TRANSCRIPT: Ep. 054 The 5 P’s of the Schulman Portrait Painting Process


Miriam Schulman:
Well, hello, this is your host, artists Miriam Schulman, and you’re listening to episode number 54 of the Inspiration Place podcast, and I’m thrilled that you’re here. Today we’re talking all about portraits one more time, and I’ll also be introducing you to the 5 P’s of the Schulman portrait painting process. In this episode, you’re going to discover what are the 5 P’s of that process, why painted portraits are still sought after even in this age of easy photography. I’ll also be sharing with you how the Obamas chose the portrait painters for their official portraits, plus my number one posing trick for portraits.

Now, listen up because even if you have zero interest in painting portraits yourself, surely you’ve created self portraits with your phone and they’re called selfies. And you also take photographs of other people. Am I right? So much of what I share about painting portraits is going to apply to you as well because the first P in my 5 P’s portrait painting framework is posing.

Before we get there, I wanted to tell you how you can learn much more about my framework. It’s revealed in my brand new video series, Passion Portraits. If every time you look at a portrait, you think, I wish I could paint something like that, then listen up because this video series was created just for you. When I first started drawing portraits, I too struggled to use traditional academic drawing methods, but then I stumbled upon a simple taboo technique that easily captures people’s likeness and discovered it’s the dirty secret behind most professional portrait artists, including Vermeer and Norman Rockwell. They use this forbidden technique, but don’t want you to know what it is. After completing dozens of commission portraits that make my clients ooh and aah, I folded this technique and other shortcuts into my 5 P’s portrait painting process and taught this process to hundreds of my students so that they could create portraits that they could be proud of as well. So if you want to sign up for that video series, just go to It’s only available through September 25th.

Okay. Now back to today’s show. I’ve been talking a lot about portraits and specifically the traditional painted portrait. Before we dive into posing, which is my first P and also photography, my second P, we really have to answer the question, why not just stop at a good photo? After all, why commission, or paint, a fine art portrait when they’re such amazing photography? And that, my friend, is a really good question. So we’re going to talk about that today a lot.

People have been foretelling the demise of traditional painted portraiture for many decades, even more so in the past few years with the rise of cell phone photography. New technology does have a beautiful but often insidious way of working itself into our daily lives. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not for the better. Think about it, when was the last time you wrote a letter? Not an email, but actually what a letter out long hand and put a stamp on it. And if you are still doing that, I completely applaud you, and I’m trying to do more of that myself. I remember when I was a kid, I had pen pals, but now my children, they stay in touch with friends by Snapchatting or distant friends via Facebook. But somehow, the painted portraiture has remained in fashion and spite of iPhone advances and has not gone the penpal route. By the way, I do think my kids are definitely missing out on something.

Let’s talk about this. On the surface, photography and painted portraits do seem very similar, both capture the likeness of a subject, but paintings are much more expensive if you’re commissioning it and time consuming, whether you’re commissioning it or painting it yourself. So why should anyone choose a painted portrait over a photograph? The primary difference between the two is that a traditional painted portrait is absolutely timeless. It captures a special chapter in the subject’s life, rather than just a candid moment. There are times when a moment is exactly what we want to save and cherish, but you need more than a quick snapshot to capture the depth of a person’s true self. Paintings also have much more permanent than photographs, and they say much more about their subjects. When an artist spends hours with a client and with the artwork, they can’t help but see the truth of that person.

Now, when I do portraits, I prefer to take the photographs myself. In the early days, when I first started taking commissions, I would happily work from a client’s photo. But remember, back then, I was mostly working with clients who I knew very well. If you listen to last week’s episode, I shared with you that my first formal portraits were my children and then their friends. So these children had been to my home and spent many hours with me and my kids, and I, of course, had spent lots of time observing them. So working with a snapshot from these family albums, wasn’t so much of a problem.

But as my business continued to grow, I quickly learned that I really couldn’t work from just any photo. Sometimes the client would provide a photo that was poorly lit or poorly posed or worse, it was something that was pixelated and they would tell me to change the hair or even the facial expression of the face in the photo. Now, listen, it’s hard enough to paint a portrait from what you actually do see, but to paint something you can’t see, well, that’s a whole different kind of skill. Now, I know there are those who study police sketch artist drawing, but that’s not something I do and I don’t work that way.

So what I learned to do over the years is to make sure that when I charge my clients for the portrait, that the cost or my time of photographing the children is included. That way, I have complete control over the lighting and the pose, but more importantly, I can spend that time that I am posing and photographing the family to really get a sense of their personalities. Oh, and just so you know, although I let my clients include dogs in their photography sessions, I don’t normally take the pet photos. So if it’s just a pet portrait with no people on it, they have to give me the photo. And it’s really because I just don’t have dog training skills. So as a result, I get a lot of pet portrait commissions online. They do cost less than my people portraits, and I pretty much only work from client photos for my pet portraits.

