Portraits and ‘Reality’

Psychological portraiture: Lorenzo Lotto

Psychological portraiture from the Renaissance: Lorenzo Lotto

No one who has looked at my other blog #adailyselfreflection will be surprised when I say that for as long as I can remember I have been fascinated by human faces and the figure as a subject for art. I have worked a good number of portrait commissions over the years, and portraiture presents very specific challenges to any visual artist concerned with interpretation, expression and the subject as a final coherent image.

In the days of portrait painter as jobbing craftsman/woman, the main challenge was realisation of likeness. Viewing those works from the perspective of the 21st century, we would tend to notice a startling lack of originality, although creative innovation would not have been high on the agenda for the jobbing portraitist; even today, the issue of ‘likeness’ interestingly remains the dominant factor for many people in judging the success or otherwise of a portrait. But increasingly the portrait became as much an expression of the artist as much as of the subject, and the creative tension this generates is what lies at the heart of a successful work. Clinical likeness without insight and without the artist’s soul does not make great art. But the artist’s soul in the complete absence of insight or likeness is unlikely, generally speaking, to please the client.

What of ‘likeness’ itself? Is it possible to achieve definitive likeness? We’ve all experienced photos which “don’t look like us”, and yet they are as ‘real’ as those images of the self we are happier to identify with. However,  generally speaking most people have a distinctly recognisable essence. It’s usually in the bone structure, hair and posture. That’s why a likeness can be captured in a few lines.

The more detailed the drawing/painting, the harder it is to maintain a likeness though, because the part of the brain concerned with detailed recognition of faces, the ‘fusiform gyrus‘, is very good at spotting tiny differences. A mouth may be perfectly captured in terms of shape but inaccurately drawn in terms of size and placement in relation to other features. The difference may be in millimetres but it makes a difference. Readers of the Jo Nesbo series of crime fiction will be familiar with the fusiform gyrus, because one of the detective characters has a highly developed form which, in conjunction with an excellent memory, gives her a preternatural talent for recognising criminals.

But there are some people who are a real challenge to draw. It may be because their features are all very regular, without any one strong characteristic feature. It may be because of a pronounced asymmetry (although careful observation ought to use this to advantage). But it may also be because they have a particularly mobile face, otherwise known as a visage du pantomime. And here I am again indebted to Jo Nesbo for this bit of fascinating know-how, and I’m pleased my recent immersion in crime fiction has contributed to my professional life. The possessor of the mobile face or visage du pantomime basically makes much more use of all available facial muscles (and there are a lot) which can result in a radical change to their appearance. I was intrigued when I read about this in The Redeemer (a great read by the way) because it explains so much about some subjects. Maybe even about the way I perceive myself after so many months of close scrutiny.

Who knows? But I think all of us have many more different ‘realities’ of appearance than we sometimes care to acknowledge.


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