The Painted Portrait – What is So Hard About it?

Most people tend to answer: ‘Getting the likeness.’ But any experienced, successful,and honest portrait painter can tell you that ‘getting a likeness’ is purely a matter of careful observation and measurement of the physical proportions of your sitter. A human subject can, and should be, assessed by the artist in the same way as you would a landscape, still life or any other subject for a painting.

The real challenge is to convey the character of the person you are painting. For this, it is essential to arrange at least one face-to-face meeting with your Subject, lasting at least two hours. Although it is natural to offer coffee or a cold drink, avoid letting this become a social visit. The time of your sitter is at least as valuable as your own and s/he is at your studio for a purpose. Use the time well.

A very good way to get a feel for the inner Self of your subject is to make this first meeting a photo session. With a fast-action camera – hand-held, no tripods or fancy lights to make the sitter nervous and self-conscious – you can ask questions while you snap away. Somehow, people are always willing to answer the photographer!

One unforgettable instance of this happened as I was taking the initial snapshots of a retired sugarcane farmer who was extremely reserved and private by nature. Acting on a happy inspiration, I produced an authentic, well-worn cane machete from my ‘props’ cupboard and asked him to demonstrate the proper way to use it (on an imaginary stand of cane.) Suddenly, he came to life and talked with deep passion about his love for the land and his life on the farm, recalling his favourite dog and the long-dead horses which once helped him cultivate the crop. Thinking aloud, I said it sounded as if he were speaking of his own private kingdom and he replied that was just how he felt about it. That moment of illumination resulted in the portrait I called ‘Sugarcane Kingdom.’ The photos do not need to be very good because you will mainly use them as reference when the sitter is absent. So, be sure to get shots from many angles. You will have taken measurements, either with calliper or by eye, and noted these down in writing or by making sketches. Still, your photos will be invaluable in letting you check without constantly calling the sitter back to the studio.

The greatest boon of the camera is in letting you catch that characteristic gesture or stance of your subject when s/he is at ease and forgetting to ‘pose.’

An example of this happened during the first session for my portrait of well-known conservationist and fellow artist Percy Trezise. Clearly thinking to ‘help’ me make an interesting picture, Percy had struck a dramatic pose each time I picked up my sketch book. So, only by swift and sneaky action with the camera could I catch the real man at ease.

When Percy came to view the finished work, he brought along his wife and his mother. They were all pleased with the portrait, but Percy protested that he never stood with his hands thrust down in his pockets as shown in the painting. As he said it, his two ladies laughed, and as they pointed at him, Percy looked down and grinned, seeing his hands were, at that moment, stuck deep in his trouser pockets.

Of course, as every portrait painter knows, a truly accurate rendition may provoke disappointment in the subject caused by his/her own vanity or by the sentimentality of relatives and friends. This obstacle arose very early in my own career. The sitter was about to resume her overseas posting and wanted the portrait as a gift for her mother. Lucy (not her real name) was a very beautiful woman in her mid-forties, with a ‘lived-in’ face full of character. But like so many women of our Super-model era, Lucy worried about the lines that made her face so expressive, even in repose. Her only request to me was: ‘You will take out my wrinkles, won’t you?’ Sitting her down at my dressing table, I asked her to frown, then smile into the mirror. She was then able to see, as I had, that her so-called wrinkles were all lines of good humour and a record of the happiness she had experienced.

Some weeks later, I took a phone call from her mother, who asked if she could bring the portrait to my studio for discussion about a change she would like made. I figured this would be minor; after all, it has been infamously said that ‘A portrait is a likeness in which there is something a bit wrong with the mouth.’ But did I get a shock! The lady explained that her daughter did not have ‘all those wrinkles’ and she had brought along some photos to prove it and help me change the painting.

Carefully, I set them out in a row, asking the mother to tell me what age Lucy was when each photo was taken. The most recent of them was taken when Lucy was nineteen. I then laid out the photos I had taken of Lucy at her sitting, letting the mother make her own comparisons. She was able to realise that her fond maternal memory had obscured the reality.

I did this once, myself. An attempt to produce a portrait of my son as a gift for his grandmother resulted in a picture that made him appear angelic. Only he had the courage to make me see what I had done: ‘Mum, you painted this one with the eye of a Mother, not a Painter.’

When you arranged this first session with your client on the phone, you would have clearly stated how long it would take. It is courteous to stick to that agreement – your client may well have other important things to do that day. So, keep a discreet eye on your watch, and when time is nearly up, thank your client for a productive session. Ask that s/he be willing to come to the studio again for at least one more sitting prior to the final check (skin and hair colouring etc) before completion of the painting. S/he is certain to agree; after all, s/he has as much interest as you do in achieving a successful portrait.

It is a good idea to discuss size at this stage; some people have a fixed preference, though they will accept your advice if you clearly explain your reasons. I have sometimes had to persuade clients to a smaller size – for example, when a huge canvas of a child would be inappropriate to the subject and overwhelming in the home – or a larger size when a double portrait would look cramped on a small canvas or less than impressive in the board room. You might also ask whether s/he would like to arrange the framing or would prefer to leave it to you.

Before s/he leaves, explain that you will send a letter setting out the specifications of the work for approval, within the next X weeks. This will depend on how long it takes you to decide on the composition, which in turn will decide the best size (and in most cases, the price) for the work. If you are an experienced painter, this will also allow you to quote an estimated delivery date.

It is extremely helpful to both parties if you can show your sketches or drawings at this point. It is a bit tough to expect anyone else to imagine what you are planning from words alone! Because my technique is to make a detailed Drawing straight onto the canvas, I can invite clients to view it at the studio if they live locally or are prepared to travel. But many folk can happily decide to go ahead on the basis of good photos of your drawings, so long as you spell everything out.

If you accept a commission from a corporate or a public (i.e. government funded and administered) client, I would recommend the use of a formal contract. Guidelines are available from your local Art Society or Arts Law centre. But for private clients, my experience has been that such formality is not needed. Your letter setting out the specifications of the work, and the client’s acceptance will be binding enough. In nearly thirty years, I have never had a private client who did the wrong thing. If you have doubts, ask for a written acceptance ‘for your records’ or write a memo of the phone call when the client accepts, and maybe lodge a copy with your lawyer.

One more thing: Because a portrait is a Painting, and a painting evolves like a living thing during its creation, it is vital that you reserve the right to make changes if the artistic need arises, even after the client gives approval of your original design. Make this request clearly before you begin, in fact, it is best to include it in your letter as well. If you have taken the time to plan the painting to the very best of your ability, any changes will not radically affect the design, but will only enhance it.

To sum up:

1. Seek the inner person of your subjects.

2. Faithfully reproduce their real physical appearance – no ‘artistic Botox or plastic surgery’ even if it means refunding the deposit and declining the commission; if the rejected portrait works as a Painting, it will usually sell in the gallery anyway.

3. Explain your plan for the work clearly and honestly to the client. Make sure that you both understand what is agreed, so there are no nasty surprises.

4. Do not contemplate becoming a portraitist unless you truly enjoy painting people. If you do, Happy Painting! It is a fascinating challenge.

(c) Dorothy Gauvin