It surprises me, sometimes, to hear about the questions that people ask professional artists. Urban sketches and plein air painters alike have experienced odd questions and comments from passersby, but they’re not alone. K. Hu can attest to this, as you’ll see below. A woman had asked her if she paints “anything besides portraits,” and my first response is to wonder why? Perhaps the patron was looking for a specific subject matter; we could speculate endlessly, but that’s not the point. The point lies in Hu’s answer…
On Painting Portraits by K. Hu
“Do you paint anything besides portraits?” was a difficult question to answer. I had a small selection of still life and figurative paintings under my belt, but they weren’t the pieces I wanted to show the world. They weren’t the pieces I was the most proud of or that moved me the most. They weren’t the pieces made with the most dedication and skill. Almost exclusively, I had only portraits in my portfolio at that time, and for good reason.
Along with landscapes, still life, and figurative subjects, portraits are one of the most common subjects in art. But they’re not common at all, and that’s precisely why my portfolio has been comprised of mostly portraits. When she asked me about this, I felt my response immediately: Many artists go outside and paint a fountain, a building, a landscape and vista, or stay inside and paint fruit, bowls, etc. Anyone can paint a different view of the same fountain or another lighting on the same mountain, but most people, in their lives, will never be painted. They’ll leave behind photographs that may not be preserved or loved by future generations. A portrait, on the other hand, captures someone who means something to you. People will wonder who that person was, and who you were as the painter, even long after you are gone.
In 10 years, that fountain will likely still be there, but in 10 years you will be a different person; you will grow and learn and age. You’ll never be the same exact person as you were at that time in your life, with the experiences you had until then. Portraits are one of the most unique subjects you can paint, because it’s one of the few that is ever changing in it’s mortality. You’re capturing the legacy of a person. You’re learning more about them through their face, their eyes, their smile, than they maybe even know themselves. There is a connection between an artist and his/her subject that’s very hard to replicate in any other facet of art.
Many of the students in my Artists Network University classes want to learn portraiture so that they can paint their loved ones. Sisters, husbands, wives, children, grandchildren–these are people who mean something to my students. They’re the people who have changed or will change their lives in every way. They’re life-altering people who the students love, care for, know intimately, make them who they are, and they’re one of the most important subjects of art. I’m so proud of a student when he captures the gleam in his wife’s eyes, or the innocence another student captures in his little brother’s cheeks. They’re capturing individuals are who very important, and making them into beautiful pieces of art that will last for generations after we are gone. ~KH
One can see that it’s not just the challenge of portraying the human face when painting portraits–it can also be the beauty of connecting with another spirit, and of preserving a loved one’s memory. Hu’s methods for approaching portraits in this way has touched my heart. Tomorrow, her next online portrait painting class begins at artistmagazineUniversity.com, where she’ll divulge the “how” to paint portraits, now that she has so eloquently expressed the “why.”
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