Portraiture at its most successful explores the human touch and conveys a psychology. The aim of portraiture is not just to create a replication of the person but to combine a likeness with a sense of the sitters’ character. When a portrait is produced there is a special bond formed between the artist and the subject of the painting, the end product is the culmination of this experience.
‘The art of painting naturalistically from life, although now seemingly in resurgence, is a counter wave to work produced from photographs which have an inherent drawback of flattening an image and stiffening the subject matter with its limited tonal range. Artists whom are rediscovering the organic creativity that nature has to offer whether it be through the movement of light as the sun arcs whilst the day passes or through the psychological relationship that is explored over the course of time it takes for the image to be rendered.
Currently in art schools there is what appears to be a discouragement of classical narrative and portraiture based art, conception and novelty is heralded over the traditional techniques offered at independent ateliers. Abstraction is continued into much of modernism and is favoured over images which faithfully represent what the human eye optically records. Painting from life has the ability to produce more painterly images which can eloquently resonate an eternal idea of the human condition, transcending time through an interplay of shadows and light.
Sight-size is a tradition whereby a person is positioned alongside the canvas and viewed at a distance by the artist. Standing back the artist is able to record a unity of impression when looking at the sitter whom is positioned at eye level. It is by making observations at six or seven feet from the subject that the artist memorises the visual experience prior to the engagement of the brush upon their arrival at the canvas. The scale of the sitter is recorded proportionately through strict measurements by means of a limited palette in naturally lit studios.
As far back as the sixteenth century artists such as Titian realised that by working from a distance a greater breadth of effect could be achieved by making visual recordings which encompass a unification of subject opposed to a piecemeal approach. It is presumed this breakthrough lends itself to fresco painting where pictures had to carry across a large space.
For many artists whom place importance on painting from life the last polygot was John Singer-Sargent whose ingeniously sophisticated manner of paint application built on the masterpieces of Spanish virtuoso Diego Velazquez. Sargent’s traditional basis for technique was counterbalanced by his modernity seen in the fresh and glowing finish of his portraiture. We see in works such as, ‘The Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’, which apart from their urbane elegance and glamour, transcend from physiognomical renderings into magnificent psychological images.
Sophistication for Sargent, Titian and Velazquez is not merely confined to exploring the truths of nature, it is also a product of their paint manipulation. Innovations in technique were advanced, through observations made when standing back a looseness occurred in mark making whereby when viewed up close the brush strokes are an abstraction only to magically fuse into focus when seen from a distance. At a time when artists were deconstructing convention, Sargent provided an alternative to the avant-garde.’
Extract from an article by Timothy Gatenby published in, ‘The Jackdaw‘ (2014)