Tuesday, May 30, 2017

I SEE YOU: The Art of Capturing a Likeness

I've been thinking a lot over the past month about a comment I received more than once while painting my Face Off demo at the Portrait Society of America conference. Several observers said, "You nailed the likeness. You really captured her soul." I know it was meant as a compliment, but I wonder if these kind folks realized the gravity behind what they were saying. To go from "nailing the likeness" to "capturing the soul..." well, that's rather profound. And I've been thinking about what it really means to see someone, and translate that image to marks on canvas in a way that is meaningful.

So what is behind the art of capturing a likeness and what does it require? Is it more than simply copying a person's proportions and tones? Is it a natural ability or intuition that some are just better at than others? Who are some artists who do this really well?

I'll attempt to answer these questions as best I can, but before I get into the technical aspects of painting a good likeness, I think it's important that I offer some brief insight into my worldview.  My pastor gave a sermon a couple of months ago about Hagar, from a series on the life of Abraham. The title of the sermon was "The God Who Sees."  In the account from Genesis 16, Hagar becomes pregnant by Abraham and gets banished by Abraham's wife Sarah to suffer in the wilderness. In spite of every party involved wronging the other (Sarah abuses Hagar, Abraham is complacent, Hagar despises Sarah), God still blesses each of them in the end. We know from Scripture that He gives Sarah a son in her old age, and that Abraham goes on to father the nation of Israel. But the part of the story that really moves me is when God sees the lowly servant woman Hagar, in her oppression and despair, and calls her by name. He blesses her and promises that her son will grow up to be a mighty warrior, with descendants too numerous to count. She responds to Him in verse 13, "You are the God who sees me."

As my pastor says, "God's seeing is a form of compassion." He sees into us - sees our souls, the essence of who we are, and He cares for us. And He doesn't just see us in our lowly state; He does something about it. He overcomes sin with grace, and He blesses the oppressed.  Do we see people the way God sees them? To have compassion in their suffering, and in spite of their flaws? I certainly hope I do, and painting is the channel I use to see and bless others.

One of the common threads that ties us all together - and gives me reason for believing in a Divine Creator - is RELATIONSHIP. God chose to create us for the purpose of being in relationship with Him. And our earthly lives, for better or worse, are shaped by relationships more than anything else. That is why I love painting people. Although I am introverted by nature, I think it's unnatural to completely avoid fellow humans. I relish the time alone in my studio, but I find it even more important to spend time with people, whether they be my family and friends, other artists, or my models.

Whatever your worldview, I think it's pretty obvious that if you are going to do your human subjects justice, you need to actually care about them. The common thread is that people MATTER, and their intrinsic value is far beyond quantifiable worth.

So... from a technical standpoint, how does one capture a likeness? Obviously, strong drawing skills are a must. An artist must be able to identify the unique relationships between shapes and values within a face.  Overall structure and carriage are more important than detail. We recognize friends and family from a long way off because we know the shape of their head and hair, and the way they carry themselves. Eye color, wrinkles, and even skin tones, are relatively unimportant when it comes to likeness.

It helps to talk to the model and become familiar with their mannerisms. It is possible to paint a child from life and capture their likeness, even though they can't sit still. If you take the time to observe them carefully, you will notice positions, head tilts, or expressions that they keep returning to, if just for a split second. Choose one of those familiar gestures, and you'll be on the right track. Impose your own ideas about a pose on someone... and the spirit will be lost.

I used to try to make the model fit my idea or concept by posing them exactly how I imagined they should look in my head. Once in a rare while, the painting would turn out, but most of the time, the resulting image looked stiff and unnatural. I've discovered that it works best if artist and model can collaborate together on the pose, so that both are bringing something of themselves into the final work.  Below are some examples of artists who truly excel at capturing a person's spirit and soul.

Rose Frantzen

Max Ginsburg

Jeffrey Hein

Nancy Guzik

Jeremy Lipking
And while it's hard to follow such amazing examples of painting who SEE people, I offer here a few of my own works:

"Colquitt" (14x11", class demo painted from life in about 4 hours)

Detail from studio painting, "Native Daughter, Modern Woman"

"Judy in Blue," 18x14", a portrait of one of my dear Texas artist friends

Detail from studio painting of my daughter Cecelia, "Looking Through"



  1. Anna - Thank you for boldly sharing your beautiful heart, faith, and passion with such grace and humility. Love your work - awestruck by your paintings of your daughter which illustrates "caring" about your subject makes a difference!

    1. Thanks, Debi! Certainly having an emotional connection to the subject helps (like my daughter!), but I think that "caring" is key. Finding something to relate to, empathize with, etc. :-)

  2. Such a beautiful, thoughtful, and valuable message! Thank you for sharing such this inspiring example of God's grace - you are so right, we can offer that same deep sense of caring to each person we meet, and allow it to bring life to our portraits - you certainly have!

  3. Thank you for weaving scripture into your blog in such an inspirational way. "You are the God who sees me" will remain in the forefront of my efforts at portrait painting, and more importantly, in my relationships. I can only hope to capture a particular mannerism as beautifully as you do. It just might be possible, with much help from above!

    1. Thanks, Candance - it is more than possible! Good luck in your efforts to see your subjects. :-) It just takes practice.


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