Phan Ke An, 85, painted more than 20 portraits of the late Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In 1948, An was drawing cartoons for the party newspaper Su That (appropriately “The Truth”) and was singled out for the job. “There was no opportunity to get the great man to sit for long periods,” says An. “I did it by following him around and drawing him when I could. Uncle Ho even let me dine with him and he gave me cigarettes.” At the time Ho was living in modest circumstances, avoiding the French occupiers. He was plotting takeover, writing and chain-smoking.
Have you ever noticed that a distant, even obscure, photo of someone will be recognizable? This gives a key to the methodology of “portrait by following around.” Likeness is not in the details; it’s in the general stance and the large forms of the face. The painter’s job is to find the unique character. Furthermore, character comes out of a sense of caricature. To be fair, exaggeration need not be taken too far. Many painters have already noticed Barack Obama’s outstanding ears.
A few pitfalls wait for those who wish to make a relatively truthful portrait. A lot of problems occur around the mouth. Smiles are dangerous and tend to look photographic. Teeth can be deadly — better not to draw and paint individual teeth. If you must have them, render them as an area, not necessarily white. Maybe it stems from the good old days when teeth were more likely to be substandard or absent, but portraits tend to have closed mouths. Think of George Washington — in portraits his mouth was always closed over his wooden teeth.
For some reason older men give less trouble than older women. Character, distinction, and low expectations of beauty give an artist something to get an energetic brush around. People of other races help flustered painters in avoiding auto-personification, a condition in which some painters put their own facial features onto their subjects. Nevertheless, painting an older uncle or a male friend is a good place to learn the game.
All is lost if there’s no likeness. I’ve noticed I often get it early on and then proceed to turn my portrait into another person. The devil gets into the details. You either have to stop early or go back and wander around again looking for the real person.
PS: “With all the difficulties involved in painting, you still have to find a subject’s thoughts and intellectual world.” (Phan Ke An)
Esoterica: Perhaps because of the difficult circumstances, An is a believer in prior drawings, and he still has plenty of those. Strangely, most of his larger oils of Ho have disappeared. We both agreed that when conditions are ideal, it’s best to go right into the painting itself. Those first strokes often disclose the salient forms you need. Also, in a blissfully forgiving media like oils, you can move things around, focusing and defocusing, while still doing a relatively fresh job.
Wooden teeth dept.
by Anitta Trotter, Whitby, ON, Canada
U.S. general and first president of the United States George Washington (1732-1799) had several sets of dentures (false teeth), but none of them was made of wood. New York City dentist John Greenwood made Washington’s first set of false teeth out of hippopotamus ivory to which he riveted several human teeth.
(RG note) Thanks Anitta, and the dozen or so others who quickly informed me of my ignorance of American history. Apparently he didn’t pray before going into Valley Forge either. I will do better research in the future. Regarding hippo dentures, sounds like a valuable idea that hasn’t been fully exploited — they would look particularly nice on bigger people. Through material sent by readers I learned that his four sets of dentures were also made from gold, ivory, lead, human and animal teeth (horse and donkey teeth were common components). The dentures had springs to help them open and bolts to hold them together. Washington was 6’3″ and an active horseman. He started knocking them out from various falls in his twenties.
Tips on teeth
by Darla Tagrin, Montgomery Village, MD, USA
About portraits — I think you’re right about having to get the general “look” of a person before you concentrate on individual details. It helps me to draw loose sketches while I’m not looking at the person, then go back and do a drawing from life. That even helps when I’m doing other, non-portrait paintings. I don’t think you need to leave out teeth — they are part of the person’s “look.” Some artists are surprised that teeth are as individual as any other facial characteristic. Don’t paint “teeth,” paint John’s teeth. Don’t put dark lines between all the teeth even if you see them, unless they are a pronounced and recognizable part of the pattern of his mouth. Teeth vary in size, color, spacing, slant and grouping. You need to paint that. Also, don’t use pure white except very sparingly, as on highlights, and stay away from painting hard edges. It is the unrealistic white, hard edges and unreal regularity that make painted smiles look fake and plastic. (It also makes celebrities look like fakes.)
Poetry in portraits
by Peter Butler, Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, UK
I found this a particularly helpful letter. Especially as I have just “re-launched myself” with a series of portraits of Jazz musicians – not of the most famous players but some well enough known and others of musicians from smaller, local bands. I’m pleased with my progress and even more encouraged after reading your letter. I write short poems to go with with each painting, and Jazz musicians make great subject matter for this.
Portraits and abstraction
by Suzanne Partridge, UK
I have revisited my portrait work, after spending the past 10 years as an avid abstract painter. I’m interested in finding a likeness from a varied background. I like to make use of “Found” marks and spontaneous paint work that has been laid down as a busy ground. My work is currently in exhibition (this is a section of the catalogue blurb.) Where abstract painting teaches me about expression and exploration, portraiture requires a more recognizable outcome before it is even begun. Combining the two interests makes for new aesthetic judgments.
