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Monday, March 23, 2015

Painting Boys

My Boys and Brownie, Leah Hopkins Henry
Portraiture is such a vast topic I've felt the need to split it into two segments. The differences in painting girls (yesterday's item, below) and painting boys is largely artificial. Much of what was said about painting girls also applies to painting boys, especially in terms of style and technique. As I pointed out yesterday, poses and dress are the main differences (whether they should be or not). It's hard to say whether boys are becoming more like girls or girls more like boys, but even the differences in poses, activities and clothing seem to be melding together in recent years. Leah Hopkins Henry's portrait of her sons and their dog (above), however paints a perfect example of how pose and clothes, and in this case, color also, are strikingly different than if the artist were painting her daughters. The feet together, knees apart pose of the older boy would never do if he were a girl.

Boy and Dog making eye contact. There's always a danger in a portrait like
this of the dog "stealing" the show, especially when the animal is placed in the
foreground as in this case. The butterfly on the boy's shirt completely mystifies me.
The Henry portrait (top) also underlines an early decision every portrait artist must make,--eye contact, or no eye contact. In this case, only the dog interacts with the viewer. Either is acceptable, but each has a profound effect upon the way the viewer sees and reacts to the painting. The portrait above illustrates the more "gripping" effect of eye contact, though some find the (eyes-following-you-around-the-room) psychological illusion disturbing.

Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (detail), ca. 1901-14, John Howard Sanden
Portrait of Yeray, Ben, Lustenhouwer.
(Click on the video at the bottom to
watch the artist begin this portrait.)
In delving into the history and background involving "boy portraits," one figure stands apart almost as an iconic ideal--Jesus Christ as a boy. There have been many, starting with Leonardo's and Raphael's many Madonna and Child portraits up through to John Howard Sanden's Jesus in the Temple of Jerusalem (above) from the first decades of the 20th century. There is a knowing innocence in the face of Sanden's Jesus, but also a tendency toward effeminacy that would be a definite "turn-off" in any portrait of an adolescent boy today, despite the distinct element of androgyny present in some boys at that age. It's a factor every artist painting boys must be aware of, especially where long, wavy hair is present (left), not necessarily striving to eliminate this tendency, but in minimizing and controlling it. No portrait of a young boy should raise the question in the viewer's mind, "Is that a boy or a girl?"

The Fifer, 1865,
Edouard Manet
Blue Boy, Portrait of Jonathan Buttall,
1770, Thomas Gainsborough
Fajum Portrait of
Eutyches, 100-150 AD
As in painting girls, it's quite valuable to look back and see how artists from the past have handled the subject. The earliest example, and frankly, one of the best, is the Egyptian Fajum funerary portrait of a Greek boy (left) dating from 100-150 AD. There is some obvious idealization in the eyes and the mouth seems a little tight, but the work illustrates the highly refined painting style and technique of the Fajum portrait painters at such a remarkably early date in art history. Edouard Manet's The Fifer (above, left) from 1865 is not technically a portrait. At least two models posed for the boy's face. One of them was, in fact, a girl. Moreover, if it were a portrait it would be a rather disturbing one in that the body to head proportions are poorly rendered. Manet's front lighting, here as in several of his other works, tends to flatten the figure (likely the result of using photos taken with flash powder). But, having said that, who am I to criticize the great Edouard Manet and a painting now valued at $80-million? Thomas Gainsborough's famous Blue Boy (above, right) from some one-hundred years earlier would seem today a LOT too effeminate, what we might term "foppish." Even in 1770, few boys would have been caught dead wearing such a baby-blue satin "get up" like that, knickers, white knee socks, with bows on his toes. Tradition says the costume belonged to the artist. The subject was the son of a friend of the artist. Some art historians suggest Gainsborough may have had a love affair with the boy, whose face looks somewhat younger than his lean stature would suggest.

Singing Boy with a Flute,
1623-1625, Frans Hals
Self Portrait as a Boy, 1830,
Frederick Lord Leighton
Two other historically renown portrait artist have left us interesting examples of the art of painting boys. The English artist, Frederick Lord Leighton, depicts himself as a teenager, (above, left) apparently having mastered the all-important face; but in labeling himself as an artist with the awkward inclusion of his palette jutting strangely across the picture plane, not to mention the nearly impossible, even painful, looking thumb position holding the palette, inadvertently tells us his lordship still had a lot to learn about painting portraits. In contrast, the great Dutch barroom portrait painter, Frans Hals, is quite adept in panting his Singing Boy with a Flute (above, right) painted a couple hundred years before Lord Leighton's boyish effort. Like Manet's Fifer, this work, if it is, indeed, a portrait of a specific individual, is only secondarily so. It fits much more snuggly into the realm of Hals' many genre paintings.

Boy portrait, 2011, L.T. Branston,
(using studio lighting)
Portrait of a Boy
(utilizing flash photography)
In mentioning Manet's fondness for the primitive manifestation of flash photography, it came to mind that discussing what not to do in painting portraits was, in fact, just as important as illustrating what to do. I don't care if your name is Edouard Manet, as a portrait painter, flash photography is not your friend. Flash photography is a convenience at best, and not even good lighting for photographic portraiture, much less the painted variety (above, left). It screams out the most glaringly inept use of source photos imaginable. The flatness I mentioned before causes a lack of modulation in the flesh tones as well as often bleaching out the tonal warmth of the face. It can also cause harsh, distracting, background shadows as well. Notice the differences in the two paintings above. The Branston portrait (above, right) not only captures the facial anatomy in a much more natural manner, but is also more likely to capture the likeness, personality, and human warmth so important in good portraiture at any age. Branston's painting also serves to remind us that good portraiture does not demand eye-catching gimmicks to be deemed outstanding art. That's not to say that dramatic lighting and background effects have no place in children's portraiture, especially where boys are concerned. Boys are prone to drama and excitement. For the artist who can handle them, whether dealing with the messianic qualities Robert Schoeller is so adept at suggesting (below, left) or the tribal ethnicity Leslie Tribolet exploits (below, right), both go far in telling us what these two boys are like (or at least what their parents think they're like).

African Child, Leslie Tribolet,
photographer, Lee Turner
Portrait Little Boy,
Robert Schoeller

Skateboarder with source photo.

And while on the subject of using photos as source material, let me also caution against becoming a "slave" to the photo. Good photography is very often accompanied by excellent background effects. And, the painter is quite free to use them if he or she sees fit. However, especially with amateur or action photography, the background is very often quite mundane at best, and quite disturbing or distracting at worst. The painting Skateboarder (left) is quite revealing of an artist who recognized that fact. While the photo background isn't necessarily "bad" he came up with something better simply by rendering it in a painterly modulation of grays and whites, which not only eliminates the distracting trees at the head level of his figure but also suggests tense movement and action.

Sammy in Blue, Talya Johnson,
winner as my favorite boy-portrait of the day.

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