But the majority of my people portraits are clients in the Tri-state New York Metropolitan area, so that I can go and photograph my subjects and really develop a complete work of art. So designing it from start to finish. When you get to spend this kind of time with the client, you learn whether the subject is naturally shy and quiet or silly. And the problem with just working from photographs where you haven’t had the opportunity to spend this kind of time with your client is the simple snapshots have a way of lying about their subjects because a quick photo may represent a fleeting gesture that doesn’t really represent the person. That’s why an artist can capture and showcase personalities in a way that a quick photograph simply can’t.

Even when I spend this quality time photographing, I always have my clients choose the final photograph that’s used for the painting. And one of the real advantages, by the way, of doing a painting is that we can say use Johnny from photo one but the other children come from photo two, or something of that nature. So you can combine in a way that if you were even to do that in Photoshop, it’s going to look like you did a Photoshop job, but I am able to use my art to make those kind of adjustments.

But here’s what happens after the photo session. First of all, I do filter out any photographs that I don’t want to paint from, that I don’t want my client to choose, and then I’ll even crop and photo adjust my favorites that I’m recommending that the client to pick, but I do let the client choose which photographs they want. This is so important because they need to really feel that the photo and the pose that we chose truly captures their child. Portraits speak volumes about a person. It can speak about their accomplishments and who they truly are. As artists, we don’t just capture these fleeting smiles or these pretty faces. We’re trying to tell a story about subjects and there’s many ways we can do this, both in how we pose and dress and light our subjects, and also how we arrange the children and their siblings.

Because we have the luxury of a photo shoot, or at least because I do, I get to see how these children interact with each other. And when I do pose them in the photos that ultimately get chosen, this does come across in that photo and in that final painting. I have a lot of techniques for arranging siblings and posing them to create a pleasing composition, as well as how to light them for the best flattery. In my watercolor portrait academy, which does open in mid-September, 2019, there is a whole unit on posing and photography to of the essential piece.

But I wanted to help you today, which is why I’m going to share one of my favorite posing secrets. It’s called the Mona Lisa smile and it’s one of the keys in my portrait painting process. Smiles are a beautiful thing. And although it’s true everyone looks better when wearing a smile, it’s the genuine, subtle smiles, not the toothpaste commercial smiles, but the subtle smiles like the Mona Lisa that makes for the most beautiful expressions for portrait paintings. Whenever I take photos of my children and my portrait clients, I always advise them to give me a Mona Lisa smile. Now, this practice does drive some of my parent clients crazy because they are used to seeing their children with big toothy smiles. But the truth is, to capture a likeness, it is much more important to see the eyes rather than to see the teeth.

When you pose with a big cheesy smile, the corners of the eyes will naturally squint, and you just don’t really get to see the eyes as much. Walk through any museum and you will not see too many paintings of teeth. The ones that show the teeth it’s really to show the crassness of the subject, like they’ll have maybe gypsies or prostitutes with teeth showing. This is not just because people had bad teeth in years past. I’ve noticed that this style of photography that does not show the teeth, I noticed this style on the covers of Vogue magazine. So if you don’t believe me, or if you want to verify it, do a quick Google image search, type in Vogue magazine covers. And looking back at you, you’re going to see beautiful sultry faces with large eyes and closed lips. Maybe just a small hint of teeth if the lips are parted slightly, but not really. Most of them, the lips are closed.

In everything we’ve talked about so far, I may have convinced you why a professional photograph may be better than your iPhone photography, but I know that’s nothing new. So the question still remains why a painted portrait. For many families, and we did talk about this in the last episode, episode number 53, so I’ll make sure I’ll link that in the show notes, but it’s the one just before this one, we talked a lot about why portraits, why people love portraits. But for many families, painted portraits are a family tradition and they do appreciate how special a painting can be.

Most often people commission portraits on behalf of somebody else. Parents seek to preserve a chapter in their child’s life. Husbands may want to capture their wives, or wives may want to honor their husbands. But also institutions often use portraits to pay homage to important leaders or donors. I generally don’t do that kind of portrait because they do tend to be very formal and traditionally done in oil. My paintings are done in watercolor. In my series, I do talk about the water color advantage. Maybe I’ll talk about that on a future episode. The formal portraits for leaders and donors tend to commemorate a milestone in somebody’s life or career, like becoming president. These types of paintings are large and grand, much larger and grander than most photos, and they create a showpiece in the home or an institution. So this is something that a traditional oil painting can really convey that a photograph just does not.

