The art of portrait painting in oil colours
This informative book on portrait painting has been preserved for generations and fully deserves to to be available to all portrait artists online. While the art of portraiture has moved on, much of what was written is still valid and relevant to the modern day portrait painter.
Back to The Art of Portrait Painting
FIDELITY OF RESEMBLANCE
There are generally in every set of features certain leading points which may be readily seized by a painter, and which, when represented with common fidelity, at once determine a resemblance. But a facility in this is the lowest quality of portrait painting, and hence the number of artists who can map a likeness is greater than of those who can endow a portrait with character and intelligence. However accurate the physical man may be portrayed, the best part of the identity is wanting if intelligent animation be absent. Every individual is distinguished by some particular aspect, either of animation or repose ; and if the characteristic be agreeable, it should be the great purpose of the painter to communicate this expression to his work. Should it be unfavourable, another, although less striking, must be essayed ; but in order that the purpose be definite, and kept constantly in view, it should be determined at or before the first sitting. Sometimes the best aspect is only seen from time to time, at moments when the subject forgets that he is sitting as a study. This is extremely difficult to catch but whether it be successfully represented or not, it is essential that the should be either a relief or maintenance in the representation devoid of all apparent consciousness of sitting for a portrait.
It is difficult for the unpractised artist to endow the features with a transient expression ; but no study must be spared in order to acquire this. masterly power. It is customary with the accomplished painter to sustain a conversation with the sitter, if animated expression be the phase which he intends to paint, and this is the case in the majority of instances. Sometimes persons in conversation emphasize their observations by some slight distortion, the most common, perhaps, being a slight elevation of the eye brows, so habitual as to be unknown to themselves and unobserved by intimate friends. But the painter must be on his guard against any allusion to peculiar habits, for these are which the caricaturist seizes. In such cases the countenance must be painted in profound repose.
There is a class of sitters who insist upon being painted precisely ‘ as they are ‘ ; they desire no modifications, but only wish to see their veritable selves without flattery or qualification. frequently to the young artist, in the simplicity of his inexperience, endeavour, to meet their wishes; and the more satisfactory, in certain cases, such a portrait may be to the artist, it is never wholly agreeable to the sitter; for in respect of personal appearance, human nature is at least ‘ indifferent honest.’
It often happens that the result of a first sitting is more like the subject than the finished production. This fact ought to inculcate a valuable lesson : for in such cases, as the finishing advances, and the resemblance diminishes, the painter, if sufficiently a master of manipulation, will finish with less labour but more decision, and will command a greater measure of success. The decision we here allude to has nothing to do with severity, which is the result of timidity and feebleness. In painting any picture, to know where to stop is as valuable as to know where to begin, and to be able to discriminate between those passages which require refinement and those in which freedom and breadth of treatment are indispensable. Overmuch detail very frequently results in the loss of that breadth of effect so much to be desired, and without which the natural and life-like character of the work cannot be attained.
For the recognition of a person whom we know (though seen even at such a distance that the figure only is clearly
perceptible), it is only necessary to be able to distinguish the personal conformation or movement; whether the back or face be presented, the individual can be recognized. This should be borne in mind, since it shows how much personal characteristic contributes to likeness, and shows also, conversely, that minute manipulation is not necessary to identify.
In the mere forms of the principal masses of shade, with the assistance of the gradations and the opposition of the broad lights, there should be a marked likeness independent of minute markings ; because the contour of the head and figure thus sketched affords resemblance in main essentials, without which there is no identity. It is, therefore, necessary to secure these distinctions of personal form which are peculiar to every individual. For these the artist must look; they are seldom so prominent as to amount to personal defect or eccentricity of manner, but they are physical points which, when judiciously treated, set forth the powers of the painter. If the personal style be graceful, this will be maintained, and if allowable, enhanced ; if the contrary, it will be qualified.
The force of masculine expression lies in the under lip, the forehead, the chin, and, of course, in the graver language of the eye. The sweetness of the feminine graces resides in the mouth and eyes, especially at the exterior corners, and below the eyes, at the corners of the mouth, and in the play of the lower lip.
It may be said, as an observation generally applicable, that to hit the happy medium in the distinctive treatment of masculine and feminine expression is perhaps the greatest excellence in the art. In the former the object is to express that quality of intelligence which is distinctive of the sitter, without falling into severity. In the latter the purpose is to endow the features with vitality and sweetness, without conveying into them an unmeaning simper. And such is the variable expression of the human countenance, that the painter may only now and then see the sentiment he seeks ; but he must avail himself of these occasions with light and free, but careful touches.
Besides character and expression, there is also necessary for successful portraiture, fidelity of colour, with which must be considered texture, or a description of the surface of the skin. Delicacy of colour and delicacy of texture are qualities that are generally found associated ; but, inasmuch as the one is obvious to the eye, and the intimation of the other a result of mechanical experience, it is not necessary to dwell upon properties which are acquired by simple observation and practice.
About John Payne
I’ve been a professional portrait artist for the last 12 years but have been painting for a lot longer . I started out by painting nothing but seascapes and still do the odd one from time to time , I then moved onto landscapes and wildlife paintings before I finally decided to concentrate on portraits.
I get commissioned to paint a lot of pets , mainly dogs – but I also get to paint a fair amount of portraits of people.
more about John John Payne