Interviewed by Jen Wood
There are so many choices an artist can make when they come to paint someone. Whether they should create a bold portrait of the sitter or a gentle one, a relaxed colourful one or a picture that is more sober or serious in tone. Judging which route to take when you paint a particular person is central to my method. Listening to what the sitter has in mind, getting to know them and thinking of where the painting might hang, also to consider the implications if it is a private, or public commission. These factors all filter into the thinking. There are often a number of boxes to tick as one thinks about a commission and the key thing for me is that the vision for the image is clear from the start, and that the intention I have for the look and feel of the work is always in the front of my mind as I paint.
I spent the early part of my career painting from life, I now paint all my work from photos.
I do a number of things to help me build an idea for a portrait commission before I start. It may be simply to chat to the sitter and get to know them a bit, or it may be to chat to the curator or commissioner to talk loosely about their ideas and the purpose of the image. This always gets me thinking but never totally gets me the answer.
I slowly move towards an image that I feel is hopefully right by firstly taking numerous photo tests, sometimes with the sitter or a stand in, either at my studio or a location appropriate to the sitter. I try to look for interesting compositional effects that might look good. I then study these photo tests, think about the image a bit more , maybe do more tests. I consider how I treat the space, I will think carefully about the background as well at this stage. If I want to bring out bold brushwork later in the painting I normally look to keep the background very simple in the photo. A theme that is always important to me is the lighting and the quality of light, I want this to have a key role in the image. I look for a lighting set up that feels right.
Once my tests are done and I’m happy with all the technical aspects I have the person I’m painting sit for a final photo shoot. This as mentioned above sometimes happens in my studio or in a location specific to the sitter/s. I like the final shoot to be quick so the sitter feels relaxed and fresh. Then after deciding on the right image to use the real work of actually painting the portrait begins.
Painting a portrait is not a matter of just copying the photo however. The art for me is to think of ways to manipulate the paint, as you paint, to bring out something more than you just see in the photo. I find paint exciting. I may scrape sections back in a picture, soften areas, pour paint on, put it on with my fingers, smear areas that had looked finished. As a painter you try anything in your attempts to bring the image to life. Even if it is a quiet image, I want something to be animated about it. Often the results of my paint technique where I try to bring the picture to life result in some of my works having quite a tactile surface. So really I’m often thinking about the portrait being a ‘painting’ as well as a ‘portrait’ likeness. My portraits of course must look like the sitters. The painting does not leave my studio until both myself and the sitter, commissioner or curators are all happy with the likeness as well as the paintwork. I need to feel the image strongly carries the presence of the sitter.