Blog / 2010 / Painting Portraits from Photos

March 26, 2010

I always work from photos to create my paintings. Though I think that a life drawing practice can be useful to an artist, painting an entire portrait while someone sits there staring back makes little sense. The psychological tension combined with the interminable boredom of a subject who is literally subject to the artist usually makes for a narrow interpretation of the sitter’s self.

Portraits painted from photographs, on the other hand, have the potential to capture the life—the movement and the breath—of the subjects. A camera helps me to still a moment and catch a feeling. Then, using the photos I’ve taken as well as other less concrete observations I’ve made, I can paint them. I like to think that my paint re-imbues the fleeting images that are the photos with a sense of time and flesh.

When I do commission work, I interview my subjects as I photograph them. My questions are intended to help me discover how my sitter views themselves, but they’re also a way to defuse my camera’s unrivaled ability to make people freeze up and pose! I get my subjects talking about themselves so that they can forget themselves.

And that’s how my photo sessions with Becca’s family worked for the collaborative portrait series Subjective, but, for my own family, I took a different route.

dog struggling to get out of a woman’s lap
photo by Gwenn

With my mother, for example, I knew that I wanted the finished portrait to emphasize how my Maman embodies motherhood for me.

dog struggling to get out of a woman’s lap
photo by Gwenn

In order to do so, I wanted to refer to the Christian icon of the mother and child, and I wanted to show my Maman cradling her dog Roo.

a Brittany and a woman
photo by Gwenn

This premeditated approach to the photo session changed everything. My mother may have been ready to collaborate, but the dog was less convinced!

dog sitting in a woman’s lap, barking
photo by Gwenn

And that’s ironic considering that this fifty pound Brittany is actually happiest when he’s being held.

dog cradled in a woman’s arms
photo by Gwenn

Roo’s objection focused more on the fact that we wanted him to be cradled, but, after several photo shoots, we got the dog to play along.

Brittany cradled in a woman’s arms
photo by Gwenn

And eventually we caught a moment that matched my vision for the painting and could serve as a primary source photo.

Becca photographing Annie for her painted portrait
photo by Gwenn

Becca’s photo shoot for her portrait of my mother was much simpler. This is what my interviews usually look like too.

a woman talking and the same woman with a Brittany Spaniel on her lap
Becca Bernstein and Gwenn Seemel
2010 and 2009
acrylic on wood and canvas
36 x 60 inches (combined dimensions)

Both our finished portraits exploit the wonders of photography without merely trying to imitate either that medium or life itself.

combing her hair
photo by David

My photo session for my portrait of my partner for the series was out of the ordinary in that he took his own picture in the mirror. With the portraits of my family members for the series, I wanted to emphasize the intimacy I have with the subjects, and, since David always photographs me for my self-portraits, it made sense for him to photograph himself as well.

Becca photographing David
photo by Gwenn

For her part, Becca took David outside and asked him to do Tai Chi, since he is a mind-body movement practitioner and instructor.

David Vanadia
Becca Bernstein and Gwenn Seemel
2010 and 2009
acrylic on wood and canvas
36 x 60 inches (combined dimensions)

To catch Subjective in Corvallis, visit the Arts Center by the end of March. It’s open Tuesday through Saturday between 12 and 5 PM.

The Arts Center
700 SW Madison
Corvallis, OR 97333


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