Pointers on Painting Children

The parents hover, and you have to get rid of them. They want their children to look perfect and to smile, and I feel like saying, “Let her alone! She’s not a smiler.” If you give children a little time and get to know them, and if you’re lucky, they’ll like you and do anything for you. Painting a portrait is always a two-way street. The subject and the artist work together.

Children have to be themselves in a portrait. I let them choose what they want to wear and where they want to be. The setting is so important, especially to a little kid. If the setting’s right, when the child sees her portrait, she’ll say, “It feels like me.” I make sure the kids don’t look rigid; their hair is windswept or tousled and they’re in a place where they’re comfortable, a place which reflects their interests and their temperament. For my book, Kid Stuff, I took 50 or so portraits and then I wrote poems as if the children in the portrait were speaking. Some of the voices are sweet and some are smart-alecky.

I still charge the same fee for portraits that I did at the start: I’d rather do more portraits—meeting more people. I fly or drive to wherever they are, take lots of photos, get to know the people. I never want to deliver a painting by air freight. I deliver it by hand, and then I watch as the parents cry. It’s a real and a meaningful interaction, when you as an artist paint a portrait of their children. You become part of their lives and they become part of yours.

The painting above is a portrait of my granddaughter whom I caught after she’d spent a day skiing. She looks as if she’s waiting to grow up! In this and in all portraits of children, an understanding of anatomy can make or break a piece, since children’s always changing proportions help indicate their age.

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