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Old 02-09-2006, 04:15 PM   #1
Rod Lamkey Rod Lamkey is offline
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Asymmetrical faces

As one who draws and paints what I see accurately as possible, I have sometimes wound up with portraits that seem askew due to facial features not being perfectly symmetrical.

So far everyone is pleased with the drawings and paintings I've made of them, but with one exception, which was due to asymmetry. The sitter was used to seeing herself only in the mirror, so my portrait of her doubled the effect of asymmetry compared to what she was used to seeing! Even though I had taken reference photos and proved that my work was in fact a fairly exact likeness, she still insisted that I had created and therefore should correct the problem. To make a long story short I did as she asked. The portrait still looks like her though now it lacks a certain vitality, and I'll never brag about having painted it.

Has this sort of thing happened to other portrait artists? If so, is there a diplomatic way of handling it?

Thank you!
Rod Lamkey
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Old 02-09-2006, 09:10 PM   #2
Steven Sweeney Steven Sweeney is offline
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The first muscle in my face that goes when I'm tired is somewhere around my right eye, so that the lid drops about 1/3 of the way. I'm aware that this affects my appearance about 1/3 of my day, but I'm not sure I'd want a portrait to capture it -- though, it might just be that certain je ne sais quoi dash that differentiates the work. Perhaps I shall hire a portraitist to arrive in the evening for our sessions, to determine whether this is true.

Daniel Greene told a story at a workshop about running into a portrait subject with obvious asymmetry in his facial features, and Greene struggled with whether to capture that, or to "correct" it. He chose to paint what he saw, and later met another member of the family, who exhibited the exact same features. So Greene was "vindicated," in that he realized that he'd actually caught a family trait faithfully.

The 19th Century Australian impressionist Sir Arthur Streeton made his first sale to the Art Gallery of New South Wales only after he'd made some adjustments to the painting, at the request of a trustee. Nonetheless, Streeton is revered and beloved in that country in a way unknown here.

I'd be inclined to make the changes that a commissioned-portrait client asks for, and be delighted to delight her.

And if I refused the request, I'd want to make darn sure I was right about my own perception. In the face of such an objection on such an important assignment, I'd probably run it by a trusted artist friend, to see if there might be something to the objection. At the very least, you'd get a cuppa tea with a friend. Our experience on this Forum is that an artist very often is able to profit from a fresh pair of eyes viewing the work anew.
Steven Sweeney

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Old 02-09-2006, 10:06 PM   #3
Chris Saper Chris Saper is offline
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I just ask.

"I see that you have an eye that is sleepy; I see that you have a birthmark; I see that you have a scar..." the subject already knows if there is an anomaly. Just ask how you should convey it.
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Old 02-10-2006, 12:47 PM   #4
Rod Lamkey Rod Lamkey is offline
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Asymmetrical faces

Thank you Steven and Chris for your comments. From now on I will ask people who sit for portraits about things which might be of concern to them. That was the first time anyone reacted adversely and I was thrown for a loop. I say 'first time' because there will surely be more to come. Knowing that other artists have dealt with asymmetry, however they dealt with it, helps. Thanks again!
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Old 02-10-2006, 04:14 PM   #5
Claudemir Bonfim Claudemir Bonfim is offline
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I'd like to add my comments here too Rod,

Chris and Steven are right, you need to know what your client wants, so just ask how you can please him or her.
Use a mirror next time, it helps a lot more than the photos.
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Old 02-21-2006, 10:44 PM   #6
Sharon Knettell Sharon Knettell is offline
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The only thing that I can think of that would be relevant and symmetrical is a vase or a pot.

I remember seeing an article in a magazine many years ago when they made a celebrities face perfectly symmetrical by using one side of the face and reversing it to make a whole. It did not look like the person, even though the subject had quite a regular face.

Most primitive and archaic portrait art was symmetrical. It is only when more knowledge was gained in Western art, that it was abandoned for the sophisticated portraiture of later Greek and Roman art. That knowledge was lost during the medieval period and reborn in the Renaissance and furthered by Golden age of English and French portraiture of the 18th-19th century.

You CAN improve somewhat on nature and sotto voce some discordant flaws if the need arises.
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Old 02-28-2006, 05:14 PM   #7
Karin Lindhagen Karin Lindhagen is offline
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One of the very first commissioned portraits I ever did was of an old man, quite good-looking but with a very large nose. I assumed that showing the nose as big as that would embarrass him, so I painted it smaller. As the client took a look, he told me that the painting was progressing well, but he complained that really his nose wasn't as small as I had painted it...

This taught me that it is the special personal traits that make our character and our particular looks. Of cause I want my portrait to show the client at his best, but I do not deliberately lie. If the client starts looking drowsy during a live sitting I suggest we continue another day. But I do not paint him with different features than I actually see.

We have a TV celebrity in my country that has an extremely assymetrical face. Every time I see him it fascinates me. I think his face is quite extraordinary. I do not suppose ordinary people notice, but being a portrait painter you just cannot help seeing it. If someone were to paint him reducing this assymery, the painting would loose the best of his fascinating looks!

In my experience, men are easier to paint because their whole identity does not depend on them being handsome; they generally will accept their looks as they are. Women are more complicated since we often believe that our value as humans depend on looking good...
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Old 11-08-2006, 04:09 AM   #8
Bianca Berends Bianca Berends is offline
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I had a commission about a year ago, to make a painting of a woman, who thought herself very beautiful, which she was in a way. I painted her portrait and they were very disappointed, her husband said to me, that he thought I would paint her even more beautiful and wanted changes in more or les al her features (her portrait was very accurate. I told myself I would make one attempt, but I had the feeling it would be in vain, because he would never be satisfied. And that was indeed the case. I taught me, that I have to listen to my intuition, because in retrospect before I started the painting I had a feeling that these clients had expectations I could not meet.
Bianca Berends

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Old 11-08-2006, 05:27 AM   #9
Karin Lindhagen Karin Lindhagen is offline
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I also paint portraits of people's horses and dogs, and there some clients tell me at an early stage (often in a joking voice) that they hope I will paint their pet younger or less fat or something like that.

I always explain that I cannot do that. I will of cause try to capture their animal at his best, but if I were to start making changes to what I acually see then the picture would no longer show this particular animal. So far, the clients have always accepted this explanation. Perhaps the logic of this is easier for the client to accept when the subject is an animal.
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Old 11-08-2006, 06:09 PM   #10
Tom Edgerton Tom Edgerton is offline
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Happens to everyone.

If I have a potential client that wants me to unrealistically flatter them, I tell them I'm probably not the artist for them. I reassure potential clients, however, that I'm not at all averse to showing them in a favorable light.

If a possible client is really insistent that I "improve" them or someone else, I respectfully decline the commission. It's too slippery a slope, especially when this is being requested by a party other than your subject--a colleague, spouse, parent, etc. Besides, unless you are exceptionally clairvoyant, they may not like your "improvements" either.

When beginning the sittings, I ask the subject how they want to be perceived by those viewing the portrait: "What do you want the viewer to know about you (or Uncle George or whomever) when they look at this portrait." This helps identify their hopes and desires for the project. I then, like Chris, ask them, "Is there anything about your face that you don't like or are concerned about." This identifies possible areas in which to apply some expertise or care, in the manner that Sharon describes.

If they request reasonable changes--that you can agree to without sacrificing your integrity--make them with an attitude that will leave them feeling alright about having worked with you.

Don't take the projects you don't feel right about, unless there is a heavy bill in your mailbox that can't be dodged.

"The dream drives the action."
--Thomas Berry, 1999
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