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Portraits, to change or not to change?


(Sunny Avocado) #1

He e’rybody! Here’s a question for ya. When doing a portrait and you see say, uneven eyes, do we change and straighten them as long as we can get it to look like the person? Yes I would think so. I have never seen a symmetrical face-there’s always a bit here or there that contributes to the person’s uniqueness. But if something is way off…I may split the difference because:

A LOT of people I’ve dealt with are completely unfamiliar with a family member’s face that they’ve asked me to paint. Recently, I was asked to paint a child’s face, so I met her, spent some time with her and took photos. I am in no way a portrait artist, the person just wants a fun representation of her with a big fat smile on her face and I’m happy for the practice. My point: She happend to have 2 very crooked front teeth coming in! So I asked how do they want me to paint her teeth? “As they are in life or straighten them somewhat? And I will include the space of course.” Well, I uh I guess I shouldn’t have mentioned it at all and just straightened them enough. Kind of like the airbrushing in magazines when they don’t go too far! This person didn’t even know her granddaughter had a space in her two front teeth. Well, so did her mother and so did she! It was a strong family trait that was adorable. She ‘never noticed’ she said. Yikes! Now this may be an extreme example of a non-visual, non observant person-ok-oblivious!! person but my question remains.

Do we “FIX” something or leave it alone?

A side note: I love when a “portrait” is not just a straight-on face but captures gobs of personality like Carol’s Maddie, I’ve always adored it and want to capture my own kids (grown now) someday! :grin:


(Mary Pargas) #2

This is just one of the reasons I stopped doing portraits! Years ago I was specializing in children and it became apparent that parents did not truly see their children with objectivity. Kind of like what we see when we look in the mirror perhaps? They idealize, notice certain family resemblances over others, or still see them as younger than they currently are. I think I would probably ask if there’s anything in particular they would like to emphasize or downplay. If you just go ahead and ‘fix’ something, it may be the very thing they think is adorable or at least makes the likeness or sets them apart from their siblings.

It didn’t help that most of my commissions were from photos I was not nearby enough to take myself. I’d ask for a few candid photos yet I would often receive that straight-on smiling flashed school portrait and just have that to go off of. When I eventually switched to portraits of pets it was much easier. I’d get feedback that I’d managed to capture their souls and they always looked cute. ;o)


(Hilarie Johnson) #3

Hi Sunny,
I agree with everything Mary said and also what your concerns are. I have done a lot of people portraits. I avoid them like the plague unless I’m really broke. Most people are really not aware of what a portrait artist picks up on. Parents are the worse because they tend to overlook flaws in their children. It is never easy to work with some weird photo that you as an artist would never have used as a reference. Bringing someone’s attention to flaws such as crooked teeth can put you in a very tough situation. I have never been thanked for giving someone a slight nose job or a firmer chin! Like Mary, I have switched to doing animal portraits because animals aren’t vain.
I send emails to my portrait customers at different stages of the painting which allows them to make changes. I have never had to change a pet portrait but people portraits? OMG. I once did a watercolor of a not very attractive teenager on a horse. You could just make out her face and I mean just. In the photo, it was smaller than a dime even when I blew it up. It was a long distance commission so I couldn’t just get on a plane and take my own photos. Long story short, the painting was sent and the mother of the kid I painted said that I made her daughter look Asian. Keep in mind, this was a watercolor. So, she sent it back, I did what I could and sent it out again. She was happy about everything but her daughters face. I brought up the fact that the portrait was more about her daughter riding than a face portrait. She then said that maybe she could find a local artist to ’ fix ’ my work. Say What!!!
In the end, I told her to send back the portrait and let me do one of just the horse for the same price. That worked out well except now I’m stuck with the old portrait. I stand behind my work so if someone isn’t happy, well, what else can you do?
So now, unless I can take my own photos, forget about people portraits. One thing that has worked for me is to photograph people in dappled sunlight where there are plenty of shadows that can soften certain flaws or ask them to wear a favorite hat. I also find that candid photos work much better than say, a yearbook photo.
Kids at play, adults walking together or anything that the person who commissioned you would never consider you using are almost always better. Sometimes, I ask for up to 15 favorite photos and then I suggest which one they should go with.
I would rather turn down a commission than work from a bad photo. Faces are very tricky and the thing about painting children is that you are capturing a moment in time. By the time you complete the painting, the child will look different anyway. So make sure your customer understands that!
Hope this helps.


