The Portrait II: or how to face it.

In a series of lectures I gave, one was about composition, from the great masters to now, how they built the scenes to frame them better and to give more attention to the subject or message we artists want. I’ll write later on about composition in general, here you’ll have just few examples on composition in portraiture.
But hey, you know that nothing better than practice yourself all these items. Only practice will make you better.

Here you will only find tips for you to think about. Tips that you don’t find in technical books.

The widow, by ©GBénard

Some years ago I was asked to do some designed drawings of animals for the Zoo, and without noticing I did all the animals facing left, however, when I do a human’s portrait I tend to do them facing front or facing right. When I was questioned why I did that I didn’t realise and it made me think, as after it the person who told me so, also told that’s quite normal to do that: represent animals facing left and humans to the right. Intriguing… but if you’ll think a bit it can be quite obvious.

Face front, profile left or profile right will give quite different results on a portrait.
Also important is the emptiness, if you leave empty space on the right, on the left or none at all.

Follow my thoughts: face me!

by ©GonzaloBénard

If you read the brief history of the portrait, you realised that it started in painting with a perfect profile, like the Giovanna by Ghirlandaio, and now it’s quite common to do a portrait facing straight. This twist from the head of the sitter changed totally the posture and reading of the portrayed one.

Also the question of the light: if the light comes from the right, left or front.

So now we have 3 items to study when we do a portrait:

Light source, Empty space and Facing
All about composition after all.

And how you project yourself:

As we are not animals, the idea we have of them is of another kind of being that we face, but we are human beings, and as so we have 2 different behaviours through others: or we face them or we follow them and their gazes.

Portrait of Natascha, by ©GBénard

Once we write from left to right (we, the Latin alphabet users) we also read the same way, from left to right, so if you have a portrait of someone turned to the left side we will face them. It’s physical. However, if we see-read a portrait in profile looking to the right side, we will follow his gaze, it will be more mental.
But curiously, when we have a face front portrait, with the eyes looking straight also, we have a mental and physical portrait.

Mr. Gypson, by ©GBénard

Now try the different postures with the different gazes: facing left with straight gaze, facing straight looking to the right or to the left and facing right and looking straight. See the results. See how the mood change completely the message you want to send with that portrait.

Mr. Gypson 1, by ©GBénard

Mr. Gypson 2, by ©GBénard

Another subject to study is the light: if the light comes from the left it will make you follow it, from left to right. If it comes from the right it will make you stop and face it, like a wall there saying to where you should stop looking. Or if it’s a straight light, like a flash for example, it will make you focus on the face itself. Try the different approaches.

Now check the power of a portrait just by flipping the subject. or the Light.

Feather1, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

Feather2, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

Now that you see the changes with the postures of the head and the source of the light, try to play with the empty space: imagine a portrait in which the half left of the image is black (or dark background), the face is following the rule of thirds and is profile facing right with the light source from the right: The whole image reading will go to the light which will boomerang your reading to the profile/face, and to the eyes, to the gaze that will make you go again to the light. This way you’ll follow the gaze but the light at the end will make you also read his physical face.

self-portrait, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

self-portrait 2, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

Try the opposite to see the result and you’ll end up getting lost in the emptiness.

self-portrait 4, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

self-portrait 3, by ©GBénard 2012 (Paris)

and when you do a portrait, you want to portray, not to get lost in the darkness.
Do you?

Portrait of Natascha 3, by ©GBénard

Portrait of Natascha 3, by ©GBénard