Wednesday lunch hour painting group. I thought of it as the “frustrated painter group,” (not because the group was frustrating, but because our dreams of being fine artists were frustrated by the realities of life.)
Hallmark was a fairly cosmopolitan environment, full of interesting people. Every Wednesday we would ask someone from the company to come and sit for us for an hour. Artists could paint or draw in the medium of their choice. Every Wednesday. For a couple of years I organized the model list as a ploy to discipline myself to attend every week.
When I first joined the group, I could not paint fast enough to finish a painting in one hour. However, after regularly painting a portrait a week, over time I eventually was able to consistently get a result I was pretty happy with. For me, an hour is still too short of a time to really nail a portrait, so the time limit forced me to loosen up. There’s just no time to get picky in an hour. I came to enjoy the spontaneity that came across in these portraits.
I’ve continued to do portraits sporadically since leaving Hallmark to become a full time artist. A lot of my commissioned portraits are gone before I can have them photographed, but shown here is a sampling of portraits I’ve painted since moving to Loveland.
Come visit me and I’ll paint your portrait if you like!
I now tell people a sitting is two and a half hours long. (You get breaks, and I have good music.)
I charge extra for cosmetic improvements, though not as much as a plastic surgeon would.
I’m kidding. I don’t do cosmetic improvements. At least not on purpose.
You must be brave – sitting for a portrait is not for the faint of heart.
Unless otherwise noted, all portraits in this post are roughly 9 x 12 inches, and are painted in oils, from life, in a single session.