Saturday, May 11, 2013

Portraits are the most difficult subjects to paint

45% of you think that people and portraits are the most difficult subjects to paint while a further 15% think painting groups of people is really difficult.

That makes 60% who agree painting people is the most difficult thing ever!

Unfortunately that's 60% of only 20 votes as not a lot of people wanted to 'fess up about what they found difficult to paint!  Not quite sure why this happened - it's a very low turnout for my regular monthly poll.

The Tarporley Hunt Club by Andrew Festing MBE PPRP
oil; 127 x 178cm (50" x 70")
(see note at end)
What is the most difficult subject to paint?
people - portraits 45%
people - groups of figures 15%
anything and everything 10%
abstract (no recognisable subject) 5%
metaphorical / symbolic 5%
narrative - story is main focus 5%
landscape / cityscape 5%
botanical / floral 5%
animals / wildlife 5%
still life 0%
What evidence do we have for this conclusion from other sources?
  • Portrait painting was historically second after history painting in the hierarchy of the genres.  One might be tempted to describe this another way e.g. painting big groups of figures is more difficult than painting a single person and both are infinitely more difficult than painting anything else.  However the theory behind the hierarchy was slightly different - see quote below. (Interestingly still life which nobody seemed to have a problem in my poll has historically come bottom of the genre hierarchy - must be something to do with the few problems presented by things which don't move or answer back!)
The hierarchy was based on a distinction between art that made an intellectual effort to "render visible the universal essence of things" (imitare in Italian) and that which merely consisted of "mechanical copying of particular appearances" (ritrarre).Wikipedia - Hierarchy of genres
  • People tend to have a view about what they want their portrait to look like - and how well you're doing! Small wonder many portrait artists won't allow a sitter to view the portrait until it's nearly finished or finished.  The Wall Street Journal comments on the type of challenges presented by painting people in Picture, Picture on the Wall - For people who want their portrait painted, they often want to be seen as the fairest of all
  • It's particularly difficult on those who are painting well known figures.  The Telegraph this week highlighted Why is it so hard to paint a portrait fit for a Queen?
He has become the 133rd person to paint the Queen for an official portrait. And Dan Llywelyn Hall has become about the 132nd to be met with a bucket of slop from both professional critics and the public.
I think my conclusion is that portraiture involves the technical aspects of drawing and painting - but it is also about rendering a person and something of the character and sometimes the status of that individual - and that can be very difficult.  

For me successful portraiture is something which goes way beyond a successful rendering of a likeness - and yet for so many, they would be delighted if they could do just that!

My personal mission at the moment is to persuade somebody that it's about time we had a prestigious prize for Group Portraiture.  

Think about how many paintings we see in art galleries and museums involve large groups of people - and then think how many we see today in exhibitions by contemporary artists.  It's not a lot.

I'm beginning to think group portraiture is in danger of rapidly becoming a lost art.  It's nice to see it when it's done well - and I recommend anybody who can to go and visit the Annual Exhibition of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters to see the group painting featured in this - I regard it as an education in group portraiture in one painting!

Note:  The image in this post is an absolutely splendid painting of The Tarporley Hunt Club by Andrew Festing - a Past President of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters.  It can currently be seen (in truth it can hardly be missed!) in the North Gallery of their Annual Exhibition at the Mall Galleries until Friday 24 May.  My first reaction when I saw it was that he was going to earn an awful lot of commissions from that one painting.  Every individual in it is just that - a clear individual.  The painting is well composed and yet very animated and it makes you want to study it.  Festing's portraits can be found in the Royal Collections, the National Portrait Gallery, the National Gallery of Ireland, The Palace of Westminster and many of the major private and public collections in Britain.  He's one of the most popular portrait painters working today - and this is a 'Telegraph' article about him - Andrew Festing.  


  1. I stopped doing portraits a long time ago because people just see themselves so differently than the reality of what they really look like! Too much of a hassle! I still put people in my drawings now and then, but it's usually strangers I have caught while out with my camera, rarely people I know.

  2. This is where this comment was supposed to post:

    I'm surprised by the few responses too, especially since this was an easy involvement post.
    I would agree portraits being the most difficult since they are subject to more than a mere figurative depiction.

    Especially true if doing a portrait of family or a well known person. Remember the recent controversial portrait of Kate Middleton?


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