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November 24, 2017
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Crowds surround the Mona Lisa at the Louvre (Source: wikipedia).
Self Portrait, Veronice Tsyglan
Self Portrait by Veronica Tsyglan.

What exactly is a "portrait"? Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a portrait as a "pictorial representation of a person, usually showing the face." By this definition, I have approximately 250 portraits on Facebook alone. Lisa del Gherardini - also known as Mona Lisa - only has one. Her husband commissioned Leonardo da Vinci to paint it, yet her portrait has been seen by millions more, as people travel great distances to be in the presence of the celebrated portrait.

Painted before the age of digital photography, camera phones and the internet, Mona Lisa's portrait is approximately 493 years old - far older than the photo you took with your smartphone five minutes ago. Surely we have photographers who are equivalent to masters of da Vinci's caliber, Annie Leibovitz for one.  But, what would you rather take in a house fire: the portrait of Mona Lisa or a photograph of pregnant Demi Moore

Modern society's fixation with online sharing suggests traditional portraiture is extinct, but some believe otherwise; rather, that the tradition is stronger than ever. Veronica K. Tsyglan is one of those people. Tsyglan is a talented luxury portrait and icon artist, who instructs fine art in her Toronto studio, and is a founder of The Portrait Society of Canada. The society is made up of 160 active members from Canada, the United States and Europe. According to Tsyglan, the society has two main objectives: to connect the public with traditional portrait painting and to cultivate an appreciation for luxury portraiture.

In an age where "digital" has become synonymous with "disposable," portrait painting stands to eternalise the human spirit.

The art process of these portrait painters is complex. Like the traditional masters, the "modern Renaissance" artists devote much of their lives to the practice - studying the human shape, theory of light, colour, and composition. Tsyglan explains this dedication as mental, artistic, emotional and physical, appropriate for the name "fine art".

When asked about the differentiating qualities between a painted portrait and a photograph, Tsyglan wisely quotes Da Vinci: "Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art." This is precisely why portrait painting is considered the strongest way to capture a person - to give spirit to an inanimate object is to recreate life on canvas. Tsyglan explains portrait painting is believed to have started in ancient Egypt, where portraits of high society members served as historical documentation and a form of immortalisation (ancient Egyptians painted portraits on caskets as a way to immortalise the royal members of society). Respectively, Tsyglan argues portrait painting immortalises the soul of the subject and the spirit of the artist. The works of the society's artists carry qualities elevating their work to a divine level. It is this "je ne said quoi" that pulls us away from Google Image searches, TV shows and YouTube videos and draws us to art exhibits, theatre performances and live concerts.

Tsyglan is not the only artist who believes traditional portrait painting is the best way to capture the human spirit. Michael John Angel, originally from Britain, is a talented artist living in Florence. Angel is the founder of the Angel Academy of Art, Florence; his school currently has 60 international students enrolled in either a three-year program or two post-graduate elective courses.

Michael John Angel painting St. John
Michael John Angel painting St. John.

Angel says he believes the painter's main objective is to capture the "Eternal behind the Specific." The work of Tsyglan, Angel and others, is not threatened by the popularity of digital photography as it is not a true replacement of their craft: "Photographs are flat, whereas a successful painted portrait creates the illusion of a solid, three-dimensional form, using the painter's understanding of the structure of the human body and her/his knowledge and experience of the techniques of big-form modeling," says Angel. "In addition, this illusion is created with more-or-less visible smudges and patches of paint, giving an almost magical sense to the painting."

Although the portraits of these "contemporary" master painters are strong representations of their subjects, they are more of a "depiction of a concept," describes Angel, whereas photographs mimic the face through light and shadow, focusing on small details that draw away from the intangible essence of character. The emphasis on detail is where contemporary portrait painting and photography seem to lose out; Angel explains this is because paintings' emphasis "is on planes and structure, conjuring the person rather than conjuring a photo of the person." Essentially, the focus on planes, structure, character, human spirit and soul, are the key elements of a triumphant portrait. 

Michael John Angel's Charles Winder, oil on wood panel
Angel's Charles Winder, oil on wood panel.

Naturally, the skillful works of these contemporary painters are expensive to commission. According to PortraitArtist.com, the works can vary from $2,000 (for a head sketch) to $17,000 (full-body), with some successful painters charging anywhere between $30,000 and $60,000 for a full-body portrait.  Both Tsyglan and Angel explain their clients' purchases as representation of their shared appreciation for art, culture and tradition. 

In an age where "digital" has become synonymous with "disposable," portrait painting stands to eternalise the human spirit. Interestingly, our digitised world fuels classical portrait painting by heightening its exclusivity - fulfilling the desire for depth and substance in art, for those who seek it. 

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