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Aid for Vietnamese artists
by Marc Djandji, Saigon, Vietnam
I’ve been collecting Vietnamese art for over two years now. In that time, I have met many gallery owners and local artists that I now have the privilege to call my friends. I realized that Vietnamese artists, although very talented, lack knowledge about career management and art business. I set up Viet Art Forum as a way to help the local art scene develop from within and promote it internationally. The site is in Vietnamese because many local artists cannot speak English. I get my inspiration by doing a lot of research on the Internet and in books, then my wife (she’s Vietnamese) translates my texts. Eventually, I would like Viet Art Forum to be a place where international collectors interested in Vietnamese art could come to get connected with artists. This year my focus is on interviews. I intend to interview international and local artists as well as gallery owners and curators.
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Self-portraits at different times
by Vivian Anderson, Sydney, Australia
Last year I did a 20 minute oil painting of myself and couldn’t help but call it “NOW”: it so resembled the dishevelled state of mind and body that I was experiencing, and didn’t really have to do with capturing a close likeness, but I think, when you look at it, you’ll know it was an immediate reaction to myself as I was at that very moment, in class, with my “muse” and other significant forms, there with me. To compensate for that quick study, I then went on to paint myself “THEN,” and found I could evoke my spirit as a young woman in a quiet study of me in contemplation, at the easel… and how very different the features appear here, and yet, both truly resemble me, but you wouldn’t think the portraits were done by the same hand, never mind the same spirit. It proves that my dictum towards painting anything always has and will start with “RESPOND.” Then the images are real, no matter the style of work.
Middle Eastern men
by Jan Ross, Kennesaw, GA, USA
Although I’ve enjoyed painting numerous subjects over the years, none has brought such satisfaction as capturing the elderly Middle Eastern men working alongside my husband as they reconstruct their beloved homeland. The weather-beaten faces, flowing beards and wrapped heads, draw one into their sparkling eyes and smiles that express a joy and gratitude; their future will be better than their past. Regardless of one’s politics, regardless of location on the planet, we are all one in spirit.
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Children and pets
by Louise Francke, NC, USA
Having done too many dog/cat portraits to number, I returned to the human face and gesture. It was at first difficult — fur is so much easier to render than flesh with its contours, physiognomy and color palette. I immersed myself predominantly in books of Sargent’s portraits. Whenever I visited a museum, I would wind up in front of a portrait studying the mouth and nose areas, not that any of the other areas aren’t just as difficult. My major interest has always been to reveal those “truth” telling moments when sitter is relaxed. What they choose to wear and their body language reveal some of the inner self. When an animal enters into the composition, the set changes. The gate has opened into a memorable moment worth capturing in oil. I work with a lot of photos and quick sketches which I compose into one painting. Children with their pets are the ones I favor. So much easier to satisfy a child and animal than an adult encumbered with vanity.
Fun with portraits
by Karen Pettengill, Pownal, ME, USA
Painting portraits is tricky, especially if you have to work from photographs. I’ve done a few myself and find that as I near completion a funny thing happens. The littlest discrepancies in the rendering of mouth can turn the portrait into a totally different person, sometimes even cartoonish. So I’ll fool around with the mouth shape just for fun. While doing this, the subject can start to resemble someone like the Joker character in Batman as played by Jack Nicholson! I’ve laughed out loud (while alone in my studio mind you) many times during this amusing stage of portrait-making. I’ve told my clients about this and they laugh too (maybe at me)… Gotta have some fun once in a while — portraits are serious business.
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Seeing in a unique way
by Chris Tarter
As I waste so much time I think of all the work I could accomplish and all the internal painting that goes on unexpressed. Thanks for the kick in the pants with the sensitive insight of your illustration. I have the gift of time and opportunity to use the talents I have that others do not — although I do have other things in my life that are very important that I do pay attention to. People often say they don’t have the talent to paint but I say that is because they don’t want to paint. They have other interests. Talent is born, to some extent, by the passion. Talent is ‘seeing’ in a very unique way.
The stress of portraiture
by Paul deMarrais, TN, USA
I haven’t done a portrait for many years, though I studied it very hard in art school and afterwards for another few years. Other artists told me I had real ability in it but I just couldn’t seem to find satisfaction. The lack of a good north-lit studio was critical. In such a magical place, you can merely find and paint in the shadows and a sculptural likeness is easily attained. Patches of color are easily seen on the face. The next sitting will be much the same. In the rigged setups I used, consistent lighting was a demon that could not be tamed. I’d hit on great lighting one time, but couldn’t reproduce it for the next sitting. A bigger problem for me was my portraits were not “happy.”. They were moody Rembrandt-like images. Look at the very successful portrait painters, like Everett Raymond Kinstler, and you will see this upbeat “happiness” in the portraits. It’s as if they just found out their stocks doubled in value overnight. My portraits showed existential angst, probably reflecting my state of mind more than the sitters! I think of the wonderful Thomas Eakins, how clients often hated his portraits because of the truthfulness of them. One doctor paid Eakins, then slashed the canvas to ruin. It is a conflict. As a portrait painter your job is to please others. Having to please the sitters was so stressful on me that every commission I did was an ordeal. I think an artist must pursue an art that is satisfying to them. If it’s unduly stressful, then you need to pursue another form of expression. Still, when I see a beautiful paintable face, I stare like a portrait painter… but for me it was not to be.
