In Conversation

Inspired by the Masters

Daisy Sims Hilditch, whose paintings are rich, soft and full of character, talks to Susie Hodge about her preference for a traditional approach to portraiture, inspired by Velázquez and John Singer Sargent

Lorenzo, oil on canvas, (55 x 70 cm)

‘This is a charismatic Italian friend who I have painted on a number of occasions. I particularly like his high cheekbones, unruly hair and wonderful Etruscan nose. I enjoyed adding his ruched blouse and playing with the effects of impasto paint to capture this.’

Daisy Sims Hilditch comes from a line of extremely skilful artists and designers, including her great-great-grandfather who was a Royal Academician and her mother who is an acclaimed interior designer. Initially after leaving school Daisy read French at university, but soon realised it wasn’t for her. ‘I had always dreamt of being an artist, but to follow that route takes courage. My parents have always been very supportive and although at first encouraged me to try university, they understood when I decided to change track.’

The right sequence
When she was 18, Daisy's portrait of her grandfather was placed in the top 20 of the Saatchi Gallery and Daily Telegraph's School Art Prize, and exhibited in the Saatchi Gallery. She reflects that it was not just the Impressionists who inspired her: ‘I have been hugely privileged to paint landscapes alongside Ken Howard RA on occasions over the last four years. I have also been very fortunate to study in Florence under Charles H. Cecil for four years. Although they paint in totally different ways, their main principles are the same. Ken has always emphasised that painting is about relationships and keying one thing in relationship to another. When you begin to focus on the separate parts of a painting, you lose track of the whole and the end result will appear piecemeal and jumpy, losing its harmony. Ken also taught me a helpful trick when painting en plein air. It's often very tricky to judge the colour of something when faced with the huge array that nature provides. Ken says that in order to judge the colour of something, look at something next to it and judge it through the corner of your eye. Is it warmer or cooler for instance? Painting is like a jigsaw puzzle; all the parts need to be fitted together in the right sequence.

‘Charles has also taught me many things, but I suppose his main point is similar to Ken's. By standing far back from a painting and observing it as a whole in relationship to the subject, one can see the flow of light and create strong, dynamic work. Squinting at the subject helps hugely here. A painter that I admire hugely is Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, who said: "I work on all parts of my painting at once, improving it very gently until I find that the effect is complete.”’

Colonel Clemence, oil on linen, (80 x 60cm)

Movement, emotion and expression
Daisy admits that her traditional approach is at variance with contemporary teaching in many art colleges, but she says she has not experienced much contention. ‘I enjoy being different to the majority of UK art graduates. I am very excited by what I do, it presents endless challenges and opportunities to be inspired by the natural landscape as well as art of the masters of the past.’ She notes several powerful influences: ‘My main inspiration is Velázquez. I love Sargent for his expressive handling of paint and energy that vibrates from his paintings which stems from Velázquez, and other painters such as Goya and Lawrence. Velázquez was the first true Impressionist. If you look at his paintings such as The Spinners, you see a mosaic of brushmarks that from a distance come together and create movement, emotion and expression. I hope to go to the Prado to make some copies of his work.’

Daisy's preferred medium is oil; she uses Old Holland, usually on Claessens 12 double-primed linen for her portraits. ‘For landscapes I am not so fussy and tend to use canvas boards or gesso panels from Zecchi in Florence. I have been experimenting with watercolour. Occasionally I use charcoal and often sketch in pencil.

‘For landscapes I vary my palette, but recently I have chosen to use a more limited palette. Through painting portraits using only four colours, I have realised that a limited palette can be more effective and lead to a more harmonious painting. At the moment I am very attached to blue black, with which you can make the most wonderful blues, greys and greens. Also in my palette are yellow ochre, Naples yellow, cadmium red, burnt sienna and ultramarine. I like seeing how far I can get with as few colours as possible.’

The Van Dyck 'Z'

The contrast of painting landscapes and portraits provides a balance for Daisy. All her portraits are commissioned. ‘Painting for me is very intense and I sometimes find it's difficult to switch my mind to other things. There is also a lot of pressure in portrait painting to achieve a likeness and please the client. Landscapes offer a light relief, although the weather can sometimes be a challenge!’

Daisy decides what she will paint when actually in the landscape: ‘I walk around for a while and usually an idea will jump out at me. Mostly strong shadow shapes and interesting light effects hold the most excitement. My landscapes are painted en plein air as it usually results in a spontaneous outcome. Portraits are either done in the studio or in the sitter's home, and for these, I sometimes look for a strong Van Dyck 'Z' (the shadow running underneath the eyebrow down the side of the nose and under the nostril). On other occasions, the sitter will simply fall into a pose that jumps out at me and I know that's how I want to portray them.

‘I never use photographs. I often begin with a few marks in charcoal and from there use big brushes with a few main values on each, blocking in the main shapes using a dark, a half tone and a light colour. The portrait will build up in layers from there. I prefer paintings when they have a variety of thick buttery impasto combined with thin transparent layers as it adds more dimension and visual excitement. My paintings vary in size and complexity: my plein-air landscapes are small and take a couple of hours, a larger one will take a few sessions. A portrait can take anything from about four sittings to two months, depending on the size and complexity. Usually I have several portraits on the go at once.’

Andrea, oil on linen, (40 x 30cm)

‘This was painted as an impressionist sketch, my easel placed further away from Andrea so that the painting was under life size. I followed process but applied the paint in a thicker and broader way alla-prima. I loved painting the book – I aimed to capture it in as few stokes as possible.’

The BP Portrait Award

In 2016 Daisy was selected for the prestigious BP Portrait Award with her portrait of her friend Alessandra (below), whom she met in Florence. Inspired by the work of Sargent and painted entirely from life over a period of seven weeks, the portrait is soft, perceptive and mesmerising, in Sargent's favourite (and difficult) method of dark hair and clothing set against a dark background. Daisy says: ‘One of the most exciting challenges is making the painting work as a whole, but also capturing the sitter's inner emotions.’

Alessandra, oil on linen, 97x71cm (assumed)


Daisy Sims Hilditch studied at the Charles H Cecil studios in Florence and has also studied with Ken Howard in Venice, Morocco and Santorini. She was selected for the 2016 National Portrait Gallery BP Awards. Daisy is currently based both in Florence and London.

This article is taken from the February 2018 issue of The Artist

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