Daggi Wallace has shared her post on successfully portraying relationships, the thought and process that goes into bringing life and emotion to her work. Please go to DaggiStudio.com to see her complete selection of relationship portraits.
How do you paint a portrait not of people but of their relationship to each other?
Lately I have been taking on more and more commissions for portraits of couples, either for wedding anniversaries or birthdays. On the top of this post is the latest one for the occasion of a 51st wedding anniversary.
It occurred to me that what I'm really painting is not the people but their relationship!
It all started with this painting of me kissing my "almost-husband", Rich:
I painted this from a photo taken on a trip to Germany, the photo taken by my brother as we sat at an outdoor cafe under a red umbrella. Intended only as a quick snapshot I was compelled to paint it later once I saw that peaceful look of love and contentment on Rich's face.
I have the painting displayed in my studio and visitors always comment on it, women casually dropping hints like: "Oh, I would like to do something like that with my husband!"
And so before I knew it, a niche was created and I have been having a lot of fun creating portraits not of the couples but of their relationships! What I love about my clients is that they are willing to try something out of the box, to go beyond the standard traditional portrait of both subjects looking at the viewer.
Mary, a wonderful ceramicist, commissioned this piece for her husband's Dan's birthday. She wrote a short birthday poem/love letter which I added to the background copying her handwriting. She did not want it to be legible to everyone but taped her original poem to the back of the framed painting. The focus in this portrait is on Dan because it was a birthday gift for him. You can clearly see the closeness they share. Mary's pose reflects her devotion to Dan while his face shows his sweet love for her.
Another amazing artist, BJ, and his partner chose this image from the many reference photos we shot even though neither is looking straight ahead and we are even looking up BJ's nose! But what it clearly shows is pure joy, fun and the love between them. This was not staged but rather was a shot I caught between the posing. Often these are the best ones!
Rachel wanted an up close and personal portrait of her husband and herself for his birthday but I suggested we add another layer of meaning and personal touch. They picked a song with special significance to them and I had Rachel come into the studio to hand letter the lyrics herself! The wave at the bottom not only underscores the song's theme of timelessness but also refers to their love of the ocean and their beach side home. I love that the client had an actual hand in the creation of this very special gift of art for her husband!
Even in these earlier pieces the couples were open to a more unconventional approach to maternity portraiture. In one you don't even see the woman's face but the focus is on the Dad and his feelings waiting for his son's arrival. The other has a touch of traditionalism with the man's protective arms around his wife but also shows off her tattoo, the Chinese symbol for Tao, inspiring the title.
It's not always easy for the subjects to relax enough to allow me to witness such intimacy and I try to make them as comfortable as possible. Of course it helps if I know them personally already but even if we are not familiar with each other it doesn't take long for their natural interaction to shine through given the right circumstances. Those include shooting in a setting comfortable to them, such as their home. This also helps me to see their environment, get a feel for their personal tastes and decor. A lot can be learned about someone's personality by being in their home! I also believe that my 30 years of flying long haul trips as a flight attendant honed my observational skills immensely. I have become quite good at reading people, especially observing interactions between them on a 12 hours flight from Europe!
This skill allows me to pick out from my photos the gestures and seemingly simple touches that are daily routine movements for the couple.
I try to make the photo shoots as relaxed as possible. Being one of those people myself who hates to be photographed I completely understand the apprehension of some of my clients! We talk and chat as I shoot, which is hard for me (that whole engagement of the right and left brains at the same time, ugh!) so I'd like to apologize now to any past and future clients having to listen to my incoherent ramblings.
I try not to get too close in order not to invade their personal space too much and just let them interact with each other. As the session continues I notice ways they position their bodies to each other, lean into each other, smile and laugh at one another. I just keep taking photos! We do look at some of them from time to time (what did I ever do before digital photography??) and inevitably the client will notice something that they do not like and change their pose just a bit to improve the next set of shots.
I usually take a variety of shots in different light situations, poses, angles, etc. The backgrounds often don't matter because they usually get altered anyway, unless they hold special meaning for the clients.
Back in the studio I will spend hours pouring through the photos, narrowing them down repeatedly and editing. I do not have photoshop but can manage quite a bit with my other programs (mostly IrfanView). One of these days I'll have to spend some time learning photoshop!
After I have a nice selection I will email them to my clients who will pick their favorite. Often we agree, but not always, in which case I will make a recommendation and explain why one image might work better over another, but ultimately the choice is my client's to make, of course. Sometimes we have to use elements from several photos. For Fran and Ed, for instance, I painted her hand from another photo.
But the one thing we all zero in on right away is this: does the image capture the relationship between the couple? Is it authentic?
That is also then the defining moment of approval once the painting is completed: Did I capture in the painting the emotions, the love, joy, fun, contentment and peace they feel for and with each other?
When I see a smile cross their face or even tears fill their eyes as they view the finished portrait I know I've accomplished what we set out to do and it's a great moment indeed!!
I give kudos to my clients for being so open to suggestions, new ideas and allowing me a glimpse into their private lives, to really SEE them!