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Things To Consider Before Commissioning A Child's Portrait
 
1. What medium should I choose: oil, pastel, watercolor?
2. I've heard there's computer software that will mimic brushstrokes down to the last detail. Is that true? Can I just get the same thing from my computer as I get from a portrait artist?
3. What is the right age?
4. What is the best size?
5. I have two, three, four, etc. children. Should I paint them all in one painting or separately?
6. What kind of frame should I put around my portrait?
7. What should the sitter wear?
8. Should it be painted inside or outside?
9. Should I have my child painted with a simple background or in a recognizable environment with one or several props?
10. Painting conservation. How do I clean my painting?
 
1. What medium should I choose: oil, pastel, watercolor?

In the right hands, all of them are beautiful. Traditionally, oils have been the favored medium, but they're all wonderful mediums. One thing to consider with mediums other than oils is that most need to be framed immediately, especially pastels. A wire can be strung to the back of stretcher bars and an oil painting hung safely indefinitely. Watercolors have to be framed to be seen, but they with the right precautions can be stored with relative safety. Pastels, however, are every bit as fragile as they are lovely and need to be framed just as soon as possible. And, although watercolor and pastel papers can come in rolls just about as wide and long as you'd want, the weight of the glass after framing can become a little problematic.

2. I've heard there's computer software that will mimic brushstrokes down to the last detail. Is that true? Can I just get the same thing from my computer as I get from a portrait artist?

One can take a photograph, apply a couple of filters in Adobe photoshop, get a 30" x 40" print at a discount club and get some pretty amazing results. There are a couple of problems with that approach, however. First, that print is going to fade. Regardless of what they tell you about archival inks, a few decades from now, if that long, it's going to look considerably differently than it does now. And it won't be for the better. Secondly, a commissioned portrait from a real artist has something the computer generated print will never have, personality. Most everyone has heard of Van Gogh

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_van_goghand Rembrandt

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_rembrandt

They were both amazing artist but they saw, reacted to, and painted the world very differently. Depending on how you see and react to the world and how you want your child portrayed would determine which one you would commission to paint his/her portrait. At best, all the computer can give you is a generic look and feel that will be just like the other forty million paint-o-matic prints out there. Your paint-o-matic print is going to have all the taste, texture, and personality of a plate of digitally created soggy rice cakes.

3. What is the right age?
The short answer is: any. Whatever time in a person's life which you consider the most idylic, the time you want to capture forever, that's the age. Children change very quickly in a very short period of time, so be aware that if your child is at the age you want to capture them, it's important to get busy and get the work started as soon as possible.
4. What is the best size?

There are two factors to consider: how large do you want the person in the painting to be and how much room do you have to hang it. In regards to the first, I like to work about 1/2 to 3/4 life size. Getting close to life size gives the painting a real presence in a room and can be quite grand, but avoid going over life size. The person invariably just feels wrong. There's just something not quite right about a four and a half foot tall three year old. As for the second, where will it hang, take a look around your house and see all of the possibilities. But keep this in mind, the painting is going to be in your family for generations; is the house? Would it not be better to have a painting a little larger than you'd like for a couple of years in your current home, but have it fit wonderfully in the one you're planning on moving to? On the other hand, just because you've got a wall large enough to hang a life sized painting of a t-rex doesn't mean either you or your progeny will be living in quite so spacious accommodations later.

This question also affects the pose. If you're looking for a full length standing portrait of a five foot tall child and you want the painting to hang over your mantel, take a measurement. If there's only three feet between it and the ceiling, short of a trip to the mathematical twilight zone, a life sized verticle painting is not going to fit.

5. I have two, three, four, etc. children. Should I paint them all in one painting or separately?
This one is simple. Who gets the painting after you've gone to your reward? Clients tend to fall into two categories. The first has them done separately and at some point the paintings go to the separate children portrayed. The second takes the attitude that this painting is for me and my enjoyment. My children can hash it out after my demise at a hundred and sixteen. I actually appreciate the clients from the past who've taken this philosophy, because I've painted copies of old paintings for siblings who wanted an original copy of their family portrait. Yes, there are such things as original copies. The practice of copying paintings for patrons, or patron's descendants has been around since painting began. Virtually all of the old masters did it. It's a wonderful way for everyone to have an original piece of art work.
6. What kind of frame should I put around my portrait?
The job of a frame is to contextualize and compliment a painting. It surrounds it and puts it in its own world. It's as much a work of art as the painting itself. Frames can make or break a painting. A really good one can improve a so-so painting, but a bad frame can really detract from an excellent painting. My first piece of advice if you're not sure of what you want is to get with a good custom framer. These are people who are trained and experienced in the art form. Think of it this way, if you've just spent thousands of dollars on a painting, do you really want to surround it with a fifty dollar frame from Michael's or Hobby Lobby taken on the advice of someone whose last job was waxing cars at the local Jiffy Lube.

But, here are a couple of rules of thumb to think about before you go to the framer. In general, portraits tend to be more conservative than bright and flashy, so the framing should reflect that. I'd avoid anything heavily thematic unless it really goes with the overall theme of the painting. Gold is a good standard, but avoid really bright gold. Look for one that's got a warm cast to it and tends to be a little darker and more subdued. For men and boys, gold is also great, but just needs to have a masculine feel.

