The painter’s apprentice

Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl is a good portrait, right?

What does it mean to make a good portrait? It’s easiest to get to an answer by looking at the reverse. The first way a portrait can be bad is if it doesn’t resemble the person in some way, maybe inner, but hopefully outer, too. If the portrait has no connection with the subject, then how is it a portrait at all? It isn’t. This part is easy. But you know those chalk portraits that they do for a few bucks on the tourist-artsy street? Those are terrible, right? And why is that? It’s because all those are is these people look at you, see your hair, your nose, whatever, and then paint a generic person with those attributes. Like, they could have looked at the “distinguishing traits” thing on a wanted poster and drawn the same picture of you. Well, assuming one of your distinguishing traits is “has head out of all proportion to body.” And another is “hangs out around famous tourist landmarks”. Even so. Nobody looks to a picture for that kind of resemblance and no one is pleased by it. Even I can draw a picture of a fat mustachioed man in a monocle and have it be recognized as that fat mustachioed monocle guy. What I want to get to is to draw a picture of a thin mousy old woman and have people say oh, but that’s that fat mustachioed monocle guy, but as an old woman. If a poor portrait is one that is all attributes and no substance, then the best portrait should have no attributes. Just the quintessence. Just the one line.

That’s a bunch of obscurantist crap, of course. Even apart from drawing, even on life’s terms. People change. You can see someone you saw long ago and not recognize them. They’ve gotten older, balder, fatter. And a person’s character changes, too. Moment to moment, and in long drifts that take years. And anyhow, everything you see is attribute. But still, some are more superficial than others. I suppose that is what I mean by the ideal. I don’t want to draw something that’s all superficial – hat, glasses, haircut. You know.

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