Welcome to Art Friday! As promised in last week’s edition, this week I will discuss the only portrait I have ever made that I feel 100% satisfied about. The only ‘perfect’ portrait in a collection of several hundred (I haven’t actually counted all my portraits). The physical portrait hangs on a wall in my house and every time I pause to look at it, I find it hard to believe I made it. This is it:
The portrait is of Johnny Flynn, a very talented musician and actor. Recently he has been focussing more on his acting, playing in a string of highly acclaimed London productions with other amazing people like Stephen Fry and David Tennant. I first got to know him as a musician, somewhere in February 2008, when I was living and studying in Cork (Ireland) on an exchange programme. However, when I spoke to him at the gig he was playing there, I found out he played the lead in one of The Netherlands’ biggest films: Crusade in Jeans, which is based on my favourite Dutch children’s book. So I actually knew him before 2008, I just didn’t know it!
The photo this portrait is based on is a beauty too, made by a photographer called Ronald Dean. Which brings me to the first of the reasons that this is a good portrait: the reference photo is good too. My favourite reference photos are high resolution, have a ‘brisk’ or ‘crisp’ quality and which show every detail of a face. In other words: photos that are not edited to remove every flaw in a person’s skin. These little flaws is what makes a face interesting.
The second reason that this is a good portrait is that the reference photo is not (too) obviously posed. I draw a lot of actors and when I’m in love with a specific character in a tv show, most of the high res photos available will be promo shots. Promo photos are probably the most staged photos in existence. Unfortunately, screenshots, which are not staged, are usually of lower quality and definitely don’t have that detailed crisp feeling, because they are not photos but film. The problem with staged photos is that they don’t feel real. To me, they always look like the actor is thinking “Right, I wonder how long this shoot will last. I’m getting kind of hungry. Hold on, let me readjust my cool face. Or should I go for sexy now?” In essence, I think, photos need to be carefully staged on the photographer’s part, but not on the subject’s part.
The previous explanations for why I like this portrait so much concern the reference photo. Of course I personally have something to do with it too. 🙂 The first reason is simply that I think the technique is perfect. My goal in portraiture is not photorealism. I want to be able to see that something is a drawing. I try to capture someone’s character in my portraits, not copy a photo exactly. If you put the reference photo next to my portraits, there are usually a lot of differences, even when my portrait is a perfect likeness. In this portrait of Johnny Flynn my technique is exactly the way I want it. Not photorealistic, but detailed and precise and an excellent likeness.
The final reason I like this portrait so much is that I feel it captures Johnny perfectly. I already mentioned I try to capture character, and in this case I feel I managed to do exactly that. When I drew this portrait I had met Johnny two times in the flesh and both times I had the opportunity to talk to him. As such, I was able to work from a very brief but nonetheless first-hand experience of Johnny as a person. This is a privilige I do not often have, but I think it makes a difference. Of course you can deduce a lot about who someone is from their work as an actor or a musician, but it isn’t a complete image. Talking to someone for fifteen minutes doesn’t give a complete image either, but just sensing someone’s body language, the way they speak, feel, smell, it all leaves an impression that I use when I draw a portrait. I drew Johnny again about a year later (see above) and I think the same is visible in that portrait. I just don’t think that one is perfect on a technical level.
All these factors combined mean that this is the only portrait I have ever drawn that I am 100% satisfied with. Do you agree with my assessment? Do you see elements that you feel could be improved? What do you feel are the most important qualities of a good portrait? I’d love to hear your thoughts!