(Nan Johnson) #4

I do “Home Portraits” and also “Pet Portraits” - neither is probably as demanding (or stressful) as doing someones child/grandchild. That being said, I am often given directions that range from “add trees, trim hedges, plant flowers, remove this or that” on homes. On pets, I’ve lightened fur color, added fur, removed dents, straightened tails. Unless I think the direction is really going to make a bad, bad painting, I do what the person asks. It’s their money - if they want the landscape or the dog to look different, so be it. I’ve taken now to pointing out items & asking “you want? you don’t want? you want it changed?” Seems to make the people happier to be able to contribute to the creation in some way. Of course, it takes a bit of finesse to steer a person away from something that will wind up being UGLY!


(Sunny Avocado) #5

Thanks everybody! Nice discussion.

I turned down all commissions lately. I’d rather do what I want, when I want and put it out there. I can do that, I am not the bread winner here so it’s ok for me.

I just found it odd that not everyone notices what they are looking at and not everyone looks for familial traits in faces or studies all the faces on the t.v.! (I do keep that to myself now because for some odd reason my family doesn’t appreciate my comments about noses, how far apart those eyes are! How close those eyes are…etc. whilst they are trying to watch something! You get the picture. :stuck_out_tongue: )


(Hilarie Johnson) #6

Go with your feelings. Those will serve you well in the long run.


(Linda McCoy) #7

“Every time I paint a portrait I lose a Friend.”
“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”
-John Singer Sargent

I’ve painted portrait commissions, they are a challenge. Especially when you have to work from a photo with teeth. :grin:


(Michael William) #8

Great topic Sunny, and it’s certainly a question I’ve raised myself and one that’s difficult to answer. I haven’t done a ton of portraits in my career so far (probably 10 or so including commissions) but my solution has always been to try and find the perfect midpoint between the idiosyncrasies and perhaps even perceived “flaws” in someone’s face and a flattering representation of them, which is admittedly easier in theory than in practice. I dilemma like yours where it’s someone’s child so you don’t want to risk offending them, but the quirk in question happens to be crooked teeth front and center on their face, is a tricky situation. I think checking with the patron first is ALWAYS the best route in a commission - like you said, people see their loved ones subjectively and the worst thing would be to include the quirk and for the patron or subject, who may not have even noticed it before, to see it as exaggerated. I think everyone has their own ideals for how they want their own or their loved ones’ portrait painted - some have a higher threshold for realism and others, as seems to be the case with your’s, just want an idealized resemblance. In my own experiences, I’ve tried to include the flaw but downplay it tastefully. I once did a portrait of someone’s daughter who had sort of an awkward smile, which was visible in the photo, but wind was blowing hair over her face, so I used this to further obscure the smile without completely covering it and it looked fairly natural: not exaggerating it yet not obviously hiding it. I painted my first older subject recently and had to deal for the first time with painting skin that was not quite as tight and toned as I’m used to. I made sure not to make her look like she was 20 while still minimizing signs of age as best I could. As a part-time web designer with experience Photoshopping faces, my instinct is to just go in with the simple task of “make them look more ideal” - so much easier than the task of a portrait painter!


(Sunny Avocado) #9

@m_william very good answers, thank you!


(Mitch Egeberg) #10

Early in my career after I finished my Master’s Thesis in portraiture I would do conte crayon portraits spending 15 to 20 minutes on each one at art fairs or conferences. I only had one complaint and that was at the local mall. They were having an “Art Festival” and invited local artists to display their work. I took some paintings for display and for five bucks I would sketched anyone who would sit. I noticed a lady primping in a nearby store window. She had her glasses on and was fixing her hair and applying makeup. When she finished she took her glasses off and let them hang from the chain around her neck. She sat patiently and I finished and showed her the drawing. Wow! Was she disappointed. I reworked it a couple of times and she still wasn’t happy. I finally turned it into a glamor sketch which made her very happy. Afterwords several of the onlookers told me that I had done just fine with the first sketch and I realized that she didn’t know what she really looked like without her glasses.


(Catherine Kauffman) #11

I’ve come to realize that the only portrait I do accurately, according to the viewer, is a self portrait.