In my studies of painting, I have seen many portraits that are well rendered but lack that component that make them truly compelling works of art. It is often hard to distinguish what these paintings are lacking, but we always know when we see a portrait painting that possesses that quality which makes it a true masterpiece. Beyond accurate rendering of facial features, great portraits have a strong presence, so that the viewer feels instantly that they know the person. One component that creates such a presence is the expression of the sitter in the painting. Their mood and personality are revealed in their gaze. Their facial expressions can be enhanced by the specific brushwork around certain features. When painting the eyes for example, the rendering of a few creases can reveal an array of different emotions. Is the brow furrowed or relaxed? Or what about the mouth; do the lines around it display a smile or a frown? Often these lines will be etched into someone’s face as they age, but it is particularly hard to render such expressions on someone who is youthful. It is very easy to exaggerate certain lines and make someone look too angry, or too sad. Only the most masterful hand can explore a range of emotions with an almost imperceptible execution of brush strokes.
Below are two paintings, one by Diego Velazquez and the the other by Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres. These are two of my personal favorites, as they each clearly reveal the strong presence and character of their sitters and are equally imbued with a subtlety of emotion through facial expression.
Diego Valesquez, “Juan de Paraje” 1650
If you look at the eyes of the portrait by Valezquez above, there is a deeply soulful expression. The sitter, with his erect posture, seems to be portyaing someone who commands a certain degree of power, and yet there is a softness, or even sadness in his gaze. He posesses a sense of quiet poise beneath his assertive exterior.
Jean Auguste-Dominique Ingres, “Portrait of Louis-Francois Bertin” 1832
The portrait by Ingres is similar to the one by Velazquez. Again, the posture of the sitter, is very assertive, almost like a lion ready to pounce. The chair wraps around his strong, restless figure, and seems to act as an arm to stop him from leaping out of the canvas. As you move up towards his eyes, there again is this emmediate sense of strength. His right brow is raised which increases his look of sternness. A trace of tender compassion, however, still reveals itself beneath the man’s rugged exterior. Interestingly, if you cover his right eye, this tenderness is revealed, whereas, if you cover his left, the strong, stern lion emerges.
There are countless examples of great portraits like the ones above, but how does an artist capture someones emotion simply with a piece of charcoal or a paint brush? I will attempt to provide an answer to that very question with a future blog post using a combination of videos and photo demonstrations.