“…portraiture generally has wide public interest – how we perceive and represent ourselves, and the histories that are constructed by our images of ourselves, are endlessly interesting and continually contested.” – Kate M Murphy (2004, 10)
“In sum, the NPG is an ongoing, dedicated centralised place of portraiture in Australia. The institution is however not exclusively concerned with this medium. In its permanent collection and display practices the NPG produces itself as a national centre at an intersection of the field of portraiture and the recognition of individuals as agents of historical significance or as distinctive ‘achievers’. …in its liberal focus on individuals as key actors in the Australian national mythscape the Portrait Gallery somewhat de-emphasises social structure or situation, and naturalises social hierarchies through the non-recognition of the contributions of most individuals within the national mythscape.” – Chris Beer (2009, 161)
“The whole concept of the national cultural heritage exploits the authority of art to glorify the present social system and its priorities.” – John Berger (1972, 29)

Why did I come to consider the social context of my portraiture practice to be important? Important enough to construct a paper around it? I recognise that even to start in the first person is contrary to the traditional practice of thesis writing. However, due to the nature of the content this paper will delve into I found it appropriate – even necessary – to do so.

My explorations into this subject began with a realisation of some social groups being exulted over others in Australian portraiture. What I mean is that there has been and continues to be a tradition of painted portraits of celebrated Australians – usually those who are respected for something, considered accomplished or are well known. The Archibald immediately springs to mind. In its policy it requires the sitter to be ‘distinguished in the areas of art, letters, science or politics’. Throughout its controversial history this prize has attracted submissions depicting people whose social roles have been considered ‘distinguished’. However, do the rules of this sole prize mean that other portraiture-supporting institutions in Australia also elevate certain social roles over others? It is true that the Doug Moran Prize for Portraiture, held by the NSW State Library, does not seem to, since the entry form states that the sitter does ‘not need to be in any way well known’, rather preferring that they have a close personal connection to the artist. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra also celebrates portraiture in its various forms, holding a variety of portraiture exhibitions and competitions (such as the national youth self-portrait prize) where the faces of people from the daily experience of many Australians can be seen. However, while this is the case, for its permanent collection it does seek to primarily acquire portraits of notable Australians – where each subject is ‘either important in his or her field of endeavour or a known and named person whose life sets them apart as an individual of long-term public interest’ (the NPG collection policy, cited in: Beer, 2009, 160). But does this tendency to focus on particular individuals over others extend beyond such well-established institutions as the Archibald and the NPG? When looking at other portrait prizes, the Shirley Hannan Prize for Portraiture is not concerned with any social status of the sitter as the focus is on capturing likeness. However, the recently created Perth Black Swan Prize for Portraiture does require some social elevation on the part of the sitter: they must be ‘well known’ or ‘well respected’ in their field, and if they are not well known then the artist must justify why they respect them. Such variation in the entry requirements of these prizes seems to indicate different views on what the purpose of supporting portraiture is. Namely, whether it is to publicly remember the achievements of some individuals or to document contemporary society. However despite this the reoccurrence of the ‘well known’ or ‘distinguished’ criteria across at least three Australian institutions is worth noting. Does it suggest that, in line with the older history of portraiture there are still categories of people who are considered more worthy as the subject of a portrait than others?

The subjects of portraiture have historically been rulers, people with exulted social roles or people who could afford to commission an artist. However, after the 1848 revolution in France, the realists (such as Courbet and Millet) could exult the rural poor as high subject matter since it was socially acceptable to do so (Nochlin, 1971, 112). Nochlin notes that this was a significant development as, ‘by painting peasants au sérieux, without any idealisation, on the scale and with the earnestness and seriousness formerly reserved for history painting, they were making an assertion of value that at once assumed contemporary relevance, in the context of mid-century social history’ (1971, 113). Taking a step back from such assertions of social value, the French Impressionists following them painted family and friends as subjects of their light observations and parts of middle-class life. However the development of describing an individual’s likeness in a cheaper, more affordable form came with the advent of photography in the 19th century. While in the 20th century this led to the proliferation of images and photographic portraits of all types of people from contrasting social backgrounds, this investigation shall purposely focus on what intersects with the painted or drawn portrait.

In colonial Australia (from the 1830s) lithographic portraits that documented groups of people became popular. Some were concerned with presenting the ‘typical’ in the society, while others sought to be more comprehensive in documenting an entire community, such as an aboriginal tribe. Such groupings are revealing of colonialist perspectives and values with regard to different people groups and social roles. From the groups we see decisions as to whether settlers should be separated from aborigines, whether women and children were of equal interest as men, or whether they should be included at all (Bonyhady, 2000, 1). Bonyhady notes that while women would generally be presented as much as men in Aboriginal groupings, in sequences featuring colonists they were scarce (ibid, 2).

