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Mrs. Richard Bean -- original painting by Rodney Pike 2012
Mrs. Richard Bean
original painting
by Rodney Pike
2012
George Washington -- oil painting by Gilbert Stuart 1796
George Washington
oil painting
by Gilbert Stuart
1796
Mona Lisa -- oil painting by Leonardo da Vinci 1503–1506
Mona Lisa
oil painting
by Leonardo da Vinci
1503–1506


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The closed-mouth convention

December 7, 2012

Dear Artist,

You'll be glad to know this letter has nothing to do with not talking about your art. It has to do with the business of painting people with their mouths closed. While a toothy smile may suggest desirable qualities like a happy nature and a sense of humour, in painted portraits it may not be such a good idea.

We need look no further than George Washington for this convention. In 1789, when Washington was 57 and inaugurated as president of the U.S., he had only one of his original teeth left. The late Dr. Reidar F. Sognnaes was a scholar in the field of oral pathology at the University of California School of Dentistry in Los Angeles. "In the good old days, teeth were lousy," said Dr. Sognnaes. "Washington suffered such dental agony that he hardly ever laughed through his two terms. He could not pronounce lengthy words or words with "S" sounds, and he was able to eat only soft foods."

When you look at the work of the great portraitists of old-- Gainsborough, Rembrandt, John Singleton Copley, John Singer Sargent and Gilbert Stuart, who painted Washington, there's nary a tooth to be seen. Stuart's lifetime oeuvre, for example, seems a paean to lockjaw. Goodness knows the condition of bicuspids in Renaissance Italy. Can you imagine Mona Lisa with a toothy grin?

In the history of portraiture, a few exceptions can be seen. Velasquez and Franz Hals painted jesters and stupid people with open mouths.

To this day most portraitists generally keep their subjects in the closed position. There may be a message in this.

"Smile," "Whiskey," "Cheese," and other mouthy encouragements are calls reserved for photographers, except in the case of rock musicians where it's important for people to think rock's a serious business. Fact is, if you paint a picture of someone with a smile, it's almost a sure sign it was copied from a photo. If you do try painting an openmouthed sitter over an extended time, she'll dry out on you and you'll start to get an irked look that's less than flattering. On the other hand, if your idea is to make people look irked, by all means insist that they smile.

Best regards,

Robert

PS: "A portrait is a painting of a person with something wrong with the mouth." (John Singer Sargent)

Esoterica: If you do paint teeth, you may need to gloss them over and blur them a bit. Portraits don't usually look so hot when the teeth are painstakingly correct. For some reason carefully delineated teeth tend to look like false teeth. False teeth from Dr Sognnaes' collection are on display at UCLA. In the good old days the rich and famous had teeth made from the darnedest things. George's included carvings from elephant and walrus tusks as well as the teeth of cows, hippos, and people. Apparently a difficult mouth to fit, some of his teeth had to be held in place with springs. Contrary to popular belief, none of George's teeth were made out of wood. The wooden ones were reserved for senators and congressmen.





Prolonged agony in the chair
by Angela Sheard, France


Only yesterday, I was looking at a painting of a young girl running down a staircase and out of sight, seen from behind. Flowing, flying, back view hair so much easier than a face. One lively leg still on the last stair while the other had already skipped out of sight so much easier than fitting on two in lifelike order! But now I know why so many pictures of the Queen (the English one) look grim and tightlipped. They must have asked her Maj to smile and she just couldn't keep it up over five sittings!

So Mona Lisa's enigmatic smile has nothing to do with an interior secret but more to do with keeping rotted stumps of teeth in her jaw.



There is 1 comment for Prolonged agony in the chair by Angela Sheard

From: Linda W. Roth -- Dec 13, 2012

Left on my own, I always photograph my subjects going about their lives with their mouths however they are. Catching the moment in a portrait is a painting challenge I love. The portrait is always lively. Mouths closed are always commissioned work, where the client has, ironically, too much to say.


