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Portraits are perhaps the most important genre in art history. They’ve always been a standard in the art world and are a part of every art class we teach. After all, humans are a timeless subject. With this in mind, teachers should always be on the lookout for new ways to approach the subject and new artists to present to our students.
Kehinde Wiley is a New York City-based painter who is known for his highly naturalistic paintings of people in powerful, heroic poses. He often references Old Masters’ paintings for the pose of the figures, blurring the boundaries between traditional and contemporary portraits. His figures are rendered impeccably, and he uses Rococo styles, Islamic design, and textile patterns to create his intricate and colorful backgrounds.
Velazquez was a Spanish painter for the royal court, and one of the best-known artists of the Baroque period. He is known for his dramatic portraits of royals and notable figures but also painted many commoners. Las Meninas (above), is widely regarded as his best and most important work. He was influential on scores of modern painters, including Picasso, Dalí, and Francis Bacon.
Chuck Close first became known in the late 1960s for his huge, hyper-realistic portraits. Because of his partial paralysis, he has changed his working method and developed a completely new style. His focus on process creates some incredible work, and his story is undoubtedly inspiring.
Toyin Odutola creates multimedia drawings–often pen or paint on blackboard–that tell a personal story. Though they are primarily autobiographical, she doesn’t want you to lose sight of what she is doing visually. Her work shows a balance of storytelling and artistic skill your students will want to emulate.
Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun was one of the best-known and most fashionable portraitists of 18th century France. Her flattering, elegant style attracted aristocracy and royalty, and she once painted Marie Antoinette. Somewhere between Rococo and Neoclassical, her style allowed her to remain one of the most prominent artists in France for decades.
Kahlo’s stunning work has all the hallmarks of surrealism; her paintings were often autobiographical, and she did a masterful job of mixing realism with dark fantasy. Her portraits especially encapsulate this skill, and they remain as her defining works.
Eric Daigh is an American artist who creates portraits from everyday materials. His media of choice includes post-it notes and, most often, pushpins. He begins with a photograph, a simple grid, and simple colors. From there, he creates work-intensive portraits that sometimes use over 100,000 pins.
Though best known for her figurative work, painter Jenny Saville creates beautiful portraits as well. They are monumental paintings, and her use of texture and brushstrokes gives them an unmistakable look. Captivating, painterly, and original, they can show your students a unique approach to portraiture.
Whether you want to dive deep into the past for classical portraits, explore contemporary artists pushing the boundaries of what a portrait can be, or fall somewhere in between, this list is a great place to get started. Exploring the ideas and technical qualities found in these artists’ work can show your students the myriad possibilities when it comes to creating portraits.
Who are your favorite artists to show when teaching portraiture?
Which artists should be added to this list?
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