I'm sure by now that everyone in the universe–except perhaps for cave dwellers, Bedouins and survivalist living off the grid–is familiar with the controversy and ensuing ripples of negativity surrounding the first official portrait of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge, and the future Queen of England.
It would seem a most enviable commission–potentially career altering–based on Kate's iconic status. That's assuming, of course, all went according to plan. The potential for criticism was always lurking in the shadows, but I don't believe anyone, particularly the portrait artist, Paul Emsley, ever expected the tsunami of negativism that ensued.
Legions have been quite forthcoming with opinions regarding what's wrong with the portrait. I can't recall such a stink ever made over another portrait. As negatively as the Lucian Freud portrait of Queen Elizabeth was received by the public, it was still seen as just a painting by some crazy artist. No such consideration this time, however. Wherever you turned, there was the portrait of Kate, larger than life, surrounded by a sea of vitriol.
Unless this is the first time you've read my blog, you would know that on the day of the unveiling I was interviewed by Kate Snow on the NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, regarding the subject of portraiture. They weren't seeking a critique from me, just looking for a sound bite or two that could offer their national audience a little insight into the process. I stated that ultimately, as long as the artist and client were satisfied, a portrait should be considered successful. Anything beyond that is a bonus, so since both subject and artist proclaimed great satisfaction–Kate described the result as “absolutely brilliant"–that should have been it. Unfortunately, that's not the way it went down, with Paul Emsley stating that criticism was “so vicious” he doubted whether there was any merit in the work.
During my interview I was asked what makes a portrait successful. I answered, "A good portrait, in my point of view, makes you think you're sitting in front of the person!" While I was showing a clip of the interview to some students the other day, they asked me, based on my criteria, how I felt about the portrait, so I thought I'd share what I told them with you, my readers.
Each semester I take my students on a tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, here in New York City, and break down a range of paintings by various artists, based on the principles I teach. I talk about what works and what doesn't. Very few paintings are without some flaws. That doesn't mean they're not still great. I don't critique to be mean-spirited, or to elevate my ego–I am far from flawless–but to help my students understand there are consequences to the choices they make. Forewarned is, after all, forearmed!
When I paint a portrait the reaction I am looking for is, "I feel like he/she is about to step out of the canvas and speak!" When viewing great portraits at the Met I see how strongly people respond to that very quality. With that in mind I'll put in my own two cents worth and try to pinpoint what exactly went wrong here.
Illusionistic painting requires a certain degree of alteration; you need to deceive your viewer. In order to capture the feeling of space you must organize, edit and interpret information. To what end you make these changes is a question of intent. Intrinsically there is no right or wrong, but if creating an illusionistic reality is the goal, one needs to understand how the eye and brain function in tandem. You experience spacial depth through the mechanism of binocular vision. If you draw and paint exactly what you see, whether from life or a photo, your painting will look flat, because it's on a flat surface, and binocular vision is taken out of the equation. I believe to create a dimensional illusion certain adjustments (based on tangential phenomena associated with binocular vision) are required. The bulk of what I teach is based on this concept.
A sense of structure is achieved by emphasizing planes, mainly through value changes–although it can also be achieved via hue and chroma shifts, or any combination of the three. Used in tandem with the juxtaposition of hard and soft edges a painting can seem quite spacial.
I have placed the reference photo used by the artist next to a reproduction of the painting. (Why anyone would ever post their reference photo online is beyond me, but being able to compare the reference to the painting is most useful.) In the photo, Kate appears thinner, younger, crisper and more dynamic. Looking at the painting, Kate appears much softer, with the exception of her eyes and mouth. This is a photographic technique called shallow depth of field. You set your lens to the widest aperture and focus on the plane of the eye. Everything in front of and behind the eye gets blurred, this draws your attention straight to the eye. Unfortunately this is not the way we humans see, so you wind up with a flat photographic look and not the illusion of three dimensionality.
By virtue of the softening, the structure gets lost. The side planes of her face are barely discernible, diminishing her bone structure and making her face seem wider. This makes her eyes appear small. The front planes of her lower lids seem lightened a bit which unfortunately emphasizes the lines and accentuates the bags. Her chin and jaw line are softened, but since the edge is uniformly soft, she appears rounder. The result: an older and heavier version of Kate.