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Photographic Transition
by Stan Munn, Calgary, AB, Canada


Last weekend we visited the McMichael in Kleinberg, Ontario, to see the 'Painting Canada' show and whilst Queen Elizabeth II<br>photograph<br>by Cecil Beaton by Stan Munn Queen Elizabeth II
photograph
by Cecil Beaton
there, took in the photographic portraiture exhibit of Sir Cecil Beaton's work with Queen Elizabeth and the Royal Family, from his earliest work with them during the war to Sir Cecil's death in 1980. Sir Cecil attempted to create photographic portraits that reflected traditional painted portraiture values rather than 'modern' photographic properties. It was interesting and amusing to see early Royal portraiture set against an elaborate rococo background provided by a detail of Jean-Honore Fragonard's The Swing, a captivating, naughty painting of the 18th century. The painting depicts a woman on a swing, being pushed by her elderly husband who is clearly unaware that her young lover is watching from the undergrowth. No mention of this little bit of cheekiness in the Beaton photography show. One has to know the background image to realize the rest. None of this detracts from Beaton's work, which was beautifully done, teeth or no teeth.



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The photographic curse
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA


A smile on a portrait leaves one impression - while a closed mouth leaves many. Most people, perhaps, The Age of Mallory<br>oil painting by Sharon Knettell The Age of Mallory
oil painting
are more interesting until they open their mouths.

I did portraits for the briefest of times - the reasons I left were the constant whine, "Can't you make it smiling?" and the lack of access to the client and being stuck with a photo to paint from for weeks on end. We are slaves to the ubiquity of the photographic image in our culture; ravishing models, actors and actresses with open-mouthed smiles living radiantly joyful vodka-aided lives or rim-lit giggling romping well-provided-for children. These are the images that pervade our culture as the proper way to portray humans. This is what the client sees, not the masterpieces in the museums - many people today are art illiterate. What is the modern portraitist to do? How can he or she compete? This is what the client wants and expects. Many artists, looking at the rent bill, accommodate. Cheese!

Artists did work for commissions in the past, but today the photographic image used as an aid to modern portraiture is more a curse than a boon.



There are 7 comments for The photographic curse by Sharon Knettell

From: Louise Francke -- Dec 11, 2012

How true but there is one more element "vanity". We attempt to see the person behind the facial facade, their body gestures, what they choose to wear, where and how they wish to sit; all contribute to the unveiling of exactly who this person is. It usually isn't what the sitter wants to reveal either to themselves or others. Perhaps the camera with a soft and blurry filter is best.

From: Jim Oberst -- Dec 11, 2012

Wonderful painting, Sharon.

From: Anonymous -- Dec 11, 2012

Thank-you!

From: Sharon Knettell -- Dec 11, 2012

Thank-you Jim

From: Barbara Mayo -- Dec 11, 2012

As my grandfather said, "It is better to keep your mouth closed and be thought a fool than to open it and remove all doubt."

From: Raynald Murphy -- Dec 11, 2012

Ten years ago my friend and I solved the problem you mentioned by starting portrait night. The model poses 3 times for 25 minutes each and chooses one of three portraits from each participating artist (8 or more) as "payment" for sitting. All come away happy, and the model doesn't smile until see sees her portraits!

From: Jan Ross -- Dec 14, 2012

Really sensational painting!


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No lie
by Dr. Ralph Hislop, Maple Ridge, BC, Canada


Your references to George Washington's famous, teeth as well as to other dental memorabilia, have enticedGood Queen Bess<br>oil painting
Good Queen Bess
oil painting
me to put pen to paper (well, two index fingers to keyboard).

I think that we all may recall having seen similar portraits of Good Queen Bess in our childhood history books. Apparently she and subsequent British rulers were subject to annual portraits which were, reportedly, very accurate in anatomical detail. Such portraits are still in existence and some years ago an American dentist with an interest in history was permitted to examine the portraits of Elizabeth 1st. He arranged them side by side in chronological order and was able to measure what dentists call "loss of vertical dimension" by measuring how the tip of the nose gradually came closer to the tip of the chin over a period of years. (This happens to us with the loss of all or most of the back teeth. Another result is the hollowing of the cheeks.) Apparently these observations jived with documented reports of the queen being a big sweet eater and having had multiple extractions over the years... They say that the camera never lies. Apparently also true also of portrait artists.



