Classical (as in Contemporary) Portraiture

Classical (as in Contemporary) Portraiture vs Ultra-Conservative, Stiff & Staid Portraiture

I fell in love with the Old Dutch Masters paintings way back when I was “knee-high to a grasshopper”, mostly because of the way they depicted light and shadow. I’m particularly drawn to the chiaroscuro style, or what might be referred to today as ‘Low-key’ portraits.

professional-portraitsOf course, I have no way of judging the accuracy of the Master’s portraits, as far as the actual countenance or expressions of the subjects, but looking at them, you get the feeling they are more than accurate. More than simply recording a likeness, these guys painted in some real personality! And, of course, it is partly because of their uncanny ability to disclose the genuine personalities of the subjects of their portraits, that their works are revered even today.

Some of the other reasons for the extreme success of the Dutch Masters works include their beautiful interpretation of the way light and shadow interplay to reveal forms, animals, places and people common to our experience. And their techniques in applying colors and texture to their canvases.

As a modern, contemporary portrait artist, working in Light and Shadow, (photography), my goals are to 1) show my subjects in the best light, 2) portray them honestly, so the viewer gets a sense of their personality, and 3) make them look better in the finished portrait than in real life!

I’m sure that at least for the commissioned portraits, the goals of the Old Masters were identical to mine!

When I studied photography and portrait lighting, I learned about Classical, or “Rembrandt” lighting, (along with a bunch of other stuff!). So, as my personal tastes run that way, I’ve always considered myself a “Classical” Portrait Artist.

The other day, I had a client call asking about my studio portrait sessions, and said they wanted something different from what they had done back in their home country. What they had was “very classical, and formal”, they told me. I didn’t know quite what to make of that, but I was sure I could do something different from what they had, if I knew what they had..exactly. They came to the studio and we talked further.

While waiting for them to arrive, I was thinking about my concept of “Classical Portraiture”. I really see photography as painting with light and shadow. I favor the medium to high ratios from highlight to shadow in my portraits, and the classical style of lighting. I think it’s very flattering. I always recommend to my clients that they wear solid colors, or very low-contrast prints. And keep all the colors in the same tone range.

professional-portraits3Again, I think of myself as a Classical Portrait Artist, and so I was wondering what could this client, or anyone for that matter, object to in portraits that are beautifully lit in a flattering way, and are constructed to make them look better than in real life?

Turns out the client didn’t have any examples with them to show me, so I have no idea how they were lit….but I can tell you this: It’s about the POSING! Apparently they had been to a studio back home where they were sat down together, facing straight ahead, hands on thighs, and I assume in formal dress, and photographed that way.

I can tell you from the short experience I had meeting these people so far, (their session is scheduled for next week), what that was, was not a portrait! And I can see why they want something different.

It’s true that a high number of Old Masters Portraits feature their subjects in static, rather stiff poses, but even so, that certainly isn’t the case with most of their expressions! The reasons for the stiff poses include the fact that many of the subjects were noblemen of various ranks, and the poses suited their, (at least imagined), dignity…

Of course, when the ‘Classical” portraits were being painted, they were ‘contemporary’ for their time. So, I am putting forth the definition of “Classical Portraiture” as portraiture that adheres to the Classical goals: Beautiful Lighting, Flattering Views, Personality, and a finished presentation more beautiful than the real thing!

Contemporary Classical Portraiture then, adheres to the classical ideals, and in doing so, takes advantage of the wider range of socially accepted expressions, and connections within couples and families, even co-workers relationships, when developing poses.

I say developing poses, because, most often, I find that when I give just a little direction to people, they will find the most natural-for-them pose. And what that does is to allow the individual to express their own body language, which is a revealing aspect of personality. And in any case, when the subject is comfortable, they are more naturally ‘themselves’.

When I was first trying to make a living as a full-time portrait photographer, I was doing a lot of promotions where I would give a short portrait session, and a free print for a small registration fee. These sessions were 15 minutes, and I would literally grab people by the arms and move them into a position! I would push on their shoulder to get the right angle, make them cross their legs even if they never did that…. I had to in order to get it done. But I was forcing poses that weren’t necessarily even close to natural for the individuals.

professional-portraits2I was lighting them beautifully! Often people would say how much better they came out than they ever expected! And I’m guessing now, that had a lot to do with the way they were posed! They didn’t expect them to come out very well because they were posed in a way unnatural for them. Good pose maybe, but just not natural for them. Now days I still hear many wonderful expressions of how beautiful my clients’ portraits turn out, and how much they love them, but I haven’t heard the part about not expecting them to!

The biggest difference is that when people have a great experience during the creation process, they fell good about it, and expect good results! What I do hear quite a bit is, (usually the husband say at the end of the portrait session), “That was a lot more enjoyable than I expected it to be!” And I love hearing that! Often I’m told, “You made that fun! We really had a good time!” Guess how the portraits turned out…

Out of an average of 90 exposures per portrait session, most clients “must have” 30. Generally that is 30 different poses, groupings and variations. You can bet that’s a lot better than what I used to get with the 15 minute promos! True I take one to two hours on portrait creation these days, but it’s well worth it! Both the client and I have a much more enjoyable time with the process, and that has more value than I can tell you! We get far better results, the client is happy, and that makes for better sales! And of course that leads to referrals.

Is there a place for the Ultra-conservative, stiff, staid and boring, “Formal” “Classical” portraiture? Well, I guess there must be! What comes to my mind is those life-size painted scenes with Ma & Pa Kettle with cutouts for people to put their faces in and have a picture taken. But obviously my client I mentioned earlier had been to a studio producing just that kind of photography, and they probably aren’t the only ones! But in my opinion, photographs of that nature are for novelty purposes only. They certainly don’t fit my definition of a Portrait!

About the Author
About the author: Stan P. Cox II runs a Portrait and Commercial photography studio in Honolulu, Hawaii, and has been a professional Hawaii photographer for 31 years. His web address is: This article may be freely distributed if this resource box stays attached.

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