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Etsy Portrait Artists Talk Shop

Sep 5, 2014

by Lisa Butterworth handmade and vintage goods

“Each face has two eyes, one nose, and one mouth — and yet each face is different,” says Lise Grossmann, an artist who creates custom rubber stamps of clients’ faces for her shop Lili Mandrill. Capturing that difference is the drive of every portraitist, and on Etsy, makers are bringing people to life through all kinds of mediums, from fabric and embroidery floss to watercolor paints and slabs of clay.

“I find making art of people to be revealing of the universality of our humanity,” says sculptor Adrien Miller. “Faces are full of stories.” And each story is wonderfully unique, depending not only on the subject of the portrait, but also on the medium the portraitist works in.

Grossmann uses rubber, sketching an initial line drawing by hand, then using it to carve out negative space to create custom stamps of an individual or a pair (especially popular with couples planning their weddings). Her finished pieces are a mere 1.4” x 1.6”, so precision is of the utmost importance. “The likeness is about millimeters. That’s a real challenge, and it’s never boring,” she says.

Amanda Burnett of Little Paper Clouds uses watercolor and gouache on cotton-fiber Arches paper to create her custom portraits, which come in the form of paper dolls. “I’m meticulous about the face of the doll, which has to be perfect before I can do anything else,” she says. “It is almost as if I need to feel an emotional attachment before I can get started on the body.”

For Miller, who uses clay to create custom busts — the original 3-D version of portraiture — emotion is also a big part of the process. Working from at least four photographs (to show each side of the subject’s head), he rolls coils of clay, stacking them until they’re tall enough to begin shaping the features, pressing the clay from the inside out. “This is when it starts to get challenging, when it seems impossible to make a piece of clay express the subtle complexity of the person I am portraying,” he says. “However, I continue to refine the form, carving, modeling, and shifting the surface until I sense an understanding of this person in the clay.”

Naturally, the approach is different for those using a method that allows for less nuance. Nichol Brinkman of Pink Cheeks Studios makes custom plushies from felt and fabric that she then turns into mobiles. “Because of the simplicity of the materials, I am forced to get at the essence of a person in the simplest way possible,” she says. “As I work, I take note of little unique physical details about people that will help me capture their likeness. It could be that they have especially rosy, cheerful cheeks or dramatic eyelashes or a nose that’s long and narrow.”

And of course, each medium lends something special to the finished product. Grossmann chose rubber stamps for her brand of portraiture because she “didn’t want to make classic portraits that you hang on the wall, but something less static and more interactive.” But portraits that hang on the wall make brilliant mementos as well — take Elle Yi’s hand-cut silhouettes, for example. Using a computer, a printer, professional scissors, and a craft knife, Elle employs this centuries-old craft to make modern works of art, portraits that she describes as “simple and timelessly classy.”

For Sonia Lyne, who creates embroidered portraits for her shop Dandelyne, it’s the tactile nature of her pieces that make them special. “I always have the reference photos in front of me as I stitch, ensuring that I include every element, from the way a fringe is styled or a piercing is positioned to important jewelry that is essential to incorporate,” she says. “The threads act to illuminate every aspect of the portrait, and the textural nature means you are able to touch and feel the details.”

Regardless of the materials used, each custom portrait is a collaboration between the maker and the commissioner. And in order to get the very best result, you’ll want to start with some great photos of the subject. “The best materials to work with are clear, focused photos, with frontal views of a subject’s face so I can see all of his or her characteristics,” says Lili Di Prima, who draws digital portraits inspired by vintage family photographs, the art of Egon Schiele, and the aesthetic of Wes Anderson.

For some portraitists, just as important as the photos is an understanding of the subject’s personality. Think about what you want the custom portrait to convey about your family or your loved one. “In my list of questions for customers, I include an open-ended one: ‘Anything else you think I should know?’” says Brinkman. “That is where I usually get the most useful information that helps me in capturing a likeness: ‘Suzy loves to eat; could you have her holding an ice cream cone?’ or, ‘Burt never smiles with teeth for photos, but he actually has a large, beautiful smile that lights up the whole room.’”

It’s these details that will help make your custom portrait a true resemblance and a treasured work of art for years to come — one that these portraitists are honored to make. “I feel lucky to work with people who love each other,” says Di Prima. “I’m happy to be the person who creates a symbol of this love between them.”


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