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Dental hygiene impacts portraiture
by Brenda Behr, Goldsboro, NC, USA


Phooey! Yesterday I added my signature to a painting that includes four sets of teeth. And yes, Young wheat at the old tenant's house<br>oil painting by Brenda Behr Young wheat at the old tenant's house
oil painting
obviously, the painting was done from a photo. I don't believe all portraits need to be done in the classical sense. With the invention of electricity, was there argument that light from a window or candlelight was superior to gas or electric light? As a painter who much prefers to paint en plein air, I appreciate the advantages of painting from life, be it human or landscape. Nevertheless, my circumstances do not always allow me the luxury to say to my prospective customers, "My way or the highway." Additionally, I've done enough portraits from life to know that expressions gone sour are not limited to those models attempting to hold their smiles. Perhaps future museum goers will conclude in generations to come that dental hygiene in later centuries made an impact on the art of portraiture.



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Caitlin's theory
by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe, London, England


Apart from the practicalities of keeping a mouth open in a set position I believe there may be a deeper Bliss<br>original painting by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe Bliss
original painting
reason for the convention: simply that a face with a closed mouth tends to be perceived as more beautiful, serene and healthy - and that there is a scientific explanation of why this may be so.

A while back I did an illustration for a poster of a collection of faces with a blissful expression, as achieved, for example, in meditation. The faces were of different ages and ethnic origins but all shared the common feature of having their mouth closed. I simply couldn't find good examples of calm and serene faces with the mouth open. Some smiling or laughing faces with open mouths get quite close but the more open the mouth the less the feeling of calmness and serenity.

I learnt that a possible explanation of why serenity is associated with a closed mouth is to be found in the health consequences of breathing too much. George Caitlin wrote a fascinating short book in 1881 called Shut your Mouth and Save your Life. George Caitlin had travelled around North America in pioneering spirit and had been greatly struck by how healthy the North American Indians were in contrast to the so called civilization he belonged to. He noticed that the Indians always kept their mouths closed and indeed the mothers would make sure that their babies slept with their mouths closed. Caitlin contrasts the Indians' habits with those who keep their mouths open, who tend to be unhealthy and out of sorts. He illustrated his book himself with pen drawings which very graphically underline his point that it's bad for health to breathe through the mouth.

Before Caitlin, classical Yoga texts extol the virtues of holding the breath and there have been many modern studies (especially the work of the Russian scientist Buteyko) of the impact on health of chronic hyperventilation. All have shown that breathing too much can make you ill. Chronic Hyper ventilators tend to breathe through the mouth, as it's much harder to breathe too much through the nose. Just look around in a Doctors waiting room. It's likely most people will be breathing heavily through their mouths. My guess is that the physiological facts may be driving an instinctive aversion for faces with open mouths.

(RG note) Thanks, Victor. Current thought on Caitlin's premise is that those who breathe through their mouths do so because they are stuffed up. Stuffy noses often indicate congestive conditions resulting from chronic colds, influenza, TB, emphysema and other lung disorders that tend to bring about an early death. Further, with regard to North American Indians, their life expectancy in those days was even shorter than the rootin-tootin gunslingers who only got stuffed up when they bit the dust.



There is 1 comment for Caitlin's theory by Victor Lunn-Rockliffe

From: andre satie -- Dec 11, 2012

I love your painting! You've captured some very familiar expressions - I almost wonder if you've used some of my friends as models. I especially love the baby. !!


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Painless portraiture
by Podi Lawrence, UK


Titoat<br>original painting by Podi Lawrence Titoat
original painting
Sir Ian<br>original painting by Podi Lawrence Sir Ian
original painting
It may be a fact that people had bad or missing teeth and it became traditional to not have a smile. Additionally it is almost impossible for a sitter to keep a smile on for up to 2-3 hours. However, one doesn't want a pained expression, so the time a model has to sit still is limited. I limit to approximately 20 minutes (although I find it difficult when I am locked in) and then a break, with sittings lasting up to 2 hours. I always ask my sitters to think of pleasant thoughts, perhaps a moment when they were having a happy experience! I usually have some pleasant music playing in the background. Additionally, a mirror placed so they can keep an eye on themselves and their pose often helps them to keep that happy look.

I have only twice found it necessary to paint the sitter with an open mouth, albeit slightly, due to the nature of their personality. Needless to say, in both cases the paintings were done from life over a period of time and I did take photographs.

The first is an older gentleman from Panama whose one front tooth was Gold. The second was of Sir Ian Gainsford - retired Dean of Kings' College London, Dentistry Department, who was known for the gap in between his front teeth.



