How to Read a Portrait

by Lisa Doherty 26. September 2018 16:00

Portraits can say so much with so little. Portraiture requires a very high level of skill and it's an amazing form of art.

Even so, portraits are so personal and intimate that some people can doubt whether it's an appropriate form of art to hang in your home. Let us change your mind and show you how this form of art can be really engaging and will mentally always keep you on your toes.

Symbols in portraiture

Before photography, a painted portrait was the only way people could represent themselves to friends, family or potential suitors.

As a result, the artist had to capture and communicate a lot in one image, such as the status of the sitter, whether they were wealthy, from a powerful family or the subject’s profession. One way to communicate this was through symbols, which could be jewellery, clothes or ‘tools of their trade’, such as a map for a merchant or trader.

If you take a look at the images above it is clear that both sitters are wealthy or from successful families. The older lady is wearing gold and pearls and is dressed in a way that we recognise to be the style of mature, affluent people.

Again, with the young girl you can see that she is wearing pearls, a traditional symbol of wealth, and her dress is made with a rich fabric, which could be silk. The necklace with the pendant also represents a figure, which communicates that she is not only from a rich family, but also a powerful one.

If you want to delve a little deeper then both of these paintings can tell us so much more than what we at first see. For example, why is the little girl wearing those particular earrings, what is she holding in her hand, or why is she wearing that dress?

Just as you would look your best for a family photo - you also want to communicate something about you that shows your personality and identifies who you are, and this is no less the case with a portrait.

Playing with the past

Once photography became popular and mainstream, there was no need to accurately represent a person in a painting, so portraiture became more about capturing the ‘essence’ of the sitter.

They say the eyes are the windows to the soul, and capturing that depth is key to a good portrait, which can be shown in a variety of ways.

There are some artists that like to merge the present with traditional portraits of the past. Christopher Gill likes to paint contemporary subjects in the style of a Renaissance-style portrait.

By doing this he’s highlighting that there are still similarities and connections between the old and the new. Although the girl in the painting above is in a leather jacket, the painting is framed with traditional gold gilt, typical of a renaissance painting.

The fact that the two elements contrast or conflict with each other, also means it has a great effect. It’s this contrasting of styles, and the associated questions they raise, that makes portraits so interesting.

Contemporary portraits

The pursuit of the ‘essence’ of the sitter remains as strong as ever today, which is why portraits are now captured in so many styles and subjects.

There are some artists that paint abstract portraits in order to catch a mood, and others that use charcoal or pencil to capture the sitter in their ‘rawest’ form.

Using the simplest materials for portraits makes them feel more like ‘studies’ or practice drawings for the final portrait, which is a great way of capturing the subject’s personality.

This was also a practice used by Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael and other Renaissance artists in order to make sure they communicated the right pose and message in their final painting.

Latest artists

There are many artists doing exciting things with portraiture. Dimitris Pavlopoulos paints abstract portraits in a primitive style, which are visually very striking and engaging.

Hannah Musial uses felt pen to create her portraits, which are mainly of women captured in a moment or pose. They really make you think about what the subject is doing or thinking to great effect.

And, Marc Riley paints both abstract and non-abstract portraits that can be quite haunting and dramatic. They would make great standout pieces in a living room or study.

The list of artists could go on as there are many more on our site, but these give you a flavour of how exciting and interesting a portrait can be.

There’s so much more to this style than just a face.


Art History | Artists | Buying Art

Art for Offices

by Lisa Doherty 21. September 2018 10:19

Your employees are probably now all back from their summer holidays, and with the next break being Christmas, we imagine there’s a fair amount of the holiday blues going around the office.

A great way to help reduce this and boost morale is hanging some great art on the office walls. You may be more of a fan of the clean white walls and wood floor look, but a splash of colour and striking visuals can make all the difference employee motivation and productivity.

To hang or not to hang?

Let’s face it, the main requirements for a business are happy and motivated staff. They mean people will stay longer and create an all-round, positive working environment.

Achieving this is not just about great perks or bonuses, but also about the ‘softer’ touchpoints, such as the office space. The trend for the New York Loft-style interior is now being replaced with colour and vibrancy. Why? Because, quite simply, plain walls don’t increase productivity.

There is a school of thought that a plain office environment reduces distractions and increases productivity, but research from the University of Exeter found that this isn’t the case at all. In fact, they found that people who worked in ‘Enriched Offices’ with art and plants were 15% quicker and had fewer health complaints than employees who worked in ‘Lean Offices’ with plain walls.

To add to that, the University study also found that motivational posters didn’t constitute art and had no impact on the employees or the workplace. Essentially, staff need something visually interesting to inspire and help rest their mind from a task or looking at a screen for too long.

Types and styles of art

Hanging art that challenges the viewer is ideal for the workplace. It also needs to be a good size for it to be noticed and stand out when hung on the wall. If it’s too small, employees simply won’t see it and it won’t have the desired effect.

An office may not be the right environment for a traditional landscape or portrait, but Abstract or visually challenging Photography does work well. The reason for this is because they are open to interpretation, which gives the mind a chance to escape and think of something different. Not to mention inspire creativity.

A Meeting in the Aisle by Simon Cleary
A Meeting in the Aisle by Simon Cleary

Art is also good to help reduce noise. If acoustics are an issue, then a painting will help dampen sound, and if you have a noisy reception area or communal space, sculpture or an installation are also useful.

If you’ve gone for a particular look and feel or style in your office, then there is scope to buy art that may clash or contradict the design. As we’ve seen with gallery walls, mixing and clashing styles can really work well together.

Ultimately, you don’t want the art to blend in too much otherwise it will lose impact. You want your employees to sit back, take a mindful moment and embrace the image, so don’t be afraid to be bold!


Colour does have an effect on mood, so it’s important to take this into consideration when buying art for offices.

Blue is calming, whereas Red is energising and can encourage conversation. If your office is in need of a bit more energy and noise, then this colour will help. Yellow wakes the brain up and encourages thought, so is a great colour for the workplace as it can help give employees more energy and creativity.

Green and Orange are probably not the best colours at work as they are more calming, earthy tones that are better suited to more personal spaces or home interiors.

Black is a very confident colour, so monochrome photography could also work in an office environment. It may be worth breaking this up with splashes of colour to avoid creating the feeling of a ‘Lean Office’.

Three-Dimensional Art

Art doesn’t have to be a painting or a photograph, it can also be sculpture or three-dimensional, which could really shake things up in an office.

The conventions are to have paintings on a wall, but what about a piece of standalone art within the office space. It could really change the way employees think and help drive creativity. It could also be a little disruptive, but, in a corporate environment, that may not be a bad thing.

Good art is challenging and can make for good talking points with colleagues, which can also help create more of a team atmosphere and encourage conversation. As we all know, it can be easy to work in a bit of a silo, so it’s always good to break out of that from time to time.

Art can be a really positive force for good and can transform any space. The workplace is full of different personality types and interests, but a painting or sculpture can help colleagues find common ground. Not only that but buying original art doesn’t have to bust the budget as there is so much for all price ranges and styles. Go on, get shopping and have some fun!


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