Making portraiture is an interesting challenge and has a lot of socially dynamic ramifications. It can be successful and enjoyable. It can also be not very good and sort of disappointing or even down right bad and depressing.
Before the discovery of photography about the only way to make an accurate image of another person was to have an artist make a drawing, painting or sculpture of that person. In 1826 the scientist, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, discovered photography and changed how we see things. It took a while to develop the technique and make it available to the world at large but once the camera became a common part of our reality the cold hard truth of what we really look like could not be ignored. “Yep, that’s Uncle Bob, alright. Ol’ boy sure has picked up.”
It also became very easy to “take” those images. You just pointed this little gismo at whoever or what ever you wanted a photo of and pressed a button. Click, click, click. Send it off to the drug store and in a week or two you got something new to put in your photo album. You sure as hell didn’t have to take a lot of time and pay some artist a lot of money to make a painting of Uncle Bob.
We also now have professional photographers. You can go to a studio and have somebody who is good at taking pictures have you pose in front of some expensive looking equipment and take a whole bunch of photographs to make sure “you get something you will be happy with.” A little social engineering is helpful. A good studio photographer better have some people skills as well as knowing what to do with all that fancy equipment. If not, he or she may not be in business very long. “Smile..”
After all this consideration about photographers, where does that leave all those folks who used to do all those old paintings in all those mansions and museums? “Geez, Gustav; what do we do now?”
When we take a look at history it seems that the artists just kept doing what they had always been doing but their concept of what reality looked like couldn’t help but be changed by the camera. Now that the main province of the artist to make believable images of people had been usurped or at least challenged by photography, artists could start to do other things with their talents and imagination. In the late eighteen and early nineteen hundreds there came along something called “Impressionism”. That certainly was not like the old stuff. All the sudden there were lots of colors all over the place and nobody really cared about staying in the lines anymore. Then people started painting images from their dreams and expressing their emotions. Conveying ideas and “feelings” became almost more important than what the thing looked like. One guy did a great big painting of some people (and a monkey) just standing around in a park with umbrellas and those funny bulges underneath the back sides of women’s dresses. He accomplished this major artistic fete by just making a whole bunch of tiny little colored dots. Makes one think of color TV except it was a painting and didn’t move.
Another guy dribbled paint all over big ol’ canvas drop cloths on the floor. When they dried he took them to an art dealer in New York City and became famous. His friend and his friend’s wife tried it and it seemed to work for them as well although the paintings of some of the women in between those dribbles were kind of scary. Big teeth. There were also some very serious and important guys making big paintings of colored squares and other shapes and selling them for thousands of dollars back when thousands of dollars was a lot of money.
Then some folks came along in the 1960s and decided to go the other way and we got a whole new art movement called “Photorealism”. One guy took a pencil and divided up his whole canvas into two inch squares and started at the top left and painted each square from left to right and top to bottom making these big paintings which kind of looked like those old tile mosaics from Pompeii until you realized you were looking at some poor schmuck’s face. Welcome to the 20th Century and here we are back at Portraiture.
With all this experimentation and a couple of World Wars our ideas of what art is really took a beating. Here we are in the Twenty First Century and it seems like it’s become kind of like that old saying we used to say at the end of hide and seek. “Olly Oxen Free”. Do what ever you want and have a good time. I have taken that advice to heart. I am doing what I want and I am having a good time.
Painting portraits of people is something I have always really enjoyed. I have found, however; that it is wise for me to only paint or draw people who I like. The way I feel about a person I am portraying is impossible to hide. As a matter of fact, I think that is one of the things about the live interpretation of someone’s appearance by another human being that gives it more authority than the mechanical representation of a photograph.
When I was in School here at the University of Missouri, I had the tremendous good fortune to make paintings of the nude figure. I became very adept at portraying those people and was basically painting and drawing, and; in one circumstance, sculpting, full body nude portraits. I learned a lot about what it is to be human and what it is to portray a person in their most vulnerable and exposed circumstances. I am of the opinion that it strengthened all my artistic efforts from that point on, especially portraiture.
In the more recent past I did a series of portraits of people who have been close to me and several of those pieces can be seen in this website. Some of those paintings were done exclusively from life and some were done with the help of a good photograph. I believe those pieces turned out successfully and hope you find them enjoyable as well.