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The camera is a noble tool
by Makiwa Mutomba, Pretoria, South Africa


I disagree with you on this one. You seem to look down on both artists who paint from photographs as Happy Child<br>oil painting by Makiwa Mutomba Happy Child
oil painting
well as photographers. Painting from photographs is not 'copying photographs.' You are right in saying that most portraitists generally avoid teeth, but that does not make it right. Representational art should be about being true to one's vision as an artist; beauty lies in telling the truth. A smile with missing teeth or braces is beautiful if painted correctly, with the correct values in the right places. I know this can be a problem for portraitists, who insist on painting from life, because smiles are fleeting gestures only a camera can capture. And despite the purists' view to the contrary, a camera is a noble tool just like a paintbrush or a sketchpad. And there is an Art involved in photography. The problem is that everybody who owns a camera thinks they are a photographer, and most people think photography is just "smile... click, click." Like Henri Cartier Bresson, I use my camera as an "instant sketchpad" to capture those fleeting smiles. I paint teeth all the time and I have never had a problem with them. In fact, I never think about them. Like the nose and eyes, I "forget" about them when I paint and think of only value and color and the bigger picture. While I sympathize with portraitists as they sometimes have to go against their conviction to impress their sitters, they should strive in their other work to tell the truth.

(RG note) Thanks, Makiwa. Needless to say we were inundated with open mouths: Here are a few:

Madonna of Ellis Island -- watercolour painting by Henry Allen
Madonna of Ellis Island
watercolour painting
by Henry Allen
Marine Vietnam Veteran #4 (Bob Kerr) -- watercolour painting by Henry Allen
Marine Vietnam Veteran #4 (Bob Kerr)
watercolour painting
by Henry Allen
Satyr -- pastel painting by Henry Allen
Satyr
pastel painting
by Henry Allen
Laugh 5 -- original painting by Cheryl Moore
Laugh 5
original painting
by Cheryl Moore
Laugh 1 -- original painting by Cheryl Moore
Laugh 1
original painting
by Cheryl Moore
Laugh 4 -- original painting by Cheryl Moore
Laugh 4
original painting
by Cheryl Moore




There is 1 comment for The camera is a noble tool by Makiwa Mutomba

From: Patsy, Northern Ireland -- Dec 11, 2012

Check out Makiwa's website: http://makiwamutomba.com/
You will be blown away!
I have seen these children, these women, these men, in real life. When I look at his paintings, once again I see them move and hear them laugh and talk.


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Michael Chesley Johnson workshops Held in Sedona, AZ, USA.  <a href='http://clicks.robertgenn.com/workshops/workshop.php'>The Workshop Calendar</a> provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. Please take a look <a href='http://clicks.robertgenn.com/workshops/workshop.php'>here</a>.
Michael Chesley Johnson workshops
Held in Sedona, AZ, USA.

The Workshop Calendar provides up-to-date selected workshops and seminars arranged in chronological order. Please take a look here.



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Smoking dog<br>original painting
Smoking dog
original painting
That includes Louise Francke of North Carolina, USA, who wrote, "Painting the teeth makes people look like Cheshire Cats. In animals it's a different tail."


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Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for The closed-mouth convention...

From: Rick Rotante -- Dec 06, 2012

Au contraire mon ami! I love to paint women with mouth "ajar" so to speak. It is sexy if done correctly. I have a favorite model that, if you can believe it, specializes in posing with her mouth slightly open.
When she initially starts, it’s a little disconcerting and looks awkward at first, but as we progress with the painting, it’s the most natural thing. She’s good, believe me.
Not everyone can do it. I have also had models who smile, if I ask, with little or no trouble. I believe this fact may be due to bad teeth in past generations, plus which it is very hard to keep a good humor while posing.
It may sound sexist, but when I have a model that can do it, I encourage it.
I do agree that many portraits I’ve seen with smiles have a look of being done from photos, but that is on a case by case basis. Mary Cassatt painted children with open mouth and smiles, teeth and all and it looks perfectly natural. The object of any artist is to get a natural likeness of the sitter and If they show teeth, so be it. It remains with the artist’s skill not to make it look unnatural.

From: Dave C. -- Dec 06, 2012

Well, one needs to look no further than Vermeer and the Girl With The Pearl Earring to see that it can be done and with flattery. But yes, I would say that 99% of the time we should leave the teeth out of it.

