The Delicate Balance of Portraiture

Blythe portrait.jpg

There is something very personal about portraiture.  As an artist, I always try to enhance my subject through my realistic interpretation, softened by touches of impressionism.  I start with a grid to create an accurate underdrawing, guaranteeing a fairly accurate outline and likeness from the beginning.  From there, it becomes a painting process of coloring, blending, shading and painterly touches to bring the subject to life. 

My tendency in portraiture is to lean more in the direction of what I would term a Renoir style rather than say a Thomas Eakins’ style.  Renoir’s faces in his portraits for the most part are very soft and blended, where Eakins had a more linear and defined style.  In this portrait my clients requested a few changes after their first viewing.  Their personal preference is to have a more defined face, showing more character.

I saw the request as a new challenge and worked to achieve the changes without sacrificing my own interpretation.  My overall goal in portraiture is not photographic realism but to create a flattering impression to the viewer while maintaining a likeness. 

I liken the process of a commissioned portrait to that of a home builder building a spec home versus a custom home for a client.    On a spec home the builder will have the natural inclination to build a home that suits his/her personal taste.  On a custom build a builder has to work with the client and build what suits the client’s personal taste.  A client might even throw in a change order to tweak something last minute.  In the end the builder wants the client to be happy even though the change order may complicate and lengthen the process. 

At this point in my career, I’m enjoying mixing up my subject matter, including accepting more commissioned work.  Whether it’s a portrait, a landscape, a private home, a maritime scene or even a still life, having someone excited about having me paint something for them is very gratifying.  In this case, when Blythe asked me if I would be interested in painting her and her niece, I knew it was exactly the kind of challenging and rewarding project that I would enjoy. 

The relationship between Blythe and her only niece was very important to consider in the composition of this painting.   Blythe has high hopes for her, a junior at Harvard, and sees her as representing the next generation of highly successful professional business women.  The setting is one of the function rooms at Harvard.  High ceilings, a large granite fireplace, old textured plaster walls with rich, dark red paint all helped to create an appropriate setting for these two accomplished women to pose.

After working together for several hours, rearranging furniture and lighting, trying a variety of poses and getting a good idea of what my client was looking for, I ended up with several hundred photos.  I narrowed it down to a select number of poses that I thought would create a nice composition and Blythe made the final pick.

I volunteered early in our discussions, if we felt the composition was lacking in any area, I could enhance the background by substituting whatever we felt would be more meaningful.  The client’s home bookcase was added to the composition to symbolize the intellectual pursuit and academic achievement of both women.  On the shelf shoulder high to Blythe, are two books that she has authored entitled Shaking the Globe and Fit in Stand Out, along with two books written by her husband.  The elephant bookend symbolizes strength.  The porcelain antique pottery was added as an artist’s touch.  I felt its oriental look in a small way represents Blythe’s world travels and at the same time ties in the bookcase with the Oriental rug.   The Oriental rug and the bookcase both took an inordinate amount of time, but add a richness and interest to the portrait. 

I hope you enjoy seeing the finished painting.  I enjoyed the entire process, from the beginning Boston photo shoot (Please Come to Boston, The Rest of the Story, and Night at the Museum) and all the laughs over glamour poses to finally signing my name.  I thank Blythe for this wonderful opportunity and for the journey.

To learn more about the inimitable Blythe McGarvie you can visit her website at

I would love to hear from those interested in portraiture what your favorite portrait is or hear who your favorite portrait artist is.  It would be hard for me to choose as I love many different styles.  I like John Singer Sargent’s grandeur in his large portraits….. Van Gogh’s brushwork and colors…. Renoir’s softness…  Norman Rockwell’s painterly quality, Frans Hal’s strength and boldness etc…