Is A Portrait a Reflection of the Artist or the Sitter?

Portraiture has been prominent throughout art history, immortalising sitters, making them look more attractive, wealthier, taller, slimmer, younger –  an endless list of how portraits could have worked, from cave drawings to modern day.  Historically, artists used to study the human form for years to achieve this skill, however in the last century the ideals and expectations of portraiture have changed and progressed to so many more interesting levels.

Since the invention of photography, portraiture of course became so much more accessible. A camera could supposedly do what portrait artists had been doing for centuries but quicker, cheaper and with more accuracy. For this reason, portraiture paintings could become more conceptual and stylistic depending on the artist.

However I feel as Hockney did that photography cannot replace painting. It can certainly work happily alongside but it will never replace art. Hockney’s 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life show this dedication to a series of paintings, where Hockney painted 82 portraits of people from all areas of his life, with each way taking no more than three days. Hockney felt you could probably paint a portrait in even less time than this, so still longer than a photograph but showing that painting did not have to take months to achieve such personal impact. I enjoyed this portrait series, the use of colour, the simplicity of the composition, his attention to detail in the choice of chair, the viewer looking directly at him, no distractions – the sitter, the artist and the portrait. This epic collection is impressive and as always with Hockney, inspiring.

Barry Humphries, 2015
Barry Humphries, 2015

I also believe that composition and the use of bold simple colours is a very important aspect within my portraits. My painting ‘The Boy’ is an example of this, it is one of my favourite pieces because of its composition, the use of light, shade and colour. This portrait makes you think, makes you wonder what the boy is thinking about, is he comfortable or contemplative hugging his knees? He’s gazing out into the distance, but seems quite settled, there are many assumptions that can be considered in portraits.

Acrylic on canvas. This is one of my favourite pictures because it is a great composition taking just the light and shade and colour into account plus the ambiguity around what the boy is looking at and thinking.

There are so many great artists we can look at whose focus turned to portraits from Rembrandt to Munch to Van Gogh. Van Gogh chose sitters from his postman to his mother and wanted to convey the person and the emotions he felt for them, his appreciation of them, his love, he said  ‘ I want to paint men and women with that something of the eternal which the halo used to symbolize and which we try to convey by the actual radiance and vibration of our colouring’ , the simplicity of these portraits he saw as the ‘modern portrait’ and this excited him.

Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent Van Gogh
Postman Joseph Roulin by Vincent Van Gogh

Munch was another artist whose portraits conveyed his emotions, he called his paintings his children and could barely cope with being parted from them. Any admirer of his work will appreciate the passion and torment in his work, from the sadness of his mother and sister portraits to his immense collection of self-portraits, a topic for another feature to follow where artists self portraits become a hugely important part of their collections, as they have been for me too.

The National Portrait Gallery’s collection is always fascinating to go to and enjoy some of the very best portrait artists, with portrait sitters from Henry VIII to Germaine Greer ! Although the pandemic has delayed so many exhibitions museums have continued to inspire us and keep our never ending need for art alive, even giving tips on how to draw portraits – could be fun for some top tips!

I have enjoyed painting portraits of friends and collectors, capturing their characters and moods and hopefully expressing this through my work. How I felt about my sitters comes into my methods of composition and style, reflecting them as honestly as I could, combining both my emotions with theirs. I don’t believe an artist can disassociate from their sitter, it is the artist/sitter relationship that creates the final work of art and it certainly is more than aesthetics, the emotions go deeper and reflect in so many aspects of a portrait to ultimately make it a success for both artist and sitters.

This was a commission for a gay couple who’d been together for over 20 years and who had recently got married, hence the title. I really enjoyed doing this one because it was a brilliant composition and technically challenging and because it was an opportunity to defy bigotry.

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