Face Making

Le blog de l’artiste peintre franco-américaine Gwenn Seemel. Les articles sont en anglais et en français, et souvent ils sont bilingues.

Painting in a traditional realist style is like doing a cover song.

2018 . 02 . 26 - Comments / Commentaires (11)

- -—[version française]—- -

Why I love Amy Sherald’s portrait of Michelle Obama and Kehinde Wiley’s portrait of Barack Obama.

Cover songs—of both the audio and visual varieties—are a little like hyperrealism to me and a lot like fan art. If you want to know more about how all art has a nostalgia/imitation element to it, I recommend my book about copyright, which you can read here for free.

Amy Sherald's Michelle Obama

Amy Sherald’s Michelle Obama 2018

To those who say this portrait doesn’t look enough like its subject, I get you. I wish it captured the Michelle Obama that I see too, but that’s not really the point. It obviously captures the Michelle Obama that the artist sees, and that’s what a portrait is supposed to do.

Kehinde Wiley's Barack Obama

Kehinde Wiley’s Barack Obama 2018

In the past, I’ve had critical things to say about Kehinde Wiley’s work, but that doesn’t detract from the fact that I love it.

official White House portrait of President George W Bush 2008

Robert Anderson’s President George W Bush 2008

I have an irrational dislike for portraits in which a person’s extremities are chopped off without reason, and this portrait of George W Bush by Robert Anderson has to be one of the most egregious examples. I’ve hated it from the moment it came out.


CATÉGORIES: - English - Featuring artists - Portraiture - Practice - Reviews - Video -

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(11) Comments / Commentaires: Painting in a traditional realist style is like doing a cover song.

-- libby fife -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --


I guess I make a distinction between pictures of people where the artist has simply applied their style to the image (such as Chuck Close in my opinion) and those images that seem to be just photo representational (like Anderson’s image) and then those in between images (like the two examples of the Obamas). And I guess underlying all of that, for me anyway, is just what exactly is coming through. The one of George W. Bush creeps me out. And while I love the image of Michelle Obama (and the juxtaposition of her grandeur against the quilting motif) her skin appears gray and ashen though I know it fits with the piece overall.

I guess I look for a little something that is going on. What can I learn about the subject? Is the whole thing interesting or way over my head or just straight up creepy? Did the artist really get involved or is it just a “stylized” portrait? I am not crazy anyway about the notion of working strictly from photographs. There is way too much room for error because you MUST STICK TO THE PHOTO OR ELSE! You could end up fusing the person’s head to a telephone pole because that is what the photo shows. I enjoy pictures of people that have other things going on. Those types of paintings would be better for me to have around and look at every day.

Anyway, what a loaded topic! Thank you for reading a lengthy answer.

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --

@Libby: Your answer brought up a feeling in me that I thought I was over. It really has nothing to do with you. It’s my insecurities. It’s when you said that artists “applied their style.” I’ve been accused by certain elitist academic types of using my style as a gimmick, as adding it on top of a regular/real portrait. It used to hurt a lot, but I thought I was over it. I guess I’m not.

Like I said, that really has nothing to do with your comment or what you’re trying to say. Except that it makes me wonder how often artists are applying their style as a kind of gimmick, instead of painting in a way that comes naturally to them. In some ways I feel Chuck Close actually is doing a gimmicky thing, just from what I’ve read of him and his process, but I can’t ever know what’s actually going on in his head. I do admit that I find his portrait of Bill Clinton super disappointing, as I explain in this article, but that generally I love his non-hyperrealist work.

Anyway, I agree that photography is a great tool that can also be completely misused way too often. And yes, this whole thing certainly is a loaded topic! Thank you for your reflections!

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-- libby fife -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --


Foot in mouth? Why not! Yikes! So sorry about that if it was insensitive. I didn’t know that this was maybe not something to touch on.

Upon reflection, I would guess that we all do it to one degree or another-our style comes through no matter what. And maybe it’s wrong to assume that the artist isn’t fully invested in their subject just because the artist seems to be working in a routine way or even in a way that doesn’t appeal to us. Perhaps my own prejudices about one person’s style over another are coming through.

I guess too that additional layer of perceived meaning could be what sets some work apart. I know I am drawn to images of people where there seems to be something else going on besides just the image of the person.

I worry a lot that comments such as mine might be more of a tearing down type of comment rather than a building up kind of comment. We are certainly challenged to look further than just the surface when it comes to any art. So, I am glad for your response!

Thank you again!