The eyes are over modeled–this means the value range has been expanded–so they don't sit back far enough in the socket, and they seem a bit glassy. According to William Bouguereau, the secret of great painting is having the smaller accents remain subservient to the large planes. In other words, each part needs to be in relationship with the whole. The eyebrows seem to have been painted more symmetrically than they appear in real life, and their shadows has been lightened at the expense of structure.
The nose, also the target of much scorn, has lost its aquiline character. The shaft has been widened, further flattening (and fattening) Kate's appearance. It's under modeled–meaning the value range is compressed–which pushes it back. The ball of the nose doesn't project out due to the softening and deemphasizing of the wings of the nose. The highlights have been almost eliminated. Having the nose project forward is very critical because it indicates form. The mouth looks flat because contrast was lowered and overly sharp.
I think the way the face is placed and lit was less than ideal if spacial illusion is the goal. Thomas Eakins called light the big tool. I think there's a major misconception that a true artist can make a great painting regardless of how the subject is lit.
With regards to the color, and this is a very personal thing, I feel the flesh is a little too monochromatic and neutral for my taste. The subtle hue and chroma variations present in human flesh can go a long way towards suggesting that there's blood circulating under the surface. Again, I don't really see evidence of this in his other portraits. To be fair I am evaluating this based on digital imagery. The artist told Hello! magazine that “half the problem is the portrait doesn’t photograph well.” (I don't know of any artist who doesn't feel the same way when seeing their own work reproduced.) The digital image is all I have to go on.
I believe the artist's intention was to flatter the Duchess, but based on the public's overall response, he didn't succeed. Our appearance is based upon our skeletal structure, so the alterations ultimately flattened the form and downplayed her character. I find this a bit peculiar because Kate requested, and Mr. Emsley reiterated, that she wanted to be painted as her natural self. I also question the portrait's scale. It's an aesthetic decision, of course, but it's my theory that people are put off by freakishly large heads, unless the painting is intended to be viewed at a distance. Call it survival instinct, because in nature larger creatures devour smaller ones. Another drawback of painting large-scale is it's more difficult to step back, particularly if the artist paints sitting down, which I believe Mr. Emsley does.
When you paint in a classical manner, like Mr. Emsley or myself, you open yourself for potshots across the board. Every Tom, Dick and Harry is an maven when it comes to reality. Many so-called bona fide experts have chimed in, but I've heard very little with regards to the mechanics of what went wrong. According to The London Evening Standard, "He (Paul Emsley) was accused of making her seem a decade older than her 31 years, giving her 'hamsterish' cheeks and a look as 'soundless and smooth as an undertaker’s makeover', while others described the portrait as 'catastrophic' and 'rotten'." But saying that her nose isn't quite right or her eyes are strange is just stating the obvious.
Personally, I don't think the artist warrants the terrible, vicious and insulting response he received, nor did he deserve to be vilified and eviscerated. The majority of portraits out there are far worse than his. Critic Michael Flood McNulty stated that Kate's painting is, "Truly the worst royal portrait ever." Perhaps he's the worst critic ever, because the majority of those done in the past century are horrible. I tried to discuss the reasons behind the most often cited complaints. What I pointed out were subtleties, not gaping holes, but under a microscope, even the tiniest misstep can appear the size of the Grand Canyon, or should I say, Buckingham Palace? I think the artist handled the paint with great ability, but unfortunately technique alone can't carry a painting. There's so much more to a portrait than surface. The decision-making process, relative to intent, lies at the heart of all great painting.
So this begs the question, who's at fault? I believe the responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of Kate. She picked the wrong portrait artist, because I don't believe Paul Emsley's intent is ever to create illusionistic realism. Unfortunately, based on the public's reaction, that's what they were expecting, and unfulfilled expectations lead to upsets. What he did here–enlarging her head, flattening the form and accentuating the texture–is what he always does. It was very effective for his portrait of Nelson Mandela and won him the coveted BP prize for his portrait of Michael Simpson. Mr. Emsley is using a classically styled technique to express modern sensibilities and I think that's what attracted Kate, who was an art history major. Next time she should choose an artist who's capable of integrating a contemporary sensibility with a classical illusionistic reality, assuming her goal is a great portrait, not a great controversy.
