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March 6, 2007

The Artist's Introductory Portrait - Part 2

This is about artists' introductory portraits, again. I'm including several links to artists' biography pages, along with my comments on the artists' "introductory portraits" on those pages.

The basic conclusion I came to in my last post, Artists' Introductory Portrait, about what kind of an image of themselves artists should have on their biography pages, was that "different artists, and different artwork, have different purposes, and what I have figured out would be good for me would hardly apply to most others - They know what it is they want to feature about themselves and their own art."

This conclusion was reached after giving more thought than I ever had before to whether I should have a picture of myself on my own website's biography page, and, if so, what kind, and also thinking about what I've seen over the years on other artists' (and photographers') biography pages.

After I posted that article, I thought it would be a good idea to look at several current artists' biographies and really think about the pictures of themselves they had on their biography pages, and what effect they had on me, and so I've spent hours doing so in the last couple of days. As I found pictures that seemed especially notable, I wrote comments on them and saved the URLs.

I only noted what I thought were pages with effective pictures, so will not list any that were duds. Perhaps one of my next posts will be about "artists' intro portrait duds," but I won't link to those sites nor will I name anyone. By the way, in my long search, I found far more "duds" than good examples.

Nor did I save any that, although I thought they had good biographies, didn't have any pictures at all; but in fact, I want to say that some of the (to me) best biographies included no pictures of the artist. Indeed, I was convinced by those to have no picture of myself on my biography page, or else to be satisfied with the picture I have of myself as a friendly-looking little girl. This is not because I don't think there should be an "introductory" picture of the artist, but because I don't believe that I'm able to produce one of myself that would be right for the job - Maybe someday.

Myself (left) as a young girl - It's better than no picture at all (I think), but not the best solution

It seems obvious that the choice of a "portrait" (sometimes these are very casual-looking snapshots, but you know what I mean) to represent someone (anyone) on their biography page depends on what kind of impression they want to make (and on whom), and it struck me that when it comes to artists these fall into mainly just a handful of different categories (which I believe I'll write about in a future post).

There are obviously many artists, though, of all types and abilities and quality and quantity of experience, and with many different kinds of goals for themselves and for their artwork, who apparently have never thought much about what their introductory portrait connotes about them.

Many put up the most off-putting pictures that can be imagined, and one wonders what they were thinking (just as I look at some of the artwork I've put on my website and wonder what on earth made me put that up! -- Off it goes!). The impression the picture gives is probably not what the artist was hoping for in many cases. I'm sure many artists were talked into using the pictures they include, not having been able to decide for themselves (just as I've been having a hard time deciding on mine).

It's not the person him- or herself who is offensive or irritating, but how they are portrayed in the picture - What is it saying about them? The pictures speak louder than any words that are on the page, and it would have been better in many cases if they didn't let the picture speak for them, it seems to me.

The fact that many people apparently do not realize what kinds of impressions different pictures can make speaks poorly of their artistic sensitivities. At least this is the impression people might get. It's very difficult to get things right, and that's why I'm opting for the easy way out right now.

It happens that I generally look at people's artwork first, and in fact seldom look at the biographical page at all. If I did look at the bio page first, in many cases I would lose interest in looking at the artwork of some of these people, due to the picture(s) of the artist - not due to the artist him- or herself, but due to the picture of the artist. While it might be a fine, effective portrayal of the person when seen in some other context, it is sometimes just plain "wrong" for the biography page.

Links to biography pages with what I thought were effective artists' pictures on them, are below (click on the artist's name to get to his biography page). I didn't mean for them all to be male artists' pages, but that's how it turned out. In a future post I will tell why I think the female artists' pages that I looked at did not make my list!

Artist: Benjamin Shamback

My notes: On his biography page, he has an unpretentious snapshot in which, fairly close up (with what looks like a brightly-lit dining room and window wall in the background) he gazes directly into the camera with a pleasant expression on his face - It's very welcoming ... Welcoming us into his home, or such is the impression, at least. It looks like there's no one else around. He's waiting for us. Maybe we'll sit over at that table and have some coffee.

Artist: Richard Schmid

My notes: He has a very well-thought-out photo, I think. It's small, in black and white, but it's very interesting, doing an amazing job of communicating a few different things quite thoroughly: 1) that he is a dyed-in-the-wool dedicated artist, 2)that he paints in a natural setting, and 3) that his "natural settings" are not in a neighborhood park or out in the back yard but "way out in the woods" somewhere.

It's a small and very busy picture, but his head is right in the center of it and he's definitely the center of attention, and ... he's wearing a beret! He looks very "artistic" as well as handsome, with a beard, too, and a long (woolen?) scarf around his neck to add to the impression ...There's a pleasant look on his face, too, as if to him the viewer is a wonderful thing to behold, bringing a pot of hot tea and some little cakes perhaps.