Nowadays in middle-class Australia, living in the environment of post-feminism, a policy of multiculturalism and official repentance over the stolen Aboriginal generations, many people may take social equality for granted. If someone has access to good education there is the assumption that if they work hard enough they can become whatever they want. They can become great. They can become a politician or someone famous and have their portrait commissioned in honour of their illustrious career. Yet what about someone who went to the same school, left at year 10, studied building at TAFE, twenty years later they damaged their back, were unable to work and so became homeless? Are they as a person less valuable than the class mate who became a politician?

The reasons why I am concerned with this question of portraiture and human value are due to my own convictions of where human worth is found as well as awareness of homelessness and different perspectives on it. For the last three years I have lived in an inner-city suburb, Surry Hills, where the socio-economic contrast is very great. From my own conversations, it seems many homeless people feel they are not cared about by the wider society and are looked down upon. However, as a Christian I am convinced that human worth is not to be found in what we have done or accomplished in life but in the very fact that each one of us has been made in the image of God. 

While my honours project flows out of this personal conviction, another important element to consider is my prior artistic engagement with people groups in my suburb. During my third year at COFA I undertook a project where I painted thirteen portraits of people who go to a free Sunday breakfast run by my church. At the end of the semester an exhibition was held in order to sell the paintings and raise funds for the breakfast. Most of the portraits were sold, funds were raised, but more importantly the project gave a sense of self-worth to the participants – some more notably than others. Being the subject of a painting said they existed, they had value, they were more than just faces on the street, as many homeless people may seem to passer-bys. One individual in particular was especially touched to be painted and over the semester a friendship developed between us. She has a real heart for the plight of the homeless and is involved in many Christian and social groups in and around the areas of Surry Hills and Darlinghurst – despite being over seventy and fluctuating in and out of homelessness herself. I considered submitting her portrait for the Archibald but it seemed apparent that she did not fit into the category of ‘distinguished’ according to their criteria. This I found concerning since it upholds a system that values people who may be well known, successful, distinguished in their field but lends to the exclusion of a whole range of others who may have done very well with what they have but in perhaps more mundane areas. In taking the NPG’s mandate and the Black Swan prize also into account, what do such criteria say about who we value as a society? It was from this situation that my desire emerged to investigate further into the culture supporting portraiture in Australia.

My honours project consists of making the portraits of a range of people who live in a geographically defined area, my suburb Surry Hills, and who come from across the diverse socio-economic of this area. I intend to present them together, each as equally valuable elements that contribute to what the area is.

As my project progressed, an important concern that arose was the question of the place of photography in my working process. It is nowadays common practice amongst artists and painting students to use photographs as reference material in the construction of their artwork. However, to paint from life and to paint from a photograph are not the same thing: indeed, they generally result in images of a different quality.

In a video biography of the American portraitist Alice Neel, Robert Storr (the dean of Yale University School of Art) discussed the difference between painting and photography. While the photograph captures a single moment frozen in time, a painting takes place over a longer period, recording through the layers of paint the time taken in the sittings. A painting is an ‘extended moment’, not just ‘time stopped.’ And, ‘…the mere fact that painting is not a second arrested but is a relationship of seeing and of the see-er and the subject means that painting contains duration, somehow.’ (Storr, interviewed in Alice Neel, Neel, 2006) In portrait painting when the image is made from life, a relationship builds between the artist and the sitter. Conversation happens, and the person is presented in the painting as the artist saw them over that period of time. The portrait in this context is a record of their interaction. In the case of Alice Neel, she wanted to paint ‘real people’, and her portraits present a psychological exploration of her subjects. A direct contrast to this is the common contemporary practice of constructing painted portraits primarily from photographic sources. While this often leads to a more exact representation of likeness and is more convenient for both parties, the relational interaction between artist and subject is significantly reduced. In the 2004 portrait of David Gulpilil by Craig Ruddy, which won the archibald prize, Ross Woodrow (2004, 13-15) gave the criticism that Ruddy had created a caricature based on a stereotype. The reasoning was that Ruddy had formed his idea before he even met Gulpilil, and their only contact was a few hours from which Ruddy could start the portrait. The portrait in this sense did not come from any artistic insights into Gulpilil’s character but rather the projection of the artist’s assumptions onto the subject’s face. It displayed a distinct lack of personal relationship between them. Like Alice Neel, Lucean Freud also paints from life, constructing his nude portraits over many sittings, sometimes hundreds. With the shifting of the artist and subject during these interactions, it is evident that, ‘these works are painted over time, and consequently time itself is captured in the accumulations of paint, in the shifts in perspective, in the physicality of the subject.’ (Mullins, 2006, 19-20) In her book, ‘painting people’, Mullins presents the work of a number of artists who choose to paint the human figure in an age dominated by visual technological reproduction. With regards to painting vs photography, she discusses most painters seeing their works as an ‘antidote’ to the constant barrage of images that are shot at the viewer daily in our world: ‘Paintings create pauses in life, and offer distillations of subjects rather than unconnected snapshots.’ (2006, 17)
From the discussion thus far, it appears that painted portraits depict a longer duration than photographs. This also suggests the need or impulse of longer viewing time, thus creating a pause as the layers of the painting are absorbed by the onlooker. It also appears that paintings made from life contain a richer relational aspect: that of the see-er and the subject, as well as any deeper understanding of the other through conversation and observations made during the time of the sittings. But what of painted portraits made primarily from photographs? Assuredly there is much time spent in their construction and so in this sense as a painting they can create a pause as they are absorbed by the viewer. However without the consistent presence of the subject, the artist must project more of themselves onto the still faces in the photographs. Like in the case of Gulpilil by Ruddy, the preconceptions of the artist are more likely to play a higher role in the finished portrait. There is less tension between the see-er and the subject, the sitter is not physically there as the artist paints, demanding attention by their presence and able to speak back. My last body of work is a good example of this. I asked people from the free breakfast if I could paint their portrait then proceeded by taking some photos and working from those. This was convenient and certainly sped up my working process, but as a method it did not help me to get to know my subjects – that is, apart from the few words we spoke before and after I took the photo. Some people I got to know better, through simply chatting with them over the breakfast, but others I never saw again. I made each portrait with many time-consuming layers of paint which in itself created a pause and encouraged the viewer to stop and contemplate, but my own preconceptions and initial impressions of each subject were prominent in the painting’s construction.

