Portrait artist Adrián Villeta combines painting and photography to create a romantic vision that captures the grace and elegance of a bygone era, while celebrating the modern virtues of his favorite subjects: strong, independent and self-confident women. “I like painting women who are feminine and delicate, but also very sure of themselves,” says the portrait artist.

Villeta received his first camera at age 12, and when a high-school art teacher suggested that he concentrate on photography rather than painting, the die was cast for his future. “I didn’t want to be a great fashion photographer,” he says. “I wanted to be a great portrait artist.”

Still, Villeta never abandoned his love of painting and art school helped him blend the techniques of a portrait master like John Singer Sargent, his expertise in photography and his eye for fashion to capture unique and timeless images.

Each portrait is carefully planned, staged and lit. Typical settings include old homes filled with antiquities, the formal French gardens at Villeta’s San Juan home sculpted by gardener Marie Gloria Rivera, and even cemeteries, which he prizes for their ample religious icons.

Villeta works with the best hair stylists and makeup artists in Puerto Rico to create portraits that conform to his unique impression of his subjects. “I photograph what I want to see, not what I really see,” he says. “My portraits are what I see in people from my point of view.”

Recalling the days before color photography, when 19th-century artists would tint images to help bring them to life, Villeta uses a medium-format camera to produce 30' by 50' black-and-white portraits. The images are printed on absorbent fiber paper and meticulously painted by hand, a process that can take weeks or months, depending on the amount of detail in the image. “Painting adds life to the photo, but does not take away from the image,” he explains.

Villeta’s subjects are required to put great trust in the artist, but his romantic vision has proven extremely popular, especially with brides, who sometimes (but not always) pose in their wedding dress.

“Women who will be brides want to be someone special—a princess—someone everyone will look at,” says Villeta. “The whole idea of a bride is perfect for my portraits. A bride wants to be the best she can be, and that’s what I try to capture in my portraits.”

Villeta says that some brides commission a portrait as a personal keepsake, while others give it as a gift to their new husband. On the other hand, Resat Revan asked Villeta to do a portrait of his wife, Cerene, as a wedding present. More than a decade later, the portrait with her then-young son and goddaughter remains one of Cerene’s most cherished possessions. “Adrián makes you look like you want to be seen,” she says. “I’m more of a Bohemian, but he brings out the romantic and ‘girly’ in you.”

“For such a special occasion, you want something you will always remember,” adds Cerene. “His work is so beautiful, it’s like you’re going into a painting.”