Marvin Mattelson is now conducting his classes and workshops online in Full HD 1080p through his Fine Art Portrait Academy. For further information, or to register for an upcoming offering, please follow this link to his teaching page.
Until next time…
Oh how I remember your words and teachings standing in front of the “Princess” at the MET. Thanks Marvin. I am currently adapting elements of your color theory/mixing methods for use with my high school painting class. I appreciate your lessons.
Great commentary Marvin.
I’d like to suggest an alternative culprit — the photograph. This is a stunningly beautiful woman — and the reference photo does not convey this at all. This is fundamentally a lesson in the problems associated with working from photos — the quality of the finished work is limited by the quality of the reference photo.
I agre that Kate is truly stunning and tto that end she was not well served. She chose the artist — hoisted with her own petard.
When I stated that the placement of the head and the lighting were not optimal, I was referring to the photo reference. It was late and I should have clarified that. So I agree with you it was a huge contributing factor. However I don’t blame the fact he used photos. If his intention was to convey illusionistic reality the photos he used were poorly chosen but I don’t think that was his intention. When I you look at Mr. Emsley’s work his it’s clear to me that intent lies elsewhere and he regularly uses source material that I certainly wouldn’t use for my purposes.
There is only one problem associated with working from photographs and that is a lack of thorough understanding of the process. THe acronym GIGO — garbage in/garbage out — sums it up perfectly. But a lack of understanding in any aspect of making paintings can be problematic. Thanks for sharing.
This is why, I put my camera on rapid-burst, and then chose the most appealing and clear shot of the performer I’m intending to paint…one photo NEVER does the trick!
Don’t judge photography based on lack of understanding. It too requires great skill.
photography skill comes from ‘working with what you got’ and with a sony cybershot, I get what I can get, in poor lighting (open mic nights never have great lighting!), and fast-moving guitar hands!
I’ve come across far too many people with expensive cameras, believing that simply because they bought a high-end camera, their photograph quality would improve – simply not true.
As are all tools, the range of capability is vastly widened with the more options presented in the hardware, but the skill and eye for ‘what works’ really comes from the self and experience…
Not claiming that I’m against expensive equipment, far from it, but it wasn’t ever a high priority, as I can ‘find that shot’ via my little point and click for now
Emily, I agree totally that an expensive camera does not a great photographer make. However when I talk about being a skilled photographer I’m talking about maximizing the information for use as source material for painting. A great photo doesn’t necessarily translate into a great reference photo. In fact it usually doesn’t. When I take a reference photo I want to replicate, as close as possible, the way my eye sees. Clarity, color fidelity and wide dynamic range are of utmost importance. Fortunately todays digital cameras have risen the bar exponentially in that regard, and there seems to be no end in sight. The technology keeps improving at break neck speed. Unfortunately the more expensive cameras and lenses are technologically superior in that respect.
By the way, I corrected your previous post!
Thanks for this essay Marvin, nice to read a well thought out critique.
This is a wonderfully worded critique. Thank you so much for posting this! I will be sharing this with my non-artist friends, many of which have asked me how I feel about the royal portrait. Your essay is excellently written, objective, and fair. Thank you!
You’re very sweet.
Mr. Mattelson, Thank yo for helping me understand “elements” that could have made Mr. Emsley’s work stronger. I have not done ANY portraiture, but belong to a group that is helping others learn all types of oil painting. I am passing your blog along – as you say “Forewarned is, after all, forearmed!”. Doing it is another thing… Thank you.
Thanks for your comments. The best way to learn is to take a class or workshop with me. 😉 I can save people years of spinning their wheels.
Such a lesson! I really learned slot from this…and so glad we got to look at the source alongside. Helps pinpoint the issues
Great post, Marvin! Thank you! Please post more critiques like this showing us where paintings go wrong and where they get it right. This is the best way to learn. We could take a virtual tour of the Met together on your blog! 🙂
Yes Jason I agree that would be great for everyone but me and my mortgage carrier. 😉 I’m definitely looking for ways to get the word out there at a reasonable cost to anyone interested, but between teaching and my commissions my time is very limited. For those not willing to wait a class or a workshop with me can be career altering.
