Anatomy of a portrait: Artist captures essence of subject

Portrait of Berkeley Fife by artist Seamus Berkeley

By Brandon Ahlstrom

“If the house was burning down,” Joan and Scott Fife tell me over the phone, “the portraits would be the first thing we take.”

There are two portraits hanging in the Fife household, one of Joan’s mother and one of their daughter Berkeley. “When people come over, Berkeley’s portrait is first thing we show them,” says Scott. According to Joan, a common reaction from guests is that she looks like she’s about to say something.

Before the Fifes received the painting, visitors to the painter’s studio in south Berkeley would also comment that she looks as if she’s on the verge of something.

For Seamus Berkeley, the painter in question, common reactions to a painting are a sure sign of its success, especially when the reactions are coming from both those who know the subject and those who do not. It shows that from nothing more than oil on canvas, viewers are independently able to apprehend the same idea. That idea is the essence of what makes Berkeley Fife who she is, or at least who she was at 18. (Note: the use of the word “Berkeley” in three distinct senses is purely coincidental and a continual source of frustration and amusement to all involved.)

Capturing the so-called essence of a person is Berkeley’s primary motivation in portrait painting.  “We’re in the universe experiencing this thing called being human, and it’s not going to last very long. So connecting with other people is really quite fascinating,” he says.

When Berkeley paints a portrait, it is far more than simply looking at a person and replicating what he sees. That, he believes, is the role of the photographer. Before even the first sitting, Berkeley is getting to know the subject, asking about their likes, dislikes, how that person sees the world. “I’m not able to get every word that the person said into the painting, but something gets conveyed. How that happens, I don’t know. It’s a little bit of a mystery. I take sketches and something from that canvas emerges.”

People have told him that there is a certain vivaciousness to his subjects’ eyes, as if some sort of vital force emanates from the canvas and connects with the viewer. Though he does not know specifically how this comes across, he says: “I do know that I’m listening and watching. I get quiet. I gotta turn off my own mind and be present for that person. I have to be aware of that person. Then there’s this moment when I think, ‘This is it! This is the person most at ease with themselves.’”

This moment of epiphany is then translated into oil, and a portrait is produced. When asked why he prefers to paint a person rather than a landscape or a still-life, he responds, “It’s better than painting a pear. A pear can make a very nice painting, but the existence of a pear doesn’t have the same unique experience. People are the most fascinating because there’s a depth of experience that we can share.”

Search for a Bay Area painter

When choosing an artist to paint their daughter, it was this concern with connection that ultimately persuaded the Fifes to settle on Berkeley. After searching online for Bay Area painters, Scott had narrowed his options down to two painters— Berkeley and another painter who prefers a more realist style. Initially, they were leaning towards the representationalist, simply because their daughter Berkeley was more comfortable with something that resembled photography, and because, at the time, the Fifes believed that realism was essentially the goal of portraiture. 

When Scott emailed Berkeley to let him know that they had decided to go with the other painter, Berkeley responded immediately, explaining more about his process, and how he differs from others: “I like to work to create unusual compositions. I like to stay away from sitting at the dining room or in the office chair,” he said. “It’s more about the person, the stylized image. I like to border the edge between representational and abstract. I’m not interested in creating photographic reproductions. I’m not even interested in making something an exact likeness. The painting has a different quality from other media. I take more time and care in getting to know the person and when I’m finalizing what the portrait’s going to be, the composition will come from having made that connection with that person.”

Berkeley won them over. As Joan commented, “There was no hesitation. He just seemed like the real deal.”

Once Berkeley was hired, the process of getting to know Berkeley Fife began. At first, she was hesitant. “I thought only kings or queens got their portraits done, or people who are dead, so it seemed weird for me to be doing it at 18 years old,” she said. Seamus Berkeley took hundreds of pictures, hoping to find just a few that would truly capture her character. In most of these pictures, she isn’t smiling, and Seamus began to think that she was a very serious individual. Berkeley corrected this impression, explaining that she just doesn’t like having her picture taken.

Unsurprisingly, the best photos were the candids. It was only when she least expected the shutter to click that Seamus was able to discover Berkeley. He sketched the initial studies based on the best photographs.

Girl at a turning point

While providing four studies for the Fifes to choose from, he knew from the beginning which one would be the basis for the final portrait. According to Berkeley, this study was based off a photograph that was taken right before she was going to open her mouth to speak, which explains the common reaction to the final portrait. It also demonstrates what Seamus means when he says he straddles both the representational and the abstract. On one level, he has painted a picture of Berkeley Fife about to say something. On another, he has painted a portrait of a girl at a turning point in her life.

