I paint my portraits from life, not from photographs. A few clients find this hard to understand. These doubters have generally two wishes: they want to spend only a short time posing and they want a happy looking portrait. After all, a photograph would save time and with it I could get that smiling and happy look- and anyway, posing with a smile for even a short time is painful.
They have a point but…
A photographic portrait captures an instant and the face reflects exactly the emotions of the sitter at that instant. Therefore, if at the moment of the clicking of the button the subject is feeling a bit self-conscious and nervous, he will look a bit self-conscious and nervous no matter how much he tries to hide it. Many of us feel exactly that when we are photographed and, as a result do not look good in photographs. ‘Fine, so take a relaxed and smiling photograph,’ I hear you mutter. ‘After a few dozen shots there should be at least one acceptable smiling picture.’ Yes, you may get a good photograph… But a good photograph does not make for a telling oil portrait.
A photograph rarely captures the full character of the sitter or finds the idiosyncratic look which comes when time is taken. Posing for a portrait allows the artist to capture the interesting little changes in expression or look that occasionally occur during the sitting. Sittings are the land of opportunity, the place for finding true gold – the telling touch.
A photograph is often an obstacle to good painting. It encourages the artist to spend a foolish amount of time on inessentials (e.g. the exact size and shape of an earlobe) rather than go for the big picture, the unity of image, the tout ensemble.
A photograph is wrong – the colours and tones will have been filtered by the lens and printer or monitor which always sees things differently to the naked eye.
Let us accept that painting from a photograph is not conducive to good work. How then to satisfy this desire for the happy portrait? I tend to point to the princes of portraiture; Sargent, Reynolds, Ingres, Velasquez and show their myriad works of unsmiling heads…but alas, when pressed, cajoled and ballyragged, I have to say that it is possible to paint a smiling portrait from life.
The man is a master of the instant, a capturer of the fleeting look, a dashing expert of the telling detail, a breath-taking virtuoso, a man who fills me with admiration, envy, despair, irritation and a deep desire to improve. Frans Hals makes a mockery of my difficulties and explanations. To him, a smiling face is but a few flicks of a paint brush, a knowing and playful look but a brief dabble of daubs. Here are some of his portraits.
So there you have it. Smiling portraits painted from life and the way to it all beautifully worked out 400 years ago. I have some hard work to do to get there. Meanwhile, I turn to the princes of portraiture; Sargent, Reynolds, Ingres, Velasquez, study their myriad works of unsmiling heads…and take comfort.