Getting A Portrait Done. What's to know?
Some points to think about :
Purpose of a Portrait
- a gift?
- a private, family portrait?
- a business portrait?
- an official portrait?
- a memorial?
Should a Portrait Be Formal or Informal?
Purpose determines the type of portrait being commissioned. Where it will be displayed is also an important consideration. Corporations, schools, governments and agencies still prefer a more formal representation of their officers. This type of portrait is called an "official" portrait and is more often than not hung in a board room milieu or public arena. A basic rule of thumb would be: "The more formal and traditional the institution and setting the more formal the portrait." But this rule is not now held to be hard and fast. Variations on this theme flourish.
A portrait commissioned for personal reasons, is generally less formal. Also, it is usually displayed in more intimate settings, such as a home or other private space - such as an enclosed office. There are fewer rules and more choices in the consideration of an informal portrait. Its composition is often less rigid; less intentionally vertical. It can even be a fairly wide horizontal presentation. Input from the client and subject is often an integral part of the creative process, resulting in a more intimate and personal rendering. Informality being the key: a larger variety of poses allows for a more relaxed dress code and a more “open” appearance.
Mood of the Portrait
With the contemporary blending of attributes from both formal and informal situations - moods are more easily transferable today from one genre to another. Even in traditional portraits, a mood of control and power is often softened to allow for a focus on personality rather than status.
Getting a Likeness
Today, cameras are as numerous as ants. . . Even our phones and computers have them. We are photographed so often, we’ve come to know exactly what each of us “looks like”. It therefore stands to reason that we are demanding when it comes to painted or sketched portraits. We expect a good physical likeness. It is no longer acceptable that a portrait be a counterfeit image or an "almost" likeness. A professional portrait artist is therefore expected to achieve a more than acceptable resemblance of a subject in a portrait.
But therein lies a danger. A portrait must not simply be an exact copy of a photograph. If this is the case, the value of the portrait is greatly diminished since the image conveyed will be as flat and lifeless as most photographs are. By emphasizing "surface likeness" over "content", the unique qualities of the individual are easily lost to technical considerations. The appeal of a professionally painted portrait lies in its ability to communicate more. A portrait, therefore, must convey not only a feeling of recognition but of intimacy. A true portrait cannot simply be a “picture”. It must transcend the ordinary and be a "presence”. The eyes of a subject of a portrait - looking out at the viewer - should be alive.
Dressing the Part
Dress depends on the function of the portrait and on a clients personal preferences. This matter should be discussed with the portrait painter during the first visit. Checking out a person’s wardrobe and trying different attire is most acceptable in certain circumstances. When a subject displays and explains in what they are most comfortable, a painter can more easily convey that comfort to viewers of the painting.
How do I have to look? Do I have to wear a smile?
What the portrait artist is looking for is a presence which reflects who you are when you are at your most comfortable - whether standing or sitting. Stiff formal posing, therefore, is no longer a requirement even in formal poses.
Though a painter may gather information using a camera, you will never hear the order to say "cheese!". Large toothy grins are generally avoided in portraiture as they rarely convey a sense of calm, serenity, dignity, strength or intimacy. A relaxed, calm appearance is most appealing in a portrait. It allows the viewer to enter the "picture plane" and communicate more directly with the painted subject - not as a rigid plastic figure but rather as an approachable unique and special person.
(N.B.: A constant smile bearing down on the viewer from a portrait often feels overbearing and unnatural - this, often due to the tense atmosphere created when “trying” to smile properly.)
Background:- Interior? Exterior? Neutral?
Backgrounds and props are generally topics discussed at the time of the first meeting with the painter. I never charge extra for backgrounds or props as these are integral to the final portrait’s message.
Sittings. . . Surviving them!
The first step, in facing a sitting session, is to relax. The task of sitting for a portrait is not as onerous (frightening?) or, as stated above, as time consuming as it once was. The only fatigue induced yawning which might occur would certainly be due to the artist being a boring conversationalist.
Contemporary professional portrait painters are well aware of the demanding schedules of clients and have learned to adapt the trade to the needs of those clients.
With the advent of photography, it is no longer necessary for the portrait subject to spend
countless hours sitting stiffly before the mesmerizing gaze of a painter. Since the era of the Impressionists, the camera has allowed the gathering of reference material to become more “user friendly”. Still and video cameras are now standard equipment. They help capture more quickly and more efficiently characteristic anatomical details, dress folds and poses. Modern reference gathering tools, while drastically shortening individual sitting times, also repetitively capture normal behaviour patterns in a sitter - emphasizing their natural way of standing, sitting or gesticulating when talking. In the quest to make a portrait come alive, a portrait painter recognizes these body language signs and can better incorporate them in a finished portrait.
