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Old 02-09-2002, 01:21 AM   #1
Peggy Baumgaertner Peggy Baumgaertner is offline
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Joined: Jun 2001
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Painting grins

There have been several full smile portraits submitted for critique on the forum, comments on how to draw teeth, and concerns as to if the teeth should be shown at all. I don't think there are hard and fast rules about never painting teeth. And the policy of not painting teeth did not come about because teeth are hard to paint. Every part of the painting is "hard" to a degree. The mouth most certainly is challenging, but teeth are no harder to show than the orbital ridge of the brow, or getting the correct texture of the hair, or painting the underside of the jaw.

My policy is to work from life as much as possible. In the event that one needs to work from photographs, the photographs should represent life. When taking photographs, I place the subject in a pose that they could hold for 40 hours if they had to. If my subject can hold a full on smile for 40 hours, than I'll consider painting that. Some people do have a natural smile and it would be unnatural for them to be sober-faced. These people I paint with a pleasant smile. But the photographic, "Say cheese" smile is actually a fairly recent phenomena. You want to stay away from the candid shot. Something that obviously came from a camera. I have seen artists go so far as to paint the red "dot" from the flash into the portrait.

When I paint a smile, I strive for "pleasant." A natural, intelligent, welcoming expression. However, most of my own favorite portraits are contemplative, reflective, and, at times, introspective.

What do you do if the client insists that there be a big grin? I talk them out of it. I explain, in a very nice way, that we are making a painting not a photograph. I bring a big book of masterful portraits (Sargent, the Early Portraits is a very nice volume) as well as my portfolio, and ask them to envision what their painting will look like. I explain that if we do a big grin, that we can't see their child's beautiful eyes. I explain that in time they might become tired of seeing this toothy grin, while if we have a more pleasant smile or contemplative look, that they will be drawn into the eyes, the mood, the moment of the painting. I explain that we are creating something that their great grandchildren will cherish, that we are together producing a work of art that might someday hang in a museum. This is usually the first time they have ever commissioned a painting. Their only experience has been with photographs. Even if this is only the second portrait you have ever painted, you still have twice the experience that the client has. They are looking to you for direction.

Once a mother and I had spent over an hour going through the photographs for a full length portrait I was doing of a little girl. We had narrowed the proposed portrait down to two poses. One (which the mother liked) was a cute, sweet, disarming little pose. The other (which I liked) was the child dramatically emerging through a doorway. Her eyes were like saucers, a quizzical look on her face. I told the mother, "This first would make a very nice portrait, but the other....this is a painting!" A short time later I heard her husband come in the door. Before I could even get up, I heard the mother say to him, "This first set of photographs would make a very nice portrait, but this other....this is a painting!". And you know what? It was!

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Old 02-09-2002, 02:57 PM   #2
Margaret Elvin Margaret Elvin is offline
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Joined: Feb 2002
Location: Albany, NY
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Portrait smiles


Great advice regarding smiles in portraits. I agree with you and wish I'd had your words of wisdom to quote to the client who hired me to do my most recent portrait, the one I just submitted for a critique. The subject's mother, the one who hired me, insisted on a full smile. There was another photo I'd taken and much preferred where her mother had a sort of Mona Lisa smile and a complex, thoughtful expression on her face. It was a 3/4 view and would have made more impact as a portrait. Even the mother (the subject) chose it out of 5 choices presented to her! I couldn't change the daughter's mind, but maybe you could have. Next time I'll try your approach about owning a painting vs. a photo.

Last year I spoke with you and signed up for one of your workshops, but had to cancel due to a death in the family. If your workshops are as good as the knowledge you share on this forum, and I'm sure they are at least that, they have to be a wonderful investment for any aspiring portrait artist.

Thanks, Margaret
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Old 02-11-2002, 10:14 AM   #3
Karin Wells Karin Wells is offline
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Location: Peterborough, NH
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I won't paint someone with an open mouth! A grin oftentimes looks so goofy in a painting....

Thanks for the gift of these words Peggy (and I find them worth repeating)....I have memorized them and will use them in my closing arguement when I have a client that balks at "my rules."

"......In the event that one needs to work from photographs, the photographs should represent life. When taking photographs, I place the subject in a pose that they could hold for 40 hours if they had to. If my subject can hold a full on smile for 40 hours, than I'll consider painting that."
Karin Wells


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