Why a Painted Portrait still matters

The art of portraiture is probably older than recorded history. The surviving portraits of early European nobility we see in museums can be traced back to icons which preceded them. Going back further in history, icons were influenced by ancient Egyptian funerary portraits, according to Hans Belting, author of a scholarly book on the history of the painted image. 

The abstract style of icons was suited for spiritual portraits of the saints and Holy Family, but not for the aristocracy. As the market for portraits of the aristocracy grew, painters developed a realistic style more suited to capturing an earthly likeness. The painted portrait became more commonplace when wealthy tradesmen could afford to have their portraits painted, too. In time, the portraits intended for the family estate became prized by collectors, and some of the best ended up on the walls of museums.

 Artists still paint portraits today, but demand has mostly disappeared. The invention of the camera altered the market. A photographic portrait is quicker and cheaper. A digital camera can take hundreds of detailed likenesses in less time than a painter can make a preparatory sketch. A digital image printed on paper costs a few dollars. Yet, a market for fine art portraiture still exists. Highly skilled portrait artists using an updated, but traditional realistic style are still sought by the wealthy. The best of the professional portrait artists charge plenty for their talent. Prices range from $3,000 for a tiny portrait of the face to $250,000 for a full-sized portrait that might grace a monarch's residence. The grand portraits and more modestly-sized portraits by specialized artists will likely become treasured heirlooms passed through the generations. At the low end of the portrait art market, little known artists will paint a portrait from your supplied photo for under $200, but the results will be less desirable. Inexpensive portraits from Internet sources are the painted equivalent of the phone camera's selfie - here today, gone tomorrow.  

 A selfie, which is a likeness taken by a mobile phone camera held at arm’s length, is all about the instant. The selfie is how a person wants to look at a particular moment.  Time is one of the key differences between a selfie and a painted portrait. The selfie, which is captured in less than a second, is almost as quickly forgotten. Some people post a new photo of themselves made with their mobile phone camera several times a week on social media. With its iPhone X, Apple recognized the importance of the selfie in marketing to youth. The front-facing camera of the iPhone X is now as fully developed as its rear-facing ones.

 In contrast to a selfie, a good painted portrait captures an eternal moment.  It’s made with centuries in mind because the pigments and archival materials will last for hundreds of years. A selfie requires little skill, but a portrait painter’s skill is developed over decades. Most people think a photographic portrait is a truer likeness than a painted portrait, a perception that isn't necessarily valid. Unless the photographer is skilled, a selfie is a superficial likeness - merely a passing cloud reflected on a puddle. A painter tries to peer beneath the surface of a likeness. This claim sounds slightly pretentious, but fine art portraits seem to capture something more than facial features and the look of the moment.

Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse

Portrait of Greta Moll by Henri Matisse

A painter can approximate a likeness, alter it, or invent features to show a truth about a person. Consider Picasso's famous portrait of Gertrude Stein or Matisse's commissioned portrait of Greta Moll. Picasso and Matisse struggled over these portraits because they were inventing a new visual language and because they were aiming at a deeper truth. A photographic likeness wasn't their aim. When people said that Picasso’s portrait of Gertrude didn’t look like her, Picasso replied that she would eventually look like his portrait. And she did, so the story goes.

Greta Moll posed for ten days for Matisse. Initially Greta and her husband were pleased with the likeness. Matisse wasn't satisfied with it. He reworked the painting, simplifying it and removing the surface likeness in his effort to express Greta's character. Seeing the changes, Greta and her husband were dismayed, but they paid for the painting, lived with it, and gradually they loved it. Now Matisse’s portrait of Greta Moll is in the National Gallery of Art.

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Weeping Woman by Pablo Picasso

Being remembered is an important purpose of a portrait. One of Picasso’s most famous portraits of his mistress, Dora Marr, was probably not pleasing to her. Picasso claimed she was constantly weeping so he painted her with tears. It may not be the way she would want to be remembered, but the portrait of Dora Marr is world famous, and worth millions. The painting may be insensitive to his mistress, but it is a striking, memorable work of art.

