DRAWING AND PAINTING CHILDREN
Historical examples to learn from
The Painter’s Daughters with a Cat, Thomas Gainsborough, About 1760-1, National Portrait Gallery London
Gainsborough’s daughters were the subject of several of his most famous paintings including The Painter’s Two Daughters which is held at the V&A and also his justly-celebrated The Painter’s Daughters Chasing A Butterfly. The latter is a earlier painting of the two sisters running through some woods chasing a butterfly, their faces illuminated by bright light. It’s a lovely image as well, but as an example of child portraiture I prefer this unfinished painting for the relationship between the two girls and the wonderfully specific likenesses, which are lovingly observed without idealism.
So many of my favourite child portraits are those made of the child or children of the artist and I think you often get such an unflinchingly honest representation of character in these familial paintings which are full of love and yet devoid of sentimentality. Another artist to look at is Augustus John – his wonderful portraits of his sons are similarly honest.
What can we learn from Gainsborough? For me it’s the luminosity he achieves with the light on the childrens’ skin. He has recognized that a child’s skin is different to that of an adult; being softer, clearer and brighter. He’s illuminated it as much as possible in all three paintings mentioned and has shown its luminous quality by contrasting the girls’ pink cheeks with their visible pale blue veins and and applying the shadows on their faces and necks in a similar blue-green paint. It’s really worth seeing these paintings in person if you can, to see how he achieves this.
Off to a bad start
These early images were not individualized portraits of children but generic images of the Christ Child and at this time there was no concept of childhood as a unique phase of life, so any baby was simply portrayed as a literally miniaturized adults.
‘The Cholmondeley Ladies’, British School, 1600–10, Tate Gallery
With the flat Elizabethan style of painting and the children dressed stiffly as little adults there was no room for observation of the type of physical characteristics and gestures that make children unique, nor any relationship between the subjects of a painting. Indeed siblings would usually appear barely even be differentiated from each other, lined up in order of size and painted with more or less identical features.
The Calmady Children by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1823, Met Museum NY
Two Women Teaching A Child To Walk, Rembrandt Van Rijn, 1635-37, The British Museum
There are many more wonderful Rembrandt sketches of children and another of my favourites (and a reminder that there never was a golden era when tiny children behaved themselves perfectly) is a very funny sketch known as Child In A Tantrum.
Nicolaas Rubens Wearing a Coral Neckless, Peter Paul Rubens, 1619, Albertina Museum Vienna
All of these are techniques I try to follow: using line direction to enhance a sense of energy in the image and trying to avoid dulling a portrait by rubbing my pencil shading into my paper. Rubens’ drawing shows that you can create darkness just by hatching and cross hatching, and when you do this you preserve luminosity even in the darker areas because little bits of the pale paper still shine through the pencil marks. It’s also nice to consider trying a drawing that isn’t just in black on white, nor a fully coloured pencil drawing. With just two different colours Rubens has created an image which conveys the child’s healthy colouring.
Here you can see the same son with his older brother, painted by Rubens at a much later date.
Portrait of Berta Edelfelt, Albert Edelfelt, 1876, Bequeathed to Ateneum Art Museum, Helsinki
Emmie And Her Child, Mary Cassatt, 1889, Wichita Art Museum, Kansas
Despite not having children herself Mary Cassatt was such an acutely accurate observer that her paintings portrayed children with a naturalism rarely seen before or since. No one had recorded the bodies, faces and early gestures of a child so well. Her children are entirely un-sentimentalised and she captures the frequent boredom of childhood in many of her images. There are too many brilliant paintings, drawings and pen and ink works to choose from, but this well known painting shows you the radicalism of her technique and the way she captures the gestures of the young child and its relationship to its mother.
Jeannie Gobillard, Berthe Morisot, 1894, Private collection
Miss Beatrice Townsend, John Singer Sargent, 1882, National Gallery of Art Washington, Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon
This one is a little gentler but is one of my favourites for the clear-eyed engagement and liveliness of the little girl it depicts. Twelve year old Eleanor Townsend meets our gaze directly with confidence and self-possession, an impression enhanced by the strong red of her necklace and sash. The liveliness of the image is underscored by the speed with which the rough brush strokes appear to have been applied to her clothes and her amusing fluff-ball of a terrier. It’s a wonderful image of a clearly spirited child who tragically died just two years later.