What exactly is it that makes someone’s face distinctly and uniquely that person’s face?
This is one of the questions that is driving my portrait painting. I’ll say two things about this question. One thing is that I do know a few things that can answer the question. Some technical things, which I’ll explain in a moment. The second thing is that the more I think I know, the more I realize what I don’t know. This point is far more important and is somewhat philosophical but is also a statement of truth.
First the technical things about what makes anyone’s face uniquely the person’s face.
The universal answer is the eyes. And yes, the eyes are the soul. From a technical point of view, it is the nose that steers the positioning of everything on the face. This is from the point of view of the artist. If there are artists reading who want to improve their approach to portraiture, I suggest starting with the nose.
Here is the beginning of some of my paintings...
I always start with the nose and spend proportionally and exorbitantly more amount on time on it than on anything else. I might spend an entire hour on just the nose. Sometimes an hour is minimal.
I spent several hours over the course of two painting sessions on George W. Bush’s nose.
After the first session, I went to sleep thinking that I’d never be able to paint a portrait of him because I couldn’t figure out his nose. Figuring out the nose is like cracking the secret code of a person’s face.
There are parts to the face that don’t have a formal name as far as I know, but matter a great deal to the portrait artist. The triangular region going from the nose tip to the outer edge of the eye is incredibly important in getting the likeness of a person and that’s the reason why the nose has to come first.
The eyes are often the most satisfying thing to represent for many artists because you get your art to look back at you. But even the most amazing artists can position the eyes too close or too far apart if they go to them first.
As far as the eyes are concerned…
The “white” space on the sides of the eyes inform the shape of the eye. And the whites are not always white; sometimes they’re gray, sometimes even pink.
But if I continue this way, I will submit to the technical approach to art that I disagree with so much. There are things to learn, but it is not the technical proportions or perspectives alone that represent a person’s face, or anything for that matter. Representing a face is not about the placement of the paint on the canvas and its supposed accuracy. It is the fact that the placement of paint is as a result of looking.
But that’s only part of it and I can’t claim to know all of it. It is certainly also about the physical connection with the paint. And then there is the mystery. I honestly am surprised when I finish a painting and I was able to capture the subject’s likeness.