The Essence of a Portrait

Philadelphia Museum of Art - my favourite portrait by Henry Ossawa Tanner "The Annunciation"

As an artist and a person, I have been changed by a five day tour and seminar in Philadelphia, sponsored by Image Journal in Seattle. It took place in the finest museums & galleries, viewing the best in portraiture of artists on this continent, accompanied by seminar-style discussions on relevant topics. The experience was so much more than I can discuss in a single blog, so I will be highlighting only a hint of what I learned about portraiture, since that is my main interest.

Our guides were Greg Wolfe (Founder/Editor of Image Journal) and Ted and Cathy Prescott. The Prescotts are renown artists – Ted (a sculptor) and Cathy (a portrait artist) residing in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. There were over 20 of us on the tour, and I made new friends from across Canada and the US. I was also able to glean much from Cathy about painting techniques & planning and her own work.

Greg Wolfe, Cathy and Ted Prescott, John Hougen - our guides

Two mornings we visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to study the Rembrandt exhibit “Faces of Jesus” led by docent and Pastor John Hougen, of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Philadelphia. We were also fortunate to have a presentation by Mark Tucker, one of the chief art restorers for the exhibit.

A portrait is not about getting a likeness or getting it to look like a photo. It is about reality and truth. When you look at a person’s face and form, you see more than a symbol – you see their essence or countenance. Rembrandt’s technique, which he taught to his students, was to investigate the subject he was painting and to connect with the content in a way that would show the soul and spirit of the subject(s). Every face and form in the Rembrandt paintings said something about  the person. A successful portrait not only looks lifelike, but will breathe character through its eyes, gestures and stance. A face looks the way it does as a result of the trace of a person’s history – the story of the person’s physical world. In portraiture, the goal is to allow the viewer to see a person’s interiority.

We viewed all of the portraits and sculptures of Christ, demonstrating how depictions have progressed and changed throughout history. The history of portraits and painters was fascinating – how they’ve changed from the “grand manner” format (with a list of rules, no less) to become more personal and meaningful.

I aim to bring life and character to the faces in my portraits as I continue to learn, mature and improve my art. Below is a quote that I found meaningful:

Robert Herrie: “Yours should be the drawing of human spirit through human form.”