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Old 02-24-2009, 03:55 PM   #1
Debra Rexroat Debra Rexroat is offline
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Struggled with posthumous portrait




I had put this finished portrait aside for a while after getting a less than exciting reception when I showed it initially. Jon is a local who fell climbing Rainier a couple years ago with a fellow firefighter. I did this to honor him and intended it to eventually be a memorial to him at the department. However, when I revealed it to his crew at the station the reactions were not confirming that I had met my goal.

I have since gained more experience with both portraits and the medium and would like to know in what aspects of this work I may have missed my mark. I do not have the photo, as it was in the widow's collection, which she graciously lent me to do this. I am not so concerned with the likeness right now as whether the actual work would hold up for this purpose. I welcome any comments, suggestions, and critique of my handling of the subject, including color choices, edges, composition, etc.

Digitial demonstration is ok.

Jon
18" x 12" pastel on Art Spectrum Colourfix
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Old 02-24-2009, 07:22 PM   #2
Julie Deane Julie Deane is offline
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Hi Debra,

It's always awkward when a work doesn't meet with enthusiasm.
I think the primary thing the recipient is looking for in a portrait, especially a posthumous one, is a good likeness. If the reaction was negative, that would actually be the first thing to reconsider.

You might look at sample portraits on the SOG commercial part of this web site, and compare your work to similar subjects, noting the differences in color and composition.

Best wishes as you progress in portraiture.
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Old 02-25-2009, 02:02 PM   #3
Richard Bingham Richard Bingham is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Julie Deane
. . . the primary thing the recipient is looking for in a portrait, especially a posthumous one, is a good likeness . . .
I agree entirely. A portraitist's inability to convey that ineffable "certain something" about Uncle George's twinkling eyes is usually at the crux of client dissatisfaction.

Every human being has at least 1,000 faces. Only one do they present to you when "sitting". Recognition of the persons we know is based on far more than the arrangement and proportions of facial features. Complexities and nuances multiply geometrically the more intimate the viewers' relationships are with the subject.

In my opinion, a posthumous portrait is, bar none, the very toughest assignment a portaitist can accept, and many very able, well-known professionals decline to do them at all, as the problem is more akin to what comprises police witness sketches than the portrayal of living subjects.

How well did you know the deceased? Possibly a function of working from a reference photo, the painting seems to be as much about the fish as it is about the man.

I'd be gratified to read members' thoughts as to what , indeed, comprises "likeness".
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Old 02-25-2009, 03:31 PM   #4
Mary Cupp Mary Cupp is offline
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I agree. It strikes me that the face lacks some enthusiasm or expression. It may well be that the photo that you are working from simply doesn't have enough information to capture a sense of the inner life of the subject. I find that the paintings that I have the most problems with are those caused by a less than adequate photo reference. Does the wife have any more photos available that might provide other aspects of the subjects face?

Pay close attention to the small muscle tension around the eyes and mouth. This is where expression originates.
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Old 02-25-2009, 03:37 PM   #5
Virgil Elliott Virgil Elliott is offline
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Bringing the dead to life

Quote:
Originally Posted by Debra Rexroat
I had put this finished portrait aside for a while after getting a less than exciting reception when I showed it initially. Jon is a local who fell climbing Rainier a couple years ago with a fellow firefighter. I did this to honor him and intended it to eventually be a memorial to him at the department. However, when I revealed it to his crew at the station the reactions were not confirming that I had met my goal.

I have since gained more experience with both portraits and the medium and would like to know in what aspects of this work I may have missed my mark. I do not have the photo, as it was in the widow's collection, which she graciously lent me to do this. I am not so concerned with the likeness right now as whether the actual work would hold up for this purpose. I welcome any comments, suggestions, and critique of my handling of the subject, including color choices, edges, composition, etc.

Digitial demonstration is ok.
One thing people want from a posthumous portrait of someone they love is that it give them the impression of being in the living presence of the subject. Thus an impressionistic style is going to disappoint them because there will be too many reminders that what they're looking at is paint (or pastel, in this case) instead of a living human being. A higher degree of realism is called for in this situation, so the viewers can forget that what they are looking at is anything other than a live person existing in three-dimensional space. A portrait artist must be absolutely on top of every aspect of realistic imagery in order to accomplish this, along with the specialized knowledge of human faces and the ways in which personality traits are indicated and emphasized by the subtle manipulation of the expressive features. This is a tremendous challenge even when one is not handicapped by being limited to poor reference material.

Secondly, a portrait is subject to the same critical considerations as any other painting, and must stand up well on aesthetic/artistic terms as well as the particulars of likeness of the subject. The illusion of three-dimensional depth suffers when the colors in the distance are as vivid as the colors in the foreground, as you have it here, for one thing. Selective focus must also be brought to bear, and that isn't something that can be imported verbatim from a photograph if the objective is to have the portrait read realistically.

And then there are the psychological aspects to concern ourselves with as well, because each person who knew the subject will have his or her own mental image/impression of that person, and it's up to the artist to somehow gain an understanding of those individually varying images and incorporate enough of each of them into the portrait to generate a spark of recognition in the people who were close to the subject. These challenges are why professional portrait painters regard the prospect of posthumous portraits with dread, and why they charge so much for them if they do accept the commissions. In my case, I base my price on how much I don't want to do it.

If one can rise to the challenges presented by this kind of project, and end up with a painting that pleases the client, the subject's family, and the artist, it can be very satisfying after it's done and has been accepted enthusiastically. It's a significant accomplishment for those who can succeed at it, but there are many serious obstacles to overcome before it can happen. It's a job for a Master.

Virgil Elliott
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Old 02-25-2009, 11:25 PM   #6
Debra Rexroat Debra Rexroat is offline
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Thanks, Julie, Richard, Mary, and Virgil for you comments, suggestions, and taking the time with this. It is not easy admitting first to yourself that a work is not what you initially felt it was, and then that you are not sure what went wrong. But my desire is to learn from this piece.

When I first picked up my pastels about 5 years ago I knew nothing of color temperature or edges or neutralizing colors. Even so, my eyes always seemed to see the portrait I intended instead of the attempt that revealed weaknesses. Hopefully, between what I have learned in classes, workshops, and working problems out at the easel, I will find future portrait work to be both more rewarding, and with a stronger foundation, better executed.

Virgil, it did not occur to me in the moment when I chose to attempt this that it would be beyond my abilities. But your words rang true when I read them, that much more mastery of all aspects of figure and portraiture are necessary to meet such a challenging aspiration. Thanks for your analysis of the complexities of the posthumous portrait.

Mary, I agree that poor photos result in weak images when you are going for a likeness. That, and having never met the subject, does make it hard to even know the subtleties that are required.

Richard, yes, that certain something is needed in such a work. It is hard to admit that even though I believed I could capture that, I was not in a good position to be able to do so.

Julie, thank you for all the time and thought you put into your responses to me. I began by perusing the portraits here and on several of my favorites sites, as well as those of Sargent and a few others, to see what struck me as excellent, and why. That was a great suggestion of a good exercise. And I agree, without a likeness that those who knew the subject could immediately respond to, it almost didn't matter if the rest of the painting was any good or not; it didn't fulfill my goal. All of your suggestions have been noted and I want you to know I appreciate all of your help.
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Old 12-30-2009, 11:11 AM   #7
Celeste McCall Celeste McCall is offline
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I really like your painting. I love the trickle of light throughout and how it joins together. As a piece of art it is a very nice example of the exciting colors which only the pastel medium can produce.

I also agree with what was written by the others above.
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