Over the next few weeks I’ll be writing some blogs that are related to one of my favorite subjects: Portrait painting. I’m often asked specific questions related to portraiture and wanted to share some of my own thoughts and working methods with others who might be interested as well.

As a commissioned portrait painter, one of the most important stages for me is the portrait sitting itself. This is where I get all of the information that is needed in order to paint the picture. When I talk about “information”, I’m not only referring to the photos that I take, but also the time spent getting to know the person who will be the subject of the painting. This investment of time is just as important to me as the reference photos that I take because it gives me the opportunity to get a feel for their personality, character and presence. This is extremely important because portraiture is not just about recording an accurate likeness of features, but is about bringing those features to life on canvas. I’ve seen many portraits that are exact likenesses of a person, but have no life, whatsoever, in them. I’m after that first impression that I get when I first meet someone. It’s that fresh perspective that I’m wanting to capture in the final portrait.


Portrait of Jacquie by Brian Neher

The portrait sitting begins the moment I meet a client for the first time. Although we may have spoken beforehand over the phone, it’s this first visual impression that plays a key role in the success of the portrait. Some of the initial characteristics that I take note of are the same ones that I work to incorporate into a painting from the very start. I’m looking at the overall gesture of a person in order to get a sense of their character and personality. I’m not just trying to envision how I would interpret them on canvas, but am also trying to figure out how they would like to see themselves interpreted. I’ve learned over the years that a client will always tell you what they want if you will take the time to listen. Sometimes they will tell you in words and other times they will tell you in actions (the way they stand, sit, fold their hands, etc.) Each of these actions give clues about what they’re thinking and come in handy as I’m working on their portrait. I will sometimes exaggerate or downplay certain gestures or features in order to help bring out a particular personality trait that I noticed when I first met them. All of this is a result of that initial meeting- The first impression.

It’s interesting to note how John Singer Sargent often used the art of exaggeration in many of his portraits. He would often elongate his sitter’s neck or fingertips, slim waist lines, or paint his subjects a full head taller in order to bring out their character, as well as creating a more elegant look.


Portrait by John Singer Sargent


Notice the length of the woman’s neck.


One of the things I noticed when I first saw this painting in a museum was that Sargent went back and re-painted the woman’s fingertips, making them longer.

Having spent time with someone beforehand, I then have a better idea of how I want to take photos. I’m not trying to find the character of someone within the photos that I take. Instead, I’m trying to pull out the characteristics that I saw in them during that first impression and incorporating those personality traits into the photo session, which is something that I’ll talk about in my next blog.

You only get one chance to make a first impression. Make it count.