Blog / 2023 / Painting the Breath and Movement in a Portrait

August 12, 2023

This will be the last in the portrait blog series—or the last for a while anyway. We’ve been through where to start as well as the nose, the eyes, the mouth, the teeth, the skin, and the signifiers. Today I’m going to share about the core of portraiture: the way a person breathes and holds themselves.

It may seem strange to focus on the movement of a subject since we’re talking about making painted portraits, which are resolutely still images. But the way a person carries themselves is something that you can capture in a picture without animation. In fact, you should really work at evoking their breath, because the individual you’re painting or drawing is never still, and that means their friends and family won’t recognize them if your representation is completely motionless.

The best place to look for breath and movement is in the subject’s posture. The set of the subject’s spine will change depending on their mood or activity, but they probably have tendencies that you will notice if you are looking for them.

Personally, I know I have two habits that are quintessentially me: a military-style straight posture and one in which my spine is completely curved because I’m seated with my knees drawn up to my chest and my chin resting on one knee. The perfect posture comes from my dad’s reminders growing up—reminders that still play in my head regularly though I haven’t lived with him for twenty years. The chin-to-knee curve is just as much a part of me, though, and either one would evoke something of who I am in a portrait of me.

two portraits of women
portraits of Miss Bettie from 2019 and Kristin from 2008

Most people are not especially aware of their own posture, so asking them about it won’t help. Try observing them in multiple settings: standing, by themselves and with other people, seated in a comfortable chair and in a less cushy one or even on the floor if they’re open to it.

two portraits
portraits of George from 2010 and Curnis from 2010

You’re looking for the particular tilt of their head as well as the set of their shoulders, but, more than that, you’re looking for the way they take up space, because as Hannah Gadsby puts it in her memoir Ten Steps to Nanette:

“The only universal body is our breath, because breath is the only thing that all human bodies experience. And, as such, it is something we all must share, not just with each other, but, in one way or another, with all living things on Earth.”

I’ve used the words of the Australian comedian on my blog before, in this video, but they bear repeating.

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

When you paint a person’s breath and movement, you’re painting the core of them. It is, as Gadsby says, the one thing we all share, but it’s also the one thing that’s most quintessentially us. No two people move and breathe in exactly the same way. It’s shocking how much the way we carry ourselves transfers into the imprint that we make on others.

acrylic painted portrait of a man with a beard, created by Lambertville artist Gwenn Seemel
Gwenn Seemel
acrylic on paper
7 x 5 inches

Lloyd 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.

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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