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What Makes a Portrait Great?

July 1, 2016

I read a Facebook post yesterday about the the unveiling of a new portrait of Clare Christian, the president of Tynwald. (For those who don't know, Tynwald is our Parliament here on the Isle of Man). The post questioned the cost of such a commission but became a public discussion about whether a photograph would have served the purpose equally well and would have been much cheaper.  I’m not going to get into politics here, but whilst walking Ruby, our Border Collie, I got to thinking about the public perception of photography as a portrait medium (the cheaper option?) and what actually makes a great portrait. I am a painter but I do love a good photograph too and to capture the essence of a subject is an incredibly difficult skill in both paint and through the lens of a camera. To me, a portrait in any medium should not only convey a likeness, but should engage the viewer and tell something about the sitter.

Photography has always been considered a poor relation to painting, even more so since the advent of digital photography, which has diminished the perceived “skill” level even further. However, it is undeniable that some of the greatest photographic portraits can equal their painted cousins in capturing feeling, mood and subject.  




First is the iconic portrait of Churchill by Yousuf Karsh which undeniably captures his doggedness, his strength and fortitude. This is the man we recognise, the British Bulldog Churchill. Second is a painting by William Orpen which shows a younger Churchill, burdened by responsibility but recognisable as the stalwart he is yet to become. Both are wonderful but can anyone say one better represents the sitter? Some of Annie Liebowitz’s portraits are mind-blowingly wonderful as are those of contemporary British photographers such as Chris Killip who captured not only the Manx so brilliantly (so is dear to our hearts) but the people of the North East of England and many other working communities. (Pictured, Chris Killip's portrait of Andrew Moore of Balladoole Farm.)



Back to painting and my opinion as to what makes a portrait great?

A portrait need not be an absolute carbon copy likeness of the subject.


It should give the viewer an insight into the character or mood of the sitter and at the very least create an enquiry or dialogue about the person represented. The viewer has to feel engaged or the portrait has no interest. This portrait is of Somerset Maugham by Graham Sutherland. Writer of The Moon and Sixpence, Rain, and Of Human Bondage it conveys in its pose a sense of the 'ennui' that pervaded his writing and life.

Generally, the face or body language is paramount. The clothing, environment and ‘props’ can be important clues but are not always necessary to convey the character of the subject. 

The great portraitists Van Dyke/Velasquez/Singer Sargent/Vermeer rendered their subject’s faces with exquisite care but painted their garments, chairs and drapery with bravura brushstrokes.

These important elements of composition, expressed status and societal position and had to be subordinate to the subjects themselves.

If the clothing/surroundings are rendered in the same focus, they diminish the power of the character which is being presented, giving a photographic illusion and making everything flat. This often leads observers to question the necessity for painting over photography.

It’s all down to personal taste. Given the choice, how many people would choose a photograph over a painted portrait of themselves? Painting has a status which photography has struggled hard to keep up with.  I imagine that the cachet of being immortalized in the flattering style of a court painter would win hands down but would such a representation tell us anything about the sitter or be a true record of the subject?

Photophobic as I am, I’d ask Jenny Saville or if it weren’t too late Lucien Freud to do the job. Warts and all it would be me.




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