What makes painted portraits more interesting than photographic ones?

I visited the National Portrait Gallery in London last month and goggled at a metric shit-ton of 18th-20th century oil paintings of various public and/or wealthy persons, as well as a smaller number of more recent photographic and video portraits. And I wondered:

Is it just me, or do oil paintings somehow tend to make the subject more interesting/engaging to look at than photographic or filmed ones? And if so, why and how?

Is it just the difference in texture between the variable, slightly 3D brush strokes of a painting and the flat surface of a photographic print or film screen?

Do portrait painters have secret tricks for subtly altering the appearance of a face so that it still gives the impression of a realistic likeness but is somehow more “watchable”? (This would be the coolest and most interesting explanation, but I have no idea whether it’s true.)

Am I just allured by the relative novelty or large size of painted portraits as compared to the familiar and ubiquitous appearance of photographs in today’s selfie-dominated world of portraiture?

Painters, photographers, art critics and anybody who’s ever sat for a professional portrait especially encouraged to weigh in. Thanks!

I think, when you’re looking at a well-done painted portrait, you’re getting a sense of what the artist’s eyes saw. They (whether intentionally or unconsciously) will choose to emphasize or de-emphasize certain subtle aspects of the subject. Sometimes it’s obvious: the artist is painting someone who is famous, or who is paying the artist a lot of money, and by gum that subject had better come out looking heroic/beautiful/taller/younger/not cross-eyed.

A photograph will normally only show what someone looks like. A painting can capture how we see that person.

Okay, but… howww they do that?!?? :confused:

– from Thrones, Dominations by Jill Paton Walsh

It’s not just you, but I certainly don’t agree. Photo portraits are much more compelling than oil painted ones.

Disagree with the premise of the thread. I’ve never seen a painting of Churchill as expressive as Karsh’s photo of him.

Both sides are right… But I think the points made by DrFidelius and BrotherCadfael (and Jill Paton Walsh) are valuable insights.

The two forms of art are distinct; they have their own virtues…and drawbacks.

One might say that the painter can sin a bit by “changing reality.” He can make the King’s nose just a little less protruberant. But a photographer, by arranging the light, also “changes reality” a little. They are both “interpretive” arts; photography is just a lot more restricted in its scope for this.

The painter can make the King look more “noble.” The photographer can shoot slightly from below, making the King look taller. The overall effect is pretty similar!

As an interesting (?) note: there are artists who specialize in applying “brush stroke marks” to photographs, making the photos look like paintings. The result actually is quite nice. It’s a way to subtly enhance and emphasize the photo: it can soften a harsh chin-line, or add just a hint of sparkle to an eye.

And when it comes to Photoshop experts… Whoo! “What is truth?”

I can’t help but wonder if you’ve been looking at the right photographic portraits. Richard Avedon, Dorothea Lange, Irving Penn, Yousuf Karsh (mentioned by Northern Piper), Annie Leibovitz? Little thumbnails on the web don’t do them justice, you need to see a good print in an art book or gallery.

I think one aspect that is often over-looked in the impact of 17th and 18th century portraiture is the staging. You are typically not just looking at someone’s face but at an entire setting – clothing, pedestals, chairs, mirrors, greenery, lap dogs, children, weaponry – any number of carefully chosen props and a background that all contribute to tell the story of who this person is, how they see themselves, and how they, or the artist, wants us to see them.

I also believe that the “painterly” quality of 17th and 18th century art – the subliminal recognition that every brush stroke was laid down by hand and was very specifically put exactly where it is and in exactly that color – adds to the overall essence of a good painting.

I think Trinopus and Jill Patrick Walsh are correct: a painting is expression of both time. But it is also an expression of timelessness.

…my jaw dropped the first time I started looking over Karsh’s work. I love his stuff.

“There is a brief moment when all there is in a man’s mind and soul and spirit is reflected through his eyes, his hands, his attitude. This is the moment to record. –” Yousuf Karsh

I don’t really think the premise of your thread is correct: and both photographers and portrait artists are capable of “capturing how we see that person.” As a photographer I am captivated by photographic portraits more than paintings. That doesn’t mean photographs are more interesting. It simply means I am more interested in photographs. And right now you are more interested in paintings than photographs. But they aren’t objectively more interesting.

Or, in the case of Churchill, the moment when the photographer takes the great man’s cigar away from him, triggering a look of indomitable foreboding… :slight_smile:

What everyone else said. I do both painting and Photoshop, and I think the major diff is that the photograph captures every tiny detail (thus mimicks reality) where the painter can’t. The photograph sees nose hairs and skin pores; the brush stroke overlooks such details and must (of necessity) be broader.

Look at your hand, look at the innumerable lines and wrinkles and hairs follicles and hairs and discolorations and veins. A photograph will capture all that. A painting can’t, and must substitute impression for detail.

Both (done well) can be compelling, interesting, and Art.