The Portrait as Still Life

Increasingly portraits are painted from digital screens or other images, rather than from a direct engagement with the sitter. For better or for worse this is a more practical way of working and despite the consequential change in the way people paint and the style of the paintings there appears to be no real quality difference in my mind.

However, the truth is that these works are of course no longer portraits but are still lives…

This may not be a very important point – I don’t know – does it change anything? But, recently I was asked to paint a large portrait commission from an old photograph. I struggled with taking the low levels of information in the photograph and reproducing them in the high information and fine detail of a large oil painting. I was constantly surprised by the resultant range of appearances that could be generated as a result, whilst still being faithful to the photograph. It occurred to me that a more honest approach would be to acknowledge that the work is a still life, rather than try to recreate a portrait.

This little piece was the result. Painted after the portrait commission was finished this piece returns the portrait to still life. Here the original photo has been scanned and then printed out on A4 paper. This paper was folded and carried around with me for a few days. I wanted to give the paper a creased sculptural quality to reinforce the sculptural, ‘object’ qualities of the paper. It was then painted onto a plyboard, with the grain of the real board left visible.

Blending the real and the illusion, portrait and still life – its an interesting little painting and as you look at it ask yourself are you looking at a portrait or a still life? I think it is strangely hard to perceive it as both a portrait and a still life at the same time. Consequently I have positioned it with the other perception based works in the blocks series despite there not being any blocks in the piece.

It could be said that here the coloured blocks are taken at their most complex, multifaceted and tonally varied rather than the usual singular full hue faces.

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About Phil Lambert

Visual artist based in Cardiff
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