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Saturday, 12 January 2013


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Mike, I haven't seen the painting itself yet though since I live in London I shall make a point of seeing it. Neither my wife or I liked the TV and newspaper versions of the painting and we both thought it was a bit too much like a photo just as you write. But let's be fair to both portrait photographers and painters, they can't really win with famous female subjects. If the picture is gorgeous then it's mere flattery and if it's not gorgeous then it's interpreted as spiteful.

Sorry, I think she looks fantastic, Remember this is a photograph of a painting and it most likely does not do that painting justice. I would love to see the real painting in person...or her in person...mmmm

"Ouch" is right. Even Chuck Close would've done better, and he can't recognize faces (aside from also being partially paralyzed and American).

Isn't Antony Armstrong-Jones, 1st Earl of Snowdon still working?
I don't know how good of terms he is on with his ex sister in law, which might be a factor, but he certainly has experience with royals.

Honestly, as someone disinclined towards realist painting and even more disinclined towards monarchies, I think it's a very good portrait and an appealing depiction- which are definitely two separate things.

The one thing I sometimes dislike about it is this weird ethereal blur-glow over it. But I think that's more an artifact of seeing people apply a similar effect in Photoshop to perfectly good, sharp portraits.

Which might get at why we're having two different reactions to the work. You've often said you don't like your portraits too sharp. I like them as sharp as they come- personally, I find aesthetic value and a certain invigorating connection to life in seeing all the details over a person's face one actually sees when up close with them. Our characters get inscribed on our faces in the details people try to avoid, and I like them.

As for the expression? Beguiling, candid, a little sardonic, seemingly plucked out of a moment of private amusement. "Real," not so prim and regal. For perhaps the first time, I'd like a conversation with Kate.

In addition to all that, it looks like a velvet painting. She should be playing poker with dogs.

Not only a bad photo, but one with poor technique. The photographer was too close, thus distorting her features.

In the commission discussions, I've no doubt "Mona Lisa" was mentioned; the smile and the glazing technique, though a very 'contemporary" portrait. 8-)

For once I disagree with you, Mike. I think it's a truly fine portrait — not 'pretty' (which the Duchess undoubtedly is), but showing unusually open humour, and revealling a depth and character which will wear well with time.

I think this portrait demonstrates an essential difference between photography (good photography, that is) and painting (good painting): the camera's strength is in capturing that decisive moment — a flash of joy in the eyes, a revealing instant of deep sadness — but the painter sometimes manages to show a continuum of time, emotion, and character in a single image. I think Emsley managed it in this portrait. (And as with the work of the old Dutch masters, you really have to see the work 'in the flesh' to appreciate it: I'd never understood the big whoop over Rembrandt's portraits when I saw them reproduced even in high quality prints, but seeing an exhibition of the paintings themselves — OMG more than 40 years ago — changed my life and view of painting forever.)

~ David

I'm sure there must be a few decent British portrait photographers around. David Bailey is still working. But heck, even I could do a better job than this.

Lucky Americans, you don't have to pay for portraits of people whose main accomplishment in life is just being born, or married, into one very specific family.

I have not read the British constitution. Ours (the Bankrupt Kingdom of Spain's) says something like "all citizens have equal rights", then goes on with "some citizens are more equal than other", yes, that family again. Our job is to pay taxes, theirs is to enjoy them.

So it's a picture of a portrait of a picture of the princess... Maybe the editor got lost in the obfuscation and forgot to photoshop it.

re: Jane Bown (via the Guardian)


They made her look like "a tough old bird" in her 40s. Maybe the Royal position is they cannot look weak.

Agree it's a terrible image but, for the record, it wasn't done just from a photograph. She did sit for the artist on two occasions. And, my understanding is, the artist took photographs to work from when Duchess wasn't there.

I know that portraits are so subjective, but this portrait looks like a sad experiment involving a Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears clone...

"I don't know—who are the best British portrait photographers working today?"

Any of these might get to the heart of the matter

Martin Parr?

Chris Killip?

Don McCullin?


"The portrait, by Paul Emsley, makes her look like a lizard."

Don't you know? They are all lizards - the whole Royal Family! It's a well known conspiracy! ;)

Hmm, a technically perfect, mediocre painting. It's good to see that the 'oil on canvas' snobs are finally catching up with us lesser (photographic) beings. It's about time that they moved into the 21st century.

And yes, I do think that Kate will have been well trained in the 'smile and wave' school of public presentation. As a Royal, she could do no less than be gracious.

