What’s Wrong with Painting a Smiling Portrait?

By Ben Lustenhouwer in Art Tutorials > Painting Tutorials

For more than 25 years portrait painting was my daily activity. In all those years, I would often hear that portrait models should not smile as they are painted. I never understood that. What’s wrong with a smiling portrait, I wondered?

Commissioned portrait, done from photography

One possible drawback is that it could be boring in the long run. I think a good painter can overcome that, however.

Another common reason for not painting a smiling portrait is that it’s not classical enough (after all, the Great Masters didn’t do it).

My answer to that objection is this: we live in the “selfie” era—no longer in the 17th or 18th century! Every day we take pictures of ourselves and of others and we usually don´t look sad! In short, times have changed, and so has the way we the way we look at ourselves.

Commissioned portrait, done from photography

I certainly do feel connected to the old tradition of painting solemn portraits, but that does not have to be an obstacle to a more current approach!

But perhaps the biggest reason you might not want to paint a smiling portrait is because it could look like it was painted from a photograph, instead of from life. (The connotation is that painting from photos is somehow worse.)

Non-commissioned portrait, done from a live session.

But for my commissioned work, I always use photography. My customers come from everywhere and I can hardly travel around the world with my easel on my neck. So I already base my work on photo sessions that I do at the sitter’s home.

During that photo session, I’m looking for that moment when the model shows their best side—a split-second of genuine satisfaction, or happiness. As a portrait painter, I feel I am a reporter of that harmony. And guess what? Usually the model is smiling when that moment is captured.

Commissioned portrait, done from photography

In short, I think the viewpoint that photography should be prohibited in the portrait painting process is a bit harsh. In fact, I would say that 95% of my esteemed colleagues work from photography. Really, I know what I’m talking about! However, some are secretive about it—perhaps because of that stigma against it.

So is there no difference between portraits made from photography or from a live model?

Non-commissioned portrait, done from a live session.

No, of course there’s a difference! It is clearly visible in some of my portraits.

The thing is, I never do commissions from a live model. But I’ve included some examples of paintings made from both live sessions and photography sessions, so you can see the difference.

Special thanks to Ben Lustenhouwer for contributing this article! For more info and tips about portrait painting, please visit his website at www.paintingportraittips.com.


We'll send you articles & tutorials right as we publish them, so you never miss a post! Unsubscribe here at any time.


This post may contain affiliate links.