Cognitive Bias In Portraits

The painting I’m working on presently is a portrait. People are often surprised when I tell them that the better I know the person the more difficult a portrait is. I think of this as cognitive bias even though it doesn’t match some of the definitions. Heuristics may be closer to the process I’m trying to describe. There are a number of clues in a portrait that make it look like the individual it’s supposed to represent. A good artist may be one who creates the illusion with the fewest number of clues. Regardless some portraits are strikingly good but others not so much. A portrait may seem good to me because it appears to closely match my concept of the individual’s character. To others it may not match their idea of the individual’s character so they would rate the portrait poorly.

My mental concept of the individual contains information that cannot be interpreted with paint. If I don’t know them well then I’m simply painting a likeness, like a photograph. If I know them well I can’t put my idea of their character into the painted image, so it’s difficult. When I realised this I stopped painting portraits. This was a mistake because I never found a way to reconcile the discontinuity. Some artists don’t seem to have a problem with portraits or perhaps they just continued to paint likenesses and modified them in ways that brought them closer to the artist’s idea of their subject’s character. To those of you out there that find it easy to get a likeness, does it help you to know that I am insanely jealous?

I think photographs help a lot. A photograph rarely matches my mental idea of the subject, however some photographs are definitely closer. If I pick the photograph that I like then use it to paint a likeness I’m probably close. Assuming I have a lot of photographs to choose from. Using this technique to paint a commission I would take as many photographs as possible then let whoever was paying choose. Now if my painting resembles the picture everything should be fine. I have a portrait of myself when I was quite young, painted by one of my teachers. I think it’s terrible but my mother liked it. I have a photo of myself playing a video game that I like. Many people think it’s terrible. Cognitive Bias.

Advertisements