There's a lot of "life" in the picture - Implied action. For instance, he's holding his eyeglasses out in one hand as if he's just removed them, to see us more clearly, and there appears to be a pencil between fingers of that hand (which says "artist" again) which of course indicates he had been about to use it. The other hand is up at his easel, holding what appears to be a brush as if he was interrupted while painting.

To help drive home the idea that this is indeed a dedicated artist, not a Sunday painter, in the foreground there is an open, paint-splattered, quite large lid to what probably was holding the easel, paints, etc. And you can just see the crook of a wooden cane, too, which gives you the impression he's been hiking about, and didn't arrive in a car parked nearby.

In the background there are lively-looking (because of the angular lines) branches of a needled tree, right behind the artist (doesn't look like a pine, but something like that - a cypress, maybe), and there's quite a lot of depth back into the scene behind the artist and the tree. Remember this is a tiny picture, but there's a lot going on. Behind that needled tree and the artist is a body of water - a lake, I assume (no boats or other sign of life, so you get the feeling he's far from civilization) - and you can see some of the far shore with needled trees down to the water. I can't believe all the "excitement" and "drama" that's in this little picture, and it looks so much at first like a simple snapshot rather than a carefully-composed picture (but it is carefully composed). I congratulate him, or whomever did the staging. (By the way, I'm sure this is meant to be a parody - a comical exaggeration of all things "artistic.")

Artist: Jeremy Lipking

My notes: Also a good photo - Simple, he's looking directly at the camera as if at the person looking at the page, with a look of interest and if not a smile, it's close to one - It's a pleasant look.

Artist: Frans Koppelaar

My notes: On his "about" page - There are two small photos, one where he's standing, holding palette and brushes, with a painting behind him - wearing a hat - He looks very "artistic" (wearing such a hat inside a room) but not snobby - He deigns to gaze right out at the viewer with a neutral-to friendly look; at least he looks conscious of and patient with the person who's looking at him (us).

The other photograph shows him from the back sitting in a lawn chair out in a field, working on a picture. Both pictures to me are just right, and it's good to have the two of them.

Artist: William Wray

My notes: On his biography page he has what appears to be a photo of himself taken when he was a little boy, drawing with chalk, I think. This reminds me of my own picture, but at least he's drawing - I was just sitting there on a step, looking at the photographer (my mother, no doubt).

Artist: Robert Becket

My notes: A small, color photograph, with his body (mostly not seen) sideways and his head, close up, turned (implying that he had just turned his head) to gaze directly at the viewer, with a slight smile, enough to make you know he's aware there's someone looking at him, and he doesn't seem to mind at all. A nice, simple picture, with dramatic lighting on his head, half in shadow (making him stand out from the background), and "looking at him" is a girl in one of his pictures on a wall behind him, with eyes at the same level. I like this.

Artist: D. Jeffrey Mims

My notes: He has one of his landscape paintings rather than a picture of himself on his biography page. Personally, I like this way of presenting oneself on an artist's site. He knows it's about his artwork, not him ... or he feels it should be.

Artist: James Kasper

My notes: He's a sculptor or potter - I'm not sure what you'd call this kind of artist. The site is called Prairie Dog Pottery, Inc. He makes "woodfired ceramics," most very unique and interesting-looking to me. The picture of him on this page shows him seated in front of one of his large "sculptures" so that he appears to be part of it (to me this is a way to show one has a sense of humor). He's facing the camera directly and although the image is tiny, he looks unintimidating, at least -relaxed and not apparently in a hurry to get out of there.

Artist: Thomas Buechner

My notes: Wait until you see his picture! It's a self-portrait, that's all I'll say. It's a surprise. I like it!


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March 3, 2007

The "Introductory Portrait"

"In all professions each affects a look and an exterior to appear what he wishes the world to believe that he is. Thus we may say that the whole world is made up of appearances." -François de La Rochefoucauld - French writer (1630-1680)

Gustave Courbet - Man with a Pipe (Self-portrait) 1848-49 - Oil on canvas - Musée Fabre, Montpellier

On my website's biography page there is a tiny snapshot of myself taken when I was a very little girl. I simply don't have a better picture of myself to show as an introductory portrait. Maybe I can make a good self-portrait someday that will work for that page, but first I have to master the skills it will take to make a "silk purse out of a sow's ear." Not that I want to portray myself as "someone else, younger and (unlike me) beautiful" in the picture, but I'll have to figure out how to make a picture with me in it that will reveal who I am without frightening people.

I sometimes wonder about the pictures people have on their websites on the "Artist's statement" or "Biography" page. Why do they think it's important for us to know what they look like? And how much of a chance is there that one picture - a tiny slice out of a person's life often out of the usual context of that life - can really tell us much, if anything, about them?

