Blog / 2023 / Painting the Mouth in a Portrait

July 30, 2023

Now that we know how to paint the brow and the nose and ears as well as the eyes, it’s time to tackle the mouth, because, as John Singer Sargent—the infamous painter of the Madame X and the often reluctant portraitist—once said:

“A portrait is a painting with something wrong with the mouth.”

Sargent is referring to the subtleties at play among lips, teeth, tongue, and gums. Too often, when we’re working on a portrait, it’s easy to overwork the mouth as we try to get it right, and that extra attention can make the mouth seem separate from the rest of the composition. Either that, or we give up on it before we’ve really captured it.

detail images of the mouthes in four portraits of children
Exhibits A, B, C, and D: detail images of portraits of Moe, Audrey, Violet, and Mira

I like to think of the mouth as the window to the soul, though I know that cliché is usually applied to eyes. Still, I think it’s relevant when we’re talking about the mouth too, and, to prove my point, please turn to Exhibits A through D, which are all the mouthes of children.

Kids aren’t as inhibited as adults. They haven’t learned to control their expressions yet and that’s especially true in the mouth. Every thought that passes through their minds comes out in the mouth—if not in words, then in twitches and tugs of the many muscles in and around their lips.

painting process by Gwenn Seemel, Lambertville art
painting process for Jen’s portrait

Though most of us eventually get better at lowering the blinds on this particular window to the soul, we never manage to completely close it. You can really see it with someone like Jen, whose portrait process is shown above. The space around her mouth changes a lot over the course of the animation, because I’m trying to capture the childlike wonder and silliness in my friend, and that lovely part of her personality is most obvious to me in her mouth.

Jennifer Fritch, acrylic painted portrait, created by Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on paper
7 x 5 inches

Jen is part of Friend Request, a series of paintings of people I met after leaving social media. For more about how to hire me to paint you a portrait, check out this page.


August 12, 2023

These are the rest of the articles in the portrait series: where to start and painting the nose and ears, eyes, teeth, skin, signifiers, and breath and movement.

Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!


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