The Fifes are delighted with the final portrait, and in the process of working with Berkeley they have grown to appreciate the fact that the image is not a photographic likeness. When they first hired the artist, Joan thought the portrait would have been “all about the face.”

“The thing that attracts me most to this painting is that there’s something about the pose, or how she’s standing, or something about that picture that seems very much like her. And it’s not really the face, it’s the posture, the pose, and what’s around her,” she says.

In Berkeley’s portraiture, the subject’s environment is just as important as the subject itself. The world around a person is inextricably linked to who that person is.

Before Seamus painted the final portrait, he showed his four initial studies to Joan and Scott. Joan remembers, “My husband and I are not really emotional people, but when we saw that final study, we both got a little teary-eyed, and I think it’s because he really tapped into her essence and there was just something about her stance that really showed something about her. And I’m not really sure a photograph could show that. I think he really had to get to know her in order to get that.”

It was these impressionistic studies that truly convinced Joan that representationalism is not necessarily the end-all of good portraiture. In explaining her affinity for the studies, she explains, “It’s kind of interesting that with these vague strokes, you fill in your best view of the person into the vague paint on the canvas. I like the fact that you just have some clues on a canvas and then your brain fills in the rest of the story. If we were to do it again, [the Fifes have two sons] I’d probably tell him to make it look even less photographic.”

Artifice in photography

Explaining why she now rejects photographic realism, Joan says she believes photography has an aspect of artifice: “Anybody can look like a happy person in a photograph. It’s very easy to pretend to be someone you aren’t in a photograph. You can look a certain way and come across a certain way and create whatever perception you want and create this whole charade of your life with photographs.”

She contrasts this with the way Berkeley composed the portrait of Berkeley: “She’s wearing stuff that she wears every single day. She’s not dressed up or made up. She’s standing in her tiny, messy room in her jeans, leaning against a chair, exactly as she would, about to say something with a kind of a seriousness about it. There’s not a big smile, it’s not forced. There’s nothing fake about it, she’s not trying to look anything. She looks the best she can be, the best Berkeley. She just looks like Berkeley to me. It’s what she looks like most days.”

Seamus Berkeley has recently become involved with Family House, a non-profit organization that houses families of children undergoing treatment at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital. Berkeley is creating 24 portraits of families, children, and caregivers that will be hung in the organization’s new facility in South Mission Bay, creating a legacy that celebrates the mission of Family House. With this new project, Berkeley hopes to achieve a long-time goal of his: to put his skills as an artist to the service of a larger purpose.

To see more paintings by Seamus Berkeley, visit his website.

Brandon Ahlstrom is a senior at UC Berkeley studying English and Rhetoric. He currently works freelance as a writer. For more of his writing, visit his website.

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  • Guest

    I don’t even

  • Anon

    Fascinating.  I love the portrait.  So arresting, warm, vivacious and surely more true to life than any photograph.  The only part of the artist’s method that frankly puzzles me, given the “artifice of portrait photography” perspective is that he began his character study by taking “hundreds of pictures, hoping to find just a few that would truly capture her character.”

    What about just having her pose in person like in the days of yore?  Prior to the 20th Century, almost all extant portrait paintings were done by sitting for the artist.  In this case, it seems to me, her image is still largely mediated through photography even if the artist added his own impressions from time spent photographing the subject candidly or reviewing other candid photos she or her parents provided.

  • serkes

    Remarkable painting.  

    I kept noticing (focusing?) on her eyes, the shadows and her hands.  She definitely looks like she’s on the verge of doing something; for me it had to do with using her hands rather than speaking.Would be very interesting to see how Pete would photograph her in B+W .. and compare those photos to the ones he did of Malcolm Margolin.Ira

  • Seamus Berkeley

    @Anon If you have ever sat for a portrait, you may have experienced, as I have, a long and laborious process that often leads to tired and strained facial expressions. I’ve painted hundreds of people from life, as you suggest, and learned to look and paint the nuances of a person observed in those sessions. I carry these invaluable practices with me whenever I paint.

    When it comes to painting people who have no prior experience of modeling and who likely feel uncomfortable being seen under intense gaze, I find it beneficial for the sitter to continue a dialogue with them while occasionally taking photographs. The candid poses and expressions caught in these moments can actually lead to a more accurate representation of the individual painted later in my studio. I think your opening comments speak to this truth.

    Seamus Berkeley
    Fine Art Painting and Portraits
    seamusberkeley.com