Want to make a painting of her sister? She was taking part in a Highland charity challenge, shortly after her sister's wedding. With no TV, I'd no idea what she looked like, and only discovered I'd caught a couple of shots of her later.

As it's Scotland, it was raining...


The artist took the photos and according to this article, she chose the shot...which you can also see half way down the piece.


Don't worry, it can always be Photoshopped.

There's no doubt it's a terrible portrait, and as for the Duchess saying she likes it - she could hardly say she hates it!
However I read it reported that she sat twice for the painter so working from photos can't be the only excuse.

I would have been happy to do the portrait on TFP basis :)

She is a lizard Mike, did you not know? They all are.


If the official portrait is just a painting of a photograph, why not just have the photograph as the official portrait? Or does transferring the image to oils make it better somehow?

Pring's Photographer's Miscelany quotes Abaham Lincoln as having said, "There are no bad pictures. That;s just how your face looks sometimes." I really have my doubts he said that. I think that when honest Abe first looked at the picture taken of him by Mathew Brady, a non-verbal phrase went through his mind: "Oh, crap!" There are other four letter words one could substitute here and they would all be just as valid. Let's not get distracted about this. This is really about why anybody in their right mind would go out of their way to make Kate less attractive than she is. She is drop dead gorgeous. And the "official" of her is, to misquote Lincoln, crap.

But, having considered everything I just wrote, I have decided to quit 'touching up' photos of me that I forward to friends. And I am no longer considering have plastic surgery done to my face. (Though I am still considering a tummy tuck and a toupee over the bald spot.)

"**And, it's wise to remember, what you see here is a small JPEG of a photograph of a large painting."
If I'm understanding correctly, this is actually a JPEG of a photograph of a painting of a photograph.


I wonder if Mr. Emsley has worked with Miguel Calderon in the past?

I disagree. I think it is a good, although not great, portrait. Apparently the princess, whose opinion is the one that really matters, agrees. She likes it.

It was done partly from photographs (plural, not singular) and two sittings. I do agree that the artist might have done better if it were entirely "from life" but I don't think that has been the pattern since the invention of photography. Modern portrait painters commonly use photographs for at least some of the process albeit probably more than usual in this case.

On the other hand, here's a photgraph that recreates a famous painted self-portrait: http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/01/what-van-goghs-famous-self-portrait-looks-like-as-a-photograph/267028/

It made me laugh when one of the reviewers from The Guardian compared this portrait of her to one of the Twilight series vampires! :Ð

While the portrait isnt very good it certainly doesnt make her look BAD. (I look 10 times worse on my best day)

The root of the problem is the idiotic modern preference for "smiley" portraits. They didnt have the guts to go full guffaw so they ended up somewhere between smirk and "I've got caramel stuck to my teeth" .

While I have general disdain for the entire ridiculous concept of the British monarchy I would never deny that the woman is babe-a-lish-us.

Definitely Snowdon, if he's still working. He's about 82 now.

A tempest in a teacup is how BBC World's coverage of the unveiling looks to me.

The news footage did show Paul Emsley painting from blow-ups of Kate's photos which Emsley took himself, according to BBC. The report also says the Duchess had two sittings with the artist.

Sunday Time's art critic Waldemar Januszczak lamented the "missed opportunity" to portray the Duchess' youth and vitality. He said Emsley's portrait makes the Duchess look older than she really is. That's as far as he would go.

Emsley in turn said that he had planned to paint an unsmiling portrait but changed his mind upon meeting the Duchess. An unfortunate decision as it turns out. Methinks Emsley didn't want to do a Da Vinci. But in eschewing La Gioconda's smile, he ended up with "Bruce Willis' smirk" (LoL)!

It's a Dorian Gray painting. The portrait will become younger as the Duchess grows more "entitled" as Princess of Wales before becoming Queen.

I think history will judge you wrong Mike. The longer I look at this portrait the better I like it.

Add to the list of British portrait photographers: Platon.

At first blush (so to speak) I had to work my brain to even recognize her. I'm sorry, but it's a mediocre painting of an awful moment in time. It appears sinister and she looks like she could bite your head off. I can't IMAGINE it couldn't have been done with a better 'moment in time'. And I see nothing wrong with a truly smiling and radiant image, because that's the way I perceive her.

>She should be playing poker with dogs.


>Only if history forgets what she actually looked like.

Zing Zing!

Why does a portrait have to make someone look good? Notice the smile is a Mona Lisa copy?

