5 Qualities to Great Portraits

Sometimes I post about work I’m creating or my art development.  This bit of news shares some research from a gallery visit.

The entire National Portrait Gallery shocked me.  Before visiting the museum my idea of a portrait was a likeness of a person.  No big deal.  Just get the turn of the nose and the right shading around the eyes and it is an individual we can recognize. 

Waiting for it to open, June 2016

But after I left, portraits became a sort of portal into another person’s soul.  I know how strange that sounds.  But I spent all day alone with portraits where really talented artist were able to record more than just a person’s facade.  It’s like they were able to record a connection to someone’s situation or someone’s emotional state.  

I walked around the rooms like a kid at a water park - happy to invest the time for the thrill of a new experience.  Because it takes effort to gain appreciation in something.  The portraits tell an interesting story unique to each individual. What I found has changed the way I view my own portraiture process and the vision I have for each portrait I create.  

I’ve thought about the 2016 Outwin Competition and what makes the portraits in this exhibit so intimate.  Here are five reasons to describe why these portraits are more than mere representations to me. 

1. Connect with the Viewer

The sensation connecting with these portraits is like when you catch eyes with a stranger driving through a town you’ve never visited before. 

Jenny Miller by Claudia Bican. Graphite 2014.

John from De Puro Corazon series by Gasper Enriquez. Acrylic on paper. 2013.

detail Gilden Snowden in Her Detroit Studio by Donita Simpson. Pigment Print 2014.

Eugine #4 by Joel Daniel Phillips. Charcoal and Graphite 2014.

Sedrick, Sed, Daddy by Sedrick Huckaby. Oil on canvas 2014.

It doesn’t happen often.  The connection is the intimacy of strangers who are openly curious with no need hide how they’re feeling. None of these people are actors.  I get the sense that they are experiencing something, and that the artist valued it and was able to package it for us viewers to share in later.   

2. Details matter 

You don’t see much abstract handling of any of the figures in this show.  Each drawing, painting and photograph realistically depicts the figure, face, and surroundings.  Power shines through these portraits because the artist painstaking recorded the minute details of shadow, glare and everything in between.  Because it’s a package - a portrait, and it’s only as complete as the sum of all the parts.

Portrait #138 (David Hockney) by Brenda Zlamany. Oil on panel 2014

3. Subtly of Expression

Harvey and Teddy by Paul Oxborough. Oil on Linen 2014.

Agnes by Michael Meadows, 2013 Graphite

Johnny Jones by Marti Corn. Pigment Print 2013

There are no politicians in this exhibit.  The people here seem to be meeting us on their ground.  Thanks to the artist.  How the artist did this I can only guess.  Perhaps through observation, hard-work, and talent.

4. Placement is Key

American Prize by Tim Doud. Oil on Linen 2014.

I love the placement of the figure in this portrait.  It’s so playful it reminds me of the way people dress their dogs up for Halloween - down to the listless body draped over the chair and slack expression.  The composition helps with this effect.  The horizontal stripes of the hat butt against the vertical stripes of the shirt, which leads our eye to the horizontal stripes on the sleeve which brings us full circle around the face and the patriotic leis.  The neutral tones of the man’s face and chair are at either corner and help with this movement.  These direction markers are not just fun but make picture beautiful.

5. Personality

Walking though this show I got to appreciate that each artist has her own filter.  The Outwin Competition is full of realistic images of people in rooms that look like the world around us.  The artwork exhibits unique layouts, cropping, and representations of the individual.  

In sum the takeaway from this exhibit is that no matter how well an artist represents the world, the outcome is the result of her choices. 

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