Really awesome post Marvin! You know, you could sit down with someone, and get repros of the met images, and make an app-book of your full day met tour. Sell it for an affordable price, and make some extra dough! PS Id be happy to help with this.
Thanks Brandon. The problem is the copyright. I would have to negotiate with the met and I don’t think it would be cheap. Now if you wanted to procure legal rights to publish the images I think we’d be in business.
There’s photographer artist who lives in Canada, does the same thing; he posts ‘tastes’ of his lectures/lessons on his website, with photographs to illustrate his point…
He only provides the entire lesson in class – but since moving to Canada isn’t really an option (or New York in this case), you should consider having your workshops video recorded, and then set up a time scheduled slot online, that will stream/broadcast your lecture/lesson, and people have to pay a membership to view these lessons.
Will be looking into this for sure. I’d like to get my message out there. 😉
Thats really cool
This was really interesting and it struck my mind as a detailed and expert analysis of Portrait Painting. I have to admit my mind tends to glaze over when it’s being called to attend to the fine points or little touches and nuances that make the difference between an adequate work and one of excellent or above excellent quality. I am more likely to grasp the most striking features of a work and its biggest themes and the general sweep of its impact upon me.
There is nothing wrong with this portrait of Kate Middleton to me. The thing that strikes me is that the color palette is more muted and therefore the colors are not as sharp as in the photo reference. I would have made the colors even sharper in the painting than in the reference. I am also a fan for seeing more of the modeling of the planes of the face and the body, I suppose this is the sculptor in me talking.
But I think the above statement underlines the point I am making. People bring their own particular point of view and aesthetic sensibility to what they are viewing or experiencing as Art. There are people for whom the more muted palette and softer modeling of the planes of the face is totally agreeable and more a suggestion of Kate Middleton being rendered in paint for the regard of posterity.
Lastly, I hope this isn’t the one and only sitting of artist and model. He should do several more portraits of Kate Middleton. Sooner or later, he’ll do one that everybody will agree is a home run!
Thanks for your input. Yes in the end it all comes down to taste. But the overwhelming negative spin is an indicator that something went very wrong. Personally I think the color isn’t a strong point here. I’ve heard that the color in the original is more akin to the photo, but that’s heresay from an unreliable source. I don’t think this artist will get another shot. Traditionally members of the royal family are painted by many different artists. I think the only way someone gets another shot is if they knock one out of the park. Anthony Van Dyke comes to mind.
Thank you for this very thoughtful article.
Every painting speaks volumes about the painter. To a seasoned eye, this one suggests a lack of authority painting from life, resulting in a lifeless, flat portrait which lacks any sort of ‘artistic presence’ one finds in the works of excellent artist/portrait painters. Great portrait artists surely those whose technique and skill are so superb, that they able to capture the spirit and essence of the subject, in spite of the likeness; Artists such as Sargent, the Russian/American painter Nicholai Fechin, and yes, Lucian Freud. Primarily painters from life, even if these artists used photography, their authority with the primary medium, light, is apparent in their remarkable work. With such skills, finely tuned, they are able respond to the subject’s personality, bringing more than just a ‘surface interpretation’ to their work.
Thanks so much for your comments. I agree with your bullet points, but we’ll have to agree to disagree with regards to the artists you’ve singled out. I personally feel Kate’s portrait needs to capture both her likeness and character, but if the public’s appetite is to be sated extolling her beauty needs to be the main emphasis. Of course aesthetic prejudices make universal proclamations highly unlikely, but I’m quite sure anyone reading this blog would agree I would be the perfect candidate to paint her portrait on the next go round.:D
Marvin I just posted on Facebook, but perhaps my reply would have been better place here. Anyway here is a copy…
Marvin, you have written a very interesting article, and one which brings up a topic of baffling complexity.
“This is a photographic technique called shallow depth of field. …Unfortunately this is not the way we humans see, so you wind up with a flat photographic look and not the illusion of three dimensionality.”
How far should an artist imitate the camera? Vermeer clearly imitated the camera very closely. He recorded highlights as circular blobs, which is how they look on the plate of a camera obscura, but not in life. He also simplified tonal areas in the way that a camera might suggest. In Vermeer a tonal area is rarely a plane, as it is in other Dutch painters, such as de Hooch. His tonal areas are not planes which explain the form: they exhibit the kind of flattening such as the ‘posterize’ filter in Photoshop might produce today.