Wouldn't it be better to have no introductory picture at all rather than to risk irritating or offending people, or giving them the wrong impression? What does how they look have to do with their art, anyway? Isn't it the art that's by far most important? Does it matter what we think about how the artist looks?

It seems to me, after having looked at untold dozens of these introductory pictures, that many artists (and "art photographers") actually don't give a darn about what we think about how they look (but why then do they put a picture up at all?).

Often he (this is more usual in the case of men rather than women so I will use the male pronoun) looks bored, and very "serious." He looks as if he's thinking that he isn't going to pretend that life is anything but grim, and you get the impression that he's very busy and that he has neither the time nor the inclination to go out of his way to prepare himself for his "portrait," no matter that it's going to be the first (and maybe only) one that many people will see of him. He looks as if he considers the people who come to look at his artwork of no importance at all. (I'm not referring to those who are busily painting or sculpting or drawing or looking through a viewfinder, but those who appear to have been rudely interrupted and seem anxious to get away from prying eyes.) Is he just affecting the must-have "artistic look" he thinks makes him look like a REAL, SERIOUS ARTIST? Surely he can stop long enough to acknowledge those who will be viewing him, instead of insulting them with his lack of interest.

Louise Breslau - Self-portrait - Oil on Canvas - Private Collection

It's not that I think that the artist should pretend to be a jolly person if they're not, nor, it seems to me, should he (or she) even smile at all in a portrait if when they do it in "real life" it doesn't convey the "real person" but rather is something fleeting and rare that pops out only now and then. I myself hardly ever smile. I'm sure some people think I've never smiled in my life, because they've never seen me do so. I smile inside (I actually do have a good sense of humor). In fact, I am an introvert, but I'm sure I have all the same feelings outgoing people have and you need neither pity nor fear me; I feel at least as much joy, pleasure, interest, delight, and contentment as anyone else, I have no doubt at all, but you probably wouldn't guess it to look at me.

If a serious picture (as opposed to the tiny snapshot of me taken in my early childhood) was to be the introduction to "me" on my website, I would hope it wouldn't make me look thoroughly cheerless and self-centered due to my non-smiling and also otherwise uncharming face ... It would take a lot
of thought and "applied artistry" (applied to the overall picture, that is - not a "makeup job" on my face that makes me look like someone else) to give another impression, I realize, but that's what should be aimed for; after all, one of the most important jobs of an artist is to tell the truth in spite of any superficial so-called "truth" that might get in the way.

I know that sounds comical, what I wrote above. One might think I am going to great lengths to justify hiding myself. This of course is to some extent true, but honestly I strongly believe that it is also true that our looks often lie about who we are; we need to figure out who we are and then work around the physical "reality" in order to show, in the overall picture, the truth about us. It's an interesting challenge.

Getting back to my contemplated "serious" introductory picture of myself, I wouldn't fake a smile, but I would attempt to make sure elements of the picture showed that I had a sense of humor (which I do have - It's just other ways of looking at things than is normal) and that my art is made to share with others and for their benefit as well as mine, not just to satisfy a craving - or need - to make pictures that are meant for me alone to profit from.

In fact, I would want the picture of myself to be a small "gift" to people, just as my other pictures are meant to be (the best ones, the ones that I keep; the others are meant to be "good ones," also, but if they don't measure up, eventually they go into the trash; many go into the trash). The gift-worthiness would result from the way the picture was made - the thought and the care that went into making it. I would hope it would be a picture that would be of interest to people no matter who the subject was.

Also, I think that something in the portrait should suggest respect for and a desire to communicate with the observer. I would want it to imply that I was cognizant of their presence and was not rejecting them, and that I had made something for them (the picture) that (I hope) is enjoyable or interesting to contemplate. I would like my picture to say something like this to the viewer: "Please take a look. I hope you like it. It's for you and is representative of the kind of pictures I draw and the way I look at life ... Come in and see if there's something else on my site you might like to look at."

But, of course, different artists, and different artwork, have different purposes, and what I have figured out would be good for me would hardly apply to most others - They know what it is they want to feature about themselves and their own art.

Actually, I think that probably such a picture of introduction is not needed by people such as myself who are not seeking or expecting to become well-known, but are simply wishing to share their artwork. Yet, some people expect to see one, and it does liven up the biography page, and so the tiny picture of myself as a three-year-old is just fine (at least until I come up with the "silk purse" self-portrait described above).


Note: My thoughts about the "picture of the artist" I have been referring to do not necessarily apply to self-portraits, or photos or paintings or drawings of the artists by others, that are not meant to be the picture that is intended by the artist to give the first and main impression of his or her self to "the public." I'm referring in this article, in fact, to those introductory pictures only. In other portraits of ourselves there are other things to consider.


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