Painting a portrait is quite a personal thing. It demands that the artist make some sort of estimation or judgement. The painting opposite a 'detail' from my portrait of John Morgan. After deciding on the client (if not the sitter), why the work is commissioned and what scope is the artist allowed - you then ask yourself:
1. What is the essential character of the sitter?
2. How does the sitter view his or her own presence in the world?
3. Is there a pose that seems natural and expressive of the sitter's personality.
4. Are there clothes, uniform, jewellery, favourite pet, room or setting that may contribute?
5. If asked to draw a caricature of the subject what features would best define the sitter?
6. Does the client have any favourite photographs of the sitter (this can be an excellent clue as to expectations - and also to eliminate the unwanted!)?
After answering all these questions and getting some clear idea into your mind I usually ask if there us any role the sitter might like to play? What historic figure does he or she admire the most? The prospect of painting a man in a plain suit and tie or a woman in a business suit apalls me. Where is the joy in that? Portraiture can have elements of narrative, tools of trade, costume etc. Anything is possible. Painting a portrait of a carpenter(workshop, tools, apron), airline pilot(plane, sky, uniform) or architect(building, drawing board, blueprints) is obvious, but think of the possibilities for an insurance salesman, banker, used car dealer or school teacher. There lies the greater challenge - and the greater rewards. This is where portraiture can, and should, and does transcend photography. The sitter must also be encouraged to imagine ... and believe.
History teaches us a masterpiece makes the sitter famous. We refer to the Mona Lisa, Mrs Siddons or the bust of Madame Houdon often before we nominate the artist. Who were these people? Who was the Mona Lisa and what was her life? Make this point to your sitter or client as it is to future generations that the work will be presented, and it is to them the spirit and life and history of the sitter must be addressed.
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