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…

The Long and Short of It ~ The Rest of the Story!

A couple of blog posts ago, I wrote about my upcoming portrait and my whirlwind trip to Boston for the photo shoot at Harvard.  Now, as I’m getting ready to start painting the portrait I realized that I never really filled you all in on how it all went.  I posted a quick, “it all went well on Facebook” but I thought you all might be interested in hearing more of the story. 

Upon reflecting back I find myself remembering  the long day (up at 4:30 am, 6:30 am flight to Boston, met my client at 2:00 pm, Harvard photo shoot 3:30 pm, flight home arriving in Newport News, VA at 10:30 pm, home at 11:30 pm) as a positive, productive, adventure filled work day.  The flight was on time, I carried on my camera equipment and nothing was lost, I had a good lunch at Legal Seafood, my client was on time and looked radiant for the photo shoot.  Her niece was on time, her red dress a perfect choice.  I got the digital shots I needed, took the subway back to Logan Airport, my plane left on time and next thing I knew I was home and it was all behind me.  It was a good day!

That’s one way of looking at it all but it just doesn’t do the day justice.  Here is the rest of the story!

Having the alarm set at 4:30 am I woke up early not wanting to sleep through the alarm.  I’m not a good flyer (a few too many close calls).  I decided to go through security and subject myself to radiation instead of the strip search pat down.  I thought the titanium rods and screws in my back might set off the metal detector and that with my luck I’d be getting the radiation and the strip search!  Well sure enough the alarm goes off, I start to sweat, feeling like people are looking at me and thinking I’m a terrorist (mustache, scary looking).  I had to go through again, doubling the radiation. Turns out it was my watch!   Fortunately no strip search but my picture is out there somewhere in cyberspace.

My wife booked the tickets online and requested an aisle seat.  I board the plane, eyeing my boarding pass and seat number.  I get to the last row, where there are three seats on the left and two seats on the right of the plane.  Sure enough I’m in the middle of three seats in the last row of the plane, next to the bathroom and there is no little window to look out!  The plane is totally packed, the girl next to me is sniveling and coughing telling her friend across the way that she is barely hanging in there!  The guy to my left is huge, leaving no room to move.  I’m starting to get claustrophobic now and thinking germs.  “Where is my Purell?’  I’m truly in the cattle car.  Gone are the days of flying the corporate jet to photograph a subject. 

I landed safely in Boston, grabbed a Dunkin Donut coffee roll at the airport and I’m feeling better.  I have a lot of time to kill so I head to Copley Plaza to wander around the Mall and have lunch before meeting my client at 2 pm.  I wandered the halls of the Copley Marriott for a while admiring the large original oil paintings that the hotel has collected.  I wandered the shops, tried to catch a few winks in a comfy hotel chair etc…  Meanwhile my client had left a very thoughtful message on my wife’s cell phone that I was welcome to hang out in her luxury high rise suite at the Marriott since she was going to be out and about.  I don’t know how to check for messages on the cell phone nor did I even know I had a message!  I could have been lounging in the lap of luxury but instead I found myself sleeping in a hotel lobby.  Bummer!   

2 o’clock came.  My client graciously allows me to enjoy the Boston skyline from the luxury suite while she gets ready for the photo shoot.  She reappears in a few minutes all dolled up, looking like a million dollars.  She had had a massage in the morning though and informed me that she was worried her hair might go flat.  Now down in the lobby, her elegance and high heels were turning heads.  It was amazing how quickly the doorman opened the door for us.  Next thing I knew we had a cab and the door was opening.  I was taking in all the chivalry when I realized I followed her in the same side of the cab.  This made her have to scoot across the crammed back seat of the Taxi. “What kind of gentleman am I” I said to myself!

We start heading to Cambridge and Harvard.  The taxi cab driver barely spoke English and was all bundled up in a winter coat.  The heater in the taxi was on full blast and it was unbearable.  It was in the high 50’s outside and sunny.  My client's hair starts to go limp, beads of sweat are on my forehead as she asked the driver to please turn the heat down.  He recommends opening a back window.  She was taken back by the driver’s rudeness and replied “I’d rather not as it will ruin my hair”. 

He drives right by our destination having not listened well to our directions.  The meter kept running as he ineptly tried to figure out how to circle back.  No tip for him! 

My client’s niece meets us and takes us to the Harvard room for the photo shoot.  I see all of the large windows, it’s still sunny and the lighting looks good at that moment.  As they go and the niece changes I start setting up my tripod, rearranging furniture, test the lighting etc…  The time is passing, it’s getting later in the day, the room is getting darker.  I didn’t want to have to use a flash.  I wanted natural lighting.  Where are they? 

Well the tall heavy lamp that I dragged across the room only had a 60 watt light bulb in it.  The niece and I go running around Harvard trying to find a 100 watt light bulb.  The building maintenance guy gives us a 60 watt curly, environmentally friendly light bulb and informs us that that is all the school has in order to save energy.  All my plans for natural light with some ambient light (the lamp) are quickly disappearing. 

I ended up for the most part holding the camera and shooting quickly with a flash, like you would imagine in a super-model photo shoot.  It wasn’t what all my prep work had prepared me for but it was working. 

The subway ride back to the airport from Harvard should have been easy.  But now that AirTran was bought out by Southwest Airlines the airport gate drop off wasn’t quite clear.  I ran back and forth across the busy arriving and departing traffic from terminal to terminal, asking people where AirTran is and got multiple answers.  Again the sweat beads up on my forehead.  Back on the subway-bus I go, hoping to get to the right gate.  I had flashbacks of OJ running through the airport in the old Hertz commercials. 

Anyway, I arrived at AirTran in time for my departing flight, went through security making sure that I took my watch off, and arrived home on time.  It was an amazing day and that is the rest of the story!