A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

The Power of Portrait Painting

In a lot of ways the art world can be a little like a trend-crazed teenybopper. What's new and exciting gets the most attention, while art and artistic movements and groups that have been around for decades or centuries fall out of favor. But I think anyone artistically minded would be hard pressed not to agree that when it comes to portrait artists, Rembrandt, Velázquez, and Sargent (among others) are the true and undisputed godfathers of the genre.

An Old Man in Military Costume by Rembrandt, oil on panel, 26 x 20.
An Old Man in Military Costume by Rembrandt, oil on panel, 26 x 20.

Their works defined classic portrait painting and made it an enterprise that kings and politicians, dignitaries and the well-to-do had to be part of. It was their work and vision that could take a humble servant or dirty urchin off the street and turn him into the subject of a sensitive and intensely human piece of portraiture that could rival just about any other artwork ever made.

A Spanish Gentleman by Diego Velázquez, 1634, oil on canvas.
A Spanish Gentleman by Diego Velázquez, 1634, oil on canvas.

Wow–even as I write this, I get impressed all over again, because these artists weren't given superpowers or anything extraordinary beyond their motive to make portrait art that truly plumbs the depths of the human experience. That, I would argue, is what you have to do every time you pick up the brush to create a portrait painting. To capture a likeness is one thing, but if you want to join the ranks of Van Dyck and Caravaggio, you have to envision something more in you art. I honestly think this can entail putting a little bit of yourself into the work to make it really stand out–establishing empathy and painting that connection between you and your subject. It's the only way to make it really come alive.

My Friend Chadwick by Sargent, 1880, oil on canvas.
My Friend Chadwick by Sargent, 1880, oil on canvas.

If you are determined to understand classic portrait painting like our revered "godfathers" did, consider acquiring your copy of Alla Prima Portraiture –a resource that inspires with powerful instruction and inspirational works of art that teem with liveliness–so that your portrait art is created with the same mindset and media as the greats–both past and present. Enjoy!

 

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Courtney Jordan

About Courtney Jordan

  Courtney is the editor of Artist Daily. For her, art is one of life’s essentials and a career mainstay. She’s pursued academic studies of the Old Masters of Spain and Italy as well as museum curatorial experience, writing and reporting on arts and culture as a magazine staffer, and acquiring and editing architecture and cultural history books. She hopes to recommit herself to more studio time, too, working in mixed media.   

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