Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Painting Portraits

Often when I tell someone I like to paint portraits, especially other artists, I get a pitiful stare.

Portraiture has a lousy reputation these days. There's a prejudice against painters spending their time painting other people's likenesses. After all, isn't that what cameras do, make exact recognizable images of people? Why waste time replicating what technology does so well? It might seem a legitimate quetion, if it didn't miss the point of what it means to be making art.

Efficiency is nice, but using a camera instead of a paint brush doesn't make a portrait better, just different. The inclination to favor a camera over the brush is fueled by a confusion between the tool and the product. And sometimes intentions get lost as well. What a photographer wants to achieve with a photograph is not necessarily what a painter wants to achieve with a painting. Besides the sheer enjoyment of the hands-on experience of using a sensuous creamy medium like oil paint, painting a portrait for me means I can explore things like structure, anatomy and gesture. I want to know what it is that makes a person look the way they do. Getting a likeness, to be sure a requirement of portraiture, is only part of the picture, and ultimately the result of my explorations.

Tools artists choose to use mostly tell us about the comfort levels they enjoy with their media. Nowadays we have such a plethora of new technology available for making art, there's a tendency to favor the new over the traditional as if the new will give us newer insights or better results. But in the end tools are only tools, and they're only as good as the artists that use them.