I am emphatic that I only ever do portraits from photos that I have taken. This is not only to ensure that I have the quality of image that I need, but also to meet the subject, establish a rapport, and have that ‘sitting’ as an aide-memoire when it comes to actually painting the portrait: remembering the quirks and characteristics, the sparkle, the head-tilt, the gait, and so on.
I have been approached many times to do posthumous portraits but always turn them away as this is not my area.
But just occasionally, very very occasionally, I find myself unable to say no.
The first such instance was been of Andrew Dalton, back in 2012, a corporate portrait commissioned by his work colleague and friend of mine Magnus Spence to commemorate 10 years of the business they had started together – Dalton Strategic Partnership. What helped here was that I was able to use a photograph that was taken by a professional for the company. And DSP owned the copyright.
The portrait was unveiled from behind velvet curtains at the illustrious Fishmongers Hall at the 10 year party in front of all Andrew’s family and his colleagues. And the press. And it was an evening packed with ceremony (and terror for the artist who, for the record, is much happier in her studio in the depths of the country).
The Second Time
Eight years later, while I was in the depths of my local Tesco doing the weekly shop, I was called by Chris who asked me to paint a portrait of his recently deceased wife Georgina. He had some pictures he had taken. He wasn’t looking for a photographic likeness. Would I at least have a look at them before dismissing it out of court. Caught somewhat off-guard, and since he alerted me to the fact that my contact page wasn’t working (and was very helpful in my subsequent attempt to resolve the issue), and his persistence, I agreed to look at the pictures. I could still easily say no.
I went through the photos and dismissed it out of hand. Then I looked again. And again. I was rather touched by Chris and his insistence that I could have carte blanche. There was one photo that I thought could work. It was one of Georgina in her beloved garden, secateurs in hand, blissfully unaware of the fact a photo was being taken. She was quite far in the distance. Very little detail. But it could work. And, as it turned out, this was one of Chris’ favourite photos of her too. We agreed to meet at my studio in Somerset. Then Chris could further flesh out the picture of his wife, tell me all about her, and see some of my work in the flesh. Again, I was promising nothing.
We had a wonderful afternoon in the garden outside my studio, chatting about Georgina. Chris was been brought down by his friend Brian, and my husband Alasdair joined us too. The love story that was Chris and Georgina was so moving. And he brought her to life so well. We were all a little teary. I agreed to do the portrait. How could I not?
A portrait in oils was was Chris was really hoping for but he left it to me to see what worked best. I did a quick sketch in pastel to see how this would work compositionally. To check the passage of light and dark. And also to play with the colours.
A pastel sketch is a great way to make colour decisions. I was out of my comfort zone here. This is not my normal palette. I am used to indoor scenes, with only the very occasional foray into landscapes.
Given the choice, I may well have opted to do the portrait in pastel, as there is something quite liberating about their vitality, not to mention the huge range of colours at your fingertips.
But, having done the sketch and got a feel for the picture and the palette, I was ready to launch into oils. Nowt to be lost! And it helped a lot having done the sketch.
When I said this is not my normal palette, I didn’t actually change the physical oil paints that I use except to add cerulean blue. What I meant is that I always paint interiors. Outside is a whole different ball-game. I’m so familiar with all the subtleties of the colours of flesh and interiors. But the garden and the landscape? So many greens and vibrant colours.
My normal palette is:
Titanium white, Cadmium lemon yellow, yellow ochre, Cadmium red, alizarin crimson, cobalt blue, French ultramarine blue, burnt umber.
Here the only change was to substitute cerulean for cobalt
I’m really pleased with the painting. I have tried to keep the detail as broad as possible. Too much information would be overkill. It is a painting of a woman happily in her own world in her beloved garden. The colours are vibrant and actually there is a richness and fullness in the painting that isn’t present in the pastel sketch
Quite coincidentally, the day I finished the painting and emailed a photo of it to Chris was the first anniversary of Georgina’s death.
This painting took me out of my comfort zone and although it is not what I would normally paint, I feel happy with the result and enjoyed the challenge. And also getting to know Georgina through the lovely Chris, who is as close to the perfect client as you can get.
These lovely words came from Chris after he picked up the framed portrait: “The portrait is as beautiful as I hoped it would be and you have captured the essence of Georgina at peace in her garden.