I recently visited an art exhibition that included a portrait section. Among the works included were several of celebrities that had clearly been done from photographs, either film stills or publicity shots. They were skilfully done, but they got me thinking about what a portrait is.
    There are many paintings and drawings of people–real people, not simply figures painted from the imagination–that are not classed as portraits even though their physical features are recognisable. To be a portrait a drawing's intention is surely to capture the essence or some aspect of the sitter's inner character or life. Does a drawing from a film still do that? Is the image of the person, the actor or the role? The person playing the role might be nothing like that character in real life. Did the famous portrait of Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth depict Ellen Terry or Lady Macbeth?
    How sitters choose to have themselves painted can also tell you much about them. Were they fashionable or conventional? Were they flaunting their wealth and possessions, their ancestry or the dynasty they hoped to create? While the outer image might not be accurate, at least it shows the viewer how the sitter thought of themselves and/or how they wanted to be seen.
    There's also the other person present in portraits, and that's the artist. What the artist observes, what they feel is important about people, what they choose to put in or leave out, inevitably influences the viewer. When creating a portrait of a person they have never met from a photograph, they can only include things someone else has already selected.
    You might ask what all this has to do with writing. It's relevant when you're describing characters. You can go into a meticulous description of their physical appearance, but it won't necessarily tell you much about their personality. In fact, the detail may obscure what's actually significant. You have to go a step further and show how their appearance relates to their character or background. A little boy with a tuft of hair that sticks up might be a tearaway but if he continually tries to flatten it, this could show irritation, self-consciousness etc. If you'd only seen a photo, you wouldn't know about the gesture. To my mind, this is the difference between a drawing or physical description and a portrait.