From: Le Voyeur -- Dec 07, 2012

I'm working on a series of paintings of women having orgasms. Try to imagine that with eyes open, mouths closed! And, yes -- I'm using photographs. Just try to find model who can sustain that for the length of several sittings! Although, if I ever do find one... It just occurred to me -- they're all faking it!

From: Darla -- Dec 07, 2012

If the person has a nice smile, why not paint it! But you have to paint the teeth the way they look, not perfectly uniform, not hard-edged (ahem!) and not white except possibly for a highlight. If you paint teeth and the sclera of eyes white, the person will look manic.

From: Logan Carling -- Dec 07, 2012

"The wooden (teeth) were reserved for senators and congressmen." Indeed. There are always some subtle, pseudo-truthful items in these letters. This was my favorite in this one.

Perhaps we need a letter on "wooden heads."

From: Bill Hogue -- Dec 07, 2012

You give me pause. I had never even thought of this aspect in painting but in reviewing the portraits I have done I noticed they were all painted with the mouths closed - except for my two self portraits as well as the self portrait I'm working on now. Maybe that's why I'm having so much trouble with it, among other things. Dallas, TX

From: Bill Jerdon -- Dec 07, 2012

"Stupid people" is a bit insinsitive.

From: kicks -- Dec 07, 2012

yes, stupid people are often insensitive

From: Jan Ross -- Dec 07, 2012

While it may have been true in the past that portraits were done with the mouths closed, I disagree that is the case now. So many children have charming smiles which their parents' can't get enough of in photos or paintings. I think with dental/orthodontic care improvements over the years, more people are delighted to share those pearly whites. Life is too serious, why not remember someone looking happy or jovial?

From Kennesaw, GA, USA

From: Elihu -- Dec 07, 2012

How does this apply to serious portrait photography?

From: Suze Woolf -- Dec 07, 2012

While I generally agree about teeth, there are always exceptions. An open mouth may suggest something of a moment in time, a narrative and/or subject’s state of mind!

From: Edna V. Hildebrandt -- Dec 07, 2012

I think that in this era that notion of not having smiling or laughing people in paintings does not seem to apply anymore.Dentistry has improved since those early painters.Why is it not appropriate to paint smiling and laughing faces when they are the most pleasing sights to see .They are part of human nature and looking at a painting with these facial expressions do they not also present a mystery of what they are smiling about that the viewer would want to share.It is true that it is hard to capture that when you have a sitter to have them maintain their happy countenance for a long time until they become plastic as it were.What is wrong with painting from a picture when now a days they are using these modern technology directly to get their ideas for their own work?I do think that we will be missing a challenging work if we shun from doing them.

From Toronto, ON, Canada

From: Susan -- Dec 07, 2012

New Jersey does not permit you to smile for the photo on your driver's license. Same reason :) ? Their reason is for issues of facial recognition. You look different when you smile.

From: Nancy Paris Pruden -- Dec 07, 2012

To me teeth in a painting look like Aspirins in a row, but I had one little girl who refused to be painted any other way. If you grey them down or give then a slight yellow cast no one is happy either. What do you do with people who still insist on being painted with a toothy grin?

From: Diana Wakely -- Dec 07, 2012

Well I do ‘fast’ sketches – portraits – my mantra is – I don’t do teeth and I don’t do wrinkles and you look ten years younger.
I have a ball doing these sketches, it is amazing how these fast drawings gives you a chance to analyze people. The most fun was when I did our MPP and I told him to keep his mouth shut – probably something a lot people might have wanted to say to him but couldn’t.

From: Louise Francke -- Dec 07, 2012

Uncovering the teeth in people portraits makes them look like Cheshire Cats....now, in animals it's a different tail.

From: Carol Hammond -- Dec 07, 2012

Totally agree! I hate teeth in a portrait, it looks sooo "snapshot" I always require my subjects to smile with no teeth, which can be a challenge for younger sitters. And their mothers are so insulted as though something is wrong with their teeth. I also like for the eyes to be looking at me so that they'll "follow you" around the room. I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks this way. I enjoy your twice-weekly letters enormously. Great advice, which I should've thanked you for already. And the quote page has been thoroughly scoured, I've learned much from the quotes as well.

