The Thin Line Between Portraiture and Caricature

So you’ve just finished that portrait and something doesn’t seem quite right, or worse still it was a commission and the subject is viewing the finished piece ashen faced. What could have gone wrong? Most people expect a portrait to be an accurate picture of the sitter, a snap shot made in paint. But this can go drastically wrong.

Whilst most portrait artists would tell you that they require the sitter to be silent, and the studio to remain free of conversation, because it is a distraction and may stop them achieving that creative high, the truth may be something more basic. When we paint we put a little of ourselves into the work – but of all types of art, the portrait is expected to be about the sitter and not the artist. We should strive to immortalize the sitter rather than embellish the truth with our own appreciation, or otherwise, of their character. And if you develop a strong opinion about the person in front of you, that is almost certainly going to influence how you put pigment to paper.

So how does a portrait artist put personality into a painting? It is simple, you adjust facial characteristics to fit a widely recognized set of rules (physiognomy – now considered a pseudoscience, but the basic interpretations are still applied in modern society.) If you doubt this, just take another look at those political cartoons in the daily newspaper – it’s the same process taken to extreme.

So look again at that portrait and see if it is a truthful representation of the sitter, or whether you have subconsciously introduced a degree of exaggeration, however minor, to the face. Here are a few examples of how your feelings about the sitter may have influenced the final work…

  • Small eyes, set closely together – this person is cunning and treacherous. Must make sure I get paid.
  • Eyes look away from the viewer – this person has a guilty secret or they’re just plain unreliable.
  • Deep upper eyelids – suspicious, he thinks I’ve overcharged him!
  • Eyes are widely spaced – kindness and integrity. Oh, she can pay next time.
  • Nose is rather long – curiosity, it killed the cat
  • Nose curves down – cupidity, she thinks she’s got a bargain, know I should have charged more!
  • Thin lips – envy, wants to be as good an artist as me
  • Thick lips – sensual, MUST concentrate on the painting, MUST concentrate on the painting…
  • Mouth is narrow – self-righteous, didn’t concentrate quite enough with the last one…
  • Receding chin – indecisive, his mother is paying for the portrait
  • Square chin – forthright, knows what she wants, and is brave enough to look at the truth.





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