Will You Please Put Some Clothes On?

Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard (attributed), 1585.
Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I
by Nicholas Hilliard (attributed), 1585.

I can only imagine the excitement and thrill of sitting for any one of the great portrait painters in history such as Bronzino, Velazquez, and Sargent. But then my mind goes directly to the most pressing question, what to wear?!

Portrait Painting Clothes & All

What a figure is wearing has a lot of bearing on the results of a portrait. I mean, the stiffness and regal stance of Elizabeth I as depicted by Nicholas Hilliard was not just the result of her being the regent of England. Her clothing all but forced her to stand in such a way—she was wearing pounds and pounds of fabric and a lace ruff that all but imprisoned her.

When painting portraits, an artist needs to reflect, on some level, the likeness of the sitter, but he or she also needs to take into consideration how they are depicting their subject, and that speaks directly to body position and the way a person is dressed. It doesn't make sense to paint an oil portrait of a person in street clothes standing ramrod straight with nose in the air, unless you are being ironical. In the same way, a portrait of a person in a business suit is instantly going to be evaluated by viewers as someone being seen in a professional role. A person curled up in a t-shirt and jeans on a couch calls to mind an entirely different context.

La Familia II (Sisters) by Tim Okamura, oil on canvas, 84 x 74, 2006.
La Familia II (Sisters) by Tim Okamura,
oil on canvas, 84 x 74, 2006.

And the more flamboyant or outrageous the costume in a portrait, the less likely I am to pay attention to the person first. That isn't to say that I won't take in the specifics of the person eventually, but visual interest is not something that comes equally to every part of a work of art. You have to know that one aspect is going to grab people's attention first, and decide on what you want that to be.

Knowing how to depict a person in anything from lounge attire to an intricate costume is an asset for those of us who really want to make the most of our figure painting. In the Art Journey Portraits & Prints Collection, you will discover the keys to interesting and eye-appealing portraiture. So don't hesitate to adorn your next portrait sitter with a glittery necklace or colorful headscarf. If the context can accommodate it, give it a try. You will be opening yourself up to working in new ways and only good can come of that. 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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