Portrait Painting Tips: Multiple Subjects

Location, location, location. It’s amazing how much our area of residence can influence how we communicate. When I moved my family from the town to the country, I wasn’t prepared for the way it would affect my daily life, especially in the creative arts community. It’s just one reason I’m so grateful for the technology we have today.

We all know that artistry can require a lot of time alone, developing ideas and honing the craft. So whether you live in the heart of a metropolis or you have horses for neighbors, you can find a huge network of art lessons at ArtistsNetwork.tv. Luana Luconi Winner is one of our instructors there, and she has three new portrait painting workshops available. Despite her busy travel schedule, she kindly offered to contribute the following guest blog post on how to paint a portrait with multiple subjects. Enjoy!~Cherie

Portrait painting tips from Luana Luconi Winner | ArtistsNetwork.com

‘Ron Doggett and Sons Mark and Michael’ (oil on linen, 48×48) by Luana Luconi Winner. “We started with their requested location: outdoors, at home in one of the gardens and in casual to business-casual clothing,” says Luana. “The father is the key figure centered in the painting as he was the center of a GoodMark Foods; a series of large community- and church-based charitable organizations; the business school at a major college; and a very close-knit and devoted family.” (Pin this image)

Painting Portraits with Multiple Subjects by Luana Luconi Winner

The challenges and rewards of painting multiple subjects are great. Creating portraits of two or more subjects has more to do with what the story is trying to capture and the psychology of working with people. These are the keys to a successful portrait painting, more so than what canvas or paper to use, which paint brush will give you the best stroke or which color to mix.

• Make it convenient for all parties to gather together. Try, if possible, to have everyone agree on the location and setting before gathering. This will set the tone and the level of casual or formal attire and attitude. Park vs. boardroom, boat docks vs. office, poolside vs. library fireplace–the story develops early on with this very first choice.

• When you meet, take time to get to know the people, encourage them to talk about their family, work or past times. Get everyone relaxed so that they will move naturally and become less self-conscious as study them. You’ll find that, given the opportunity, even children will have a lot to say. People’s body language changes noticeably as they relax. Note: they will relax less in front of a camera than in conversation with a sketching artist.

• Do lots of rough, gestural sketches as everyone converses and moves about. These are the kind you might have done in classes with 1-, 2-, and 5-minute poses. “On-the-go” sketches allow the sitters to move and interact freely as you begin to see patterns emerging.

Portrait painting tips from Luana Luconi Winner | ArtistsNetwork.com


‘Mr. and Mrs. Carl Kirkland, Kirkland Cancer Center, Jackson-Madison General Hospital, Jackson, Tennessee’ (60×36 on Claessens Belgian linen). Mr. Carl Kirkland is the founder and owner of Kirkland Home Furnishings a national corporation. His wife, Alice, supported his international travel and development of the company while rearing children at home. Now, a pillar of the community, their philanthropic and charitable activities are strengthening, building, and changing lives in their community. ~Luana

In the case of children or teens, the pattern of interaction may be the younger child shadowing the older, never getting too far away from grabbing their hand, sharing a toy, or somehow getting “in their space.” Or instead each child may begin to show their unique personality, one quietly content to sit or stand with a pet or book, while the other talkative one is apt to share their performance ability with a magic trick or at the piano. Often, given time, the athlete versus the scholar will show up, and these similarities or differences can then be addressed in the final design. The artist may find that gently suggesting that the parents or guardians need not hover. This may provide a much more relaxed atmosphere for the children.

With adults, body language and natural expressions can change with the interaction of additional people. Watch for the glimmer of expression. Be vigilant. Besides dealing with all those hands, elbows, legs, bodies, clothes, props and the background, the key will be putting these people–one person at a time–in their best light. We must represent their most recognizable expression, their best attitude and their personal best visage.

Portrait Painting: Animals Are People, Too

Talk to any pet owner. His/her pet’s portrait within the family portrait is equally important. And yes, a 12-year-old lab does have a different body language and facial expression than the 12-month-old puppy. When you begin doing champion horses and other large animals, be certain your skills match the quality of your portrait painting.

More Portrait Painting Tips

• The main purpose of gathering everyone together in one place is to make certain that the perspective, clothing and the lighting of the figures is consistent and accurate. Trying to do a live sitting with two people and adding the third by photo reference can be a recipe for disaster. Consider clothing, lighting, people interaction, expression, body weight, size and height in relation to the others. Don’t we have enough problems simply creating a great cohesive painting AND making certain it looks like them?

• In addition to the quick sketches, my personal process includes macro photography of anything I can’t take back to the studio: heirloom jewelry, lapel pins, ties, boots, collectable books, clinging toys or security blankets. At the studio I complete half a dozen finished sketches from all the shorthand reference materials I gathered. The sketches are presented to all at a later time to choose a final design. The painting begins in the studio directly from the reference material. Subsequent sittings then proceed on location with one sitter at a time.

• Make the experience enjoyable. Leave them with good memories of the event. You may be setting a precedent for how children see and relate to art for the rest of their lives. With adults, you may open the door to a new relationship that involves other art endeavors.

• If all this sounds as though you need to be able to chew, tap dance, yodel, and bounce a ball all at once… well, you’re right. There is a little bit of performance art in any multi-person portrait—I’ll stop just short of calling it a circus. This can really be great fun and can be a truly enjoyable and memorable process for you and all involved. Just get those tap shoes ready!

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