Traditional Portraiture in a Contemporary World
Art has always been a reflection of its time and its people, and contemporary portraiture is no different. In an age where we capture our own likeness reflexively on our cellphones, we also crave something deeper, more intimate.
To differentiate themselves from photographers, many painters throughout the 20th century leaned toward the abstract rather than striving for realism as master artists of the Renaissance did. A new generation of contemporary portrait artists is beginning to shake things up by reviving classical techniques to depict and, sometimes, editorialize our modern world.
A Fresh Take on a Classical Endeavor
Painted portraits have traditionally been magnificent showpieces, but some contemporary artists have evolved to create portraits that are less formal. Relaxed displays of a loved one, a family interacting with one another, or a beloved pet can make a house feel like a home rather than an art gallery.
Portraits, Inc. artist Liz Lindström has a “photo booth” series that captures subjects in a posed, but casual way. The subjects are often making silly faces, or she depicts them off-center as they often end up in a real photo booth. The client has a choice of a colorful oil painting or one of her beautiful charcoal and pastel drawings. It’s a fresh and different take on portraiture that’s both an investment in a cherished heirloom and a stunning décor piece.
You can make a portrait feel more modern by changing the scale of the drawing – making it small for a gallery wall or oversized as a real statement piece – or you can play with how you frame the finished work. Often, portraits have used thick, ornate, dark frames. By selecting a distressed wood frame, one that is slim and sleek, or one that is metal with a modern finish, you can give the art an edgier finished look.
Contemporary art isn’t rising in popularity solely because it brings traditional portraiture to new groups of people. What’s old is becoming new again with the use of alternative mediums, and the revival of surprisingly traditional mediums.
The artists at Portraits, Inc. work with traditional oil on canvas, but you can also commission a charcoal drawing, conté crayon sketch, sculpture, or a painting on various supports like copper or glass.
Portraits, Inc.’s very own Glenda Brown works on copper as her canvas, while also continuing to work on traditional linen. While painting on copper may seem like a new, exciting medium, it’s actually one of the oldest supports used in oil paintings. Renaissance virtuoso Leonardo da Vinci and Baroque master Rembrandt painted on copper.
The reddish-brown finish of copper makes it an ideal material for painting because it brings a warm vibrancy to paint colors, and it lasts for centuries. Canvas can expand, and the paint on it can eventually deteriorate (although it could take centuries). Copper is less flexible, so paintings from hundreds of years ago look as if they were painted yesterday.
Artists can manipulate copper supports for a variety of effects that suit modern portraiture. The artist can chemically patina the copper to give it a blue-green hue before painting on it. The surface of copper is smooth, so the artists can sand it to varying degrees of “tooth” to create his or her desired finish. Painters may even choose to leave some of the copper unpainted in areas. All of these techniques lend a contemporary feeling to a very classical medium.
Traditional Portraiture in Modern Homes
Capturing your own image has never been easier. According to House Beautiful, “today’s portraiture caters to a generation able to view themselves over and over, and one that wants a new way of seeing.” Not only are alternative medium portraits growing in popularity, but interior decorating with paintings is as well.
Modern homeowners are pulling family portraits out of storage or even purchasing depictions of strangers. Intriguing paintings capture the essence of the subject and fill a room with a story, a life. Dispensing with the stodgy perception that traditional portraiture belongs solely above the mantel, interior decorators are using paintings to create unique focal points.
If you have a portrait you’d like to display, either a recently commissioned piece or a treasured favorite, try some of the following ideas:
- Create a portrait wall with an array of various works that follow a similar theme. They don’t need to “go” together. Try grouping based on size, color theme, frame style, or artist. Alternatively, you could create a dramatic wall that mixes old and new pieces.
- Place a portrait in an unexpected location. Try tucking it behind a stack of books so that the face peeks out above the stack.
- Illuminate the portrait with modern light fixtures.
- Rather than mounting a large portrait on the wall, set it on the floor, the mantle, or on a sofa table for a relaxed, cozy feeling.
- Put complementary portraits on either side of a large window.
- Juxtapose the portrait against sculptures, pottery, or other pieces that contrast with the painting to make it pop.
Traditional Portraiture is Timeless
Art has a beautiful way of adapting to its time and telling the story of that era’s people. It speaks to the viewer in ways that other mediums simply cannot. It’s no wonder that we can’t resist hanging portraits in our homes and admiring artists who change and grow with our culture.