(Scroll down this page to see an example:
So it seems that imitating a camera, and “winding up with a flat photographic look” (or at least the look of a 17thC camera obscura), can sometimes result in some masterpieces which astonish the world.
As you suggest, it is unwise for any of us to criticise a fellow painter for having made his own choices in such a complicated field.
Gareth, you bring up some interesting points. I think a quick response on my part won’t begin to do this sticky topic justice. I plan in addressing these very issues in a future blog post.
Marvin, I truly enjoyed how you addressed the finer points of portraiture in your experience as they relate to the royal portrait. When I first read of the public reaction to the portrait I was curious why people were so critical. The worst news to me was the artist doubting his own work. I hope he can brush off the criticism and continue his interesting style.
It’s terrible that he was made the scapegoat. As artists our egos are fragile, because we put our heart and soul into everything we do.
They say there is no such thing as bad publicity. I hope for his sake they’re right.
Thank you for spending the time it must have taken to write such an in depth critique on the portrait of Kate Middelton. I think I have taken over an hour to read and keep looking between the photo and painting. Much of what I felt was “off” in the painting was so well explained in terms I am slowly learning to grasp in my own education; edges, planes, contrast, over modeling/over softening and then the all important understanding of common problems with reference photography, the good and the bad of a tool we portrait artists must depend on more and more.
Of course this only makes me more anticipatory of your two week workshop in Cleveland, Ohio in July!! I am counting down the weeks and “brushing up” …
I would also like to compliment you on your diplomacy in this dissertation. Your respect for Paul Emsley reflects your respect for all serious artists. I appreciate it in this world where others so easily sling the mud.
Thanks Patty, I’m looking forward to it.
I suppose Critic Michael Flood McNulty never saw freud’s portrait of the queen?
I do not understand how after the painting that Nelson Shanks did of Diana
http://www.jssgallery.org/Other_Artists/Nelson_Shanks/Princess_Diana.jpg and knowing that she actually had to sit and pose for him. Why they would have done a official portrait from such a bad single piece of photo reference. My first reaction when I saw the Kate Middleton portrait was that it was painted from a photo. And there it is, Why would you use THAT photo for such a important painting? I mean she is the Duchess of Cambridge, and the (possible) future Queen of England. and you don’t think of getting the best reference you can if not actually have her sit and do some paintings from life? This could be the most important painting this artist is ever asked to paint as far a publicity stand point. You know the say about opportunity presented to the unprepared. too bad really In fairness I have seen a lot worse paintings but I think the artist really held him self back with the reference.
I think he went about it in his usual manor. After all what he’s done in the past is what got him the commission in the first place. I don’t think anyone ever anticipated the level of fallout. For me personally I treat every commission as it has the possibility to alter my career. I had the same mindset when I worked as an illustrator. Once I was commissioned to create album cover art for a CD of Gregorian chants. I figured it’s probably going straight to the bargain bin at Tower Records and no one would ever see it, but based on my above stated philosophy I did the most beautiful painting I was capable of. Well the album was called Chant and it sold over 12 million copies and became one of the most successful classical albums of all time. Every moment of every day is a great opportunity.
First, he should have used a much better photograph. In formal portraiture one strives for likeness, but an ARTIST should paint personality, life, excitement (with such a subject) and none is apparent. There is no strength in her face, no life in her eyes, and that great smile is a “so you’re a great artist,huh?” look. I’d say scrap it and start again.!!!!!
Any relation to William McGregor Paxton? LOL
Kate will have scores of portraits painted of her, especially if she becomes queen one day. Some will be awful and hopefully a couple will do her great justice. Queen EliAbeth was painted by a wide range of artists, from Annigoni to Freud. I guess they figure if you keep shooting a shotgun into the air you’ll eventually hit a duck.
No, the middle initial is just as Scottish (Cameron) but I may have had some connection to the GLASS PALACE Paxton. I have done portraits myself and I have seen some great ones. Robert Griffing does the Indians of Pennsylvania that take my breath away. I had a friend with a house full of portraits of every notable artist she could find. I think she was shot gunning. Some were notable!!!
In the end I guess it all comes down to personal taste.
