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Interview with Daphne Todd OBE

Posted on Fri 13 Mar 2015

Although her talent and depth of understanding is obvious, Daphne Todd is a fine example of someone who knows the importance of taking your time and working to achieve your goals, whether in painting or your working life:

“All children paint and I simply never stopped,” she says. “I sailed from school to the Slade School of Fine Art, undergraduate then postgraduate. It was a smooth line in terms of making a living out of art by teaching. That was my game plan. I put lots of work into different shows and all the societies at the Mall Galleries. I became a member of the New English Art Club and showed with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in the early 1980s. They gave me a platform that helped me put my work on walls.”

The game change happened when she won second prize in the BP Portrait Award in 1983 (when it was known as the John Player Portrait Award) for her painting, Mr Stoner, Waiting. It helped her to be elected to the Royal Society of Portrait Painters and eventually she went on to be the first female president of the society (from 1994 to 2000). The interest was such that she was able to give up teaching and begin painting full time.

“Winning the first prize at the BP Portrait Award in 2010 was fairly insignificant compared to winning the second prize all those years previously. It meant that I had a big audience and commissions began in earnest.”

Daphne didn’t come from an artistic family; painting was simply something she excelled in. “If you have such an ability, you are often praised. My parents were happy for me to go to the Slade. I think they imagined I would be pursuing ladylike painting in watercolour, while, in fact, I began by producing great 4ft square paintings in bright colours. Then they wanted me to come home and teach in a local grammar school.” Instead she began teaching at the London-based independent art school, Heatherley’s and at the Byam Shaw School of Art.

Cherries, oil, (11x15.5cm)

A painter in oil

Daphne has always been passionate about painting from life, even in the early days of her time at the Slade (she left in 1971) when fellow students were producing schematic abstract paintings and that most quintessential of 1960s’ art, ‘happenings’. “When I was at the Slade there was still a life room, but it was already on its last legs. While happenings were going on, I was painting in the life room. I liked painting from life and the whole experience of seeing the visible world around me and putting it down on canvas.”

And it has always been about oil painting for her. “Acrylic was horrible; it dried so quickly and I learnt later that it is difficult to clean. It attracts dirt and dust to the surface, and it will peel. Oil is much more robust; it can withstand dents and be brought back. Oil painting will last for hundreds, possibly thousands of years and portraits in oil will always have lasting power. The Egyptian mummies, for instance, had something like oil painting, which has lasted 3000 years.”

Good portrait painting, she says, is not about fulfilling the vanity of the sitter, but is a careful record of a person, the time and the setting he or she is in. “Future generations will see these important people. It’s not just about how they looked,” she goes on, “but they will be able to study the clothes they wore, and the backgrounds and settings.”

Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, oil, (150x89cm)

Colour advice

Daphne remembers her years of teaching and is unhesitating in giving advice to the amateur painter, something that proved useful in her role as an expert on the new BBC1 programme, The Big Painting Challenge. Careful observation of colour is key, she says, as is looking at the shapes that objects make, rather than the objects themselves. “Ignoring local colours is so important then recording what each patch of light or shade looks like at the time,” she goes on. “For example, a white colour in the background of a landscape can look darker than a brightly lit black object in the foreground. Look, have fun with your observations, and be excited by representing them with paint.

“All colours are relative and it’s vital that they are kept in order. One area of green may be more or less green than the next. Look again and don’t put a label on it, by thinking, for instance, there is a red apple or here are green trees.

“The challenge is to paint things as they are, exactly as they are seen in life.”


Allow the painting itself to lead you into the composition, she advises. “When you place something on the canvas, remember you’ll need something else to balance it elsewhere. Use the whole space of the canvas and think very positively about how the subject relates to the edges.”

And don’t imagine everything just falls into place, because painting can look effortless in some artists’ hands; expect to work hard at it, too. “Some people have a way of using simple marks that look lovely together,” she maintains, “but I don’t have that talent. I don’t know what looks right and I have to work hard to think it out.”

