About 18 months ago, while I was painting the huge portrait of my sister, Antonia Davies, I was visited in my studio by Jilly, a friend of my mother’s who was interested in commissioning a portrait of her then 17 year old granddaughter, Catriona.
The Initial Meeting
We agreed that it would be a good idea for Catriona and me (along with her grandmother and parents) to meet at least once before the sitting, partly to break the ice and also so we could discuss and agree the format of the portrait. Whether head and shoulders or half length. Oil or pastel.
As is my normal practice, I asked her parents for a handful of adjectives to describe their daughter before we met as this helps me to find the right pose and expression. The list I got by return was quite extensive and full of superlatives. Surely they must be exaggerating. She sounded too good to be true.
How wrong could I be! I was instantly struck by Catriona’s calm, measured manner, her quiet intelligence, her serenity, warmth and kindness. Beautiful, understated, totally unpretentious and not a shred of arrogance, she was very amenable and open to suggestions. Incredible.
Since Catriona is an avid reader, we contemplated a half-length portrait with a book. But felt, on balance, that a ‘reading’ portrait could be a bit contrived. Also, it would mean either quite a substantial sized portrait (which was not in keeping with her), or to keep it small would mean the portrait would be less about her face and more about her relationship with books. With her eyes down looking at her book would cut her off from the world. With her eyes looking away from the book would possibly look a little affected. She has such a beautiful face, the logical decision was to concentrate on that and go for a simple head and shoulders oil portrait.
Having had an initial meeting, when the day of the sitting arrived, Catriona was very relaxed and having had plenty of time to think about it, we were able to get straight down to the sitting. The joy of working with teenagers/young adults is that you can work together to get the result you are both after. The teamwork is wonderful.
Catriona has a very upright deportment. And the shirt we chose, which was a soft grey, had a slightly empire-line cut. Since she is an avid reader, and Pride and Prejudice her favourite book, it seemed a fitting literary reference to Jane Austen to make the pose slightly longer than a head and shoulders.
I used board rather than canvas as the format I wanted was not a standard canvas size. (And I love painting on board). After priming the board I applied a thin ground of greenish umber to get rid of the white. With young adults I quite often prime the canvas with a strong bright green so that I can convey the strength of youth with lively colours. With Catriona, her colouring is much more subtle. Translucent, even-coloured skin. It was important to reflect this with a gentler ground.
The process of painting the portrait of this remarkable young woman was every bit as enjoyable as meeting her. I was keen to keep it loose and modern to reflect her youth, but also to capture her quite classical old-fashioned beauty. It needed to be soft and not too garish – she has such a stillness about her that it would be wrong to make it too loud.
I wanted the background colour to be soft and also be similar in tone to the shirt so that the focus is on Catriona’s face and neck.
This is a beautiful age to paint. A young woman on the cusp of leaving home to go to university.
I am delighted with the end result. There is a lively intelligence in her eyes and a quiet energy about the painting.