Electrifying Portraiture

Remember all those non-art related classes you took in high school? How you’d nab a seat in the front row and, with  wide-eyes and bushy tail, eagerly await the riveting lecture of your instructor?

Yeah. Right. If you were anything like me, you probably drew pretty pictures during lectures and hoped to learn everything and anything through osmosis. Sorry to say, all the info you missed out on could have really been helpful for your future art career, in a similar vain to what fellow blogger, Allyson Hawk, mentioned in her post a few weeks back.

But, for those of us who missed out, there’s still a chance to learn—through the proper research.

The most recent assignment for my Painting for the Illustrator class involves composing an original work. My teacher suggested that I create another portrait that is on a subject I normally wouldn’t tackle, and we decided on a particular individual. So instead of dealing with the fictitious worlds of novels and fairy tales, this is a biographical portrait of a great figure in history. A scientist by the name of Nikola Tesla.

Now, the only things I know about Tesla are that he 1) hated Thomas Edison, 2) was in love with a pigeon, and 3) that he is an internet meme. So I’ve gotta do my homework if I ever hope to adequately do his visage any justice at all.

The very first step in creating a good biographical illustration would be to get to know your subject material. You could watch a documentary about your person or read a book (or three) about them. I found a documentary about Tesla on Netflix that I intend to watch. The library here on campus has a few books on his life, and of course, Google has a plethora of biographical information about him that could prove useful.

The goal here is to find something that will allow you to approach the subject in a unique (and accurate) way. Try to find something, an odd fact or endearing character trait, that you can use to make the character more authentic. A portrait should be an adequate representation, not only of a person’s physical appearance but of their personality as well.

If the person is a famous celebrity or historical figure, compile photo references of them that you can combine to make an original pose. You can’t copy the images directly (as you most likely didn’t take the photos yourself) but you can use them to “frankenstein” (like Erik Jones does) an original image of the person. This may seem hard at first but the more you do it, the easier it becomes to analyze the facial structure or mannerisms of an individual. If you have to, you can even take pictures of your friends or modify other images in a pose that would suit your subject. Photoshop can be an aid in this process as well,  allowing you to literally collage body parts together.

And of course, consider including a setting. Even if it’s simply suggested or hinted at, it could make a simple portrait all the more interesting. Keep in mind too that the setting can also be a way to illustrate the personality as well. Tesla was a bit withdrawn and absorbed in his work. So to show this I could put him in an isolated location with a thoughtful expression while not making eye contact with the viewer but instead, perhaps wistfully gazing at the pigeon on his windowsill.

The bottom line is a portrait doesn’t have to be a cut and dry thing. And it certainly doesn’t have to be just a bust shot of the person. It can be an engaging illustration that gives an insight to the character’s life and personality. Just do your homework and think it out. There is definitely more than one potential solution and it’s up to you to find the best one.

And for those readers who may still be in high school – literally do your homework! As in your science and history homework. Seriously.

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