"I've noticed in portraiture, if you don't get it right early on, you don't get it. Continuing to fiddle with a likeness generally takes it further and further away until you are looking at some other person altogether." Robert Genn
That comment was in Genn's popular and insightful blog "The Painter's Keys" last week and it really struck a chord with me.
I did these two commissioned portraits recently and noticed the same phenomenon that Robert Genn remarked on when I began to fiddle with the little girl's features.
She is 4 years old, but precocious. Her articulate forthrightness is beyond 4 - more like 8 - and it's hard to represent her at her chronological age because of it.
I take lots of photos for a portrait because I know the kind of lighting that works for me, and also because it helps me to get to know the sitter, and figure out how to portray her. In the case of this girl, I found that the images were evenly split between those that showed a 4 year old, and those that showed a more mature child. I sent the best of each to her mother, and asked her to pick the ones that most showed her child's personality. All of the ones that she picked were mature; she sees her daughter as a strong, independent person and the baby-like pictures didn't ring true.
So, with great gusto, I painted the portrait. My kids, who know her, felt that it captured the girl, and I thought it did, too.
But the painting was in my studio for too long, waiting for me to finish her brother, and I began to second guess myself. Did she look 4? Shouldn't she?
I started to fiddle and tweak, to add volume to the cheeks, and shorten the neck. And the more that I did, the less it looked like her.
Luckily, the paint underneath my additions was dry and I could wipe back to it when I realized that I'd gone too far down the wrong path. I removed most of my changes and refreshed some areas that had become muddy with the unnecessary work, and there she was again. My kids said it looked like her, and I forced myself to stop.
Her brother, by contrast, was easy. The photos of him all showed the same sweet, shy person, and he fell off my brush.
It was a reminder to me to go with my instincts and save myself some trauma and work down the road.