A Closer Look at the Art of Portraiture (Part One)

07/05/2012 10:20 am ET | Updated Sep 01, 2012

A portrait artist creates a likeness of a subject but, after that generalization, there aren't too many absolutes in the portraiture field, and even that one is open to interpretation. What someone looks like is always up for discussion. Edd Hayes' maquette for what eventually became an eight-foot tall statue of Dr. Michael DeBakey, which was commissioned by Baylor College of Medicine in Houston and installed in September 2009, originally portrayed the cardiologist smiling. "The photographs I was given to work from showed him smiling, but the committee" -- a half-dozen doctors and other associates of DeBakey's at the medical school that had selected Hayes and was overseeing the sculpture portrait -- "thought of him as more serious, or wanted him to look more serious. I had made him look too pleasant."

There was another problem, which Hayes handled on his own. Those happy photographs he had been given were all taken in the past few years of DeBakey's long life (1908-2008), when he was in his 9'0s, and Hayes knew that the cardiologist should be depicted closer to the age of 60 or so, when he first gained international renown for implanting an artificial heart, which he had designed, in a patient.

The committee members had a quibble here and there with other areas of the maquette - move an eyebrow down a fraction of an inch, redo the surgical mask, have the mask hang lower against his scrubs, redo the cardiologist's shoes (DeBakey wore custom-made surgery boots) -- but it was otherwise a relatively painless affair for the sculptor. "I brought some tools with me and made most of the changes right there in front of them," he said, noting that the process took about 15 to 20 minutes. "People enjoy watching the sculptor at work." It seemed like magic to them.

Portraiture calls on a variety of artistic and technical talents, such as a strong understanding of anatomy, solid representational skills and insight into a subject's character that can be expressed in the face and pose. Just as important, however, is the ability to develop a rapport with the subject, if alive, or the people commissioning the portrait, if not. "People aren't used to seeing someone in the medium of clay, and it can be off-putting," Hayes said. "They have the image of the person in their minds, and it takes them a while to get used to a sculpted version."

It also takes people a while to get used to the way in which someone else sees them. The size of their noses and ears often comes as a surprise. "Men ask me, 'Did I really lose that much hair?'" Marc Mellon, a Redding, Conn. sculptor, said. He, like most portrait artists, permits his sitters or whoever is sponsoring the commission to look at his work when it is three-quarters finished, in order to make corrections or other changes. "I tell them, 'I can put some hair back -- it's your call -- but people might not recognize you with all that hair.'" Portraiture isn't a collaborative art, but a great deal depends on the artist's ability to read from a sitter's expression and questions and comments how he or she wants to be portrayed.

The ability to make conversation is a job requirement for portrait artists, who talk to whomever is hiring them about what they want, talk to the living subject while he or she is being measured and photographed in order to gain a sense of who that person is, talk to people who knew the subject (if the portrait is posthumous) so as to understand how that individual appeared to others and talk to whomever needs to approve the model prior to casting about any and all changes that are to be made. Gallery artists may be quite glib, but it is the gallery owner who does the most talking, directed at people who already have some understanding of artistic license. Portrait artists rarely have intermediaries, and they need to be able to describe what they are doing to people with little connection to the arts.

With living subjects, the sittings are when all of the artist's verbal (and listening) powers come to bear. "Time with the sitter is exponentially more important than anything else," said Mellon, who has done portraits of both live and posthumous subjects. Sittings usually last for between 45 minutes and two hours, during which time he takes numerous photographs, occasionally taking measurements, and generally keeping the subject engaged. "Usually, I am asked to produce busts of people who are great achievers in some area, and I try to speak about the things they're known for." Important people "with a lot on their minds tend to ruminate on all the things they have to do, the problems they need to solve, and you can see the lines of concern on their faces." Those character lines much about the individual's interior world. A sitting is otherwise wasted time for many of these people, and it is very easy for important, busy types to just slump, their faces succumbing to gravity, when they find themselves with nothing to do. In 1982, Mellon went to the official residence of then Vice-President George H.W. Bush for a bust that would be cast three times -- one for the Central Intelligence Agency, one for the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution and one for what would become the Bush Presidential Library at Texas A&M -- on a Sunday. The vice-president "said he wanted to watch Meet the Press, and after that we talked about environmental policy." Mellon, a liberal Democrat, noted that the vice-president "responded well" to what he had to say.