 

Unlike Dora Marr, Gertrude Stein liked Picasso's portrait of her. Once seen, the portrait is unforgettable.

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

Gertrude Stein by Pablo Picasso

If being remembered is one of the purposes of a portrait, a portrait that merely flatters is forgettable. Fakery isn't memorable. A good likeness is not about flattery. In producing a portrait that pleases, a photographer and a painter are more successful when they have an emotional link to the model that is expressed in the portrait. How we feel about someone alters their physical appearance. I call the heart's sympathetic transformation of physical appearances the screen of affection. A simple example of a screen of affection through which we see others might be a description of the changes in someone's appearance between the heat of a romance, and when that romance has become cold. Same person, but in the heat of romance a person is particularly attractive; in the ashes of the relationship, the person's appearance might be repellent.

My most satisfying portraits are made with a screen of affection. I'm interested in a likeness that includes a warm inner truth seen through my regard for the person.  I have a screen of affection for family members and friends, so I find it easier to paint someone I know well. I can’t imagine painting a decent portrait of a stranger from a photograph sent to me as an email attachment.

Painting portraits for money can be stressful under the best of circumstances.  I've painted commissioned portraits, but I don't like feeling anxious over whether the results will please, and because of my anxiety, compromising what I want to do. I don't accept commissions anymore. Now I paint a likeness of person because it might be part of a series of paintings that has a purpose for me other than portraiture - such as the Color Personified Series or the Lake Padden Series. I might achieve a good likeness, but portraiture is not my objective. Sometimes I am motivated to paint a portrait because something about a person fascinates me.  I might also paint a portrait because I love the person. The latter reason explains my portraits of my daughters Elisa, Claire, and my recent portrait of Christine.

A high-quality, painted portrait still matters.  Artists with talent for portraiture can create an image which is more than likeness, whether pleasing or not.  It will cost more than a photograph, but a painted portrait made with archival materials is an heirloom that will last for centuries. Who knows? The portrait could end up on a museum wall where it will be appreciated by thousands of visitors.

the Chakra Series

The Chakras Series of paintings was inspired by visits to the Volunteer Park Conservatory in Seattle.

Read More

Moments

As a topic, how we experience time in visual images might be an art history essay or a small book. But my aim here is modest. I am ignoring time as a theme in works of art. Videos are beyond the scope of this short article.  I am interested in understanding why time, which seems to be an intrinsic element in a photograph or a painting, is perceived differently in the two disciplines.

Images in photography and painting could be placed on an imaginary spectrum, which ranges from a particular moment - a millisecond of time - to an expanded moment, which may stretch toward eternity.  At one end of the spectrum are images so precisely rooted in the moment that they almost stop time. At the other end of the spectrum are images which seem nearly timeless. Let’s consider a couple examples of images at the extreme ends of the spectrum.

When I look at an icon, I experience an otherworldly timelessness.  Iconography is incredibly time-intensive. Painting an icon with multiple layers of pure, hand-prepared pigments, and gilding it with 24-carat gold, require many exacting hours of labor. Iconographers use a symbolic language of color and form to represent Christ, the mother of Jesus (Theotokos), or the saints - all of whom have transcended time.  Minimal shadows are cast from the halo around the figures and from an inner light, but not from the sun of this world. Strong lines define the image, further emphasizing its existence in another dimension. The priest's consecration of the image, and the veneration of the faithful seal the image’s timelessness. With the passage of centuries, the paint will certainly fade and crumble, but for the faithful, the image exists in eternity.

Virgin and Child  (with permission of the iconographer)

Virgin and Child  (with permission of the iconographer)

On the opposite end of my imaginary spectrum are photographic images. One of the strengths of photography is the ability of the camera to capture a precise moment in time. You’re probably familiar with photographs showing a lightbulb at the moment of impact by a pellet. It's unforgettable because our brain doesn't freeze the instant of impact for us.  

