Students continually ask me how I can sell noncommissioned portraits. Why would people want to buy portraits of individuals they don’t know?
I tell them that I don’t try to paint a specific person, but rather to capture an emotion expressed by my subject. When I paint the same model many times, which I often do, I bring out a particular emotion or mood with each depiction. Joy, sorrow, indecision, thoughtfulness, nostalgia, conviction, intensity—we all experience these feelings and recognize them in others.
When we look at a portrait and immediately wonder who the person is, chances are the emotional connection has become secondary to the identity, gender, race or other physical quality of the subject. But when we see the emotion before we see the identity of the subject, the painting becomes universal.
So how does one go about portraying people in a way that brings out universal qualities as opposed to unique identities? Your choice of model, lighting, design, color and painting style all play a part.
The one thing that appealed to me about Tony’s look was his spiritual demeanor, so I photographed Tony outdoors without a flash (below, left). Because his bald head seemed too distracting, too specific, I painted in a hood to give him the look of a monk. I also changed the color and lighting with the intent of suggesting a person who’d been through great struggles but had maintained his humanity and compassion. For The Mystic (below, right), I wanted not only a universal look but also a universal message within a unified and well-designed painting.
Reference photo for The Mystic The Mystic (egg tempera, 26×27-1/2)
Stan Miller, a signature member of the American Watercolor Society, has won numerous awards throughout the United States and has conducted workshops in Europe for Plein Air Painters of America. He continues to hold workshops around the United States. For more information visit www.stanmiller.net.
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