My Vision and Technique

There are two ways to paint a portrait. The sitter may spend time in front of the artist and have a portrait done, or the artist may use one or more photographs instead. The trouble with painting from life, if you want a good likeness, is that it is extremely time consuming.

One of my favourite artists, the legendary John Singer Sargent once quipped “a portrait is a likeness in which there is something wrong about the mouth“. It was directed at people who criticised his work, saying that the painting did not look like the sitter.  “That is never Madame X!” and his reply: “Nor is it a photograph“. Generations of painters know what he meant.

It is true, a human face is one of the most complex and difficult things to paint, and I believe the use of photographs is most advantageous, if not essential. For me, the achievement is more about what the painting looks like when it is finished – the fact that it looks like the ‘sitter’, that it looks great, also if possible through development of the composition, that it tells a story – and importantly, that it does not look like a photograph.

I paint from photographs because I find this method to be not only practical, but also to be the best way to achieve accuracy in the likeness. The great Edgar Degas, and others, also painted from photographs. Some well known artists from the past, and some still today, spend many months labouring over  a canvas in what I see as a protracted struggle to achieve the final conclusion of their work. Many famous artists of the past did not have the benefit of photography as an aid, but I am convinced they would have used photographs if they could have.

I do not see the achievement in portraiture as being the victory in such a struggle, the attaining of a true likeness after many hours of fiddling and many more hours of correction. What for? It would be the same as winning a boat race by rowing backwards, and regarding the use of this technique as being part of the achievement. To not use photographs is nothing more than a handicap.

However, there is also no achievement in making a good copy of the innate lifelessness and two-dimensional limitations of a photograph. This is where part of one’s victory lies… and this is what I also find most important – to produce a portrait without falling into the trap of technical accuracy lacking mood, depth and more.

My work would therefore not fall into the genre of Photo-Realism, or it’s more extreme form, Hyper-Realism. I would classify myself as a Realist painter who attaches above average importance to accuracy of the likeness while employing some artistic licence to the painting as a whole.


Sargent once offered some advice to a pupil around 100 years ago:

“When he first undertook to criticize Miss Heyneman’s work he insisted that she should draw from models and not from friends.

If you paint your friends, they and you are chiefly concerned about the likeness. You can’t discard a canvas when you please and begin anew — you can’t go on indefinitely until you have solved a problem.”

So what is he saying then? It is acceptable if the painting doesn’t represent a true likeness of the sitter? The answer would be yes and no. It depends what your desired outcome is. If it were specifically for the sake of producing a good painting, or a masterpiece such as his ‘Daughters of Edward Darley Boit’ (1882 – Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), accuracy of the likeness doesn’t matter too much…but if the portrait is for the sake of the sitter’s portrait as well…then surely the likeness should be true. These words of a great Master like John Sargent would be hard to challenge, and indeed I don’t, but why not try for the ultimate? Achieve a good likeness AND a good painting with respect to composition, colour, tone and so much more… That is my vision. I would not paint portraits at all if I were to be satisfied only with making a perfect copy of a photograph, and I would also not paint them if the face didn’t look as close as possible to exactly as it should.


As a portrait artist I am influenced to some extent by great artists whose works I admire most (Manet, Degas, Sargent, De Laszlo, Boldini, Lavery, Ancher, Chase, Duran and others), but I do not wish to emulate them. I have learned a great deal from these great artists, and I like their work because it is similar in many ways to my own approach and vision in portraiture.

Here are some interesting comparisons (of paintings and photographs) from the work of legendary artists:

This painting is world famous, and it was painted by Edouard Manet, the father of modern art. Had he wanted, he would certainly have been capable of producing an exact likeness of his friend and colleague Berthe Morisot, but that was apparently not the goal here, because it could hardly be called an exact likeness. Today this painting is worth millions, and hanging in the Musée d’Orsay for entirely different reasons than mere accuracy of the likeness…


And here is another portrait of Berthe Morisot, also painted by Edouard Manet (Musee Marmatton)… She was a painter of the Impressionist movement, successful and famous in her own right, and later married Manet’s brother Eugene.

Portraitmaler Hamburg


Another portrait comparison –  a painting of Lina Cavalieri (a well known and much admired Italian opera soprano of the early 20th century ) by Giovanni Boldini 1901 (Private Collection):


A portrait of Gertrude Elizabeth Blood (Lady Colin Campbell), the well known and controversial English socialite, athlete, authoress and art critic of the late 19th century – National Portrait Gallery, London.

Portraitmaler Hamburg


A Portrait of Winifred Dallas Yorke, the much loved Duchess of Portland, who was well known for her charitable work in the early 20th century, by John Sargent 1902 (Private Collection):


Winifred_Duchess_of_Portland_John_Singer_Sargent_1902JOHN SARGENT – THE DUCHESS OF PORTLAND 1902

John Sargent also painted this portrait of Lord Ribblesdale, Master of the Buckhounds from 1892 to 1895, Liberal Whip of the House of Lords, Lord-in-Waiting, and a Trustee of the National Gallery (National Gallery of Art, London):


Here is the 1921 portrait of Dona Maria Mercedes de Alvear by Philip De Laszlo, and a photograph of the sitter. My study of this painting, which can be seen on the Gallery Page of this website, is after De Laszlo, but with her facial features warmer and also closer to her photographic image, rather than a copy of the original below:


And the portrait, also by De Laszlo, of  Sir Leander Starr Jameson, the famous British colonial statesman best known for his leading of the Jameson Raid in South Africa (Collection of the Parliament of South Africa, Cape Town):


Landscapes and Seascapes

The search for moments, for air and light in their great dance.

What else is there? 

These moods and triumphs of nature, the elements, are the greatest show on earth.

My work is an endless search for these special moments.

Sometimes I manage to catch them before they slip away, 

sometimes they remain just a memory… 

And tomorrow there will always be new ones, 

seemingly more beautiful than the ones before

 – but they never are, they are just different, fresh, and equally inspiring…

 I am a painter of nature with a special focus on the interplay of air and light… 

My work is realist, and reflects the feelings evoked by the elements in their tranquility, their transitions and in their rage. 

I try to be spontaneous and free, so as to capture the mood and atmosphere,

before the light becomes too dominant, or the interval, before the relative strength or weakness of one or more of the elements reduces the composition.

Nature gives us so much more to see, if we look for it, and there is no greater privilege than to be there, to feel the air on one’s face… and I really hope you feel it as I do too…

Michael McNaughton

Photo: Evening sky over the Baltic Sea, late summer 2011