When In Doubt, Go For the Weird

A few weeks ago I attended a young artist’s solo exhibition. Although he was technically skilled, the subject matter (mostly oil portraits with the models nude or semi-nude) didn’t really inspire me. So why am I still thinking about his work–and telling you about it? Well, I keep coming back to the parts in his paintings that were slightly off–a pair of feet that were really red for some unknown reason, an eyebrow that arched a bit too much on the model’s face. I’ve found that the weird–the details of a face that aren’t symmetrical, quirks that make a person’s look unique–is what I remember when looking at portraiture.

Femme aux Bras Croisés (Woman with Folded Arms) by Pablo Picasso, 1902.
Femme aux Bras Croisés
(Woman with Folded Arms)

by Pablo Picasso, 1902.

I know I’ve said this before but I think it’s worth repeating. The ‘weird’ or uniqueness of a person is what makes for moving and memorable portrait art. If an artist can’t find those qualities in a sitter, then it might be necessary to work with an altered lighting situation, a different model, or spend some time changing how we look at him or her.

Garçon à la Pipe (Boy with a Pipe) by Pablo Picasso, 1905.
Garçon à la Pipe (Boy with a Pipe) by Pablo Picasso, 1905.

So when you sit down in front of a person as a portrait painter, first ask yourself: if I were going to describe this person with just three words, what would they be? Take your answers seriously as you figure out how to paint your sitter. And spend time, even just a few minutes, talking to your model before you begin your painting. The way they talk, their subtle mannerisms, as well as the information they choose to share–these are the inroads of painting portraits successfully.

And who has more personality, quirks, and funniness than children? It might be worthwhile to experiment with portraiture painting by depicting a child in your life. Children are often fearless and they have personality to spare, and in Wende Caporale’s Children’s Pastel Portraits DVD you’ll find a portrait artist who sees her models as individuals and tries her best to pull out their unique characteristics so that the finished painting is more than just an accurate likeness. And today at the North Light Shop, spend $40/$50/$60 and save $10/$20/$30 with the discount codes SAVE 10, SAVE 20, and SAVE30. 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.   

2 thoughts on “When In Doubt, Go For the Weird

  1. It is interesting you choose Picasso as examples. Picasso’s portraits really are all about Picasso, he painted what he thought and projected that onto his models. Picasso’s method was subjective and not that skilled compared to artists that had come before him. Portraiture as I have learned is clearing any preconceived notion you have about the model and simply paint the relationships as best as you can objectively see and render them. This allows the true beauty and personality of the subject to come forth if one is successful.
    Look at Sargent’s portrait of Roosevelt as an example. Sargent was not trying to project any preconceived notions onto the president but simply be as faithful to what the light was revealing.
    If you look at this portrait you can see the Presidents confidence but at the same time a melancholy- remarkable. Sargent arrived at this by being as objective as he could in painting the subject, by letting go of any preconceived ideas. This process take years of practice to start to master.
    So it really depends what you want to accomplish – your ideas/ concepts or the truth of the subject or perhaps somewhere in between.

    1. To say that Picasso’s method was “not very skilled,” is to not acknowledge his skill as a draftsman (see his earlier work). Picasso, like most great artists did not remain satisfied with simple verisimilitude in his portraiture. He expanded the way he saw his subjects, thereby breaking free of the illusion of creating three dimensions out of two. His portraits are powerful statements, not simple paintings.