Is a portrait more true if it’s painted from life instead of from a photograph? I don’t happen to think so, but I know a lot of people who do, so I decided to learn more about the logic of working from life by asking artist Tom Loepp about his more traditional—and maybe more romantic—way of painting a portrait.
Loepp has been doing portraits for 35 years, and he has worked under a wide variety of circumstances, from portraying a person entirely from description to translating the dot matrix of a small newspaper photo where each eye is only a few spots of ink. He is not primarily a portrait painter, but when he paints a likeness he usually works from life. I interviewed Loepp over email last week.
How does an ideal portrait sitting work for you?
At first I meet with the person and sketch them not putting much importance on the sketching but on observation of the person and discussing the project. On portraits of children I paint immediately as they are from the beginning very natural and have short attention spans. A sitting can be as short as two hours or as long as the light allows. Nothing is cast in stone, anything can be changed and it can be entirely started over.
Do you ask your models to remain still and pose for you? Or do you observe them as they go about their activities?
I want the person to be animated so I can see them in as many different poses as possible.
How is working from life important to your finished portraits?
There is a beauty to reality (being in the presence) - form, light, movement and detail - that is visible from life. I have said that a painting from life is the portrayal of a person over an extended period of time and a portrait from a photograph is a portrayal of a sixtieth of a second of their life. Even if this is true, one is not necessarily more or less valid than the other.
What is your process for painting posthumous portraits?
I either use one good photograph provided or as many as I’m supplied. I ask questions pertaining to skin quality, eye color, hair color and quality, personality and accept any other information offered. In one case I was given a black and white of the person’s head (pre-color days) and had to do a 3/4 portrait. I rented a period dress from a movie supplier, hired a model to pose in the dress and made up a setting.
How is the feeling of those portraits different for you than those likenesses you create from life?
I think the feeling is mostly a difference in my memory of the procedure and in the memory of the subject’s experience. They are obviously two entirely different experiences for both artist and subject. It is very important to me to fully experience things that I paint, meaning: to see them in person. That of course does not mean that the creative process cannot be fully meaningful from say, my imagination or my interpretation utilizing a photograph.
Do you ever work from photos even when a subject is still alive?
I would if the situation necessitates the use of photos. Most important to me are the results especially in a collaborative effort such as a portrait. Not just do I have to be satisfied but the client must be equally satisfied in their portrayal.
How do the portraits painted using photos differ from those you create from life?
Considerations are different so there may be some visible differences discernible to the viewing public and definitely visible to me. I don’t believe that a person could look through all the paintings on my website and pick the ones done from life or photograph. Using logic someone could maybe pick two paintings that I used photos on. Before reading the answer below browse my website and make a list of the paintings done from photograph.
The answer is there are three on the entire website that are combinations with photos; Prague, The Girls at Bethesda Fountain and Huckleberry Hot Springs. Everything including all the portraits were done entirely on the spot from life.
For more information about Loepp’s work, visit www.tomloepp.com.