Isn't the major problem that this does not look like a portrait painting but a painted photograph? There is nothing original, nothing creative, no deeper idea in it - just a copy [and then, as pointed out by Mike, not of the actual person but a photograph]. In the past, before photography, painters conveyed some idea about their subject, usually a flattering image with mythological undercurrents [a perfect example is David Wilkies portrait of George IV in tartan.]

Freund's painting of the Queen might not be flattering or mythologising but it shows he tried to show a defining characteristic of her - in his view.

The best British portrait photographer today is Nadav Kander. See the recent President Obama portrait on Time Magazine cover.

As we know (g) digital imagery of today has no permanance unlike film which can be actually seen and handled. Hence portraits on that alone are positive.

So the portrait of William's wife sucks. So be it.
It is more or less a permanenet recording of a moment in time. The moment that the princess chose to be rendered at the time.

While portrait painters nowadays typically work from photos, it's not an excuse to make a bad portrait. Painting is usually not expected to be a realistic copy of a photo, there is a level of interpretation involved (otherwise we'd just use the photo and maybe have a computer add a nice painterly effect). The interpretation done done should showcase the skills of the artist. Here, I'm not impressed.

Why is it bad?

lots of paintings don't look like their subject. Are they bad as well?

If the artist achieved what they wanted to achieve, is that not the only qualitative judgement with any validity?

"the artist took photographs to work from when Duchess wasn't there"

So the real problem is that he's a bad photographer rather than a mediocre artist ?

Her nose is flat in the picture which is what ruins it for me.

Mike, you should've taken it with your 800. It would've been perfect, especially if then printed by Ctein.

My local newspaper provided a rendition of the painting with slightly more natural skin tones. I thought it was a reasonable likeness as I immediately knew it was the Divine Ms M but yes, it does add 10 years to the poor girl.

I was bemused to see the painter used a typical digital photographer's trick of adding contrast to the eyes, above that of the rest of the face, to give more "pop". If you look at the higher res version of the painting (see link below), it looks like the painter included himself as a reflection in Kate's left eye !

I found this blog entry with some excellent images of the story. I believe the blogger is a lady by the name of Laura Sweet:


As a painter and photographer who at least once spend a year trying to do paintings of my closest friends, I have a little experience it the problem of painting portraits from photographs.

First of: not every picture of a face is a portrait you would like to hang on a wall. To put it simply: someone laughing his head off can be a wonderful snapshot of a party. Enlarge it, hang it on the wall, and pretty soon it turns into a portrait of some hysterical loony. In the portrait used above I would say this was not the best picture for a portrait.

Next: when painting a portrait, you should be thinking about the person, but when using a photograph as base, it is all to easy to start painting the photograph in stead of the person. Somehow getting it to look like the picture you are using seems more important then making it look like the person.

And finally; a portrait is usually not just one expression of a person, it is a rather complex mixture of how you remember someone, and a mixture of several expressions blended into on.

When I was doing my portraits, I learned to start by thinking how I wanted to portrait a person first; colours, pose, all subtle choices that would be specific for that particular friend. After that, I would shoot a few quick pictures and pick one to start painting from. But, and this was crucial for me, at some point I had to do away with the photographs, and start to look at the painting and compare it to my memories (later I learned that, when trying to use photographs from people I did not know that well, I would not have a useful memory to fall back on). It made it impossible to blend several expressions into one for that person typical expression. All I could do was paint the photograph. I would say the same happened to the portrait above.

Now that I see that it's really quite large, it makes a lot more sense. Photos taken up close with a short lens then printed 3 x life size or larger look pretty amazing. The same for Chuck Close paintings.

I have made some large portraits that look kind of off when they are small but seem to breath when they are 40x60 or so. Essentially you end up with what would be a normal perspective if the subject were very large. And some subjects are just royally large.

This may look a lot better live than in a photo

If it looks like a photo, feels like a photo, sounds like a photo, it's a crappy painting.

She'll grow into the look, as she'll also grow into the musty stuffy surreal bubble that modern "royalty" exists in.

Manuel, I saw the Lucien Freud portrait of the Queen on the last night of the recent Freud retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery in London, and I was much more impressed by it than I had expected.

Had to comment again, as I realized something that came from somewhere in my unconscious. All of a sudden it hit me, that her left eye (on the right from our perspective of course) is not aligned with her right eye. Almost looks like a wandering eye that is 'aiming' about 5 degrees off to our right.

