Painting a portrait from a photo: the risks

Last Updated on August 26, 2023

portrait painting from a photo
Portrait of Heather Garland, painted by Amiria Robinson

Painting a portrait when you don’t know the person is hard. Painting a person that you don’t know from a photo – especially a photo you have not taken yourself – is even harder. You have only what the photo gives you: tiny pixels of colour, often with areas that are out of focus or poorly lit. You don’t see what the person looks like from another angle; hear their laughter or voice. You can’t see their freckles or the soft hairs on their skin. You are given a snatched glimpse of the world at one precise moment: a digital representation, composed by another. It is easy, in such a situation, to become nothing more than a glorified photocopier: producing art that is superficial and surface deep. (So abhorred by art critics are such artworks that many portrait competitions forbid entries of this nature, or speak out with disdain following the judging process).

painting from a photo
Painting from a photo: this is the digital composition I created, merging seven photographs that have been digitally chopped, altered and recomposed. The composition is exceptionally busy, which was unavoidable with the dense, tangled subject matter, however, I endeavoured to position larger less-complex areas (the grass in foreground, the house, the clothing of he men etc) so as to provide visual relief. (The white grid lines represent the edges of A4 pages, to help me scale it to full size).

Outright dismissal of all art that has a photographic origin is, however, unwarranted. Many artists paint portraits from photos and manage to produce critically acclaimed, successful pieces. Chuck Close, for example, glorifies and exploits the process of making art from a photo, turning the enlargement grid into a crucial element in his work. Juan Francisco Casas slavishly imitates photographic ‘snaps’ (many of these are R18, so viewer discretion advised), producing outrageously popular ballpoint pen pieces that become high art through their sheer mockery of it. Others work in a quick, gestural fashion, so the photographic starting point is disguised or, at the very least, perhaps no longer begrudged.

painting a portrait from a photo
Painting a portrait: this stage of painting involves working over an aqua ground from the background to the foreground.
commissioned portrait painting
The final painting!

Whatever method is used, the key to producing art from a photo is to provide the viewer with more. To insert yourself into the image and make compositional decisions that remove the finished piece from the starting point: make it an artistic work in its own right. Sometimes the quality of the brush-stroke is enough (with surface irregularities and imperfections providing enough beauty that the image stands on its own); sometimes it is the surprise element of a mundane blue ballpoint pen, a splash of dripping colour, or reduction in form. If the subject is not known to the artist, an in-depth discussion before beginning can help – or sometimes the knowing is not needed at all.

Here is my latest artwork, which was painted from a photo – several photos, in fact. It was completed after a detailed discussion with the lovely (and patient) woman from Christchurch who commissioned it. It took me four months and was painted in the wee hours of the morning under a daylight bulb, after my newborn baby had gone to bed. It is not a slavish replication of a photo, but it maintains a sense of realism where it needs to and it has some of me in it: there are four months of my life tangled within the brush strokes and the layers of paint. That’s the way it should be.


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