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Sunday, March 22, 2015

Painting Girls

Ans Werker, Little Girl Reading, progressive photos.
Young Girl Reading, 1776,
Jean-Honore Fragonard, a classic,
almost iconic "girl painting."
For the portrait painter, there is seldom any greater joy than painting children. Needless to say children come in all sizes and dispositions, as well as two major types--boys and girls. I've painted children's portraits as young as infants and pretty much up through their teens, though the exact turning point when children cease to be children is hard to place. One of the greatest things about painting children is that, almost without exception, children are beautiful...or at least can be made to appear that way by a good artist and adequate photography. I'm mentioning photography at this early juncture because from the early 20th-century on most children have been painted using one or more photos as source material. I'm sure there is no need to go into WHY this is true, but suffice to say the art and science of photography completely changed the art of painting children. Before photography, poses were stiff and lifeless, much like Fragonard's academic Young Girl Reading (above, right). Since painting children from photos became acceptable...well, it's pretty much anything goes as regard to pose.

Young Girl in a Blue Hat,
1881, Pierre Auguste Renoir
Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens,
ca. 1614, Peter Paul Rubens
Portrait artist, Ans Werker, shows us how it's done with her Little Girl Reading (top). Let me emphasize that there is no ONE best way to paint a portrait, regardless of the age or gender of the subject. For instance, Werker starts with a very highly developed, high contrast, tonal drawing. (Few artists go this far in their drawings). From that she begins to develop the portrait as a whole adding color washes (either oil or acrylic, it makes little difference). Once she rids herself of any lingering gray with the addition of warmer tones, in the third stage, she develops cooler colors and introduces color variants to arrive at the completed portrait. Notice, that at no time is there any loss of control as to likeness or finish. The portrait could conceivably stand as a finished work at virtually any point from the time she starts painting to the final stroke. Few portrait painters maintain this manner of tight control during the course of their work.

Family Portrait, Robert Schoeller
Seated Young Girl, 1918,
Amadeo Modigliani
Contrast this with the sort of painted sketch seen in Robert Schoeller's Family Portrait (above). Here we notice two distinct elements in his work. First the contrasts are greatest in the children's faces as compared to most of the background, and second, boys are handled differently from girls as to their dress and pose. I don't know how old this painting is but that factor may be changing somewhat as gender equality becomes more prevalent. Nonetheless, one of the best ways to gain insight into painting girls is to study what great portrait artists have done in the past, such as the Portrait of Clara Serena Rubens (above, left) by her father, and that of Renoir's Young Girl in a Blue Hat (above, right). Note that there is more than 250 years between the two works. Painting styles change, as do ideals of feminine beauty regardless of age. Such works are valuable to study, but long past their worth in imitating. Even the Renoir is well over a century in age. Any portrait similar in appearance today would appear quite dated, as is George Lemmen's Three Little Girls (below) from 1907, some twenty-six years after Renoir's. It has an old fashioned appearance as compared to Amadeo Modigliani's Seated Young Girl (above, right) from just eleven years later.

Three Little Girls, 1907. Georges Lemmen
Few artists from the past made such a deliberate effort to capture the essence of female childhood as did the American expatriate painter from the late 19th-century, Mary Cassatt. Her Little Girl in a Blue Chair (below), from 1878, captures the supreme boredom of the posed portrait from life to the point the viewer feels the need to blurt out, "Don't slump." Apparently Mary Cassatt got tired of that phrase or was so attuned to her subject and the difficulty in getting a young girl to pose in a stiff, traditional manner, that she didn't even try to correct the young lady's natural, predisposed posture.

Little Girl in Blue Chair, 1878, Mary Cassatt. Why portrait artist love photos.
As you will note from the paintings below such as Just One in a Thousand, by Agnes Cecille, portrait painters today are much more interested in capturing the essence of their young girls than in realistic depictions. Of course, a portrait in watercolor and those in oil introduces an "apples and oranges" situation with watercolor being such a spontaneous, trying, unforgiving medium few but the best portrait artists would even consider those difficulties as assets to be exploited in the manner Agnes Cecille has.

Just One in a Thousand, Agnes Cecille
Even today most portrait painters prefer a more "finished" look as seen in Robert Schoeller's Little Girl Portrait (below, left), a detail of the head from a full-length painting. Compare it to Helene Schjerfbeck's Portrait of a Girl (below, right), from 1886, for another look at how portrait tastes and styles have changed in the past century or so.

Portrait of a Girl, 1886,
Helene Schjerfbeck
Little Girl Portrait,
Robert Schoeller
And finally, I should point out, there was a time when painting styles and portrait tastes tended to reflect geography, nationality, and ethnicity. When we isolate and narrow the content in a given type of painting (portraits) then further divide that by gender, it becomes plainly obvious that the factors mentioned above, today have little play in virtually all types of painting. Today, with the advent of global Internet communications, we are moving toward a one-world culture, mostly dominated by western tastes but with subtle flavorings from many of the other "stronger" art cultures such as the Chinese Girl (below) and the portrait of the little African girl (bottom).

Chinese Girl--western style, oriental flavored
Young African Girl


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