Back in my high school days I played guitar in a few bands. Not the best guitar player around, but I did take it seriously and tried to improve. At one point I was very frustrated with my progress so I decide to get back to the basics. My style was very bluesy and I decided to go back and learn from the early blues guitar greats. I would then work my way back to modern music. I’m not sure how much it improved my playing, but it was a great exercise in music appreciation!
15 years later (give or take…who’s counting!), I found myself in a similar situation with my photography so I did a similar exercise. I started studying Victorian era photography which lead me even further back to painting. Many of the first photographers were painters. It stands to reason that they approached photography in much the same way that they approached painting.
Take a look at this painting of Samuel Adams. It’s a very simple portrait of one of the founding fathers right? This is a very famous portrait that demonstrates a very important concept.
Portraits should say something.
What are those papers in front of him? What is he holding? What is he pointing at? Upon further examination, maybe it’s not so straightforward. This portrait is telling you something. You may not know what it is, but who cares. You know there is something here to be discovered, and that’s enough.
Francisco de Goya
Another example is this portrait of Francisco de Goya and his family. Again there is much more going on here than just the Duke standing around with his family.
If you look closely you will see that every person in this picture has a personal item on display. They each have something that is important to them that is sending an individual message. Even the way they are standing and interacting with each other is saying something about their personalities and relationships. On top of that, the painting taken as a whole has an overall message about the family! What a great family portrait that shows another key concept.
Portraits should be personal to the subject/s.
There is example after example of painted portraits that demonstrate these concepts. Once you train yourself to spot these characteristics, the many more portrait examples of their absence will scream at you. 😛
Of course, none of this was new news. I “knew” this already just like everybody else, but when I took a look at my stuff I realized that perhaps I didn’t know as much as I thought.
An Exercise For You
- Go forth and look at some old portrait paintings and tell me which are better; those that are personal and communicate a message or those that have some person staring back from the canvas?
- Now go back and look at your portfolio. I did and I wasn’t happy with what I saw. Hopefully this part of the exercise goes better for you.
Knowing the concepts and practicing them are two different things.