Daphne is not concerned by the length of the time it takes to paint from life, whether it’s a portrait or an English landscape. It took her three consecutive springs to paint a group of bare trees, she admits. “I had to be there at the right time of the year, at the right time of the day, with the right weather conditions and the sun in the right place. Really, if you’re painting from observation, from life, it’s going to take a long time.”

And this painting from life is the key to successful paintings. “I never work from photographs. The camera records all sorts of things I haven’t seen and in a way that is difficult to identify with. Photographs are of no help; they simply don’t correspond with my experience.” It’s not surprising then that she paints portraits only when the sitter is available. “Photographs of a sitter, for instance, will show the eyes differently, and not with the right colours.

“We are artists; we all see things differently,” she concludes. “If you go for something that strikes you as interesting, look closely, draw it and enjoy splashing the colour around the canvas, you will produce something important. There’s no right or wrong way with painting. It’s just vital that you enjoy the process.”

Lady Armstrong of Ilminster, oil, (30x25cm)

On to the BBC

An artist is shoe-horned right into the middle of people’s lives when they paint a portrait, she says, and she felt the same way about the filming of BBC1’s new programme. “It was interesting to see how the programme was put together and I admire how hard everyone worked, especially the stamina of the cameramen.”

She had no problem offering critiques of the contestants’ work as it reminded her of her teaching days. “I witnessed their work emerging and could see the pitfalls, but I couldn’t tell them; I only spoke to the camera when they were painting. It was very like art school, and it came naturally to me.

“I think the contestants enjoyed it, although being on the programme was challenging and it brought out a fair bit of emotion in the contestants. Being in front of the cameras in that way shows the best and worst of you. You are exposing yourself and it hurts if your work isn’t appreciated or if you feel you’ve let yourself down.”

Whether you are just beginning to paint or embarking on the next step, take Daphne’s advice: observe carefully and don’t label the objects around you, or yourself.

Daphne Todd OBE
See Daphne on BBC1’s The Big Painting Challenge on Sunday evenings from 22 February (at 6pm). Her paintings can be seen at the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual exhibition at the Mall Galleries (16 April to 1 May, 2015) and at Messum’s (1 to 17 April, 2015).

This interview is taken from the April 2015 issue of Leisure Painter

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Interview with Daphne Todd OBE
  • A big thank you.

    This is to all who, following my first postings to my gallery, have offered such a wealth of kind comments, you have made me feel quite ` at home` here . At the weekend I will take some time to start looking through the various galleries myself, regretably I have still some need to work, keeping the wolf from the door, so to speak. Also we have our home here in the Loire valley up for sale so am continually working on the house and out buildings to try to secure a buyer from this most difficult time, we are re-locating to the southern mediterranian as soon as we sell where we wish to settle into an easier style of life. I am constantly building a portfolio of local scenery etc which I hope will offer me a bank from which I might select the occasional picture once settled in. Photographs are essencial as the memory does not only fade but also plays tricks. I hope that I will have more time to follow my origional artiistic thread and study the medium of watercolour, being very interested in painting the neffects of water, I recently had the good fortune to purchase a book which is quite simply stunning, Painting Water in Watercolour, by Christisn Wharton, ISBN 0 7153 1388 6. I could not adequetly describe the fantastic ability of the Artist, has any body the same book ? has anybody yet found it even do-able. some realy fine work here. I thoroughly recommend it to anybody who loves the subject, its very obvious that the artist gets the highest high from her subject and that is infectious. Together with this post I have up-loaded a picture which is taken from my book of *Whistler*, I liked this so much that as part of my current drive to understand how to interpret a scene I am looking at into a picture I thought that I would try to copy this, it is not an exact copy but has caught the scene quite well and I found it very helpful. The photograph was taken with the picture behind glass so has a little reflection top right corner. Kind regards to all Speak again soon.


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  • I can't believe I missed this! Where have I been. This has to be your best work yet. The perfect coloring and the layout! You have placed everything wonderfully! WOW great job! to recommend my favorite artists Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Frida Kahlo, Roberto Matta Gabino amaya cacho and Pablo Picasso. Thank you in advance!

    Posted by derek bernahe on Sat 16 Sep 03:14:15