From: Marj Vetter -- Dec 07, 2012

One of the worst portraits I ever saw, was one painted in tribute to a hardworking lady. She had volunteered for many years in a Legion in Calgary, so they got one of their “artist” members to paint a portrait. Done from a photograph, the artist painted every wrinkle and terrible looking false teeth showing in a ghoulish grin. It wasn’t a tribute....

From: Yea, Right... -- Dec 07, 2012

Guess what? Robert's having a "go" at all of you. "Teeth or no teeth?..." Give it a rest. The only rule for art is there is no rule not worth breaking.

From: Dave Brown -- Dec 07, 2012

I teach figurative art to freshman/sophomore college level students. There is always a series on portrait and caricature. For portrait I universally encourage avoiding teeth because, just like any issue involving detail - they don't understand that less is more. The fact is that creating a natural looking painting of an open mouth smile that does not look like some sort of grimace requires skill and reserve that only comes with experience. In caricature, you can get away with teeth because the cornerstone technique is exaggeration.

From: Gavin Logan -- Dec 07, 2012

If it's good enough for New Jersey, it's good enough for me.

From: Mary Jorgensen -- Dec 07, 2012

Speaking of painting (or drawing) mouths, I illustrated a small children's book recently (simple line drawings), and fortunately put a healthy mustache on the main (and only human) character's face. I have no training in illustration and now admire illustrators all the more. At any rate, the mustache was a super idea.

From: Russ Wagner Art -- Dec 07, 2012

I have wrestled with teeth in a portrait, recently read this from Dr. Ellie which explained a lot to me:

"Healthy teeth appear white when the “glass-like” outer layer is strong and smooth, because it shines and reflects light, like a clear, brilliant diamond. It does not matter how old your teeth are, they will become whiter as they get smoother and stronger."

Never thought of teeth behaving like glass. Here is her link: http://www.drellie.com/Dental-Myths.php

From: Proudly Self Taught -- Dec 08, 2012

So, it seems to be that in all of art history, to even include "super realism", almost nobody has developed the talent and the technique for the big friendly smile. Could it be another failure of the "art educational" system? Or just, nobody has achieved the "accepted convention"? It's no wonder such a large portion of the products found at so many "art fairs" look so much the same -- almost like they've all been done by just a few persons. (And "product" is definitely the appropriate word.) If you can't handle teeth, maybe you need to rethink your "production system". "Oh, it's too difficult for me. I'd much rather just stick with something I already know. Stuff that other people told me, because they must be right." Let's all go to "art skool" and learn how to do it like everyone else. There's always safety in numbers, and if everybody's doing it the "accepted way", why change?

Discussions like this remind me of just how much appreciation I have always maintained for the rule breakers. And how I long ago realized that every single painter I have ever admired did something differently. Broke the rules, burned the book, and left behind the herd. It can be dangerous and lonely. And sometimes, your stuff won't be "economically viable", until after you die -- and you are no longer a threat to the established conventions. Then you are magically transformed into "discovered genius", and Southeby's gets the auction!

I have a goal marker for my own success. It has nothing to do with the salability or "value" placed upon my output by the conventionalists. I'll know when I've achieved my standard of success. And, I'll keep that close, until it happens.

From: Fingernails! -- Dec 08, 2012

Fingernails. Natural, unpainted fingernails... That's what gives me a lot of trouble.

From: Shawna -- Dec 08, 2012

I would like to know if "sure sign of being painted from a photo" is considered a bad thing? This is the age of technology, after all. It is nearly the only way to paint a portrait of a small child in my world....and they look super adorable with their little open mouthed expressions.

From: Russ Hogger -- Dec 09, 2012

Francis Bacon loved to paint people with their mouths wide open. In his words, he considered the inside of the mouth to be very beautiful.

From: Note for N P Pruden: -- Dec 10, 2012

If you're wearing the smock of a commercial or "hired" artist, you give the customers what they want, and save your "artistic visionary integrity" for your home studio. If you were to do a pet portrait, would you allow yourself to work from photographs, or would you insist that "Maxie-Poo-Poo" be trained to sit perfectly posed while your perform your magical renditions?

