Essentials of a Successful Portrait

"Clothes don't make the man - but they sure do make the portrait."
Karin Wells, Portrait Painter

The idea is to "frame the face." What looks good in a painting is not to be expected to look good when "walking down the street." Even the clothing the Old Masters used were largely made of drapery and they added, buttons, bows and other "fancies" if it served the composition.

Clothing, background and props provide needed color in a painting (not just the portrait) - the Old Masters included some representation of each of the following five colors - in every painting: 

Red, Yellow, Blue, Black and White

It doesn't take much, just a touch and it can even be as subtle as the color of wood (i.e., pine for yellow, cherry for red). If one of these colors is missing, the eye will hunger for it and the portrait will leave the viewer somehow "unsatisfied" - no matter how well painted.

The first time I ever found this little painting secret, it was hiding in plain sight in all of the works of Vermeer. And sure enough, I began to see it everywhere - when I knew what I was looking for that is.

Clothing and props allow the portrait painter to establish a strong composition.

Mrs Samuel Quincy
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 35 1/2" x 27 7/8"

This portrait is really "made" by the addition of that wonderful hat.

Mrs James Smith
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 49 5/8" x 40"

Note the fun flying blue drapery. Obviously invented by the artist as a necessary design device, I would guess that it was also an excuse to add a cool blue into an otherwise very warm area of this painting.

Mary and Elizabeth Royall
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 57 3/8" x 48 1/8"

The Red, Yellow, Blue, Black and White colors in this painting are obvious. The drapes provide the props for this portrait even though I suspect that the sitters probably didn't sit around on a rumpled yellow cloth playing with a black ferret. 

But these design devices work visually - and this is the point of it all.

Mrs Ezekiel Goldthwait
by John Singleton Copley
Oil on Canvas, 50 1/8" x 40 1/8"

Adding blue to a painting is usually made easy when a piece of sky is included. However, Copley made good use of that wonderful blue in the chair.

Rev Pennicott (Historical Portrait)
by Karin Wells (after a "lost" portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence)
Oil on Linen, 20" x 24"

This one is by me and I include it here to show that colors can be subtle - and still be there in order to satisfy the eye. 

In many portraits of men, you simply have to get creative and look for "excuses" to sneak some representation of those five colors into the painting.

There is an indication of a red drape behind the figure. The coat is black over a dark gold inner vest with dark gold buttons (hard to see here but there). The neckpiece is white. And the sky has a touch of blue and a little red-gold in order to repeat a bit of the vest/drape color.


Peggi Habets Studio said...

Great tip for portrait artists. I never heard that before. Thanks!

Anonymous said...


This is a very interesting observation. Just learned new at 7.04am, absolutely wonderful!


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