Linen liners are one of those things that come and go with the times. At the turn of the 20th century they were the height of elegance and good taste. Somewhere around the late 1970's until the early 1990's many people began to associate them with cheap paintings of Elvis that one could buy for a few bucks at TG&Y. But by the mid nineties, they had made a come back, probably due to the efforts of some really good interior decorators, and for the time being, they're again enjoying the respect they deserve. If you do get a linen liner, just make sure it's either real linen, or colored to look that way. The problem with white cotton liners is they get dirty fairly quickly and are almost impossible to clean.

Molding should also be wide. And the bigger the painting, the wider the molding should be. But, at the very least 2 1/2" to 3". A narrow molding just looks weak and tentative around a portrait.

As far as how decorative the molding is, that's a judgement call. A plain simple molding can be quite elegant and beautiful, but a highly ornate molding need not be distracting. This is why it's good to get some professional advice.

7. What should the sitter wear?

I always counsel my clients to think in terms of timelessness. Fashions change from year to year and decade to decade, but there are some things that either come back or never go out of style. Of course, that leads to the question of what's timeless and what's a fad. Right off hand, I would say the best rule of thumb is, if it's being worn on the latest T.V. show and "Everyone else is wearing them, and I've just got to have one or I'll just die, MOM!", it's probably a fad.

But, I also caution in not over dressing, or dressing a child out of character. A boy who never wears a blazer will look very uncomfortable in one for his portrait, a sequined dress complete with elbow length gloves and tiara may be fine for the home coming queen, but might look a little costumey.

And Mom's, for heaven's sakes, watch the hemline. I can't tell you how many times I've struggled for hours trying to position a young lady in a pose where her unmentionables aren't shining brightly for all the world to see.

Lastly, just keep it simple; horizontal strips make a person look heavier, busy patterns are distracting, as are bright, loud colors and logos.

Basically, you want to be sure that everything in the painting adds to capturing the personality of the sitter as well as the physical likeness. Hair, clothes, surroundings, must all say something about the sitter.

True story. Early in my career I painted a little girl with lovely curly blonde hair. When I delivered the painting, the parents were nice and paid for the painting, but something about them seemed a bit off kilter, they were both a little quiet and stand offish. This was one of my first commissions ever. I was very young and didn't want to rock the boat. When they offered to pay, I took the money and got out of there. I found out later from a mutual friend, they loved the painting, but seeing the painting for the first time had been a real shock. The girl normally had straight hair, but they had permed it just before I'd arrived to start the painting and they'd never even seen a photograph of her with curly hair, let alone a painting. By the time I came back to deliver the portrait, most of the perm had already grown out. It just took them a few days to adjust to the look of the girl in the painting.

Another true story. I painted a little girl standing in front of a grandfather clock. As I photographed her, I engaged her in conversation about the things she was interested in. Every once in a while, she'd cock one foot to the side as well as her head. I thought it rather endearing and interesting and painted her that way. The parents loved it, as did all their family and friends. Everyone told me, she always does that, it's such an Anna (not her real name) thing to do. However did I get her to do that? Well, of course you can't pose someone that way, it just has to come naturally. And that's where the artist has to be observant. Hopefully, both stories go to illustrate the point that likeness has as much to do with environment, mannerisms and familiar associations as rendering an the exact photographic likeness.

8. Should it be painted inside or outside?
Ask yourself this? Where do you associate the child in your mind, always playing outside, or more of an inside person? Would your little girl be comfortable in a field of flowers, or would it be more appropriate to portray her on a chair in the living room? Does your son love to play on the monkey bars outside or with his trucks in his bedroom?
9. Should I have my child painted with a simple background or in a recognizable environment with one or several props?

The question to ask is, will having things around them add to the painting or detract from it. This goes for adults as well. A place can contextualize a person, as can a cherished collection. The way they interact with a cherished doll collection or just a couple of toy cars can be critical to telling that person's story. Many of us also associate our own childhood with a particular place: summers at a grandparents farm, weekends curled up in a particular chair reading a favorite book. In a portrait, those are the things which can add to a painting.

This little girl was painted at her grandfather's farm. It had been in the family for nearly one hundred years and meant a great deal to the family.

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_myra_rivers

But, it's perfectly acceptable if someone feels that all that would be a distraction and wished to eliminate them entirely having the painting focus on the sitter and nothing else.

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_macey

Neither painting is right or wrong. I don't think adding more to the second painting would have helped it a bit. But the first would have lost all its charm and impact had it been done with a simple background.

And there are variations in how complex an outdoor background can get.

This is very simple.

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_ben

This one is much more complex.

bill_wilson_studio_frequently_asked_questions_will

The main thing to keep in mind is that anything that contributes to telling the story of the person is an asset, everything else is a distraction.
10. Painting conservation. How do I clean my painting?

In a word, you don't. For those of us not trained, and I include myself most definitely in this category, trying to clean a painting is about like handing a nine year old boy a blow torch and telling him to clean the mud off the car. An oil painting, even if it's dry to the touch, is still going through chemical bonding and is not technically dry. By trying to dust a painting with a rag you can actually be embedding the particles deeper into the paint. And lint from your rag or paper towel can make it even worse. And feather dusters are to paintings what razor blades are to human skin. Every swipe you make is making microscopic nicks and cuts on the paint film which can over time turn into thick heavy cracks.

An oil painting should be varnished after a year of drying. After that, should a cleaning ever need to be done, it should be done by a professional. I recently saw what was left of a portrait I did about seventeen years ago. I guess someone tried to clean it for whatever reason. All they accomplished was stripping about a quarter of the paint off the canvas.