Photo sessions, also allow the painter to interact and “consult” with the subject, to discuss and learn from the sitter as to who they are, what their background is which has led them to their present position. It is during these times that a painter discovers the very characteristics which will eventually give life to the rendition the artist is seeking to create. Though contemporary sittings appear more in line with a conversation between two kindred spirits, they do permit this freer flow of valuable information which then can be used to give power to a portrait.
Again, the goal of such a session is to capture the person over and above resemblance or questions of position and/or status.
How time consuming are the portrait sittings?
Getting a portrait painted today is much easier and less time consuming than in the past. A professional portrait artist takes this into account as time has become seriously precious to most people. Since the era of the Impressionists, the camera has become an indispensable reference tool for painters. It allows the portrait artist to gather larger amounts of information in a shorter period of time and to concentrate less on stiff posing and more on a subject's personality.
A first encounter establishes the parameters affecting a commission: e.g.: What is the purpose of the portrait? What are the specific dimensions of the finished painting? Where will it eventually hang? What are the framing requirements, if any? What will the subject be wearing? What will be the background or setting? etc.
If pre~arranged by a gallery or artist’s agent, the first "sitting" may actually take place at the first meeting between the subject and painter. If this is the case, the second meeting (described below) becomes the first actual portrait sitting.
A sitting is a posing session with the artist. On average, one, possibly two sittings are required for the artist to gather basic visual information. Sitting times vary, depending on the painter involved. Some demand full multi-hour sittings where preliminary compositional sketches are rendered. Others sketch and take photographs. Some spend an hour gathering as much information as possible while shooting hundreds of photos capable of providing the painter with much translatable information - again in a shorter period of time. All methods are recognized and/or utilized by portrait painters today. In essence, the goal is information gathering. As typewriters are no longer the norm in offices, traditional long sittings are also no longer required to gather that which is made more efficient through computers and sophisticated digital photographic equipment.
Second (or third) Meeting - Delivery)
The portrait is delivered either by the painter him/herself or via a crating and shipping system when long distances are involved. As to a delivery time frame, this is generally agreed to ahead of time by the commissioner(s) of a portrait and the painter.
The time in between is the artist’s to compile and catalogue information extracted from sittings and discussions with the sitter. This information is then coupled with the artist’s personal observations and translated into “idea” or thumbnail sketches. (I personally do these compositional sketches on my computer). Based on the commissioned dimensions of the portrait, the work of creating the portrait itself is then undertaken and completed in the painter’s studio.
All in all, a finished portrait is the result of a lengthy though wondrous process whose main goal is to elevate the presence of an individual to a level of not only assured recognition but appreciation.
Unless specific dimensions have been established, the portrait painter may alter the configuration of a portrait or even increase the dimensions of a commissioned work due to compositional requirements. NEVER, though, will a painting’s dimensions be reduced or made smaller than the commissioned dimensions. Such compositional alterations when taken on by the painter (due to compositional demands) never cause additional charges to be added to a portrait.
The portrait painter's responsibilities to you - the commissioner
• At the first meeting, you must be given all requested visual and written information (portfolio) which proves the artist is competent and qualified to do the commissioned work. (This may have been accomplished beforehand by the artist or agent of the artist.)
• The artist must deliver the commissioned work within a reasonable amount of time, (generally, this is a pre-determined and mutually agreed upon decision).
• The commissioned painter must have created a portrait which conveys what the client and subject expect - i.e. : a professional rendering, a reasonable likeness of the subject and a tasteful rendition in keeping with those expectations. If the artist is remiss in any of these areas, alterations at no extra cost are in order. All other alterations which considerably redefine the structure of a portrait, but which have nothing to do with likeness, are at the client’s (commissioner’s) expense.
Your responsibilities as a commissioner of artwork (a portrait)
• You must be assured that the painter you are commissioning has the qualifications and competence to accomplish the task entrusted to him/her.
• You must make yourself (or the person who is the subject) available for the scheduled sitting(s).
Fees for additional travel and accommodation requirements (over and above those contracted for in the preliminary portrait commissioning agreement) may be charged. A contract generally determines the parameters of such details.
The fee structure of a portrait is altered only with the addition of another person in that portrait. The charges in such a case are 50% + (of the base dimensional fee) for each additional subject.
Additional fees are NEVER charged for background complexity, the addition of related props, complex clothing, outdoor or indoor backgrounds or even pets being portrayed with their owner.
© Bernard A. Poulin