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Painting "Uncle Ho"

In jos

Painting "Uncle Ho"

Mesaj  Admin la data de Mar Feb 10, 2009 4:38 pm

February 10, 2009

Phan Ke An, 85, painted more than 20 portraits of the late Vietnamese Communist leader Ho Chi Minh. In 1948, An was drawing cartoons for the party newspaper Su That (appropriately "The Truth") and was singled out for the job. "There was no opportunity to get the great man to sit for long periods," says An. "I did it by following him around and drawing him when I could. Uncle Ho even let me dine with him and he gave me cigarettes." At the time Ho was living in modest circumstances, avoiding the French occupiers. He was plotting takeover, writing and chain-smoking.

Have you ever noticed that a distant, even obscure, photo of someone will be recognizable? This gives a key to the methodology of "portrait by following around." Likeness is not in the details; it's in the general stance and the large forms of the face. The painter's job is to find the unique character. Furthermore, character comes out of a sense of caricature. To be fair, exaggeration need not be taken too far. Many painters have already noticed Barack Obama's outstanding ears.

A few pitfalls wait for those who wish to make a relatively truthful portrait. A lot of problems occur around the mouth. Smiles are dangerous and tend to look photographic. Teeth can be deadly--better not to draw and paint individual teeth. If you must have them, render them as an area, not necessarily white. Maybe it stems from the good old days when teeth were more likely to be substandard or absent, but portraits tend to have closed mouths. Think of George Washington--in portraits his mouth was always closed over his wooden teeth.

For some reason older men give less trouble than older women. Character, distinction, and low expectations of beauty give an artist something to get an energetic brush around. People of other races help flustered painters in avoiding auto-personification, a condition in which some painters put their own facial features onto their subjects. Nevertheless, painting an older uncle or a male friend is a good place to learn the game. In case you're interested, we've posted a few examples at the top of the current clickback.

All is lost if there's no likeness. I've noticed I often get it early on and then proceed to turn my portrait into another person. The devil gets into the details. You either have to stop early or go back and wander around again looking for the real person.

Best regards,


PS: "With all the difficulties involved in painting, you still have to find a subject's thoughts and intellectual world." (Phan Ke An)

Esoterica: Perhaps because of the difficult circumstances, An is a believer in prior drawings, and he still has plenty of those. Strangely, most of his larger oils of Ho have disappeared. We both agreed that when conditions are ideal, it's best to go right into the painting itself. Those first strokes often disclose the salient forms you need. Also, in a blissfully forgiving media like oils, you can move things around, focusing and defocusing, while still doing a relatively fresh job.
Current clickback: Where does it come from? gives a short history of Vietnamese art, further reader responses and live comments, as well as annotated illustrations of portrait art.

Read this letter online. Please feel free to give your own insights and experiences in the tricky business of portrait work. Illustratable comments relating to this letter can also be made at We look after the illustrating by going and finding your work online or using what you send to us.

Facebook: Michelle Moore, 20, who manages our free links, thought my face would be okay for Facebook. She put the letter there too. Please go here. Now she's done it again for twitter.

Featured Responses: Alternative to the instant Live Comments, Featured Responses are illustrated and edited for content. If you would like to submit your own for possible inclusion, please do so. Just click 'reply' on this letter or write to
Put a face to your work! A Premium Art Listing in the Painter's Keys Art Directory is the most effective thing an artist can do to be tastefully and respectably noticed. This listing--really a mini web page--costs $100 per year and we do all the set-up. Find out how well it might work for you.
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