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What Is A Portrait

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There are many kinds of portraits. That is, a portrait can be a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, or even a poem, or written piece. So let's look at the definition of portrait, and then examine the different parts of the definition.

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Portrait is a vertical orientation of a photograph or painting….Isn't it? Well, yes, that is one usage of the word portrait, but that's not what a portrait is. Landscape is also used to describe a horizontal orientation, but certainly not everything that has a horizontal orientation is actually a depiction of a landscape.

There are many kinds of portraits. That is, a portrait can be a painting, a photograph, a sculpture, or even a poem, or written piece. So let's look at the definition of portrait, and then examine the different parts of the definition.

According to Wikipedia, a portrait is a painting, photograph, sculpture, or other artistic representation of a person, in which the face and its expression is predominant. The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. For this reason, in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot, but a composed image of a person in a still position. A portrait often shows a person looking directly at the painter or photographer, in order to most successfully engage the subject with the viewer.

I like this description, but have to amend it to include more than one person at a time, as in a Family portrait, and even animals. I also must say that the pose doesn't necessarily have to be a "still position". Although in a photograph, painting or sculpture the subject is "frozen" in a static position, they may well be engaged in activity. As far as that goes, a film or video can also present a portrait. And film and video are by definition, motion pictures.

Parameters
Let's examine the various parameters that make a portrait. A portrait is an artistic representation of a person, or people. Art is subjective, so in the case of portraiture let's say that the artistic intent of a portrait is to present an attractive or engaging representation. This alone requires some planning regardless of the medium. In photography this planning will include deciding on what type of lighting to employ, as well as the camera angle that will best accomplish the desired result.

Generally in portraiture the artist will attempt to emphasize the subject's more attractive features while hiding or diminishing the less desirable features. Again, art is subjective, and we've all seen portraits of elderly people where the wrinkles and harshness of the face are the dominant features. While that is not a case of beautifying the subject, it certainly is engaging! And in fact the artist is using lighting that emphasizes the wrinkles and harshness.

The face and its expression are predominant. The reason for this is because, as "the eyes are the windows of the soul", the face and expression are the means of silent communication of the personality, mood and emotion of the person. Although I once saw a photograph of an artist standing alone on a roadway in long coat and bowler hat with the face completely obscured by shadow. Does that qualify as a portrait when you can't see the face at all? In that case, yes. That portrait is all about the singular, reclusive, self-absorbed personality of the artist. Representing him in that way did an excellent job of conveying that.

However, in most cases, in order for a portrait to be successful the face and its expression must be featured. Humans are emotional creatures, and our faces and expressions do a very good job of showing our personality, mood and emotion.

The intent is to display the likeness, personality, and even the mood of the person. 'Likeness' isn't that common of a word, and means simply what the person looks like. As we're talking about portraits here, "likeness" refers in particular to what the face looks like. However it can also be important to display the likeness of the physique as well. The physique may be more important in some cases than others, such as in a portrait of a powerful leader or warrior, or in the case of a particularly diminutive person, as it relates an important aspect about the person.

As mentioned above, the facial expression can speak volumes about the person's personality, emotion and mood. Therefore it's important to emphasize the face in portraiture, and for the artist to draw out the natural expression that displays the true personality, emotion and mood of the subject.

Wikipedia states that in photography a portrait is generally not a snapshot. I would have to say that it is extremely rare that a snapshot will have all the qualities required to be considered a portrait! It has and does happen, but it's rare at best.

So then, how can the true personality, emotion and mood be displayed in a portrait where people are posed in a situation that is really artificial to real life? Let's face it, for most people going to a studio or a location for the express purpose of have a portrait created is not a regular, every day experience. And in that kind of situation it can be difficult for many people to relax and really be themselves. This is especially true when the portrait artist is a complete stranger.

For that reason it is valuable, even essential to have at least one meeting prior to the photography, in person with the artist who will be working with you to create your portrait! The subject should be comfortable with the artist, and be able to communicate freely. That will eliminate some of the strangeness of the situation, and help the artist to be able to draw out the expressions that convey the personality, emotion and mood of the subject during the portrait session.

