The Personality of a Portrait

‘The aim of art is to present not the outward appearance of things but their inner significance.’ Aristotle.

There are many artists that would be ecstatic to have the level of skill required to create a portrait painting that resembles a captured photograph so closely that you can barely tell the image is hand crafted. Of course, to master the skill of painting to an accurate rendering of a photograph is certainly remarkable in its own right. However, there is an opinion to consider that is, why spend hours creating an image in paint when a camera can do it in seconds? So, taking this into consideration, how can an artist take their work beyond photo-realism?  

A camera will capture an image at face value. It will not hide anything, nor will it create something that is not there. Yes, the artist behind the lens is important, to capture the beauty of a single moment, however the camera itself (disregarding photo editing and filters) cannot create beauty or an image out of something that is not already present. This is something that is not restricted in the world of a painting or drawing artist. Of course, realism offers any artist a fantastic starting point, as when you understand how to faithfully replicate what is in front of you, you can then begin to shift and alter the realities you see into something more prolific. Thus, when an artist sits down to paint a portrait of a real-life person, they have the option to encompass any features they want, to exaggerate, to invent, to build upon and explore. There is no limit to the creativity in a painting and the only requirement of an artist is to capture the personality and character of the subject.

Capturing a personality in a painting that is not photo-realistic is illustrated perfectly in caricature portraits. These artists are able to capture the very essence of a person through exaggerated features and expressions, without the image representing an authentic real life presentation. Though it is not only caricature artists that delve into this concept. Originating in the late 1910s, surrealism has taken the literary and art world by storm, a new mode of expression that sought to release the limitless imagination of the subconscious. This movement brought a whole new meaning to the portrait, as artists examined how they could characterise the inner nature of their subjects with ethereal brilliance. So how are they able to do this? How is a painting able to capture the personality of a person without looking identical to a real life image?  

Certainly, there is no right or wrong answer, only an acknowledgement that a portrait goes beyond just copying a person’s facial features. It is an art of capturing a physical likeness, but also striving to represent the spirit and character of an individual within every brush stroke. For many artists, it is the eyes that hold the greatest importance in capturing the essence of an individual, as William Shakespeare once said ‘the eyes are the window to your soul’. Thus, the eyes in a portrait painting can hold a reflection of thoughts or experiences of the individual and can tell a story that could not be seen in real-life. A creative use of colour can also be a great tool in presenting a characteristic of an individual, as a single colour has the ability to tell story. For example, the use of cool tone blues and purples can represent melancholy, a snake green can embody jealousy or disgust and a vibrant red can encapsulate anger or passion. This can also be expanded by looking at how colours compliment and clash with each other. Perhaps the painted individual is struggling with inner turmoil and this can be represented by the use of an unsettling colour scheme. The facial expression and pose of the subject also has a great effect on the representation of a character. A smile or a frown can speak a thousand words in a painting. With a hunch in the shoulders and a downcast gaze a subject is seen as insecure or uncomfortable, just as a direct stare and squared shoulders can imply a forthright and bold individual. Exaggerated posture can simulate a persons personality, so think what sharp angles or flowing lines will help accurately represent your figure’s identity.  

So remember, portrait paintings do not need to be a direct representation of a person, they just need to capture the essence of an individual. Portraits can be expressionistic with unconventional colour schemes and tell a story just as well as a realistic conventional recreation. So be creative and don’t be confined or restricted by realism.

Artwork by May '22 Featured Artist, Arlessha Yetzer 

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