Monday, May 25, 2020

What makes a good portrait and the importance of the artist-sitter relationship

Kathleen Soriano has provided a couple of short talks on Portrait Artist of the Week which I think are relevant to all those thinking about participating in Portrait Artist of the Year in future
  • The first, last week, was about what makes for a good portrait
  • the second, yesterday, was the artist sitter relationship

Below is a summary of the main points she made while she spoke to camera - with some additional notes from me.

What Makes for Good Portrait?

Still from Sky TV Live Portrait Artist of the Week 10th May

She highlighted six key elements in "Kathleen's Six Steps" (which you can listen to yourself in the Sky Art Live Video AT 1: 21: 20) - and cited examples of particular portraits and artists to amplify what she means

1. A really well thought through composition

This should be:
  • a perfect fit with your sitter
  • what does the sitter's presence / body / character say to you
  • how can you place and frame what you see 

The key point here is that the artist has thought about how to place the sitter on the support - and why.

2. A good sitter artist relationship

For Kathleen, she feels strongly that
  • both artist and sitter need to work at forging a connection
  • the artist really needs to understand the attitude of the sitter
  • if both are communicating and working together then a better portrait tends to be the result

She highlighted a couple of women sitters who had both turned up having obviously thought beforehand what to wear and how to pose.

Rachel Hunter chose a very difficult pose - and held it throughout the sitting

More on this below - and why I think Kathleen ended up in near hysterical laughter yesterday morning!

3. A good set of props

Kathleen likes a bit of narrative, a bit of story telling within a portrait. The props provide context, to tell a story about the sitter.

The story telling needs to say something about the essence of the sitter - something which goes beyond the lines on their faces or the shadows which the light creates

the ballerina Lauren Cuthbertson painted by Luis Morris
in the context of her ballet shoes and strapping on her feet

In relation to Portrait Artist of the Year, the irrelevant backdrops seem to me to act as a counterpoint to this notion.

However props in the self-portrait submission do have a point and can play a very useful part.

4. Likeness

"We need a likeness"

Kathleen acknowledges that one of the conventions of what is a good portrait is that a good likeness should be achieved.

However she also highlighted that for some artists it's also important to convey their sense of likeness in the unique way they paint. She cited Francis Bacon as an example.

(MaM: However Bacon said a "A picture should be a recreation of an event rather than an illustration of an object")

5. Sense of Humanity

We are people looking at pictures of other people - we need a sense of connection

She highlighted Duncan Shoosmith's portrait for Cleo Laine for a really strong sense of life

Cleo Laine by Duncan Shoosmith (commission for Final of PAOTY 2019)

6. Surprises!

She would really like to see something new, fresh and unique in terms of how people approach contemporary portraiture

crop of commissioned portrait of Nile Rogers for Royal Albert Hall by Christabel Blackburn

By way of example, Kathleen highlighted the freshness of approach of Christabel Blackburn to portraiture.

The Artist Sitter Relationship

Yesterday Kathleen Soriano tackled the Artist-Sitter Relationship. (Portrait Artist of the Week 1:23:??) I couldn't quite work out where it starts in seconds but it's straight after the contribution from PAOTY Artists re lockdown.

Earlier in the Live Video Kathleen almost seemed on the point of hysteria at Will Young's response to her question of whether he felt any responsibility towards the outcome of the portrait - to which he promptly answered in the negative!

Then when her talk on the Artist-Sitter Relationship came up later I realised why!

I did also wonder how come Will Young was doing the sitting. I was commenting on a friend's portrait of him this morning as follows
I counted three telling offs he got during the course of that programme. 
I started off thinking "but didn't they know he was the only person ever to walk away from Strictly because he didn't like being told what to do - and couldn't cope with the physical discipline"? 
The bit that got me was the hysterical laughter from Kathleen when he abrogated any responsibility whatsoever for the outcome of the sitting!!! 

Here's a summary of Kathleen Soriano's thoughts on the artist - sitter relationship - and I have to say I'm 100% with Kathleen.

She sees it very much as a shared responsibility
  • the artists needs to understand the sitter
  • the sitter and artist need to connect emotionally
  • the sitter needs to work hard at the sitting
Artists need to be open, warm, receptive and interested

It's interesting isn't it that the better portrait painters are also those who can talk with their sitters? Except when they're doing the initial measuring and blocking in!

She sees the sitter as being responsible for:
  • giving good face / attitude. 
  • demonstrating poise and 
  • holding themselves well 

All of the above contributes enormously to a good outcome.
(MaM: Or maybe explains why so many portrait painters resort to the use of photographs as a very necessary complement to sittings from life.)

In the end she sees a portrait as being something that the artist and sitter create together - and both need to be happy with the process and outcome.

I added to my notes at the end "except if you're Will Young" who did not seem to see himself as being in any way responsible for the outcome.  I'd have been hysterical too!

PS I've very much enjoyed the Portrait Sitter of the Week series and do hope that Sky Art will realise this is a massive marketing success - and we need some more - with more of Kathleen's short talks about portraiture and Tai's Top Tips about painting!

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