Creating a Posthumous Portrait Painting
This past Saturday I delivered the above posthumous portrait, Shelly, to Al, her widower. When he saw the finished portrait he became very emotional and started to tear up. It was as if he was peering into the eyes of his beloved wife one more time. It was a very touching and rewarding moment for me. I thought outside of a sadist or a bully who would derive pleasure from making someone cry? The obvious answer: a portrait artist.
When a client reacts emotionally, it means I’ve managed to touch their heart, and from this I derive great satisfaction. In the case of a posthumous portrait it’s more meaningful still. I always feel guilty about this kind of commission, that somehow I am profiting from someone elses’ great loss. So it’s always my intention that my portrait painting will serve as a conduit for closure and solace for those who were close to the deceased. This puts a positive spin on it for me.
Al shared, as we talked over lunch, “It’s a day by day thing, but there are times when the reality just hits me.” Hopefully this portrait can serve to comfort him and soften the sting.
A posthumous portrait is a very challenging endeavor because, in most instances, having never met the subject you are at the mercy of existing photos. It’s a big compromise, for me, because I feel that my control of the lighting is so instrumental. Then there is the potential for disappointment, on the part of the client, because the way he sees his loved one, in his mind’s eye, may differ wildly from the photo. Lastly, the chosen photo may have the subject smiling, and that can present its own can of worms. (The worst being the scorn of purists who automatically reject the smile as being aesthetically impure.)
I believe the phrase painting someone in their best light sums up my strategic philosophy when I’m commissioned to paint a posthumous portrait. I think serving the clients needs, at this sensitive time, makes the most sense. Portraits are a collaborative effort between artist and client. I find that by listening to the loved ones to talk about their relationship and their remembrances of the subject gives me great insight into their persona.
It’s my feeling that where a painting really trumps a photo is because an artist can introduce something beyond the mere image. I call it tiny time pills of emotional content. Your feelings are woven into the fabric of the painting and if you can channel what you’ve experienced through your connection to the family, something more powerful, than the image itself, can prevail.
Since you are using existing reference, there is potential for problems, particularly if you need to place the deceased into a group setting or into an environment where the lighting differs from the photos of the subject. The best solution may necessitate your sculpting a likeness, matching the lighting, and photographing the sculpture to get the proper information, so that everything matches perfectly. Very few are willing to go that extra mile. In the case of Shelly I needed to extract her from a very busy background, use an out-of-focus photo for the most flattering view, and take detail from another shot.
Maybe that’s why, when I receive an emotional response, it’s a bit more satisfying than a standard commission. As we parted, we hugged and Al expressed how happy he was that I was the artist he chose to paint his wife’s portrait. It’s nice to know I can make my living by creating something that has true meaning for someone else.
Until next time…