Many official painted portraits have a certain look about them. They depict a public figure in a serious manner, often against a plain background. If the subject is a government official, it might be in an office setting instead. The differences among them are subtle, and the conservative nature of those painted portraits has prevailed throughout history.

Jennie Klein, a professor and area chair of art history, thinks contemporary official portraits are ugly.

Since the invention of photography, official portraits have become bland, Klein said. They depict their subjects’ likeness well enough, and the artists clearly have skill. But their style is rigid and often lacks creativity. 

However, the paintings of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were released last week, have set the bar for presidential portraits at a different level.

“The Obama portraits are sort of a break, kind of indicating that this was a young, hopeful presidency,” Klein said. “We actually have some good portraits for a change.”

Steeped in tradition, portrait painting has evolved yet prevailed through the introductions of photography and other digital imaging technologies. It remains customary for some members of society’s elite, and it presents particular challenges to artists as they try to capture someone’s image in a way that shows both accuracy and artistic vision.

The Obama portraits, the first presidential portraits to be painted by African-American artists, are unconventional additions to the National Portrait Gallery in more ways than one. The former president sits tieless among symbolic foliage. The former first lady is painted with gray skin, a characteristic technique of artist Amy Sherald, who uses grayscale to symbolize racial ambiguity.

Klein said the Obama’s atypical portraiture sends a message that supports contemporary work that breaks free of established norms.

“As you get closer to this era, the problem is there’s this kind of convention,” Klein said. “It’s kind of like religious painting. It’s shocking when you break the convention. But I think (the Obama’s) portraits really represent who and what the Obamas were, and what they represented.”

Holly McCoy, a sophomore studying studio art, often draws portraits both for class and for personal enjoyment. She likes drawing celebrities or members of her family and finds depicting a person’s likeness to be the most difficult task in art. Nevertheless, she enjoys the challenge.

“I like to practice getting better at perfectly portraying someone, because one little mess up and it doesn’t even look like the person,” she said. “It’s really difficult and I kind of like that about it.”

Andrew McNamara, a graduate student studying painting and drawing, teaches an art class on traditional practices in painting at Ohio University. His students will eventually paint their own self-portraits, taking on what he agrees to be the most challenging subject to depict in art.

“I think that if you spend the time to be able to learn how to draw the face, the body, after you kind of gain success there, drawing everything else becomes much easier,” McNamara said. “I think those are the most difficult lines of proportions to get accurate.”

McNamara said there are endless techniques used to capture the correct proportions of a face. Some artists throw those out altogether and still find great success. One of the biggest challenges of depicting humanity is the individuality of each face.

“Even now, I’ve been painting the figure, especially portraits, for years and it’s still a challenge sometimes, because everyone’s different,” he said. “Sometimes those rules don’t apply, depending on your subjects.”

In the age of technology, portraiture has faded from prominence. A person’s likeness can be captured perfectly in an instant with the click of a camera rather than through hours spent tediously painting on a canvas. But McNamara thinks it will always have its place.

“I think there’s something special about the care and the time put into that kind of work to capture that person that comes through in all the choices made,” he said. “Brush work, color choices, even the style of the painting. A lot of those things technically could be achieved through a photograph, but it carries a different soul when it’s done through paint.”


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