Shattered Lightbulb  ( Public domain, Huffington Post)

Shattered Lightbulb  ( Public domain, Huffington Post)

The shattered lightbulb is an extreme example. It may not qualify as “art”, but photography is celebrated for capturing the defining moments of our lives - as in French street-photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment".  Sometimes painters and sculptors share an interest with photography in capturing that defining moment. This shared interest seems to be the subject of Cartier-Bresson's famous photograph of sculptor, Alberto Giacometti.

Giacometti -photograph by Henri Cartier-Bressan (public domain)

Giacometti -photograph by Henri Cartier-Bressan (public domain)

On our imaginary spectrum, a photograph that captures the stop-action in a basketball game would be placed closer to the photo of the shattered light bulb than would a photograph of a still life.

When compared to photography’s "Kodak moment" (a clever advertising phrase that once promoted Kodachrome film) paintings seem to have an expanded moment of time that is intrinsic to how we perceive the artwork. Consider two examples of expanded time in a painting. In some of Edward Hopper’s paintings, people in hotel rooms and restaurants look like they will not move for hours.  Walls, windows, and shadows form broad, intersecting planes of stillness. Time stretches in these Hopper paintings. We know that drowned Ophelia, in John Everett Millais’ painting of a character in Hamlet, will never rise again. How we experience time in "Ophelia" is similar to the two Hopper paintings. The stillness of the figures is partly responsible for our perception of an expanded period of time, but what we know about painting may have a greater influence.

Hotel Room - Painting by Edward Hopper (public domain)

Hotel Room - Painting by Edward Hopper (public domain)

"Ophelia" - Painting by John Everett Malais (public domain)

"Ophelia" - Painting by John Everett Malais (public domain)

Summer in the City - Painting by Edward Hopper (public domain)

Summer in the City - Painting by Edward Hopper (public domain)

If the paintings of Hopper and Millais were photographs instead of paintings, our sense of intrinsic time in the images would be different. I think the difference is based on our experiences in taking photographs and being photographed. Although photographs are not necessarily more “real” than paintings, our experiences with photography tell us that a photographic image (even one that is excessively photoshopped) captures an real instant in time. We know from experience that - however long it takes the photographer to set up equipment or to wait patiently for the right moment - the camera can complete its work in the blink of an eye. When we view the resulting image, our experience with cameras shapes how we perceive time in the photograph.

When we look at paintings, our experience of time is not the same as with a photograph, as long as we see evidence of human touch.  A Dutch painter of the 17th Century, Johannes Vermeer, may have used a camera obscura to make his paintings; however, his brushwork is evident when viewing the original oils. Knowing that the "Milkmaid" is painted by hand influences our perception of the moment of time depicted in the painting. "Milkmaid" looks photographic, but its intrinsic moment of time lingers longer.

The Milkmaid (c.1658) - Painting by Johannes Vermeer (public domain)  

The Milkmaid (c.1658) - Painting by Johannes Vermeer (public domain)

 

The importance of the human touch in our perception of time in an image is demonstrated by photorealistic paintings. Our experience of intrinsic time in photorealistic paintings is similar to a photograph because the artists are careful not to show any sign of human touch.

Photographs of some realistic paintings, intended for display online, are so reduced in size that the hand of the artist is less evident, and the missing element of human touch alters our perception of the image. Looking at reduced images of paintings which are more or less realistic is a far different experience than standing in front of the original paintings. (I encourage people interesting in owning a reproduction to order one closer to the original size so they experience the painting the way the artist experienced it.)

An art movement of the previous century altered our sense of time in a painting by combining separate moments of time into one image. Cubism, one of the painting revolutions of the twentieth century, provided us with painterly wrinkles in time, which are perhaps truer to our psychological experience of an object, but startling to see on canvas. Our knowledge and memory of a friend’s face, for example, is constructed in our mind’s eye from views at several angles over time. Cubist painters abandoned Renaissance perspective in favor of multiple perspectives. In the relatively flat, two-dimensional space of a cubist painting, our eyes take in almost at once several combined views of objects. We see from above, below and around. Multiple view points suggest movement in space, and that movement implies time.

