WHY COMMISSION A PORTRAIT PAINTING?
Everybody takes pictures of their loved ones. Some of these can be truly memorable and beautiful, lasting over time as venerable possessions. But photos, by their very nature, are momentary. They capture the activity of a person’s spirit in time.
A person sitting for a portrait inhabits a deeper, less time-bound space. They dwell in the interior of their thoughts and feelings. As the sittings continue they may even begin to appreciate this oasis of calm amidst their busy lives. Quite naturally, they may even begin to meditate–to find a serenity that is more in touch with their essence.
I am always interested to paint my subjects in this state. I ask them to breathe, to be “present in their face” and to enjoy the feeling that they are valuable just sitting there: they do not need to do anything, to prove anything– the portrait celebrates their beingness.
This can be very liberating. And I’ve often found that subjects, having been initially wary of sittings, find themselves missing them when the portrait is finished.
HOW TO COMMISSION A PORTRAIT PAINTING
The commissioning process is simple:
- Contact the studio at firstname.lastname@example.org
- Book an appt. with the artist at a convenient time during the week between 10-6.
- The sittings take 1-2 hours, with a break halfway.
- Portraits can take place in my studio, which has a professional but relaxed atmosphere, or at the subject’s home. I am equally happy to paint on location, as I like to use what presents itself in the subject’s home—objects, mementoes etc—to give added depth and meaning to the portrait.
- In my practice, a portrait involves the subject in a series of three to four life sittings, of about 90 mins. each. Portraits are usually completed over a 3 to 4 week period, drawings 1-2 weeks.
ABOUT THE PROCESS OF BEING PAINTED
Initially, I explore different poses and attitudes with the subject. Sometimes, knowing them and what they have in mind, I will already have selected a canvas and will be concerned to find a pose that fits naturally within it. At other times, the first sitting will involve me sketching them from different angles and finding poses that work compositionally so that I can then go on to select a canvas of the appropriate size.
The beginning of a portrait is often very charged with expectation. Sometimes the subject will feel ill-at-ease with the prospect of being looked at so closely. Easing through this begins a process of relaxation and self-acceptance that can lead to the most intimate and memorable portraits.
If I am painting a double portrait or a group portrait, there is much more information before me, and I am as much concerned with achieving likenesses as I am with portraying the nature of the relationships I see there. How people naturally sit together often says a great deal about how they think and feel about each other; and this ineffable quality is what I want to celebrate and explore.
If the first sitting has gone smoothly, I will have a good base or beginning sketch to work with. The paint, at this stage, is there in thin layers and glazes of color; so now I am concerned to put more body into it and model the outstanding forms. Usually, I give more paint to those forms that come forward, and less to those that recede. In this way, the painting begins to develop a tactile, three-dimensional quality.
In the third and fourth sittings I am meeting and resolving any technical challenges and really capturing the essence of the sitter. This can be a very exciting phase for both artist and subject, with sudden breakthroughs and eureka moments. The subject has usually relaxed into the process by now, witnessing the development of the portrait and sharing the artist’s journey.
And because the subject has given of their time and energy in this way, the finished work has an added significance for them. It’s more like a collaboration or a story they have co-authored. It speaks volumes and resonates with many moments of insight and effort compressed into one. And like all good stories it will have a vital life in the history of the family to which it belongs, to be enjoyed generation-after-generation.
A WORD ABOUT THE CONTEMPORARY PORTRAIT
Contemporary portraits tend to be smaller than the grand portraits of the past. The living spaces of those commissioning work has reduced (rare are the portraits made for castles and grand houses) and the portrait has become more intimate in nature, reflecting a more connected world that values candor over hauter, closeness over distance.
Quite often the contemporary portraitist will magnify the size of the subject within the picture space to two or three times life-size. This can make for very powerful portraits–with lavish mark making and thick applications of texture–but generally these pictures suit galleries and museums better than the home, where they tend to overpower.
The most recognizable feature of classical portraits is the dark background against which the subject looms. This was enshrined as a device by Rembrandt and persevered all the way through to John Singer Sargent at the turn of the Twentieth century. But the advent of electric light, the manufacture of bright new wall colors and the penchent in contemporary architecture and design for glass and lots of natural light has changed the background against which the human subject sits. Now the tones of the face are more likely to play out dark against a light ground, which radically changes the technical challenge before the artist.
The contemporary portrait is as much about form as it is about light. This change was radically explored in the work of Lucien Freud–the first great painter to observe the change—who found beauty in the play of dynamic shapes within the face and body, rather than in the capacity of form simply to reflect light. This shift in emphasis has powered portraiture’s new project, and ensured its continuing relevance.
As we learn more about our psychology and experience the fragility and power of our humanness in an age dominated by technology, so the painted portrait tracks these changes and continually adapts to them. Paint no longer plays across the surface, it goes into the depths and bodies them forth.