Accessing Universal Emotions Makes a Successful Portrait

When I went away to college I took a token from each of my loved ones. There was a Frankie Laine CD from my dad, a grungy Pearl Jam T-shirt from my brother, and a charcoal portrait of my mom that was made on the boardwalk of Virginia Beach when she was 14 years old. I lost the CD, and the T-shirt was relegated to the rag bin, but I still have the portrait.

Models With Japanese Screen by Malcolm T. Liepke, 1986, oil painting, 26 x 20. Courtesy Arcadia Fine Arts, New York, New York
Models With Japanese Screen
by Malcolm T. Liepke, 1986, oil painting, 26 x 20.
Courtesy Arcadia Fine Arts, New York, New York

The power of a portrait painting often lies in the emotional connection it forges with the viewer. It can be a visceral, close connection shared by the few who know the subject, or the likeness can have universal appeal. Artist Malcolm T.  Liepke is a leader in the genre of contemporary figure painting. When painting portraits, he works to establish a connection with viewers by letting his emotional response guide his painting process. “Everyone goes through life with their own problems, but we live in a pretty universal world,” he says. “I’ve found that the more personal the piece, the more people connect with it.”

Liepke attests that the power of his portrait paintings is largely due to the way in which he works. He allows his natural inclinations free reign and never takes on a subject that doesn’t hold his attention. He also has upwards of 30 paintings in progress at once, which not only prevents him from overworking a piece but also allows him to paint spontaneously, moving from one canvas to another at his own pace.

When executing a likeness, Liepke strives to retain a few distinctive features of a model, even if variables like hair and clothing change during the painting process. “You can’t make up features because the people will look cartoonish,” he says. This picking and choosing also applies to the settings in which he places his figures, as they often lack visual cues that would attach the subject to a specific time period or location. This gives the resulting painting a sense of being timeless, but there are enough details to unify the composition and evoke a response from the viewer.

Executing a successful portrait is often a matter of finding the right balance between literal and general. Liepke does this by seeking out intriguing subjects and capturing moments of universal human emotion. You can find more in-depth information on the unique art practice of another great contemporary artist, Daniel Gerhartz, in his DVD on plein air portraiture, The Beginning of Autumn. Take a look for the valuable instruction you are after and 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.   

3 thoughts on “Accessing Universal Emotions Makes a Successful Portrait

  1. I love painting landscapes, but I would love to learn how to paint portraits as well. Ah, why is there never time to paint everything we’d like to…

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