If you’re nervous about being the subject of a portrait - don’t be.
Everyone is unique. Each one of us is worth celebrating. No one is not “important” enough to be portrayed or “beautiful” enough. If someone has commissioned a portrait of you its because you are important or beautiful or special to them.
I’ve never had a sitter who did not enjoy the experience looking back, no matter how uncertain they were going in.
To Smile or Not to Smile?
A flashing smile may work in a photograph – it captures 125th of a second, and our eye accepts that - we are used to photographic images. We know a painting represents many hours of work so what we believe in for 125th of a second becomes less believable over hours, weeks or months. It can work but in general traditionally its best avoided. That’s not to say you can’t have a hint of a smile or a pleasant expression in a portrait but it should be natural and not forced.
The fact is no one sitting for a portrait from life can hold a toothy smile for hour after hour, this is why you see so few smiling portraits before the age of photography.
It’s definitely not about ego
Portraits are very, very rarely about vanity or ego, very few are commissioned by the subjects themselves, though occasionally a parent commissioning a portrait of their child, or a partner commissioning one of a loved one, can be persuaded to be part of the picture. Portraits are more often about the feelings of someone else for the subject so there is no vanity involved. I have never had someone say “paint me because I am beautiful”.
Of the people who commission portraits of themselves, almost all did so as an enquiry into themselves, a taking stock of who they had become, an exploration or right-of-passage.
Each of us is worth celebrating in this way. We all matter to someone, each of us has a story that deserves to be told. There is no ego in that.
Telling the Story
Often the subject themselves is enough in a portrait – their face tells the story of their lives as eloquently as a novel. The right pose and lighting will bring out that story. Sometimes adding background elements can help say a little more. A landscape for someone who loves the outdoors; a garden for someone who created it; maybe a beautiful home seen in the distance; mementos from a career; or props from a career in progress that help identify the profession of the sitter; or perhaps a part of the institution or office building they work in.
Choosing this setting should be part of the collaboration with the artist.
Keep it simple – don’t clutter a painting with so much that it detracts from the sitter – they are the subject, not the car, the house, the boat, dog, cat, and distant forest.
Anything you include should have meaning and help the picture. If it weakens the image, leave it out.
Depth – A painting should continue speaking to you
Any good portrait should make a viewer feel they know the sitter, that this is a person you’d like to know better. You might have a pose with the subject looking off into a distance or away from the viewer – what are they thinking? What held their interest out of the frame? A little mystery, or a little good humour, is engaging and keeps us coming back for more.
And in years to come, when you look back at when this picture was made, it should take you back to that time, those thoughts, and help you remember who the subject was then and how you felt about them, or to ponder your younger self and reflect on all that you did not know back then and what your dreams were.
The importance of a preparatory sketch
As I have said all through this website, making any portrait is a collaboration between the artist, the subject(s), and the person commissioning it. The best way to be sure everyone is on the same page, before the final painting is begun, is through a compositional sketch. Looking at a preparatory sketch, you will be able to see exactly what your artist has planned, so that there will be no surprises at the end.
A sketch gives everyone a chance to make changes if anything does not feel right, before too much time is put into the painting itself.
If I find I have more than one strong idea of how a painting might work, I often make two sketches, to give my clients a choice of approach. These sketches need not be very finished, but they should give an accurate idea of where everything is going to fit on the final canvas. This is particularly important for a group portrait where there are so many problems to solve, or when working from photographs back at the artist’s studio, where a client will not see the painting process itself (in live sittings the painting is taking shape before your eyes so changes can be made early into the process if necessary).
Once a sketch has been approved the painting should follow its layout so it will look as expected at the end.
Some artists who work exclusively from photographs will assemble the image they are going to work from in Photoshop and show you this image for your approval before they begin.
Of course, ideas evolve in the making, and a finished painting is more complete than a preparatory sketch. When a painting is complete, there may be one or two small and subtle changes you’d like made. An artist who guarantees their work and your satisfaction will happily make these.
Obviously, it is not reasonable for a client who has a approved a compositional sketch to decide they want a completely different composition when they see the finished picture – the sketch approval process protects everyone including the artist, from this. Small changes, to expression, for example, are reasonable requests.
Timing - The Artist's Schedule
Most busy artists will be able to tell you when you can reasonably expect your portrait to be completed before they begin. If you have a deadline – an unveiling date for example – in mind, they should be able to arrange their schedule to meet it, or tell you honestly if it will not be possible.
Some artists are booked many months – ever years – in advance, but they will help you plan a completion date for your project.
It is usual for artists to take a deposit, representing a commitment from you as they commit to securing your place in their schedule.