Breathing Room Needed for Painted Portraits

Photographs look just fine when they are close cropped...just browse through any current magazine.

This is a news photo of Oprah Winfrey that I found on the web. It is flattering and is what I call a "close crop" - even the top of her head is cut off. as a photo, the image works.

However, as a painted portrait of  Oprah, this would NOT work. 

A well painted portrait of a person, will take on a "life of its own" and quite simply, "living" people need to occupy more of their own space.

The Old Masters knew this and here are some examples of portraits with what I call "enough breathing room," i.e., space surrounding the head:

Mrs John Amory 
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 49 7/8" x 40"

This canvas is large although the head is smaller than life size. Note that the space around the head appears to be even  greater because of the added sky.

Mrs Timothy Rogers
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 50 1/4" x 40 1/8"

There is an old saying that "clothes do not make the man, but they sure do make the portrait." 

John Quincy Adams
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 30 1/8" x 25"

This portrait is not currently on view so I don't know if it is unfinished or simply painted to fit into a spandrel frame (i.e., a rectangular frame with a flat oval insert).

In any event, the oval design device and the "outdoor" device give this painting a lot of inches of space surrounding the head.

Robert Hooper, Jr.
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas 50 3/8" x 40 1/2"

Note the sky device used in this portrait to give added "breathing room." 

And just to show how you can crop a "photograph" - I have cropped this one for you. (You are looking at a photograph of a painting after all). I rotated it to make it look more "interesting" and close cropped it according to the current style.

Not bad as a photo pix, eh? BUT you will never ever see something like this hanging in a museum in the section that displays the old masters. It would appear claustrophobic - no matter how well painted.

It is kind of funny but when you see beginners in portraiture draw or paint from a news or magazine photo (usually a celebrity pix) the "original" art just never looks quite right. 

And despite the obvious copyright problems a painting like this just isn't right. But most of us don't know that close cropping is likely to be the problem.

Now you understand what your eye knew but your head hadn't figured out.

1 comment:

Talya said...

I've just learned about close cropping from Leffel's book, and was a little resistant to it. Seeing your examples really brings the point home. I’m definitely going to give this approach a try! Thank you so much for all this great information--and enabling comments :)