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Facing the Portrait Challenge

There are various subjects from which an artist can choose—landscape, still life, figurative, abstract, and of course, portraits. Some stick with one while others like to change it up. I fall into the latter category. When choosing subjects for painting earlier in my art career, I avoided portraits as I felt they were “harder” than other subjects and I lacked the confidence to attempt them. After painting a few portraits in charcoal and pastel, I decided to tackle painting portraits in oil. Now that I have a few paintings under my belt my opinion is even firmer than it was before. Drawing and painting portraits in a realistic manner is more challenging and often more frustrating than other subjects.

Why is that? When painting a portrait of a person in a realistic manner, the artist must not only capture the features and likeness of the person—making sure the eyes, nose, brows, mouth, etc., are in the right location and proportion, there is the added element of the person’s look, expression, or emotion which is displayed. If any of these elements are not painted correctly, the painting falls short. Since people’s faces are unique and the expression or emotion is subtle at times, there is little room for error.

So why paint portraits knowing the obstacles? Firstly, I like a challenge and there is nothing more challenging in my view than a portrait. The portrait artist must make use of every tool in her toolbox—attention to detail, accuracy of position and size, getting the color right, and figuring out how to capture the emotion in the subject’s eyes, mouth, and head position.

I also believe that painting a portrait is the highest form of art as it creates a strong emotional response in the viewer unlike other subjects of art—especially a painting of a loved one who may no longer be alive. It is a permanent record of that person. And isn’t that the reason painters do what we do? To share our gifts with others and bring them joy which in turn brings joy to ourselves.

Wishing you all a joyous New Year!

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