Portraiture is often considered the highest form of technical skill and visual representation. I have neither the skills nor the abilities required to produce a perfect likeness, and in the eyes of the art schools throughout history, this makes me a failed artist, if one at all.
I, however, completely disagree with them. Not derisively, or even angrily. I disagree with them on their definition of a successful artist, if they deem the ability to perfectly recreate an accurate likeness of a person, object, building or landscape as the sole or the main quality on which one is to be judged.
A portrait, no matter how accurately painted, may be an absolute failure if it does not capture the character, energy and internal power of the subject sitting for said portrait. A self portrait, in my view, need not be a perfect rendition of what the artist sees physically in a mirror or in his or her mind. It should be a picture that captures, as mentioned before, the character, energy and internal power of the artist, and this picture could be anything from powerful and accurate physical representation full of energy, to an abstract painting that purely captures the aforementioned traits in all their glory.
I do understand that the recreation of the perfect likeness is a skill one must always aspire to, but I do not see it as an absolute necessity for the studying and working artist to have or hone initially. For many, the journey towards perfection is what gives them the thrill, for some it is the act of creation itself. Whatever the inclination, portraiture is an inescapable part of the process, and as frustrating as it can be sometimes, it is one of the most rewarding.
Now, narcissism is inherent in every artist, though some may choose to deny its prevalence in their personalities. To accept the narcissist within is to give in to the vision that sits locked until this is done so, and it is necessary to unlock this vision if one is to grow in portraiture. To deny the narcissistic tendencies the freedom they deserve is to fight an uphill battle in the search for physical perfection in painting. It would be like trying to paint a self-portrait while blindfolded.
A lot of parents tell me that their children cannot draw human figures and faces very well, and hope that instruction by an artist will turn their offspring into artistic geniuses. It pains me greatly that parents expect so much from children, when it takes adults a lifetime to perfect their skills, or at least improve them by some amount. It is true that an early start with the right kind of instruction will lead to children gaining unparalleled skills in portraiture, but expecting them to turn into a Leonardo da Vinci or Raphael within a week or two is like expecting a paper plane to fly through a forest fire without turning into ash.
At this point, you might be asking yourself why I have written this essay. I would be wondering the same, if I were you.
The reason is this: a lot of people come to artists, me included, asking for a portrait to be painted of them. Each of these people comes with an expectation, but without any idea of how to convey that expectation. When an artist paints a portrait, it is usually in the way that the client expects themselves to be seen. More often than not, the finished product isn’t to their liking, because they were unable to properly explain their expectation. In my case, I make it very clear that I do not paint likenesses – I paint portraits in the way that I see the person. If the client is okay with that, then I go ahead and paint it.
I love painting portraits, but mostly of myself or of characters I create, because these are the two truest portraits I will ever be able to paint, and without doubt satisfy the client – myself. I may never truly be able to create a perfect likeness of someone in this lifetime, and yet that does not scare me. If anything, it tells me that I will never allow myself to create a false picture of someone, because I will only ever paint as well as I can, and only ever paint what I see.
The portraits you see in my ouvre are some of the most honest and personal paintings I will have ever created, which is why I value them so much, just as most artists do theirs.