Posted on Wed 22 Mar 2017
The world of commissioned portraits can be a fraught one. Artists are expected to perceive a person, often a stranger, in a way that aligns with and pleases the sensibilities of the subject, and perhaps their family and connections too. We also have to manage all the technical twists and turns during the development of a portrait painting if, like me, you paint directly from life. Over time I’ve tailored the less exciting technical elements to allow for more freedom during the painting process.
I aspire to paint portraits from life to the exclusion of photographs, which affords me the freedom to observe my sitter over many hours, and to engage with them in an attempt to discover something of their personality and vitality. There is, however, a fly in the ointment in the form of modern life!
Most people struggle to allow a painter as much time as they need, so I’ve had to compromise and equip myself with alternatives for getting the best from my sitter onto the canvas, in a world used to speed and immediate results.
Georgie, oil, (76x66cm).
Georgie is a great friend of mine, and so was persuaded to sit endlessly. It’s a real treat to be able to saunter along with a painting, rather than rush through it.
I tend to price by size and content, so the larger and fuller compositions become, the more expensive they will be. Having your pricing model laid out in the clearest terms in advance is crucial. I have a spreadsheet with a price guide, a short paragraph on my thinking regarding the structure of my pricing and what is excluded, such as travel and accommodation costs and the frame. Some clients may want work to arrive framed, in which case a separate price for this should be estimated. It may also be wise to take a deposit; I take a third in advance of my first sitting. A composition may evolve to include more or less than originally planned, but if clients are fully aware of the pricing guidelines, there should be no need for any arguments when amendments are made to the final cost.
Triptych of Laury, oil, (46x46cm), each canvas.
Laury sat for a long time. I know her fairly well, so I was able to ask for long sittings.
Hopefully your sitters will be desperate to sit endlessly, at a time of your choosing, in your studio. More likely there will be some distance between you, and you may need to address the requirements of the availability of a light and a makeshift studio where your client lives. I paint in the sight-size method, so I need tall windows to allow the light to be as I’d prefer, and a fairly large room. I try to find out about these details in advance, assuming that the sitter can’t come to my studio. I ask for photos of both the light and the room that I will work in. If the client is unable to provide an appropriate space I ask if a friend or neighbour’s house might be better suited and, in most cases, a suitable place will emerge, although I do have to be prepared to work in imperfect conditions. On one occasion I ended up in a perfectly lit stable!
Flora, oil, (61x46cm).
Flora mainly sat for this portrait in front of the TV – she was just three at the time. I used some photos to help when her patience failed.
I have a large wooden foldable box, made specifically for travelling, on which to perch clients so that the level of their eye is more or less at my own eye level; an easel, a palette, paints, canvas and materials, a large number of blackout blinds and dust sheets to protect the house. You really need a car to transport all your painting kit, but a courier can also do this. I often go by train if the bulk of the materials aren’t necessary, and then have the painting couriered back to me.
I paint predominantly on medium weave, oil-primed canvas from Cornelissen. I use a medium mix of Canada balsam, linseed oil and mastic with turpentine; oil paints are from Zecchi ochre and vermilion to Michael Harding for blacks and landscape colours, and Roberson lead white. My brushes are filbert and round hog bristles and sables, and mongoose hair.
My portrait palette is lead white, yellow ochre, vermilion, ivory black, ultramarine blue and alizarin crimson, with the additions of blue and alizarin for some small areas of flesh tone and background colour. If painting outside or including specific colour notes, these would be in addition.
You should allow as much time as possible with your client, and you will need to decide which elements of the painting are most crucial. If your focus is on portraits, you have one fairly obvious priority: if you want the best from the sitter, the head is key to the composition of your painting, so that you don’t end up with a lovely head that cannot be connected well to a body when you come to paint the remaining canvas. The close detail will come later, once you’ve returned home. Photos of all the details and even, in stretched circumstances, hands, can then be of enormous use and shouldn’t be forgotten. It’s a costly error to need desperately to revisit a curtain, or earring, when you are miles away.
Family Portrait, oil, (76x101.5cm).
Painting children is often time consuming; I allow a lot more time than I hope to use. I had someone hold our son for his sittings and our daughter watched Peppa Pig!
It really helps to walk a mile in your client’s shoes before you accept a commission, as many don’t know what to expect. Thanks to our bohemian forebears, portrait painters are expected to be unpredictable and eccentric. Some clients can be nervous, having perhaps been volunteered by their family for the portrait; others don’t have any concerns, but understanding the possible worries in advance will help to put your clients at ease. The following may be helpful in settling their concerns.
1) Show them the work as it progresses. It will keep them involved and hopefully relaxed. If you are chaotic and messy in the early stages, show your client a page on your website, or a series of photos taken during the development of another painting, so they can see how your work generally comes along. I have a process page on my website which is a great help in this regard. Nearly all clients enjoy watching a painting develop; after all they are commissioning an experience and a painting.
2) Be flexible about the composition. I know this contradicts earlier advice on preparing a pose in advance to avoid error, but it will often be the case that a person will relax into a habitual gesture after half an hour or so of sitting. If this pose works on the canvas and you’re suddenly aware that this must be a regular, if unconscious trait, then it might well be best included if it resonates with all concerned.
3) Learn to talk and paint. If you can, the rest should flow. An impassioned debate on politics is still a great way to get a person to think less self-consciously. I hugely enjoy talking to my clients. I consider this a wonderful upside of my commissioned work.
4) Notice when people need a break. You may well prefer to work manically for four hours at a time, but it is torture for sitters; they will begin to express their discomfort in their every gesture – which is not what you want to capture! Coffee and breaks are the bedfellows of natural expression on the canvas.
5) If you’re painting children, turn on the television. Portrait painting presents enormous challenges and the rather more mundane practical considerations, and concern for your client, may seem too much. But as imperfectly as we tackle this, it is our responsibility to make our contact with a client contribute to the final result. This means preparing yourself so that you don’t need to worry so much about the environment, and making yourself accessible so that your client worries less about you, and is able to offer more of themselves for you to draw on. This symbiosis, if achieved, can make the commission painting process a lighter, less tiring experience for all concerned.
Man with Horse, oil, (86.5x106.5cm).
This sitter was able to sit on my pedestal for the bulk of this painting, with occasional standing sessions. I painted the horse from a photograph having spent a bit of time with it to get a sense of it.
Frances Bell trained in the classical tradition at the Charles Cecil Studios, Florence, where she taught for the summer terms from 2005–11. She has exhibited widely, including in Not The Turner Prize, the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, the Society of Women Artists, the BP Portrait Award, and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters’ annual exhibitions from 2005 to 2016.
This feature is taken from the March 2017 issue of The Artist
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