How I paint my portraits

5 years ago

The making of my portraits starts long before I put brush to canvas. It begins with a photo-session. I work from photos I take myself of my subjects during the course of a conversation, and this interview has a few important benefits:

1) By asking my sitters lots of questions, I'm distracting them and hopefully getting them to forget that I have a camera pointed at their faces.

2) At the same time, I'm encouraging them to talk about themselves so that they will look engaged--an engaged face is an engaging one.

3) Finally, I'm trying to gather information about how the subject sees themselves so that I may include that in the work.

During the course of our conversation, I take upwards of 300 photos of each of my subjects. I work at taking the best photos possible since they help make the painting part of the process easier.

From the several hundred images I take home with me, I choose one primary source photo to work from. That photo has to have the right structure--attitude of the neck and shoulders as well as general expression on the face--but not necessarily the right feel since I can adjust the feel of the image as I paint.

Using the grid method and working from the primary source photo, I draw in charcoal directly on the canvas, and then I paint. I work on many paintings at the same time, always oscillating between wide swathes of color and smaller brush strokes to pick out detail and structure. I like to think of it as making a mess and then cleaning it up, and making a mess again and cleaning it up again, on repeat! This video shows some of that back-and-forth:

For more process images like these, visit any of the posts in this section of my blog.

painted portrait of a woman

Gwenn Seemel
Seeing With Your Heart
acrylic on canvas
10 x 10 inches
(detail below)

detail image of a painted portrait

In the case of Seeing With Your Heart, it's clear from the Little Prince references that I incorporated something from my interview with the subject in the painting. But, even in the portraits where the allusions to my conversations with the sitters aren't as obvious, they're still present.

It's essential to know something about the subjects--and even to be a little bit in love with them--in order to paint proper portraits instead of simply making figurative work.

- Where likeness resides / Où l'on trouve la ressemblance
- Painting versus photography / La peinture par rapport à la photographie
- This (for example) is a real person.

Gwenn Seemel is a French-American artist who blogs bilingually.

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