Walk into any museum or gallery, and you’ll find plenty of portraits. Quite often, we don’t know who the subject is until we read the placard, and even then we may not know why the person is important. Does it mater? Not really, because portraits are almost universally appealing. We’re fascinated by the sitter’s physical characteristics, and by what the portrait artist was able to tell us through his or her depiction of the sitter. Perhaps most important of all, we see something of ourselves in every portrait, which helps us identify with each other through our shared history.
In the distant past, portraits were the only means of documenting an individual’s appearance. Many of the earliest portraits were used to commemorate royalty, nobility, and other people of historical import, including Frans Hals’ portrait of W. Van Heythuyzen (page 43). Even as far back as the Renaissance, however, wealthy patrons were able to commission portrait artists to paint themselves and their loved ones – as evidenced by portraits such as these by Reynolds, Raeburn, and Sargent – whether they were “important” in a historical sense or not. Portraits were a way of celebrating a person, and preserving that person’s likeness.
Even today, we still have a strong desire to preserve images of our loved ones and others we admire for posterity, but some may question the benefits of commissioning a painted portrait when we can easily engage a photographer. The difference is immense, say the legions of portrait artists still carrying on this treasured tradition.
“There’s really no comparison,” says Richmond, New York, artist Evelyn Embry. “It’s like comparing apples to… zucchini! I have tremendous respect for the art form of photography, and there are some photographers who can produce beautiful portraits. A painted portrait is just entirely different, because an artist can capture something the camera can’t.”
Many portrait artists agree that portraits make a unique statement, mainly due to the handcrafted quality and psychological insights that help to convey the humanity of both the subject and the artist. Adds Sam Adoquei of New York City, “If we believe that technological inventions are the only good things, then we don’t need portraits. But if we believe in metaphysics, in keeping the human spirit alive, then we realize there is a lot to be gained from painted portraits. A true portrait is fuller and richer than simply an image on a flat surface.”
SELECTING AN ARTIST
If you’ve decided you’d like to commission a portrait, you have plenty of artists to choose from. In fact, there are so many that it may seem overwhelming, so the best idea is to ask for help. A nearby gallery owner or art dealer will probably know of some qualified artists in your area. You can also search online for portrait brokers, who typically represent dozens of professional portraitists. And, of course, you can also do an online search for portrait artists in general.
Before you begin discussing your commission with artists or their typical representatives, and especially before you start reviewing artists’ portfolios, make a list of the criteria that are important to you. Be as specific as you can, so that you find the ideal artist for the job. Here are a few considerations:
• What style of art do you like? Do you want something tightly rendered, similar to a photograph? Or do you prefer something a little softer, or even impressionistic? As you can see just by looking at the images in this article, there are many artists working in a wide range of artistic styles.
• Do you have a special need or situation? Children, for instance, pose a challenge for many artists because they simply can’t sit still, so photo sessions may be needed. For a posthumous portrait of an individual, photos will be required. Perhaps the situation calls for a very formal portrait of a man in uniform or a woman in an evening gown. Then again, there are times when an informal setting, even an outdoor location, is just the thing. All of these are areas of specialization, and portraitists are available to match every need. Nashville, Tennessee, artist Dawn Whitelaw explains that most artists develop specialties because one commission leads to another, so one way to find an artist specializing in the type you’re looking for is to find other people who’ve had similar portraits done.
• Is the sitter available to pose? Almost all portrait artists will tell you they prefer to work “from life,” with the person seated right before their eyes. Yet artists recognize this isn’t always feasible. Some are willing to work entirely from photographs although most prefer to shoot their own when working this way. As Washington, DC, portraitist Simmie Knox says, “I prefer to see the sitter with my own artistic eye so I can present the subject my way. If I shoot my own photos, I’m composing with my eye.” Another Nashville artists, Michael Shane Neal, think of photographs as a useful reference tool for recording some of the details, but he adds, “For me, the painting doesn’t take on the life of the model until I’ve spent some time working directly from life.” Still others work almost exclusively from life. Adoquei, for example, says he is happy to work around any arrangement the sitter needs, but most of his portraits are done from life. “My portfolio is built on paintings done from live sittings, so now this is what I’m known for. The people who come to me are usually willing to sit for me.”
