Thursday, June 7, 2012

Speaking Likeness

It has become the common practice in art schools and ateliers to have the model hold as still as possible for a portrait study.

While it's easier to paint someone who is holding still, the resulting likeness often lacks animation and personality. Portraits painted from expressionless models on the verge of sleep can't help looking inert and lifeless, no matter how much fancy brushwork is applied to them.


While there is a place for portraits that suggest inward reflection, a face comes to life when a person starts talking. The eyes change and the muscles around the mouth come into action. Italian sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) was famous for carving his subjects in animated expressions. When he carved a bust of cardinal Scipione Borghese, he showed his lips slightly parted and activated.

According to Simon Schama, who produced an excellent video about Bernini, “What Bernini was after was a speaking likeness, because he thought that people gave themselves away most characteristically either just before or after they spoke.”


Many of the great portrait painters and sculptors have recognized this problem and have insisted on engaging their subjects in conversation. John Singer Sargent's portrait of the writer Henry James suggests his fierce intellect partly through the lively expression of the mouth and eyes. I've mentioned on an earlier post how Sargent's friend Vernon Lee recalled that the artist insisted that she not be quiet for a single moment.

Learn the story of that crack in the Bernini sculpture
Previously on GJ: Talking models

13 comments:

Christel said...

Very interesting post James.
I have faced this problem during portrait courses with models keeping the same pose and neutral expression for a couple of hours. Sometimes the drawing would look like the model but it would still be quite dull.

I thought this lack of life in the portrait came from the fact that I am a beginner and that I should be able to bring some life myself in the portrait with more experience. So I am quite surprised to read that masters can face the same issue.

The most expressive portrait I achieved during this course was when the model came with his guitar and was actually playing (while trying not to change the pose too much though). He would display an expression in accord with is music that I tried to capture.

But with a neutral model, what if you just add something on the painting, like for instance some background suggesting that the person is looking through a window? Also, would it help if the model holds an object that she is looking at but remains neutral and static?

Tom Hart said...

Another great post, James!

Although there have been times (mostly in the past) when I was annoyed by a model who moved a bit much, I've come to realize that a little bit of motion - whatever it may be - actually loosems me up, and somehow allows me to capture the essence of the model better. (Can't help but comment on that masterful portrait of James! I bow at Sargent's feet.)

Emily Anthony said...

This is also true for live caricature. As long as the model can keep their face at the same angle to the artist, a good caricaturist should be able to get likeness and expression quickly even while conversing with the subject.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article, James. For amateurs, (including myself), it can be quite difficult to create art with moving models. But your totally right, the life and expression of the figure is just as important as the "accuracy."

Michael said...
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Michael said...
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Michael said...

Wonderful post! This is probably the biggest challenge I deal with when painting or rendering likenesses. I think it also helps to have a subject who doesn't look like they're wholly disinterested in the process. :D

Tyler J said...

This struck me about the artist you featured in your post yesterday, Jordu Schell.

So many of his creations look lively; he did a great job of making them believable if not always "realistic." It's a testament to his skill that so much of his work had that spontaneity and vitality...it almost seemed as if he snapped a 3D photo.

James Gurney said...

Tyler, I agree. Jordu's designs are full of vitality and personality. I think the key to any portrait -- either human or monster -- is to try to convey the mind or the attitude behind the visage.

CoryJay said...

Years ago in my first art history class the instructor showed us a chalk study Bernini executed in preparation for the bust. As the teacher noted at the time it had the feel of having been drawn while the subject sat opposite the artist, just chatting; then just as the cardinal parted his lips to make a point, somebody enters the room, momentarily distracting the cardinal, so his head reflexively turns, lips still barely parted, and THAT'S the moment Bernini homed in on.
I studied portraiture and figure painting in pastel for five years under Jon Onye Lockard at the local community college. While we had models come in for the life painting portion, for portraits, "head and shoulders", he frequently would have us students set up our easels so we could paint each other, which of course made for some weird, awkward experiences, until we learned that if we determined analogous simple forms for the complex forms the particular head in question presented us and applied perspective, it really didn't matter how much the subject moved.

jytte said...

A good idea is to draw people in a discussion on TV.

emerson Calderon said...

Great Post. ...And talking about likeness the guy on Sargent's portrait kind of look like you. Don't you think?

John Valente Art said...

Great post, James. Bernini was considered one of the first to capture his subjects in this way, as if like a snapshot from a camera. In Italian this was referred to as "ritratti parlanti" or speaking portraits.