Blog / 2023 / Painting the Signifiers in a Portrait
August 8, 2023
This is Part 7 of my portrait blog series and, unlike the articles about mouthes and noses for example, this one is more open to interpretation, because we’re talking about what I like to call signifiers.
Generally, the word “signifier” is defined as a symbol that represents an underlying concept or meaning. In the context of portraiture, I use it to refer to elements that express a lot about an individual and that can be included in a likeness to make sure the audience knows who’s being portrayed. Some common signifiers are the particular color of lipstick that the subject favors or the shape of their facial hair.
The most obvious example of a signifier in my own work comes from these two portraits of the same woman, Nat. Part of a larger series of “before” and “after” paintings of women in the midst of big life changes, the likeness on the left here is pre-breast-enlargement and one on the right is post.
Before we’d ever met in person, Nat asked me if I had a preference for what she wore to the photo-shoot, which is a fairly common question for people getting their portrait done. I replied that, while I might change the color of her shirt, I would depict the neckline accurately, so she should choose a collar that she really liked. This was my standard answer, and I didn’t even think twice about what it might mean to Nat in particular.
When she showed up to the first photo-shoot, I noticed the turtleneck of course, but it wasn’t until a year later when Nat returned wearing a sweater with a deep v-neck that the high collar gained a special importance.
Mostly, signifiers are going to be more subtle. It’ll be something like the lay of a person’s hair, for example. Noticing whether it rests close to their skull or it’s fluffier and then translating what you observe into paint can make the difference between a so-so likeness and convincing portrait.
Often subjects don’t recognize what qualifies as a signifier for them, but the subject of this portrait, Eleanor, made it easy for me. During our interview, I asked her what’s one thing she adores about her appearance—a question that’s wildly useful if your goal is to paint a portrait that the subject could look to as a touchstone for the things they love most about themselves. Eleanor responded without hesitation that it was her hair. Before hearing this, I’d already planned to enjoy the play of colors and light that her hair would give me, since her locks are truly stunning, but, knowing it was important to her idea of herself, I really let myself relish it!
Not every portrait has one obvious signifier, and most are a combination of several elements. In Nolan’s portrait, for example, the color green features prominently because it the subject said he really liked it. I even added an extra little detail on the collar of his shirt, a nod to the way he adored his best friend.
For Richard, I did the same—emphasizing his favorite color, which also happens to be green, and bringing in a little something from his life too. In this case, the flowers raining down behind him are from one of the subject’s most beloved artworks, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.
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!
To receive an email every time I publish a new article or video, sign up for my special mailing list.
If you enjoyed this post, Ko-fi allows you to donate. Every dollar you give is worth a bajillion to me!