Face Making

Artist Gwenn Seemel’s bilingual blog about art, portraiture, free culture, and feminism.

Engaged and engaging

2008 . 03 . 01 - Comments / Commentaires (5)

Traditionally, a portrait painter focuses on getting the subject’s features just right in order to capture that person’s likeness. In my work, I’m more interested in how an individual moves and breathes than in the precise line of that person’s nose. After all, in daily life, we don’t see each other frozen in time, our features perfectly still. We are alive and animated, so it makes sense that a portrait should be a record of the way in which the person carries her-him self instead of a documentation of the exact shape of the individual’s eyes. 

To make a dynamic portrait, I must meet the subject so that I can observe the way she-he moves and breathes. But I don’t work directly from life, painting as a person sits for me. I’ve found this method to be a sure way to drain the subject. After all, there are few things more uncomfortable and, eventually, boring than having an almost-stranger examine your every pore for hours at a time! I find that, usually, portraits made in this manner have either a solid and determined expression (if the artist is talented and the model exceptional) or a tired and resigned look (if the chemistry isn’t right). Neither of those options necessarily speaks to who the subject really is.

By photographing a person, I avoid all that. As I take pictures of the subject, we talk about ourselves. We get to know each other, and, once I discover a topic that particularly interests her-him, I press it. I look to engage the subject, because an engaged face is an engaging one.

photos of Beth Kirk Smith

I take around a hundred photos of each subject. Here are just twenty from my interview with Beth.
While photos can sometimes be revealing and insightful, they are not an end for me. They lack a certain quality that I look for in a portrait, and that is why I turn to paint. Photos are the briefest moment in a person’s existence, and, to me, they often feel that way. With my paintings, my intent is to re-imbue that moment with a sense of time and continuity.

photo of Beth Kirk Smith

This is my primary source image for Beth’s portrait. I looked mainly at this photograph as I painted, but this image and the final painting are not exactly the same. The photos from which I work are visual notes of my impressions and they don’t contain all the information that I put into the painting.

portrait of Beth Kirk Smith

Gwenn Seemel
Beth Smith
acrylic on twill
14 x 16 inches
(detail below)

detail image

In the end, I suppose the question should be put to my subjects. Does a photo more accurately represent you? Or does my painting? How and why?

- Painting portraits from photos
- Photography’s gift to art
- The secret lives of everyone else

CATEGORIES: - English - Photography - Portraiture - Practice - Process images -

Gwenn Seemel on Liberapay     Gwenn Seemel on Patreon

(5) Comments / Commentaires: Engaged and engaging

-- David -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

You could sit a camera in the corner, set it to automatically snap photos of a person every five seconds, and it might possibly catch a moment where the person is doing something that “looks like them.”  Photographs often capture people with eyes half shut and in mid-expression which makes for an awkward representation. In a photograph, the person’s image has passed through a camera. In a painting, the image has passed through a human being. Never in my mind’s eye do I recall a face half expressed—instead I see the complete communication. People seem to understand that a camera might depict them with their face momentarily squished. A similar painting would be a huge insult. While capturing a person’s “essence” requires skill no matter what the medium, the painting is a more human statement than a photograph in my opinion.

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-- Deb -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Good insights, David.  I agree…the portrait Gwenn gifted me is a great honor and a delight to my eye whereas I have very few photos that feel “flattering” of my face.  Gwenn has depicted the gracious survivor within me that is strong, broken open, and emerging.  I recommend this process to invite this gifted artist to show you yourself!

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-- Homager X -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Looks like a mannequin.

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-- Homager X -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

...I think it’s because of her right eye and the rigidness of the lines of her cheeks, feels kinda frozen. Loving the background and hair.

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-- Claire -- 2009 . 05 . 21 --

Gwenn puts her knowledge of the person and his or her personality into her paintings. I think her method of photographing the subject during a conversation with him or her helps Gwenn not only to get to know the subject, but also it helps her obtain photos that capture “real” moments—when the subject is relaxed, thinking or talking about things that matter to him or her, and not self-conscious images or fake, posed smiles.
I have had the great privilege of having two portraits of me painted by Gwenn, and I feel that they capture aspects of my personality in a far more vivid manner than photos could. To know what I look like, a photograph is more appropriate (e.g., on a passport or an ID card), but to know who I am, the kind of person that I am, look at the portraits. They do not strive for a pixel-perfect reproduction of my physical form, useful for gathering statistics or for implementing facial recognition technology; these portraits show movement, they show life, even humor, and they are true works of art.

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