The difficulty of painting resemblance

I had intended, when I came home for a month, to paint portraits of all my family. I so enjoyed the portraits my friend Masha and I did for each other in Boston, and I’d only known Masha for a couple of months before I tried painting her. I thought, with faces I knew and loved even better, portraits would be easier.

That was not the case.

I painted Erik first. Sure, I see him all the time, but he has the best understanding of how the process works, and is the most patient. Ultimately he sat for me for about an hour, and I sketched/painted for about an additional half hour in between.

Erik portrait process animation

The picture looks less like Erik than like a distant relative. Bah. And you can see where I initially made the outline of his hair too big, and then attempted to fix it later.


About a week later, I painted my youngest sister, Allison. This was amusing, as I’ve done so many self-portraits, and certain of her features look quite a lot like mine (which I’d never realized before, actually; such is the power of artist-seeing as opposed to regular seeing). She sat for me for about the same length of time as Erik, and it was fun. But I got her hair and the top of her head all wrong. I knew I was getting it wrong, but I just couldn’t figure out how. So now she looks like she’s been through one of those silly online makeovers, where you drag an image of a dreadful wiglike hairdo over your own photo, and it never sits quite right…

Allison portrait process animation

But on the other hand, if you ignore the top of her head, the portrait looks a lot like Al. Not in a photo-accurate way, but the expression is truly characteristic. And I was able to render her skin tones with a much lighter touch than in the Erik portrait, which is a good thing to learn.

On the other other hand, her boyfriend thinks it looks like me.


Resemblance difficulties aside, I still don’t know how to paint hair, or how to make mouths not look lipsticked. I need so much more practice!

By the way — we’ve taken the smaller apartment. Signed the lease, got the keys. So when we return from Tampa in February, we’ll be residents of Oakland.


8 responses to “The difficulty of painting resemblance

  1. Lisa, your paintings are quite good! The skin coloring in your sisters picture is lovely indeed. And since I wasn’t sitting beside you when they were modeling for you, I would not have noticed that the head shapes/hair were not “quite right”. Great first effort!……Congrats on your new apartment! Why Tampa?

    • Oh, thank you, Sherry! I’m happy with the skin tones, definitely — I still remember my first attempts to render skin tones, a year or two (or three?) ago, and how frustrating it was!

      We have a couple of very good friends who recently moved to Tampa, so we’ll be staying with them while we’re there. 🙂

  2. this was interesting, watching the development of the portraits. I laughed when you wrote about trying to fix Eric’s hair; I thought you’d given him some sort of halo. I imagine the portraits are much better than you think they are. I thought they were quite good.

    • Thank you, Lisa! I love rewatching the animations — it absolutely floors me that the paintings I’m photographing in the early stages no longer exist by the time I’m done; that is, no one can ever recover them except in these photos.

      I think I’m a decent portraitist, all things considered, but there are so many skills that go into making a portrait (everything from time/model management to just general painting technique), I sometimes feel the impossibility of trying to improve on all fronts. But then again, I just keep going, and then I improve holistically, and that should be enough!

  3. Pingback: Another round of family portraits |·

  4. Pingback: Painting Erik |·

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