• How much are you willing to pay? As you research artists, you’ll discover a huge range of prices, from a few thousand to more than $100,000. The cost is dependant on a number of factors, including the portrait’s size, how complex it is (head-and-shoulder versus full-length figure), the number of sitters, the artist’s years of experience, the medium, whether the artist must travel to your location, and framing.
Whoever you ultimately select, you can rest assured the artist will be friendly and responsive to your needs. Many portrait artists say they’re attracted to the job because they truly enjoy working with people. As Neal says enthusiastically, “One of my favorite parts of being a portrait painter is the interaction with the sitter. I love the challenge of trying to capture some of that personality on the canvas!” Adds Embry, “My job is to put my sitters at ease so they can be themselves when posing.”
ENJOYING THE PROCESS
Once you’ve selected an artist, spelled out the terms in a signed contract, and made your first payment, you’re ready to begin the process. The first step is usually a consultation in which the artist meets with the sitter and those commissioning the portrait.
At this meeting, you’ll likely choose the setting for the portrait, and the artist will probably make sketches and/or take photographs of the subject. He or she will be looking for characteristics unique to the sitter. As Richard Whitney, a New Hampshire-based artist, says, “I want to see how the sitter moves, hoe he walks, what gestures he frequently makes, and how he typically holds his head.” Artists also usually want to see where the portrait will hang so they can get a feel for the proper mood for both the portrait and its frame. You and the artist may want to take this opportunity to work out how many in-person sittings will be needed – if any – and when they will occur, as well as when the finished, framed portrait will be delivered.
Artists are usually open to your suggestions and wishes, particularly in the earliest stages, because they want you to be pleased with the end result. However, the artist is an expert on portraiture, so you should take his or her ideas into consideration, too. Remember, advises Knox, you shoes this artist because you felt you could trust his or her judgment.
Some of the artist’s advice may run counter to your perceptions. For instance, most portraitists will tell you that a closed-mouth smile or even a more serious or thoughtful expression is preferred over a wide, toothy grin. The artist may also have strong opinions about the best, most flattering lighting for the sitter. And as cute as your little girl may look in a frill dress, portrait artists would probably advise you to choose simpler clothing. Portraitists use their expertise to create a portrait that will preserve the sitter’s true nature while standing the test of time.
Depending on the terms of your contract and the artist’s preferred working method, the next step may be for the artist to use the photos and drawn sketches to create some type of painted “sketch,” which is a small mock-up of how he or she envisions the finished portrait. Many artists prefer that everyone’s ideas are meshing.
As every portrait artist will tell you, collaboration is essential. The creation of a portrait is give-and-take between the artist, the sitter, and the person who commissioned the work. It’s up to the artist to find a solution that works for everyone. For instance, Adoquei relates the story of a commission he received to paint a teenaged boy. “Everyone – paying for the portrait – had a different opinion about what he should wear. But I convinced them that we should allow the boy to wear whatever he wanted. I knew that if he didn’t feel happy, he wouldn’t look happy in the portrait.”
Eventually, the artist will present you with the finished portrait, possibly even framed, but the experience isn’t necessarily over. Again, commissioned portrait artists want you to be satisfied with the painting, so they’ll often invite your feedback and make minor changes to perfect the painting. “I love getting feedback, but I don’t invite that criticism until I’m ready,” says Neal with a laugh. “One of the hardest things when you are sharing your progress is to keep quiet and listen to the comments of your sitter. You’ll know right away if you rang the bell!”
Naturally, one of the things you should look for is a reasonable likeness. The professionals say the artist’s job is to select and emphasize the qualities and features that will present the sitter in the most flattering way, although most artists refuse to resort to outright exaggeration. As odd as this may seem, however, artists don’t always aim for an exact likeness. Far more important is to capture the essence of the sitter’s personality and character.
Equally important, portraitists agree, is for the piece to have all the hallmarks of a good, innovative painting. “The artist attempts to develop in his work a nobility of proportion,” says Anthony Ryder of New Mexico, “as well as beauty of shape, form, rhythm, movement, value, color, and light. Such attention and intention on the part of the artist infuses his work with these qualities, which in turn makes the sitter appear to possess these qualities. So the painting becomes an affirmation of the being of the sitter.”
For most people, sitting for a painted portrait is a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. You can guarantee a great experience and a satisfying finished portrait by taking the time to research the perfect artist for your needs, and by approaching the event as collaboration with the artist. You’ll be left with a beautiful work of art that will be enjoyed for generations to come.
by Christine McHugh