Recently, I was asked to create portraits of three young soldiers for an Army officer. She had commanded a company that ran supply convoys through Iraq in 2005 and 2006. These three soldiers had been in her company when they were killed - two by an IED and one by a sniper. She felt their loss every day and kept framed photos of them. These portraits were meant to give her something a bit more personal.
Commemorative and posthumous portraits are extremely difficult to do. Getting a good likeness is hard at best; getting a good likeness that has the inner character of the individual is harder. Add in the pressures of getting it right when the subject is no longer around, and you have to work from other people's snapshots that have the wrong posing and lighting, and you have a major headache. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you don't. So I am normally not interested in doing such portraits.
This time, though, I wanted to do something for this officer to help her remember her three soldiers. Based on previous experience, I decided to do them in ink with watercolor, rather than my usual oil on canvas. The reason was that this allowed me to separate the drawing from color, which allowed me to get the shapes and features correctly positioned in relation to each other. It also let me use a very loose drawing pen over the underlying pencil drawing, which gave the drawings a lot of liveliness. Had I tried to do them in oil, each stroke would have defined both color and shape, which would have made it very difficult for me to tell what was wrong and how to fix it. And "fixing" it would probably have worked out most of the life from each of the pictures. I might still be working on them.
But the word I heard from the client is that these pictures have hit the mark. I'm really glad - both from a professional standpoint of creating good, accurate portraits, and from the personal standpoint of helping a young officer remember her troops.