I believe this meeting before the session is even more important when working with small children and animals. There needs to be a familiarity and level of comfort between subject and artist for the best results. Animals tend to be territorial and protective of their turf when a strange person is new on the scene. It takes a little warming up for them to develop trust. Except for the territorial aspect, little children are much the same in that it takes a bit of warming up, and getting familiar before they will open up, relax and be themselves.

Because it is the most predominant form of portraiture, in this book we will be primarily considering photographic portraiture. However in any case the same parameters will hold true.

Let's talk about personality and how one's personality may be expressed in a portrait. How would you describe your own personality? Are you 'fun-loving' or somber? Are you outgoing and energetic, or withdrawn and reclusive? Are you the life of the party, or a wallflower? Each of these descriptive terms evoke a mental picture, don't they? And when you think of a person as being described in any of these ways, don't you think of a facial expression that matches it? In many cases posture or body language also play a part in portraying the description. Think for a moment of how you would portray each of the above personalities in a game of charades.

Whatever the dominant personality of a person is, when they are allowed to be themselves in a comfortable setting, it will come out. In painting and photographic portraiture the lighting used or portrayed can also greatly influence how the personality and mood are perceived by the viewer.

Mood is akin to personality in portraiture. Again, think of a happy person, a sad person, a person in love, an angry person. Each of these descriptive terms has a facial expression associated with it. How would you communicate each of those moods in charades?

So it is in portraiture. Facial expression is key to relating personality and mood. Also the environment and lighting can be very helpful in portraying these features of a person. What impression would you have of a person in a brightly lit flower garden with beaming eyes and easy smile? Would you think they were happy or sad? How about a person sitting curled up on a chair or couch, hugging their knees, in a dark room and wearing a frown? Happy or sad? Pretty obvious isn't it?

Suffice to say that facial expression along with posture are the dominant clues to the personality and mood of a portrait, and that setting and lighting are major contributors to getting the point across, and add impact.

Portrait Options And Practicality
As mentioned at the outset there are a variety of options or mediums for portraiture. A portrait may be carved out of stone, or cast in metal. A portrait may be painted, or created through photography. A poem, prose or even a film may be said to be or to describe a portrait.

Not all of these options are practical for most people. For example, a film, or movie, (video), can indeed present a very complete portrait, but it's not likely to be something that one

would have playing all day, every day. In the case of prose or a poem, as descriptive as it may be, the imagination of the reader still must come into play, and the real likeness of the person or people may become distorted.

Sculpture certainly is an interesting option for portraiture. Sculpture may have one person or a group such as a family depicted, and would definitely be a conversation piece! Typically a sculpture portrait will be of an individual, and generally in a larger size, making it quite heavy and not very portable.

In our modern times, painted or photographic portraits are by far the most common, and for obvious reason the most practical option for portraiture. Of the two, photographic portraits are preferred by most. There are a number of reasons for this. One is that painting a portrait takes a good deal longer to complete than a photographic portrait, and the photograph will in most cases be more true to the subject than the painting. Another benefit in favor of photography is the fact that multiple copies can be easily made from the original. This is a big benefit when there are several members of the family who want a copy of the portrait, or in the case where the original becomes damaged.

It is for these reasons, and because of the commonness of photographic portraits that this book will from here on focus on photographic portraitureComputer Technology Articles, and what you can do to insure that your portrait is the Greatest Portrait Ever Created!

 

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR


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Born and raised in California, Stan P. Cox II has been an artist all his life. He discovered photography in junior high school and it has been his medium of choice ever since. Stan moved to Hawaii right after high school in 1976, graduated from the New York Institute of Photography in 1982, and is now recognized as one of Hawaii's Premier Portrait Photographers. Stan specializes in fine portraits of Families, Children and high school Seniors. You may view his work at http://www.paramountphotography.com



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