Portrait Painting/Sketching as Storytelling
Many people know I have a very classical taste when it comes to art, not just in classical paintings but also as you may have guessed from my Persistence series, classical art forms in both dance and music. But today, I’m going to go in depth about the reason why classical portraiture is so different and special from what is produced today.
As a disclaimer I want to make it clear that I am not against painting/sketching from photographs (I do that alot) but I do not endorse working purely from photographs.
Have you ever wondered why the Mona Lisa is so captivating? People say that the eyes move, and if you look at the greatest portraits in history all of them seem to have life and a gaze that follows you. I’ll never forget that time I went to the Art Gallery of NSW with my dad, he doesn’t really understand much about art, but he couldn’t get over how the gaze of Ruben’s self-portrait. It was so life like - it seemed more intimate and realistic than a photograph. He couldn’t understand why, at the time I knew there was more to it than just techniques and lighting, but I couldn’t grasp how.
Today I believe I have found the answer after making copy after copy of master paintings in my 100 portraits series. What makes a Rembrandt so memorable? What makes a Velázquez so filled with life, when you look at his portrait of Juan de Pareja he feels like someone who exists, someone you could encounter on the streets. It’s the ability to not only paint a likeness, as most people would make you believe what a portrait should be, but also the ability to show you the story of the life behind the subject. Who were they? What were they like? And not, just, what do they look like.
And how can you possibly get that sort of depth and storytelling from a photograph? Unless that photograph was taken by a cinematographic expert, who knew how to interact and capture an interpretation of the character they saw. But then would that be your vision? Would you see and notice the same things if you met the subject?
Portrait painting/sketching is a conversation between the subject and the artist. It is a conversation without words, it’s a conversation between what the artist can notice and feel and a subject of what the sitter is going through at the time of creation. Everyone has a story, and if you look hard enough you’ll find the soul under the noise. It’s why studying the works of Masters is so fascinating, you’re seeing not only their skill but also the world through their eyes and hearts.
What makes a truly good portrait? It’s portrait that can tell a story, more than just what the sitter looks like. Or at least that’s the criteria I hold myself to.
INSPIRATION E MARTË (4) - Robert Greene
Since we’re talking about storytelling, this week I want to introduce you all to a personal inspiration of mine: an author of a book I often reread: Robert Greene.
Do you have a book that you constantly go back to reread again and again? Where every time you reread it just seems to unveil some new perspective that was there when you first read it, but it wasn’t quite the time for you to absorb it; the situation in your life hadn’t aligned enough to create that opportunity for it to resonate with you. As I am going through shifts in my life and creative career I’m constantly butting into new challenges and obstacles that can really disturb me mentally and physically, and in those times it’s really important to have someone or something that can kind of encourage and mentor you through it. For me Mastery was one of those books that I could really rely on to uplift and fuel me.
I don’t know too much about Robert personally, I’m mostly just a fan of his writing, but one of his personal stories that really resonated with me was the story of his life before he found his true calling in life: writing.
It wasn’t until he was 39 when he published his first book the 48 Laws of Power, which became an instant best-seller but before then he was really drifting around from job to job, going through an estimated 80 jobs as a construction worker, translator, magazine editor, and Hollywood movie writer to name a few. (Now I’m doing the maths I don’t know how he managed that...say he started working from when he was 15, that would be an estimated 3 - 4 short-lived jobs per year…)
But as he describes in his books Mastery, sometimes you need to go through all those things that weren’t really quite suitable for you to eventually find something that is perfect for you. I always joke when I’m introducing Greene’s works to friends by describing them as self-help books for people who don’t believe in self-help books. I’m a big fan of his writing because it’s so thoughtful, he really takes an observation and lays it out in clear points backed up with historical stories that are both really entertaining and memorable.