Houses on the Hill - Painting by Pablo Picasso (public domain)

Houses on the Hill - Painting by Pablo Picasso (public domain)

Cubist paintings altered our experience of time in an image, but they were still fixed in time. Another painting revolution of the previous century placed paintings nearly outside of time, similar to how we experience time in icons. The paintings of the famous abstract artists of the early 20th Century feel almost eternally present. Like the Byzantine iconographers of the Middle Ages, the paintings of the early abstract artists were concerned with the form and color of a spiritual dimension. Hilma af Klint, the earliest pioneer of abstraction, produced visionary paintings, which (for her) came from a metaphysical world where forms exist without beginning or end.

Svanen (Swan) -  Painting by Hilma af Klint (public domain)

Svanen (Swan) -  Painting by Hilma af Klint (public domain)

Hilma af Klint's marvelous paintings were intentionally otherworldly.  In general, the closer a painting is to abstraction, the less bound in time it seems. For example, I’m fascinated by refraction of light in water. I’ve spent many hours on beaches staring at rocks under moving water, nearly hypnotized, trying to get a fix on the distorted patterns. Photography helps; nevertheless, the information in a photograph always requires many adjustments for a painting. I’ve taken multiple photographs of refracted rocks, and I’ve used a few of them to make paintings. My experience is that the closer the distorted images are to abstract patterns, the greater is the sense of expanded time in the painting, in spite of the fact that the image may show a moment of watery refraction. 

Refraction - Painting by Nick Payne  (copyright by Nick Payne)

Refraction - Painting by Nick Payne  (copyright by Nick Payne)

The visibility of human touch in a painting tells us it took time. So does the knowledge that a painting is constructed over a longer period of time relative to most photographic images. Whatever the sources for a painting - reference photos, sketches, studio props, memory and imagination, or working en plein air - the creative process of painting is labor intensive. Anyone who has drawn something, even a doodle, understands that it takes time. When I look at a painting, I am aware that a painting is made by hand, and I am aware of the hours involved in constructing a painting. That awareness expands my sense of intrinsic time in the painting. 

In contrast to painting, our photographic experiences tend to bind photographs to a moment in time. We point our cell phone cameras at a subject, press a button...and we can instantly share the resulting image over the Internet. Professional photographers take more time to process their photographs using computer software, such as Lightroom or Photoshop, but their results usually preserve a specific moment in time because our experience with photography tells us that a photographic image is time bound.

However, technological advances in computer software and printing enable some photographers - the digital artists - to create images that, more often than not, also expand the sense of intrinsic time. At the beginning of this article, I imagined a two-dimensional spectrum which ranged from a particular moment to an expanded moment. With digital art, the imaginary spectrum curves in space, like a strip of paper wrapped around a sphere. Digital art and painting meet at the extremes.

Some artists mingle photography and/or digital art with painting, creating an unusual, hybrid art. The relationships between the photographic elements and painted elements in the hybrid art play with how we experience photography - which feels more time specific and "real" - compared to how we experience painting - which is not as fixed in a specific moment and which feels less real. The tension between the photographic and painted elements in Charles Villiers' painting is unsettling, a mirror of contemporary, urban society.

The Lone Walker - Painting by Charles Churchill Villiers (with permission)

The Lone Walker - Painting by Charles Churchill Villiers (with permission)

Intuitively, most of us are aware that our sense of time in a photograph compared to a painting is different. There is nothing profound in that observation. In thinking about it, I've concluded that our perception of intrinsic time in a photograph or a painting is mostly determined by what we know about the two disciplines. At the beginning of this article I wrote that my aim was modest. If your appreciation of photographs, paintings, and digital art has been slightly enriched by this article, I have achieved my aim.

 

2016 copyright by Nick Payne