“It doesn’t have to look like your subject, but it should look like it” – The Irish Times
So you want to: paint a portrait
A good way to make friends? Or a whole new way to mess with them? As a portrait painter, humanity is your subject, and as any budding cubist knows, it doesn’t even have to look much like your sitter. The best portraits convey the meaning of a person, and for award-winning artist Una Sealy, this has always been her obsession: “As a child, I only drew people. Influenced by comics like Bunty and Judy, it was always girls or girls with a mustache when I needed a boy. Sealy went to art school, but you don’t have to sign up for full-time education. Ask your local art school or college of further education about evening classes.
artist as teacher
Artists are often very happy to teach and arts centers can be a great source of information. Sealy’s advice is to know the basic face and head proportions, noting that there are plenty of tutorials online. Try thedrawingsource.com to get started, where you might be surprised to find that the eyes are actually exactly halfway up the head.
Take a closer look and you will see that the edges of the nostrils line up with the inner edges of the eyes. It’s easy to get distracted by expressions; that’s why experts hold pencils to assess the relationship between the nose and the eyebrows and the lips with the chin. “Train to gain confidence,” says Sealy. “Start with faces you know well, it’s easier to capture a likeness.”
Is it acceptable to use photos?
Watch Sky’s Portrait Artist of the Year and you’ll see them using photographs as backup, but nothing beats the real thing. Sealy primarily paints “family, friends, and people who pass through our busy home. I’ll draw anyone who hangs around, and if they hang around long enough, I’ll ask them to sit down.” If you ask someone to pose, make sure you know how long you need and what you plan to do with the finished piece.
behind the eyes
Likeness is one thing, but you want your portrait to also look like the person. “Although I ask them to sit in a particular position, I like to chat with my subject because it allows me to see their face in motion,” Sealy explains. “Once in a while I ask them to stop talking while I paint their mouths.” As a portrait can take a few minutes for a quick sketch, up to several days for a full oil painting, make sure your model is comfortable! Backgrounds and clothing details can be done later – this is where those phone shots come into their own.
The best topics are…
“I love painting young people, in their teens and twenties. Their faces change so quickly that there’s a great sense of capturing a moment in time,” Sealy explains. opportunity to nail them for a few hours, and I learn a lot from the dialogue.” But don’t be discouraged if your subject doesn’t recognize themselves. It can be strange to come face to face with someone else’s view of you. “They don’t always do that,” agrees Sealy. “But strangely, people often say that in addition to recognizing something about themselves, they see elements of others close to them that they hadn’t noticed before.”
Una Sealy RHA is a member of the jury for the Zurich Young Portrait Prize 2022, which will be exhibited at the National Gallery of Ireland in November. unsealy.com