Excerpt of the new video feature "Portraits in the Wild." (Link to YouTube Video)
Blog reader Bjorn asks:
"I do 15 minute portraits at business fairs. Of course no one is able to keep a smile for that long. So when I draw what I see, the people relax their facial muscles. But since we are used to photos with people grinning and smiling, the person portrayed looks angry by comparison. I can imagine that in the days before photography a portrait was perceived differently.
When I try to "invent" a smile on the sitters face it looks wrong because I just make a kind of "C" moon shape of the mouth, but smiling is a much more complex process. So how do I prevent a person from looking too angry in a portrait? Or, what makes someone look friendly?
That's a great question. You're right: most portrait clients don't want the portrait to look grim and serious. And as you say, most people just don't smile on command, nor do they smile all the time (naturally, at least). So often the default, relaxed position for someone's face when it's "under the microscope" of a portrait artist is rather serious. If we ask the subject to hold still for a long time, that's what we'll get—bored, sleepy, or grim.
The quick answer is not to worry about showing your subjects smiling. Think more about showing them in an animated expression that is characteristic, even if it isn't exactly a smile. They key is to keep the subject engaged and talking while you sketch them. They don't have to be smiling with their teeth showing, but if they're animated while they interact with you, all the muscles around the mouth and eyes will create a much more interesting and characteristic expression.
If the person isn't naturally a smiler, that characteristic expression might be the lips slightly parted in speech or the eyebrows raised. Sargent often painted his subjects when they were speaking, with their lips slightly parted—especially Henry James and Vernon Lee. You will be able to observe those momentary expressions as they cross the subject's face naturally. That's exactly what I demonstrate in the video, especially on the portrait of Scott Corey, who is talking non-stop throughout the portrait.
“In this clear, friendly tutorial, Gurney demonstrates the overlapping roles of observation and invention in portraying scenes of real life outside the studio. For artists at all skill levels, Gurney offers both a wealth of practical tips for making art under chaotic conditions, and a vivid example of the practice of seeing value and meaning in all people, places, and things.”
Download (66 minutes, 1080p HD widescreen MP4 video) Available at Gumroad, Sellfy, and Cubebrush.