From: Carloyn Edlund -- Dec 10, 2012

The single resounding theme from my clients has been “I won’t sit” [for the painting process]. There was a time when I, like many of you, considered the use of photographs a form of cheating. Now, many paintings later, I know the truth that photographs often provide inadequate information. Whether painting live or from a photograph, it takes skill to paint a good portrait. Working from the live model has its own stressors and complications; the live model provides unequivocal information that the best of photographs may obscure, yet the model in the photograph faithfully maintains the pose in the same light for as long as is needed. I haven’t lost my passion for working from life.
I have enormous respect for my fellow portrait artists. Poughkeepsie, NY

From: Three D -- Dec 10, 2012

I can't wait to see and hear all of the "woe is unto us and art", when 3-D gets more attention. Models "sitting" in the computer screen. Guess what? I'm already doing it!

From: Debby Wang -- Dec 10, 2012

What is the rule for painting images of public figures, like the "Mrs. Bean" above? I'm a portrait painter and always ask a model for permission to paint their image. Is painting and profiting from a public person allowed?

From: Molly Bullick -- Dec 11, 2012

Artists Studios - brilliant Sara Genn. Thank you.

From: Marion Stephenson -- Dec 11, 2012

When is your daughter going to put these wonderful photos of artist studios into a book? Let me know, I'll be the first in line to buy a copy.

From: Bill -- Dec 11, 2012

The one great exception I can think of is the Vermeer "Girl with a Pearl Earring."

From: Carolee -- Dec 11, 2012

My mother said that she was taught as a young child that it was ladylike to pose for a portrait with mouth closed. I recently went through old family photos that went back 4 generations and there wasn't a smile anywhere. I always thought that it was because they led such a hard life and there wasn't much to smile about, but after reading the comments about lack of good dental care "way back when", that makes a lot more sense.

From: Mary Jane Brewster -- Dec 11, 2012

As a portrait artist I have to say that many times a persons personality is found in in their smile. Teeth are hard to paint, closed mouth is much easier. I do not need a photo to paint teeth. I do need to study the person and lock in a memory.

From: Sandy Schultheis -- Dec 11, 2012

I suggest you take a look at a recent book; "Inside the Painter's Studio" by Joe Fig. Princeton Architectural Press, 2009

From Evansville, Indiana, USA

From: Jackie Knott -- Dec 11, 2012

Absolutely paint a portrait without teeth. But sometimes it simply cannot be avoided.

This was a posthumous portrait with the only decent reference using a 5x7 passport photo. I had to totally construct this pose because there simply was nothing else.

If one must paint teeth the worst crime is painting stark white teeth - they aren't, especially with comparable values. Teeth are either in shades of gray and/or beige. (Neither are eyes for that matter; you risk making the person a zombie or a Zoom ad).

Teeth are as individual as any other feature and great care must be taken to render the line of teeth exact, not each tooth ... you shouldn't do orthodontist work in depicting your subject. If any minor corrections are made to give the subject a more pleasing smile don't go so far as to paint the likeness unrecognizable.

From: Jose Tarantino -- Dec 11, 2012

I am constantly amazed at the great material and informative responses in this blog. It has valuable first hand info, humor and opinion by artists who actually work at the profession. Thank you.

From: Lynn Arbor -- Dec 13, 2012

Years ago my mother painted portraits of family and friends, but they always had their mouths shut. She told me that teeth were hard to paint. Since she was intimidated she avoided them. Taking this as a challenge I did a series of 6x6 oils of smiles. I even wrote a blog piece about painting teeth. If you're curious… http://lynnarbor.blogspot.com/2010/10/big-smile-project.html.

From: Jutta -- Dec 14, 2012

oooh, I see - maybe this explains why, when I joined 'Julia Kay's Portrait Party' (on Flickr) that I was asked to not only post photos where I smile, because many members don't like to paint "teeth". This was a difficult task - I always seem to smile on photos. ;-)

Another thought - in Africa I often encountered the idea you have to look serious for a photo or you would ruin it. Maybe this idea also existed in the Western world in earlier centuries.

From: "Perry" Dontist -- Dec 14, 2012

My art instructor is in love with Yue Minjun the Chinese sculptor who does laughing men. He thinks it's extra good to put more than enough teeth into people and do them carefully. OK?

From: Katherine Stock -- Dec 17, 2012

I painted children's portraits over several years and often had this discussion with parents, who wanted their children's happy nature to shine through. I said that a photograph of a laughing or smiling child was one thing, but a portrait painted over a couple of hours was a different animal. The aim of a portrait is to capture the relaxed and natural presence of the subject, not a fleeting moment.




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