The Unsuccessful Portrait

(An unsuccessful portrait study and unsuccessful painting)

A portrait by definition, must embody the personality, the light, the very being of a subject, filtered through the artist’s eyes.  Of course, this does not have to be in a traditional or figurative fashion.  But, if we are talking about a figurative portrait, a likeness of face, gesture and personality is essential.  Sometimes-HA CHA, it all comes together naturally. When this happens, an artist may feel a little bit like a magician or an instrument of an artsy spirit;)  When it doesn’t happen, a young or novice artist may become frustrated.  I’m sure there are parallels in all of the arts.

I am personally awed and  thrilled when a piece just happens seemingly on its own. But, I’ve been working long enough to know that I can’t count on the magic.  There are times when a portrait becomes a bit of a struggle. It can seem as if everybody but the subject have made an appearance on my canvas.  When this occurs, I don’t worry , I don’t stress about it.  I walk away…

But I do come back.  Here are my tips. They can often save a portrait;

I always work on at least two pieces or projects at a time, so when I abandon one for a while, I move to another. This allows me to disentangle from the work and when I see it again, it’s with fresh eyes and attitude.

I’ve also created a “formula” for getting at an elusive likeness. The formula link will take you to my blog for young artists (directly under the sketchbook info, at the bottom of the PRACTICAL INSPIRATION page). It’s useful for helping me analyse the spacing between features. Since none us are completely symmetrical, the shape of a space surrounding a feature and the shapes that comprise a feature are great places to troubleshoot a portrait that isn’t working.

I use a mirror behind my easel to check the subject against the work. This changes up the perception and allows for delightful moments of discovery.  It invites the magic in and what’s not quite right in the work often becomes clear.

If working from photos I turn them and my canvas upside-down. This allows for the same sort of magic as the mirror.

I include errant hairs and moles and wrinkles in a portrait that I’m struggling with to act as landmarks or anchors within a face. If I’m working in an opaque medium, I can easily edit and remove them or make them more subtle later on.

I always try to get to know the subject a little, see how the subject interacts with others, and pick up as much as I can understand about the individual.  If I must work from photos that I have not taken myself  (because the subject is no longer with us), I ask lots of questions about the subject and request as many photos as I can get my hands on.

If the subject is a child, but appears too young or too mature in my portrait, I check the spacing of the forehead. As you see below, the spacing of a forehead does make a difference.

Values play a huge role in the molding of form. So, correcting the value of an area can change the structure of a face or body in subtle but important ways.


Despite using all of these tips, this portrait isn’t working. You can clearly see it in the progression below.  This subject’s youth and freedom of spirit inspired a really loose and colorful underpainting that soon became a loose cannon. As you can see, I’ve wrangled with this likeness, and it shows.

Occasionally, despite all of my tried and true tips, a painting simply does not work.  If  (for lack of a better word),  the “spirit” isn’t there, then I don’t have a good painting.  Sometimes the struggles show, and the painting  reflects the battle, so I’ve got a bad painting all ’round.  I’m showing off some really bad work here, because it’s honest and part of the process. Every now and then it happens.  It is not a reflection on the subject, just a poor attempt.   This portrait is a perfect example of a do- over.   But that’s ok.  The experience just gets me more fired up to paint a much better portrait.🙂

Published by elenacaravela

My world is a wonder of visual candy and foreboding shadow shapes vying every waking moment for my full attention.

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  1. Thanks for this post – really useful advice. Certainly will try the thing with the mirro. It’s amazing how far a painting can get away from you particularly, alas, while you’re enjoying making it.

  2. Great advice! I think the portrait is fantastic. Perhaps as a viewer I have no prior expectations about the subject and so I’m simply delighted, but as the creator you must have a vision or something that didn’t manifest. Still I think it is wonderful.

  3. Ellen, I think that this is a beautiful portrait and most excellently rendered. From a technical standpoint, it’s great. If you feel it didn’t capture the model’s spirit, maybe you were aware of something in him that simply doesn’t come through in the photo.

    Very nice step-by-step demo. Thank you!

  4. Thank you for this, Elena- you obviously know if your own work is up to your own standards, but I think this is a great painting as well. I have gone through this process of scrapping works several times in the last couple of months- I find it heartbreaking, as time is always at a premium! Thank you for sharing your process

  5. As an artist, you know what you kind of want. And if it doesn’t happen, you’re maybe the only one who notices… because you’re the most sensitive to your work, way more than anyone else could be. I really understand that bit. But … by God, this is a fantastic painting! It’s so bloody striking! And the colours, I love it! I can hardly believe you painted it! And yet your painterly-ness is all there … It must be hard painting an Adonis, btw …!

  6. Very interesting! I work as a life model so I’m always fascinated by the work that goes in to making a picture of someone.

    You’re right, it does happen in all mediums. I’m a freelance writer and some things just don’t seem to come out quite as they should!

  7. This is such an amazing portrait, you have captured every part of his face and expression perfectly.
    I love that you give a run through on how you have created your pieces; it’s very inspiring and interesting to read

  8. Thank your for an inspirational post. I photograph more than I paint or draw but the same as you point out here goes for photography. Sometimes magic isn’t happening. But I think as long as we keep struggling often something better will come out of it. Albeit not always. I actually like the portrait you have made here, but I trust you instincts when it doesn’t work as you wanted it.

  9. Sorry, hit the button a little too early– I don’t know the model so I’ve no idea what you were after but I’m looking at a very strong portrait and asking myself what about this fellow isn’t working because there is light AND spirit about him.

  10. I think it’s quite well done but you have to trust your own instinct. Harsh lighting on a subject can be very challenging.
    This is a wonderfully instructive post Elena. Thank you so much. I’ve been struggling with a small portrait myself and this perfect! 🙂

  11. Maybe because I’ve never met your model I don’t understand how the portrait is lacking. I think the portrait is fine on its own. When I have the result you describe, sometimes it helps to change the model’s pose. Maybe he’s posed in a way that does not suit his personality so that result cannot capture his “spirit.”

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