The art of sitting for your portrait

February 10 2017

Image of The art of sitting for your portrait

Picture: via About Face

I've always wanted, as a sometime purveyor of portraits, to sit for my own portrait. Yes, it's vanity. But also I'd like to know what sitters go through. I can't decide whether I'd be a complete pain in the arse to paint - 'this is my best side; I want this pose; ever heard of Van Dyck?' - or would simply submit entirely to an artist, in order to best experience what it is like to be painted. (Be a pain in the arse, you say.)

Anyway, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery Sandy Nairne has written a fascinating essay on both commissioning portraits (which he had to do many times) and being portrayed. After he left the NPG he was invited to sit to Chuck Close. Here he describes the initial moment of portrayal:

 I perched on the aluminium stool, with the large lens alarmingly close, banks of bright lights on each side, and associate Myrna nearby, ready to offer a paper towel to lessen the moistening on my face. She was operating the front part of the camera, including the shutter; the bellows framed with rods and stays, with wheels and cogs for positioning. The moment of exposure combines a blast of light from each side of the camera. Not really a shock, but startling even when you know it is coming. I was over-self-conscious about my appearance, and aware that if I became a Chuck Close Polaroid then every hair and pockmark might end up showing. And I was equally conscious of my expression. Should I be smiling? With my mouth open or closed? How could I not look stiff and get some degree of warmth into my expression?

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