This prior experience led to my desire to avoid using photographic reference material. I wanted to know my subjects better, for the finished portrait to be a record of that interaction. Furthermore, my intention was to meet other people in my suburb through exploring existing social connections. While I originally intended to make sketches and then take them back to the studio to turn into paintings, a suggestion was made by my lecturer to increase the number of sketches per subject and to turn them into animations. Already having a prior interest in animation, I heartily took this up, and have not looked back since. With regard to recording duration, the animation indeed does that, but in a pointedly linear fashion. The sketches record the shifting and movement of the sitter during the time I was with them, and shown in sequence produce a narrative of our interaction. As a drawn image, it also produces a pause in life – that of the time taken for the viewer to watch it.

This shift in form led to my next area of exploration, that of portraiture in moving images.


Alice Neel, Neel, Andrew (Director). DVD. Art House films, 2006.

Mullins, Charlotte. Painting People: Figure Painting Today. Thames & Hudson LTD, London. 2006. 19-20.

Woodrow, Ross. “Caricature finally triumphs at the archibald prize”. Art Monthly Australia #172 August. 2004. 13-15.

In order to construct my animated portraits I have made multiple sketches of each subject, even up to 25, and have digitally placed them in sequence, so as to create a slow animation of their shifts and changes in expression over the time of the sitting. The portrait is a record, so to speak, of our interaction, and my sketches are testament to part of whatever happened or was said during that time; they describe the subject during the brief part of their lives that I was with them.
One artist whose work distinctly connects animation and film is Jeff Scher. A New-York based film maker, animator and painter, Scher makes vibrant animations by projecting a short section of film, slide by slide onto paper, then colouring in the image. Each slide is done in contrasting styles, creating a hand spun, psychotically vibrant effect. In 2004 he made an animated portrait of Susan Shin, which appears to have been the start of a series, as more people soon commissioned him to do their own. This, however, was openly influenced by the Work of Warhol, with the main difference between it and the ‘screen tests’ being Scher’s further processing of the filmed face into animation. Unlike other animated portraits, Scher’s portrait gives the eerie impression of being a single drawing copied and repeated in contrasting styles and colours over multiple frames which then raises its head before falling back into the same still position. The movement is so natural and fluid that the filmic reference shows through in a similar way that many paintings made from photos have a distinctive look of flatness.
For the last four years, Victorian artist Julia Holden has also explored the connection between the traditional medium of painting and the ephemeral presence of animation. Through such animations as ‘muse’ and ‘painter’ she looks at how faces are made up or put on to present to the world. These constitute hundreds of paintings that are recorded with a digital camera before being wiped off the board and another image painted on. The rationale for the persistent gaze of the subject is the implication that they are looking into a bathroom mirror, putting on their ‘face’.
Compared with the number of animated self-portraits in existence, the number of artists whose practice gives a prominent place to the animate portrait of other people appears to be few. However, to add to Holden and Scher is the work of Julian Opie. Based on manipulation of digital images, his animated portraits are a direct contrast to theirs. Most of his work in the last decade has involved human figures, usually with name-titles, implying that the simplified features indeed refer to specific individuals. He does digital paintings, and from his online portfolio he has animated many of these. The animations are simple and in generally two types: many consist of figures side on, shown walking. The rest are generally front-on, either the head or more of the body being depicted, with small parts of the picture moving – this may be the eyebrows raising, lips twitching, eyes blinking, earrings swinging gently or even the chest slowly rising and falling. The sheer number of named portraits produced by Opie could be seen as a community, a mass of beautiful middle-class individuals who are only distinct from each other by the variations in hair or dress. However, by his simplified style their individuality seems to be presented as lost, or reduced to a choice of external trappings.