The true value of a painted portrait is that it can be traditional war trendy, and yet it remains timeless. The Obamas use the occasion of getting their portraits done to make a political statement. Both of them chose African American artists as the artists for their portraits and both of these artists had a very contemporary feel.

Now, just a quick side note, I generally do not talk about politics on the show as I truly believe that art connects people. And art connects people from all walks of faith and all walks of life and all political beliefs. I know that my students and my followers, they’re from all over the globe, and the Americans are from all over the country from red states, from blue states, from purple states. So I really embrace the idea that art brings all of us. It is love for art that brings all of us together. Just so you know, when we talk about the Obama portraits, we’re talking about them because we’re talking about art. And we’re also talking about a president that most recently left the White House, therefore the portrait was commissioned.

Now throughout Obama’s presidency, the Obamas collected art from contemporary black artists. Their choices then, and also their choice for their official portraits, as two different portrait artists were chosen, we reflect the Obama’s instincts for being alert to paintings pertinence to the moment. For Barack’s portrait, they chose the artist, I hope I’m not butchering the name, Kehinde Wiley. This artist, although painting in oil, he creates his portraits with a very flamboyant feel. I’m fairly certain he had an exhibit at the Brooklyn Art Museum before this commission was made. And he was all ready on the collectors must have list and considered a celebrity painter for record owners and other well known people like that.

Now, Michelle Obama’s portrait artist, Amy Sherald, on the other hand, was actually relatively unknown when she was chosen when she was selected for this career changing commission. Her painting is in a style reminiscent more, I would say, along the lines of Picasso’s Cubist paintings, not the square ones, but the ones where he would do the peasants with the more rounded, simply painted forms. And there’s something very monumental and peaceful in its simplicity in the style that Sherald embraces.

Art critic Roberta Smith wrote a New York Times piece, and in that she wrote, “The Obama’s choices come at a time when figurative painting and portraiture are growing in popularity among young painters interested in exploring race, gender and identity, or in simply correcting the historic lack of non-whites in western painting.” Now, other important contemporary artists to look at for those who are art history nerds like I am, or just like to stay up to date on what’s going on in the art world, look at art by Kerry James Marshall and another artist I’m going to point out to you is Grace Weaver. So both of these two artists consider gender and race in their figurative painting. So there’s all these kinds of things that we can do within our paintings to make statements about politics, statements about religion, statements about your personal values, as well as making a story about the family.

Now, in case you were also wondering, the Obama portraits cost half a million dollars, which I believe included the unveiling event in the museum and also a reserve for future care. This was not paid for with taxpayer money, so don’t get all up in arms. This is something that’s been happening since the Bush presidency, and these official portraits are always paid for with private funds.

Now, the point of sharing these public commissions, and I’m going to try to include photos of the Obama portraits in the show notes, which has The point of it is to demonstrate that the meaning of portraits continue to evolve with the time and can also make a statement that photography cannot. So if you look at Barack Obama’s painting, for example, the background has, I think it’s a floral motif in the background. Capturing a moment in time with a photograph will always be valuable, but if you seek to capture something deeper, something lasting and more meaningful choose a traditional painted portrait.

I haven’t verified this, I should have verified this before I hit record, but I’m pretty sure that oil paintings are more archival than photographs, which is chemical images on paper. But for most of us in our lifetime, they’re both going to last a hundred years, but the paintings of people that are done in both watercolor and oil last hundreds of years. Now, few of us will become presidents and first ladies, but that doesn’t mean life’s most precious moments shouldn’t be commemorated with the same amount of reverence. The demand for paintings has not faded, and it’s not likely to. Despite its deep rooted traditions, fine art portraiture is still fresh and relevant. There’s absolutely magic in portrait that will continue to captivate viewers for as long as humans want to preserve their likenesses.

Now, for those of you who really want to learn the art of painting a portrait, you’re not going to want to miss my free video series, the Passion Portrait Workshop. In it, not only will I be talking about the 5 P’s, but we’re going to talk about the third P, which is the taboo portrait painting technique. It’s a technique used by Vermeer and Norman Rockwell. And if you struggle to draw and capture a likeness, this one technique is an absolute game changer. It’s the third P in my 5 P’s portrait painting framework. So if you’re listening to this episode when it goes live, you have from now until September 25th. Just go to Enter your name and email address. I’ll email you the first video in the series. And depending on when you do this, you’ll be able to for videos two, three, and four. This way, you’ll get to see how I paint, you’ll get to see paintings done by my students, as well as learn what you need to get started.

Okay, guys, thanks so much for being with me here today. I will see you same time, same place next week. Make it a great one. Bye for now.

Thank you for listening to the Inspiration Place podcast. Connect with us on Facebook at, on Instagram @schulmanart, and of course, on

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