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --

@Libby: Not at all! It’s totally my insecurities. I appreciate you bringing them to light, even if that wasn’t your intention! And it’s always interesting to hear about how another person sees an artwork. Even if I don’t agree, learning about other perspectives makes me think. smile

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-- Cathy Hasty -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --

This reflection touched on my sensitivities and insecurity about not having more fluency in my work.  I work from my own photos and sometimes on top of my own photos.  I am working to be more fluent with the non representational aspects of my art.  The reference to cover songs feels yucky when I apply it to my work.  For me a visual art “cover song” would be using someone else’s painting as a reference for a painting with little differences.  There is a place for copying the “masters” in this way.  I remember hearing an author talk about re typing an entire book that he admired to teach himself the cadence of good writing.  Realistic painting is more of a display of a achieving or accomplishing a mastery of one way of representing a subject.  I can admire the craft and personally I do not enjoy looking at completely realistic work as much as more interpretive work.  There is some interpretive work that loses me too.  Thanks for the conversation.

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --

@Cathy: In any discussions of cover songs, I think it’s important to remember that we sometimes only know the cover versions of songs. For example, with Elvis and “Hound Dog.” Many white artists like Elvis grabbed music by black artists, repackaged it, and had great success. I’m not saying that the white versions are better or more deserving of attention, just that with cover songs and with art more generally it’s hard to pin down what makes a piece good or relevant. I guess my point is that I don’t mean cover song as an insult, but as a complex (and, yes, sometimes detrimental/appropriative) expression of our biological need to imitate each other and make meaning that way.

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-- Linda Ursin -- 2018 . 02 . 26 --

All art has a value but personally, I prefer artists to do their own thing. Whether that’s re-mixing the old and new or more traditional art. As long as there’s personality in it and you can tell it apart from ‘any other painting’ if you understand what I mean. I like a wide variety of art but as everyone else, I have my preferences smile

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 03 . 05 --

@Linda: Personality is definitely part of the appeal for me. I wonder, though, if artists like Anderson think they are showing a lot of personality. I mean, I’ve never been inside the head of someone who paints like that, but I imagine that they feel they have personality…

The closest I’ve come to understanding someone who paints like Anderson is with an artist I interviewed years ago for my blog. He was the official painter of Supreme Court Justice Rehnquist, and we had a perfectly interesting and normal interview about painting from life versus painting from photos. Years later, he started sending me threatening emails about how I have to take down the interview. Removing his name from it isn’t enough for him. I have to delete it because he wants to control everything about him on the Web. With his erratic and irrational behavior, he’s definitely showing lots of personality. (Not the kind I particularly like, but he definitely has some!)

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-- Gareth -- 2018 . 03 . 21 --

To be honest I find all of the images have a dead feeling to them. I can’t explain why. The two paintings of the Obamas definitely have more to them and are much more appealing than the painting of Bush. But I’ve seen more communicated in a pencil drawing by an artist such as Mervyn Peake (okay they were like caricatures) than these works ... they just seem to be lacking something. But then they are official portraits - thank goodness that’s not my thing.

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-- Kate Powell -- 2018 . 03 . 21 --

I haven’t felt comfortable discussing these but this seems a good place.

I am so sorry that Michelle doesn’t look like her, and I hear you on this is how the artist sees her, but I almost don’t recognize her so that bothers me.  I do understand the greyed nature of her skin, and appreciate that this artist has made statements about black people being overlooked by painting their skins a greyed brown.

Obama’s looks more like him—recognizable—but I really am not a fan of this artist’s work.  I looked a this other paintings and IF putting him in front of foliage was important, why not make a statement about his past—part of his energy—and use lotus blossoms or something relevant from Hawaii?  I don’t “get” it—and I think that something this incongruous should be able to be understood, even if it is looking at other images of an artist’s work.  I’ve not found that yet in his work.

I am tired of the whole debate over style.  I know mine has changed so much over 40 years, with medium changes having a huge effect on style.  I think that looking for a style per se means you are not looking at the subject with interest, or not enjoying your medium.  When I see your style, I see (whether this is true or not) that you love the energy that making marks rather than areas of colored-in spaces.  I FEEL that love you bring to it.  When we confront an artist who has hung onto a comfortable “style” too long I tend to be a bit bored, and that may be what you are feeling about Bush’s painting (other than the cut off feet, gads, i hate that, see no reason for it.)  It is why, I feel, I am bored by many “realistic” painters who are not bringing something fresh to their realism.  I really see this in watercolor artists, because i can be in love with one “realistic” piece and feel blah about a technically correct piece—and a lot of it is that the first has a light twist to the realism, or leaves something unfinished which draws me in, has me finish the scene in an interesting way.

Thank you… not had a chance to realy discuss this with anyone.

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-- Gwenn -- 2018 . 03 . 21 --

@Gareth: Ya, I think that the world of official portraits is not much fun…for anyone involved!

@Kate: I read somewhere that the different flowers in the President’s portrait represented Hawaii and Chicago. I don’t remember where I read that, but maybe that makes a difference for you…? Ultimately, I understand the disappointment, especially with the First Lady’s portrait, but I prefer to stay on the positive, which, for me, is the hope that official portraits don’t have to be so boring anymore!

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