• Karen Thomas

Portrait People-Pleasing!


The challenge of capturing a likeness to a human being while remaining expressive can only be topped by the challenge of capturing a likeness to one you know well! I'm no portrait painter, but as you know I do like to regularly paint outside my comfort zone. My amateur dabble with portraiture has left me with a tremendous respect for what the artists who specialise in such things face!

Anyone who watched The Big Painting Challenge will be familiar with some of the first technical hurdles you find yourself up against, and that's just the basics! Proportions and related shapes, and once the basic features are mapped starting with big blocks of colour to work loose then increasingly detailed.

The skills to do all this take years to acquire. But it's really just the start. You could grid up to draw, measure carefully, painstakingly match skin, eye, hair colour and come to a very close resemblance, almost photographic sometimes. I have the deepest respect for the skills involved in this type of art, along with mastery of medium and tools, but it's not the art I covet or strive for. To capture the essence of a person, an expressive portrait with a massive dose of the subjects character along with a smidge of the artists, now there's a challenge!

It is a high risk strategy though ... let me explain. Here, I've painted my husband David. Given my living proximity and closeness to the subject, you can guarantee there are expressions that flit across David's face that hardly anybody else sees. David himself couldn't see much resemblance until he saw his portrait reflected in the mirror. Learning point to self, people only ever see themselves reversed in the mirror, unless they aren't camera shy. Obvious when you think about it! But if you paint the mirror version, it isn't 'true' for everyone else! The people who know David well identified this as his 'guitar-playing expression' and they're right, it is one of listening hard and concentrating.

Like most people, David will subconsciously arrange his face for different situations. He'll have a conversational expression, a listening expression, a 'did she Really say that?!' expression ... you get the picture. All you can really hope to capture in an expressive portrait, in my humble opinion, is an element that encompasses the person to you, the artist, at the level on which you know the person, a fleeting point in time. It leaves me wondering how on earth the artists who are suddenly called upon to paint the Queen, or someone famous, without knowing the person, cope with the task in hand! Or those that get commissioned to do a portrait of a husband for a wife - can they really capture the person as far as the closer person is concerned? Harking back again to The Big Painting Challenge, I recall one of the famous faces commenting "she's caught the 'real me'". If that's the case, it would have been an extremely lucky occurrence!

I feel I want to do more of this sort of work at some point, and will probably badger any portrait artist unlucky enough to bump into me with a whole heap of questions. Until then, I think I'll stick with wildlife ;)

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