You Look How You Look

As a portrait painter that does commissions, the worry of whether a client likes the painting or thinks it is a good likeness is always there in the back of my head. It is for most artists I guess, as people have some pretty strong opinions as to what they think they look like, but then I think if you want something photo-realistic and are that sensitive about it, then get a friggn’ photograph. You should get a portrait done because you want presence captured, not a perfect hair-do.

Through the blog Lines and Colors, I found a great account of a man having his portrait painted along with side notes by the artist himself. David R. Darrow is a very “painterly” artist who works from life. What I found most interesting in the read was Darrow’s thoughts on people having weird reactions to seeing a portrait, and the writer’s reaction to the portrait. An excerpt from Mr. Darrow on it:

If you’re wondering if reading his reactions when the published article came out had any negative effects on me… Yes! It’s a portrait painter’s nightmare to get that kind of reaction… to know you’ve done a good portrait, a solid, competent painting, only to have them “find things wrong with it.” I fear that what the sitter will have me “fix” will inadvertently change the ‘truth’ about what I have created. This is why I demand that they live with it for two weeks before requesting changes. The painting will “grow on them.”

Darrow goes into the “alarming experience” people get from seeing a portrait more here on his commissions page.

Additionally there is the added fact that virtually everyone “knows their own face backwards.” This is from almost exclusively seeing your own reflection in the mirror every day. It is how you know you, but not how others do, since no one has a perfectly symmetrical face. This is why, for example, you may not like a photograph of you that others tell you is very flattering.

I’m thinking of using that Lincoln, or any photo mirroring example, from now on for sitters if they get upset with a portrait. Luckily I haven’t had it happen yet with my oil paintings, but it is always such a worry for me. I do work from photographs and trace the basic lines carefully, only when adding color or doing one session in person do things get tricky. I think working from photos in getting proportions right has saved me a lot of hassle, but in the past I have gotten the “am I that fat?” “is my nose that big?” comments. It is true that looking at a mirror all day you have a warped sense; in photos you can make the excuses of a bad angle, the flash was too bright or you were on your period and look heavy. But sometimes you just have to accept that maybe your mirror image isn’t always so accurate to what others see. I’ll admit, I did get upset once at a boyfriend who drew me nude…I didn’t realize my butt was that big.

The only issue I ever had with a disputed likeness was recently. As a little project I was to do a drawing of a group of people, I kept it in simple lines, no shading, and even traced their faces blown up with a projector since I had tiny photos with bad lighting to work from. Well, these people gave vague criticism, and when I mean vague I mean, “huh, looks kinda cartoony” and nothing else. After bugging what it was they didn’t like (was it the colors? motifs? background?) it was, “well that doesn’t look like us”. Funny because it does. Certain individuals recognized them before I even opened my mouth, not to mention I traced them line for line from a photo. But no, they couldn’t accept it — that this what what they looked like. I almost felt like going on a tirade the way David LaChappelle does in the documentary “Dig” as he recounts his conversation with Courtney Taylor about the music video lighting, “This is how you look…this is you…you look how you look!”

In the end I think co-workers, friends and family are the best judges. They aren’t wigging our over a fat chin or skinny neck. I get very happy when a friend or family member knows exactly who it is I’m painting right off the bat before I’m even done. The best was a friend stopped over and glanced at a portrait sitting on my table, “oh is that so-and-so and her baby!?” she recognized this person when the painting was only half done. Yay me!

As always, for any situation in life there is a Simpsons episode to compare it to. I think this episode touches on this topic nicely.

Mr. Burns: Thanks for not making fun of my genitalia.
Marge: [sotto voce] I thought I did.

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