Someone once said “The one certain thing about life is constant change.”
I don’t know if they had just had their portrait painted or whether they were planning a plan to arrange it – but they realized something obvious, that there really is no definitive portrait or final statement – just an on-going recognition of where we are and how we fit into this circus and carousel of life on this planet.
When we look at portraits, we should be aware of where and how that person was at that time of their life.
And yes, we are good-looking, talented, a piano player, sports personality, bon viveur, chef and party organizer, we are the sandcastle builder and shoulder to cry on, and yes, very loved by someone special who understands our whispers and our day-dreams, and we have career ambitions and status; we are learning the classical guitar too, we fly in hot air balloons and touch the silver lining of clouds – this is us – but we can’t put it all into one portrait.
And there is the rub. Some things about us will have to be left out. Maybe we could consider the power of understatement. Maybe saying less is saying more – and how much do we need to say?
– Who are you? (which of your life roles do you want to focus on, and how would you like to see yourself when you look back).
– What do you want to say about yourself? (at this moment in your life, and that you will enjoy living with and relaxed with over the years. Or is there another brief?)
– How can we say it in paint? (To find a pose which is typical of how you are and what we want to say – and combined with strong or soft colour, we can vary the mood and emotion to suit the statement.)
Let’s go through that a bit slower – what is important to you at this moment, now? How do you see yourself – are you quite lively, noisy, colourful, confident; are you leaning forwards and directing us in your life, and how would you want to say that? Or are you calm, cool; soft colours and simple rhythms, is there peace in the portrait, and how can you say that? Do you need a background, some reference to the past maybe – and is this adding something to the portrait, some story or emotion, or is it in fact distracting the viewer from you, the central figure.
And are you looking directly at us, arresting us from your position on the wall as we look across at you – or are you gazing philosophically beyond us, thinking of other things? And does that make the viewer feel secondary to your thoughts, would that be what you want?
And what sort of ‘pose’? Such a portrait painter’s word – but quite relevant, given that we are in fact considering portraits . . . but what is a ‘portrait’. Let’s change old associations with the word and call it a ‘visual biography’ – the way people so typically sit or stand that we can recognise them at two hundred yards? Not the colour of eyes or the slant of an eyebrow, but it is the characteristic stance, the size and shape – the way some are tall and elegant, some loll and lean, and others just stand four-square. Some are casual and informal – others dapper and polished, we are being watched.
In this context, it should be possible for an artist to so capture the typical visual biography of a person – the clothes, pose, colours, stance, etc – that even covering the head of the finished portrait it should be possible to invite a friend of theirs (who knows nothing about the portrait) to see it and for them to say ‘Hey, that’s Frank’.
So how much in fact do we need to say? Maybe less is more. But here are some other ideas – let’s move on from the studio portrait – you could be in your favourite restaurant; in an olive grove in Italy; you may be by the fireside in soft light, a very Dutch interior look; you may be on a hillside with a view, a breeze; it may be a lunch party on a yacht in the shade of the sail; it may be at the races or after a party; there are also crisp abstract images that come to mind, or loose impressionist suggestions. We can go with Art too. Who knows where you may settle to be.
It is good to open all these possibilities before we start the painting – and not when it is finished . . .
It does take two to paint a portrait – you to decide what you want and who you want to be – and me to orchestrate the flow and story and your typical colours and bring the ‘portrait’ to life. Maybe you also need someone to enable you to be the person you want to be, just say it pure and simple.
Take it easy, talk with friends (they will have all sorts of strange ideas which you may not have considered – and let you know what NOT to paint . .) And I am sure that an image will settle with you, which goes around and keeps on coming back to you, and that will be the start of the adventure.
In this way probably ninety percent of the portrait is ‘painted’ before I pick up the brushes. Then we can get on and paint it without reservations or changes of mind – and I will have the confidence knowing that it is what you want and to paint it with fluency and directness.
So this is what commissioned artists do. We paint people the way they are and the way they see themselves in that big magic moment of their lives – amid the huge tumbling circus that is life on this planet. Regular people, like you and me, sunny side up.
And as regards my own process of taking you from start to finish, I have found it a great help for you to see how you look as you begin to find a pose which suits you and what we are setting out to portray. I use a large mirror on an easel in front of you to look into as we try all sorts of ideas, the counter-balance of angles and shapes, how you look, different colours, body language, light effects, style of clothes and ways of sitting or standing, depending on what we have decided on in the background – in fact, what the story is.
Sometimes, in trying to improve on a promising pose, we lose a good one you have found and so I will take a variety of photographs from time to time as the pose changes which we will review together after the session, spread them out on a large table – and in no time, there it is – the typical way you are that we all recognize so easily and identify with.
We’ll decide on the size and proportions of the canvas for this particular pose and content, and by the next time we meet I will have set up the under-painting so that we can begin a painting session with you of head and hands – and balance colour and detail to the toned canvas.
After the painting session of about an hour and a half with some breaks for coffee, we’ll review the work at this stage and see how it is developing, make changes we want to; put this in, take that out, depending how we see our ideas working in paint.
I will then take the canvas with me back to the studio, work on the changes and pull the background together, see that all parts are relating properly and work the whole portrait to the next stage before we meet again for another painting session.
We may need two or three in all – to paint and especially to review progress and fine tune the effect we are working towards.
This is why it takes a while – but it will be exactly what you want and what we have set out to achieve.
Each portrait arrives to finish in a slightly different way of course, but I hope this brief outline helps you in some way to understand the process (and progress) of the way I paint a portrait.
Ready to talk about your own portrait?