This thing of painting living people from photographs is very boggly for me. It looks exactly as it should look, like a painting from a photograph. And, as mentioned previously in these comments, there is a bit of unsettling lens distortion carrying over into the painting...the foreshortening is decidedly photographic...IMO.

What's worse is that it looks like it has a soft focus filter over the paintbrush.

Clear your schedule, sit down for an hour or so every day and let the man paint from life under a decent and interesting light...no excuse. That's how a painting like this gets done...it morphs, moment to moment, day to day...an interesting relationship develops and all of that carries to the image. What I see here looks like a very high quality paint by numbers scheme of a static object...a photo.

Regarding Princess Letizia's photo...

Any idea whose photo it is?

No, sorry, Mike. I've looked around and only found the image being referred as "from the archive". Given that she's surrounded by tens of unidentified papparazzi wherever she goes, I guess it will be difficult to find out.

Franz Gertsch is worth looking at when it comes to paintings-from-phoptographs. Although you really need to see them full size.


He is the only painter I've seen who paints DOF effects. Makes the notion of hyper-realism rather interesting....

Does anyone else feel on major problem with the portrait is that Kate's left eyes appears to drift off to the left -- i.e. be out of synch? Oddly L. Freud's portrait of the Queen shows the same tendency. Could it be that the left eye of Royals drifts????

Maybe you've seen this..

I find the painting rather jarring. As a photograph, the pinched mid-smirk features can be a bit charming, particularly in a candid photo (as opposed to a formal portrait). But this is not only a formal portrait, it's a painting. In both cases we do not expect to see a face caught in a smirk.

So what it comes down to (at least for me) is that I dislike the cognitive dissonance this portrait provokes in me. And that makes me question if my dislike of it is really valid, or if it's just my brain clanging because it wants to see something that's more "expected" than "not expected."

Kate's portrait is a political statement not so much representing Kate, but a Monarchical rendering of how a princess, who resembles Kate, should appear for posterity: staid, serious, human flaws intact. Kate in real life is just too darn beautiful, sexy, and alive to be taken seriously.

Look at her hands in the left-side Getty image from the link provided by Huw. Very good flash modulation. And must be minimal shutter lag.

The left-side Getty image where she is talking with the artist.

Are you all so sure you know how she really looks ? Every single photo of her is photoshoped (most to death), so photos don't count. TV ? forget it, tons of makeup and artificial lighting. Smile ? Maybe she just smiles that way, just not in public where a beautiful hollywod smile is a must :-)
On the other hand, the painting reminds me a classical aristocratic portrait - that is, a bit unreal (but not to the today's silky skin photo standard). I am aware that you guys from US don't get to see much of such paintings.
Anyway, she's not a stupid girl, so she knew what she was doing. She could stop publishing it easily, I suppose.

"I am aware that you guys from US don't get to see much of such paintings."

Oh, we don't? My grandfather had his portrait painted. It now hangs in the main administration building of the college where he was Chairman of the Board of Trustees.

I'm getting rather sick and tired of all the anti-U.S. bigotry.


"Annie Leibovitz ... would have done a better job."

I'm not sure that the Royals need another nude photo of a member of their family so soon after Prince Harry's escapades.

"A portrait is a picture in which there is something not quite right about the mouth."

--John Singer Sargent


They found an artist in Spain to re-touch the photo!


I second Arthur's comment of "tough old bird". That's precisely the thing that puts me off - the rugged features, yet contrasting with the softer hair (at the same distance from the lens - hence, perhaps, one source of the feeling of unreality it evokes).

What I wonder is:
1) why did the painter not have the gumption* to say the photo was turdulent?
2) if this is what we British citizens** must tolerate, would it be so bad to run a real photograph through a watercolour filter in PS, or similar?

* suitably royalist-snooty term
** suitably republican term

And, as a casual side note, isn't it about time for a whistle, you know, piling on, et al.

As David Miller and Hugh Crawford ( I never thought of lens distortion in portraiture as a technique) have said, it probably looks better in person; go figure,

Meanwhile, I hope Mr. Emsley has a thick skin, and was well compensated, and now I will go check out the unripe grapes.

Interesting. Not a single commenter, whether they like the picture or not, indicated that they know the lady in person, and what she really looks like. Or seeing the painting itself. Given the mutability of photographs and painting, that would seem to me to be the gold standard criterion for evaluating the accuracy of the image. As for whether they like the expression, well, that is a matter of taste. Certainly, for many centuries, roayalty pretty much had themselves painted in noble, serious poses and expressions. To smile would have been declasse.

