View Full Version : Painting portraits

05-20-2016, 11:49 AM
I have never had anything to with painting or art in general, I don't know any of the technical terms, and I CERTAINLY don't know them in English. But I am about to write a scene where a nobleman poses for a portrait he commissioned.

I was wondering if someone knew the lingo and could give me enough information to add to the scene to make it feel real. Like, the steps the artist goes through, the techniques, and so on.

Also, roughly how long can a high-end portrait take?

05-20-2016, 08:34 PM
It completely depends. On the medium being used, the historical period, the artist him or herself and their methodology. Some artists work really quickly, some slowly. Some slap paint on the canvas, some are meticulous in their detailing.

Think we need more info as to time and setting.

Alessandra Kelley
05-20-2016, 09:29 PM
What timeperiod, please?

My day job is artist and I took years of art history and I delved way more into materials and techniques than most of my fellow-students. Not only could I give you vocabulary, I could probably tell you what pigments the artist would have used (and what were anachronisms).

Just as an intro, you know those little jointed wooden dolls artists use to pose things? They are called "manikins" or "lay figures" when life-sized, and high-class clients would avoid wasting their time sitting for portraiture by the artist dressing a lay figure in one of their outfits in the studio to paint. They would only have to sit for the time needed to paint their faces and hands.

In the case of really high-class clients, like kings or queens with little time, artists would sometimes work from an oil sketch of the face which would get handed round as a reference.

05-20-2016, 09:46 PM
Think we need more info as to time and setting.

Well, it's space opera, so historical settings are not going to help here.

But it IS a commission from a nobleman, so the artist is going to take his time and do his best.

05-20-2016, 09:50 PM
In what medium and what style? An oil painting may take longer than a digital rendition on a iPad. What kind of portrait do you mean?

05-20-2016, 10:26 PM
In what medium and what style? An oil painting may take longer than a digital rendition on a iPad. What kind of portrait do you mean?

I mean an oil painting. The idea is, the upper classes opt for hand-made, difficult, time-consuming portraits as a sign of affluence.

05-20-2016, 10:34 PM
Ah. Then there's quite a lot of processes to go through from initial sketches to applying ground to the canvas to blocking to detailing ..... it can take weeks. Depending on how quickly the artist works. Obviously the sitter doesn't need to be there for the whole thing. And also oil paint takes longer to dry so you have to factor that in.

Here's a page of links that should give you enough info for the average reader to think you know what you're on about. :D


05-20-2016, 11:25 PM
If it's a space opera, then unless you simply want your character to sit for the portrait, there's no reason the artist can't take a photo of the subject and let the nobleman go on about his day.

05-20-2016, 11:29 PM
I'm not sure a really high-end portraitist would work from a photo. The sitter has to be there for a while at some point so the artist can get a 'feel' for their personality. It doesn't have to be days but more than the few minutes it takes to photograph someone.

Bing Z
05-21-2016, 01:14 AM
This is space opera. Can't the duke have a real-size hologram taken? The painter can use psychic-controlled auto airbrushes to do the painting, one eye staring at the hologram, another at a CG dancer trying to invoke the painter's fullest artistic merit, while he eats 3D printed grapes.

ETA: But the OP still needs the lingo on painting technique and quality etc.

Alessandra Kelley
05-21-2016, 01:53 AM
Even in the twentieth century when portrait photography had pretty much taken over, there was a sense of unctuous luxury about having a life-sized full-length or half-length oil portrait done, judging by the many, many examples I have seen of academics, business leaders, and politicians.

Many artists who specialize in this sort of portraiture will have developed a sort of flattering patter aimed at keeping the client comfortable but immobile. They may well tell the same jokes, well polished with use.

05-22-2016, 08:03 AM
I would think your artist would pose the noble for a photo and then work from the photo. But if he's going to sit for it, he'd only have to pose for the actual face work. The artist would have a stand in model for the body. The overall project will probably take a couple/few weeks, depending on size, of course.

Modern oil paints come in tubes. They are mixed with linseed oil. They take days to dry, which lets you make very smooth transitions between colors and tones. It requires mineral spirits to wash the brushes, not water.

Siri Kirpal
05-24-2016, 09:47 PM
Sat Nam! (literally "Truth Name"--a Sikh greeting)

Oil painting studios tend to smell of turpentine. I trained in art, but mostly worked in acrylic as my painting instructor was allergic to turpentine.


Siri Kirpal

05-24-2016, 10:12 PM
I would think your artist would pose the noble for a photo and then work from the photo.

If I chose a high-end artist who charged me a lot of money and then told me he could do it from a photo, I'd want my money back.

05-24-2016, 11:06 PM
If I chose a high-end artist who charged me a lot of money and then told me he could do it from a photo, I'd want my money back.

Why? The artist poses you, gets the lighting right, etc, then takes a picture so you can go about your business. The photography set up would be part of the artistry being sold.

Illustrators do the same thing today. They photograph a model and then use it as a reference for painting, making changes as desired to represent their actual subject matter.

Remember that before cameras, they only modeled your face. The bodies seen in old paintings were not modeled off the subject of the painting. It was a body stand in. The only part that's you is the face, and even some of that was painted without the reference being present.

05-24-2016, 11:22 PM
Because part of paying a high-end portraitist so much money is for the experience of the sitting. An hour or so to light a photo isn't going to cut it.

And it can't be compared to an illustrator. Two different things.

05-24-2016, 11:34 PM
I think there's a certain subjective element in a good portrait, a feel, a capturing of personality. You can only get so much of that from copying a photograph. Indeed, if all you want is an accurate capturing of someone's features, just go with the photograph. A good portrait should do more.

Would you consider copying a photograph of a landscape to be equivalent to painting it from life? I wouldn't, and I wouldn't expect the same results, either.

05-24-2016, 11:37 PM
What she said as well.

Rufus Coppertop
05-25-2016, 09:59 AM
What they said.

05-25-2016, 06:00 PM
This might interest you: http://www.britishlegion.org.uk/community/stories/general/a-royal-commission/

Apparently even HM The Queen actually sits for portraits, although by the sounds of the article only for a few of the 200 hours the artist spent on the work.

05-25-2016, 06:24 PM
No-one sits for the whole thing. There's no need to . There's a lot of prep and a lot of work that happens before the subject needs to sit. But they do need to in order to have a good portrait.