Portrait Source Material


Robert Moutrey is a multidisciplinary artist from Manchester, specialising in bespoke hand-painted oil portraits.

Portrait Source Material

Do I work from photographs or ‘From-life’?

The simplest answer is ‘yes’, to both. I work with whatever is easiest for the client. Depending on your project, I work in the following manner:

  • Copying a photograph
  • Using many photographs with the view to designing and distilling into one image
  • Taking my own photographs
  • Taking my own reference photos and also completing studies from life

When working ‘From-life’ I will only ever conduct x1 four-hour sitting with a client to capture everything I need.

Are paintings ‘From-life’ better than paintings from photographs?

Sitting for a portrait is no small feat.

There are innumerable obstacles that can get in the way of this decision: the aesthetic decisions; what should you wear? Should you wear makeup? What do you want in the background? Then there are the physical questions; should you sit? Should you stand? How should my expression fall? Contemplative? Expressionless? Should I be undertaking an activity? Whatever pose you end up choosing, then there’s the more difficult question; how long you can hold it for?!

These challenges are all suppose to be fun and creative. If you’re stuck on these questions, then most likely there are more subconscious blockers going on instead i.e. if the portrait is of yourself you might wonder whether you even deserve a portrait; how will people perceive you if you commissioned a portrait? How easy do you find being observed, being looked at? There’s a lot to be afraid of.

As a result, from the point of view of the client (which is my main concern) it just isn’t as simple as one method being better than another. Both have their positives and negatives.

Not everyone has the time, effort or energy to sit for hours on end in one position. Also, paintings take hours. In most instances painting from life require multiple sittings especially if there are several sitters involved. In the good old days Kings, Queens, Popes, dignitaries would have only had fleeting moments to sit for their portraits and so painters were expected to capture as much as they could in short bursts as well as relying on their technical knowledge and abilities.

There are also plenty of arguments that painting ‘from-life’ ultimately results in a better painting. I don’t think this is true. If you put an inexperienced painter up against an experienced painter, armed with only a photograph, the experienced painter will still come out with a better painting. It may only be worth mentioning that the experienced painter has probably developed their skill by painting more frequently ‘from-life’ and thus can apply their knowledge of light and value more effectively.

Yes, the camera can never collect as much information as the human eye. However, a camera is much quicker at translating what the eye sees onto a 2D surface. And in my opinion, no only is it my job as a portraitist to come up with the goods but it is also to consider the experience of the sitter and be respectful of their time.

Therefore, I mostly try to use both photos for portraits and where resources are available for studies from life, I jump on the opportunity. In this way I endeavour to capture as much information as possible to feed into a painting.

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