I like it. Why shouldn't a princess be allowed a sly smirk - and a twinkle in her eye? And if she is allowed to be so human, why not in her portrait?

It's very interesting to compare the Lucien Freud portrait against this new one. Freud's rigorous, exhaustive (exhausting) process depends on working and re-working by making constant fresh reference to reality - acknowledging that even seeing what reality IS, is problematic and endless in nature.

Emsley's painting looks over-worked to me, perhaps because the amount of source material used was in the event, so thin: not very long with the sitter, a few photographs. There's a flickering depth and resonance there which a snapshot - even a snapshot on which this was directly based - might lack, so it is certainly not BAD (on this evidence).

Other commenters are spot-on that physical scale and impact "in-the-flesh" are very important. A photograph shown at a different scale is at least negotiably the same thing; not the case so much with a painting and a different-scale reproduction IMO.

Also a superficial likeness is not always the whole story. Recognisability sometimes boils down to a kind of not-very-interesting caricature. A portrait is meant to convey something of that, but also to communicate some idea of the sustained physical presence of the person, which may be more surprising.

A "passport portrait" would probably not be acceptable to the authorities.

"who are the best British portrait photographers working today?"


(In my humble opinion).


The BBC had a documentary a while back (early 2012?), called How To Paint A Queen: A Culture Show Special.


'Twas quite good.


I remember listing to Andrew Wyeth's grand daughter talked about his painting techniques. He never worked from photographs and stated that you could always tell when artists did work photographs, leading to (in his opinion, sub-par work). Good stuff and I highly recommend the Brandywine Museum in PA, especially when she gives talks. Anyway, you think the future queen could be scheduled for some face time with the artist, just sayin'.

Although I agree it doesn't exactly look like her - I had no idea until I read the opening pose - I have to admit, I love the portrait anyway. There's the classic long British nose and thin lips - both of which actually do characterize the Duchess. If she chose the photo, then good for her - it caught two of her most beguiling features, and definitely shows her as a woman of our times. Keep looking at it - I think it'll grow on you.

I don't understand all this hostility towards this image. This image to me by itself - looks decent. It may not be the best image i have seen, but to be frank, photographs of paintings are never the right way to judge the quality of it. They have rarely evoked as much feelings as those of the real ones. Are you guys looking at this JPEG image as a photographer or as a viewer? There are plenty of things you Mike have said about what would happen if the Popular photographer's pictures were out for critique in today's world. Are we doing this same thing ourselves to this painting? What qualifies all of us to critique this painting harshly? How much time have you all spent with the Dutchess to understand what she really is like and do justice to her likeness?

Harry Borden would have been a good choice.

Apparently the photographer does not need to be British: Annie Leibovitz has already shot the Queen, and Her Majesty has survived the shooting with no problem.

A Photoshop brush filter of the original photo would probably look better. ;)

This is a link to the official portrait of California governor Jerry Brown that hangs in the capitol building in Sacramento.


I like it, but it was certainly controversial when it was unveiled.

I would second what David Shirely said above about Nadav Kander. Please have a look at his take on the nude body. Wonderful.

The thing everyone, especially the media, has missed here is that Kate is suffering from Hyperemesis Gravidarum (HG), a disease that is so beyond most people's comprehension that they couldn't begin to fathom how bad she has been feeling continuously since last November. I wrote about her and HG back in early December when she was in the hospital (http://www.dailykos.com/story/2012/12/04/1167189/-A-pampered-princess-Not-even). I imagine to her the portrait captures how she feels having to look like "a princess" while simultaneously wishing she could die.

Well, if only one of my own portrait paintings could attract such controversy and interest : ) ... My vote is split: If it is to denigrate the image because it looks like a photo (and has anyone seen the photo? Consider how much work and improvement Emsley has made over the original photographic image and then judge), then it is to denigrate photography, which I'm sure most would agree is a highly skilled and creative medium. Highly skilled too, is the technique Emsley has used in creating the image, in what, let's be honest, is a style of hyper realism that is de rigueur at the moment. However, on the contrary, it is a style that is a little 'emperor's new clothes' because it impresses those who know or understand little about painting. "Wow! doesn't it look so reeaal!" etc., etc. I'd prefer, like most, to see a more creative language in the paint and leave photography to the photographers. This type of painting is almost devoid of any visual language or signature beyond it's artisan accomplishment.
Or perhaps it's just not a very appealing image? I think, perhaps, all of the above.

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