Marvin this is an excellent post. Thank you for taking the time to point exactly what went wrong. I’m saving this post in my drawing reference folder. I’ve never read an artist who can so skillfully deconstruct a painting. You really need to publish a book already!
You are too kind. It’s always nice to be appreciated. One of the reasons I started this blog was to get into the habit of writing regularly in preparation for my book. We’ll see how it goes. In the past I’ve contributed to various online painting forums and realized I have some degree of writing ability (something, I’m certain, that would come as a huge surprise to my high school English teacher.) I like writing for my own blog so much better. Here I am The Supreme Lord Master, so I’m recrimination-proof. 😀
Hi Marvin, an excellent and even-handed analysis, and a breath of fresh air after all the mean-spirited attacks.
Why would anyone do a portrait of someone who is living using only bad photos? No one here has mentioned working from life, the single best way for an artist to see. Not to interpret what the camara sees. Use of photography for the artist should be a tool not a crutch. It is not ideal to have to guess at what colors are in the shadows or the exact color of her eyes if you are staring right into them. Even the busiest people will find time for a portrait artist to sit. Oh how interesting it is to speak with your model, especially this one. Make a connection with the model, bring that to the painting, it all comes through in the finished work. Even if a full portrait is not completed from sittings a wealth of information can be gained from an oil study and color notes and then interpreting a photo and its shortcomings is so much easier.
I can’t disagree with the spirit of your response. All things being equal I would always choose to paint from life. My next post is about working from photos and some of the things you mention are issues I bring up, even using the same exact phrasing (have you been looking over my shoulder? What color shirt am I wearing? LOL)
Where I disagree is in your assumption that even the busiest people will find time to sit. That, in my experience, is absolutely not the case. Some people get antsy even after 20 minutes of posing for reference photos. Certain A type personalities literally can’t sit still. The higher the fees you charge for your portraits the more likely you are to run into this kind of thing. Generally the people who can afford to pay top fees are less likely to be able to afford the time.
I don’t want to beat a dead horse here (well maybe a little) but Kate chose this artist knowing the way he worked and she professed the painting to be “Brilliant!” It’s merely conjecture on my part, but maybe the fact he worked primarily from photos was a big part of her reason for choosing him. She has a very demanding schedule and may not have wanted to sacrifice what little down time she has.
The bottom line is that the artist and client were both initially pleased with the result and it was only in the court of public opinion where expectations were not met.
So what is the bottom line? Will the picture be used as the official portrait or just hung up in their many personal rooms in the castle?
Im not sure what the final destination. All the royals have a multitude of portraits done during their lifetime. They’re all considered official.
I have just read your comment about focusing on the eyes and letting form/planes in front and beyond go out of focus – to varying degrees since some planes have no sharp edges to exhibit sharpness. I have always taught students in three Universities teaching Painting, Drawing and Printmaking and painting professionally for 55 years, that I distinguished between what seems to be called “realism” as artist who paint almost everything in the same, sharp focus and “naturalism” where this was/is not how human eyes (binocular) see. I have always felt we do sometimes “scan” but when attempting to focus we see what we are searching for and that area is in sharpest focus and everything else in in soft focus with mental awareness of the peripheral focus. We all can test this individually. I do not know how much individual variance there is or how much subjective difference there is in articulating ones perception. The easiest example of this difference can be seen in the painting of trees in a “realist” landscape where the artist has painted individual leaves and the naturalism of painters all the way from Cezanne who paints planes in space and never (?) individual leaves to Old Masters of the tradition of Titian where much atmospheric perspective is used. The issue of stylistic as in Botticelli come to mind but this is outside the realism/naturalism ways of painting but not seeing. I say it is a choice but verbal expression of this may be a subjective matter of visual perception.
Thanks for sharing that Ron. It’s oft been said, “Variety is the spice of life!” I think that applies to all aspects of painting, and certainly edges. Two of my favorite artists, Paxton & Bouguereau, were masters of edge handling.
I wanted to thank you for posting this – I heard about the vitriol and it made no sense to me either. I wanted exactly this – someone to academically break down the minor issues so that I could see what was “wrong” for myself. This actually TEACHES – so thank you. 🙂
Thank you for the comment. Teaching is half of what I love to do.
You’re very welcome. 🙂