Check out this abstract painting. It's full of energy and bravura. Brushstrokes are dancing with wild abandon.
By contrast, look at this detail of a portrait. It's very closely observed and controlled, right down to the structures of bone and flesh around the eyes and even the tiny highlights in the eyes.
Perhaps you've guessed it already: they're passages from the same painting. It's a portrait by Valentin Serov of his friend and mentor Ilya Repin. The first image in this post is the outer edges of the piece spliced together and turned sideways.
From the point of view of visual perception, Serov conveys the hierarchy of attention that we apply when we gaze at another person's face. We lock onto the eyes, the window to the soul, and nothing else matters as much--at least we don't tend to spend as much time looking at other parts of the portrait.
Eye tracking heatmaps of the face demonstrate this uneven distribution of our gaze. New studies show that the heatmap may vary slightly depending on whether we're looking at an angry or happy face.
From another point of view, Serov was absorbing new ideas in painting, and combining them with his realist training. The painting dates from 1892 when modern currents were sweeping through all of Europe.
Am I suggesting that all portraits should be painted in this way? Not at all! Painters like Holbein and Vermeer show the beauty and the power of an evenly distributed sense of finish. And no one should copy this manner as a technical trick. But it's worth considering this way of thinking, depending on whether the spirit moves you.
And it's important for anyone painting portraits to keep in mind that no matter what you do with the rest of the painting, the eyes will get the attention, and they had better be right!
Related GJ post: "Stroke Module," with another portrait by Serov.
Heatmap of face from Institute Pompeu Fabra
Wikipedia on Serov.