Finding the essence
by Pat Wulfson, Dover, NH, USA
Thanks, as usual, Robert, for the conveyance of the sensation, not just the nuts and bolts of capturing a portrait. Similar to following around, as a way to internalize, then interpret a person’s essence, I find that immersion in the person’s element or, in the case of the sitter coming to the artist, inclusion of personal accessories and even small furniture serve to create an authentic aura and bring forth the sitter’s relaxed demeanor, and help make the process and product enjoyable and successful.
In the attached image, my sitter surprised me by not only arriving in her favorite dress native attire, but also by bringing a bench from her home on which to pose.
Small format practice
by Cyndie Katz, New Boston, NH, USA
I’m so glad you’re getting a dialogue started about portraiture! My bet is that in a bad economy it’s a type of art that will still sell. I’ve been working on my portrait techniques for the last four years and have found there’s nothing like oil for getting a good likeness fast. Putting plenty of paint on at the outset, including the background (as Sargent suggested to his students) is also key. Included here is a 4×6 inch self-portrait I did recently by first covering every area with the paint and then sort of sculpting it with my small brushes. Working in this tiny format is great practice at a cheap price. I got the experimenting small idea from you.
Alton Tobey close-ups
by Joe L. Dolice, New York, NY, USA
In line with your “Uncle Ho” comments on portraits received today, you might find it interesting to take a look at some of the portraits that the late artist Alton Tobey did, just by concentrating on particular details of the face rather than the whole face.
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Bougainvillea on Suarez
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes EC (Lisa) Stewart who wrote, “You mentioned, ‘Those first strokes often disclose the salient forms you need.’ For me, it all goes back to editing. Removing the superfluous strokes to reveal the true nature of the character provides the very essence of the form.”
And also Alcina Nolley of Castries, Saint Lucia, who wrote, “As a beginning painter I remember tackling a portrait of Martin Luther King. His lush, evocative mouth gave me a terrible time.”
Enjoy the past comments below for Painting ‘Uncle Ho’…
John Singer Sargent said, ‘A portrait is a picture with something wrong with the mouth.’
Ever wonder why you can pick out someone you know from a great distance only seeing their outline? Art is not in the details!
Laptopping is a perfect word for the 21st century. We know exactly what it means. Does that make you a laptopper or a laptoppest???? :) Microsoft Word breaks it into lap topping. Microsoft was once not a word don’t ya know?
To address the stress of portraiture – I love people’s faces and when I paint them, I imagine that they belong to me, not to their rightful owners. Feeling the ownership helps me to totally disregard any thoughts of their criticism – at least until they actually see the finished work…and even then I feel as if I have taken some part of their image to be mine forever.
To draw a portrait before painting it is generally a mistake, but the quick fluidity of your demo (Mexican man) puts that idea to rest. I’ll try it.
To paint a face paint an apple first then put in the features then cut in the silhouette of the head and a few dashes later you have a likeness. To do otherwise is foolish and ignorant…..
Thank you, thank you!! This latest newsletter regarding portraits was exactly what I needed to hear. I couldn’t agree more that an accurate likeness relies on capturing character through posture and perhaps a distinctive physical feature. I’ve been struggling with portraits lately because I’ve been focusing on details instead of form and blocks of colour. Thank you for helping me re-focus.
This is the most valuable and informed art resource on the internet.
As I reached the point in a painting of my grandson (age 15 months) where the likeness had really come together, I began to feel like I was actually stroking his cheek, not just putting paint on a canvas. It was a very interesting experience. The painting came out great.
Your article about the Vietnamese seasoned gentleman is superb.
I have always loved portraiture and landscapes. There is a relationship. The gentleness I believe. Just more time and great people to learn from The teeth part is so right-on. . take. care.
Hello Robert and thank you for sharing about the Cao Dai. I love the principle of mixing up elements from different philosophies and religions. Makes total sense to me. If some other religions were as progressive maybe we would not have so many wars.
One of the portraits many artists return to over and over again is the self. Sometimes people have asked me why (because I’m there when I need a subject, because I want to know myself better, because I’m patient and can sit there as long as I need to paint). Sometimes people will say, oh, but you’ve made yourself look too old, or mad, or stern… you’re not smiling like you usually do…where’s your teeth? Grinning into a mirror at yourself while you paint is not so easy… nor is holding a smiling or grinning pose easy for anyone who is sitting for a portrait.
I am a rather traditional portrait painter, but I also paint many other thing and work in several other media. I have never heard the words for this approach, though I have worked this way for some time. The results for me are more about subconscious narrative, and I have never shown any of these works, though I find them very compelling. Thanks for the process description. I’ll try to paraphrase for my own use.