Searching through one’s pockets can reveal a telling tale about what a society deems to be respectable or worthy of immortalizing. Etched in various currencies, portraits have commemorated heroes, martyrs, celebrities, and other historic figures since the time of the Greeks and the Romans.
A stroll through the world’s foremost art museums reveals gallery after gallery of famous people rendered with formidable skill by artists who have encapsulated moments of greatness. In Florence, Piero della Francesca’s diptych of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Frederico de Montefeltro and Battista Sforza, hangs in gallery number 7, framed in gold-leaf and facing each other in profile. The paintings immortalize their literal warts and all (his fractured nasal bridge, her ghostly countenance) and depict them on the foreground of the sweeping landscape of their beloved Urbino. In room 7 of The Louvre, Leonardo da Vinci’s ever-mysterious La Gioconda continues to fascinate, her smile holding the world in perpetual surmise of her identity and the meaning behind the portrait.
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Modern art eased portraiture out of tradition and gave it energy and variety—seen in the multitude of styles used and the openness to depicting a range of subjects. During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the aristocracy gave way to portraits of the bourgeoisie, artists, and anonymous models. Portraiture became less about capturing the visage of a person of stature and became a study of the human anatomy as envisioned by the artist. At the Art Institute of Chicago, the Joseph Winterbotham Collection includes Amedeo Modigliani’s Madam Pompadour, a portrait said to be of the poet Beatrice Hastings, one of the artist’s lovers. Today, the subject matter is subsumed under the artist’s trademark style: a mask-like face and the use of simple, elongated lines.
Nowadays, anyone can commission a portrait, in styles and media limited only by the artist’s imagination. While social standing is no longer the basis for capturing one’s likeness, an artist can choose to romanticize or glamorize or, like Mondigliani, elongate the subject, or, indeed, like Picasso, fracture it. Because, in the end, the reason for getting one’s portrait done is as old as the genre itself: to capture the human form in aspects of life that matter to the subject. Perhaps this endeavor is characteristic of the need to represent the divine in the mortal.
New York-based Filipina artist and portraitist Mia Herbosa has traveled the world for her art. Her paintings bare life in kaleidoscopic vividness, each of her subjects a prism through which their life’s facets are revealed. We asked Herbosa about her journey as an artist, her influences, and her choice of portraiture as her art form.
How did your journey as an artist evolve?
Mia Herbosa: Since I was a child, I loved looking at paintings, pictures in books, etcetera. My grandfather’s house had a lot of old master paintings hanging on the walls. I grew up feeling very comfortable with having beautiful art around. My mom encouraged lessons, and we had painting lessons with my great grandaunt Doni Ongpin when I was about seven. Then, when I finished high school, I took my own initiative to study painting at the Madrigal Art Center with Henry Braulio. I found it very therapeutic as well as intensely engaging since I seemed to have an ability to lock in on subject matter and time would stand still while I did my art. This seemed to unlock a world inside me and I pursued it further in college and after that in the Art Students’ League of New York.
What were your earliest inspirations?
MH: I loved Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Vermeer, and Rembrandt first. I still remember going to the library of Alabang Country Club to copy Michelangelo’s Sybils from the Sistine Chapel when I was about 18, and reveling at the beauty of his bodies—even how he made the leaves and acorns, which he used as adornments. I loved this.
How did you hone your skills?
MH: I drew a lot by myself. But, when I made the decision after college that I really wanted none other than to be an artist and share a gift I seemed to possess, I seriously looked at art schools abroad and signed up in Frank Mason’s classical art from life class at the Art Students League of New York. There were no grades, no pressure, but people were extraordinary and very serious. In his class I learned to paint the air and atmosphere together with the models. I learned a lot about universal laws, colors, and of seeing, how to translate something three dimensional into a two-dimensional surface with feeling and with good draftsmanship. I went into many classes during my time at the league and all were extraordinary.
Why do people commission portraits?
MH: Some of them really enjoy it and value it. They see art as a gift to be valued and I am grateful. Truly grateful.
Portraits are arguably a reflection of the artist’s vision of the person sitting for her/him. How do you approach the portraits that you paint?
MH: It’s an interesting question because for me portraiture has evolved. I learn as I go along with each portrait. I change and evolve, and the art evolves with me. It’s like a flow. I used to believe I was the sole creator of each portrait, but now I’ve learned about people and what they want and how to blend this with what I have been taught, which was a lot. So, it has much to do with sensitivity to each person’s needs as well as mine as an artist with free expression. People also used to pose days for me and, since I am back and forth from New York, I have learned to take pictures and work from these as if I were in the room still painting them from life. If that is at all possible, I try my best to do it. It is also because I have been commissioned to paint quite a few children in the past few years who can hardly stay still even for a photograph, so we had to be creative. This is how the evolution has begun.
Do you fixate on any facial feature or body part when you paint? Why?
MH: I would say I fixate on the eyes and on the whole face in general. Because this is the part I am attracted to the most and that challenges me the most. It is in the eyes that one can change the whole person’s spirit, demeanor, substance, personality... it is so subtle, you see.
How do you frame your subjects when you paint them? Is it their call, or do you take the liberty to represent them in your own view?
MH: It is pretty much all my call unless they have a particular theme in mind like they are doing all children with a white background or they want something minimalistic—actually, this is what I prefer. They give me their input, and then I try to intuit this into the pictures and then into the finished painting. Usually, I just have to know if the sitter only wants a head and shoulder portrait or one that goes all the way down to the lap, and then we take all the pictures necessary until we find the one that relates perfectly to an oil painting…(with) all the light and shadow I need for the drama and psychology of light in an oil painting. It is also of supreme importance that they also understand what I can and cannot do. There is always a bit of me in each face; it is why I am a painter and not a photographer. It takes many, many sessions to finish the nuances of their faces and bodies and in this time, my etheric body leaves its mark on the painting. It cannot not do this. This is what gives paintings their aura. They have this life due to the sheer intensity and intent of the painter to capture that which is essential. Each and every day, he stands in front of the easel to solve the riddle of the picture and to come closer to finish the work he has given his life to. It is definitely a vocation.
How do you treat light in your work? Does your subject’s character inform this?
MH: Light is always the most important to me. I love rim light, back light, and side light. I love softly illuminated paintings and light that skims from one side of the painting to the other or from top to bottom. I like to build characters into this setting as if they were heroines in a play; if I could I would do it always. I do not like flat lighting. This is so difficult in both life and painting from a picture. One directional light is my preference, meaning only one source of light to define something to give it a sense of dignity and value.
This story originally appeared on Vault Magazine Issue 12 No 4 2013.
Photographs courtesy of Mia Herbosa