Goodbye to 2020

New Year’s Eve, 2020.
How will I look back on this year, I wonder?
It started in the spirit of hope, with a move to a new studio; “A fresh start” and all that. I was looking forward to working in a studio complex where artists actually used their studios, and said hello to their neighbours. Fast forward a few months, and we were all wearing face masks, awkwardly trying to keep our distance from each other.

New studio, fresh start

Just days after I’d got myself set up in my new studio, with paints and easel where I wanted them, lockdown happened. Studios were closed down, and normal life ground to a halt. No longer welcome in the marina, where I had been living on my boat, I had to take refuge in my girlfriend’s flat in London. No paints, no canvases. Just some pencils and a pad of Strathmore toned paper.

New model

Memory is a funny thing. I look back fondly to those lockdown months, where each day I would set myself a drawing challenge. In my fading memory, I imagine that I enjoyed searching my friend’s flat for suitable subjects. The truth was that I was desperately missing my studio.

drawing of glasses and wine bottles

But there is something special that happens when you spend long enough  drawing a subject. After a time, it’s almost as if a veil has been lifted, and you start to see another level of detail in the subject, that somehow evaded you before. So, reluctant as I was, I am now thankful that I had the opportunity to spend those long hours drawing a raggedy teddy bear, kitchen utensils and all my empty wine bottles.

portrait commission painting

The past year has been a disaster for my art practice.  Exhibitions have been cancelled – no sooner have I delivered my paintings to a gallery, another lockdown happens, and I’m asked to collect them before the show even opens. My commissioned work has been even more badly affected. Despite a healthy number of enquiries, potential clients are understandably nervous about posing for hours in a small studio, during these times of social distancing, and have delayed their commissions until next year.
A big thank you to the wonderful people who commissioned the above portrait for their friend. It felt so good to be drawing an actual real person, and not that raggedy teddy bear again.

First Steps in Commissioning a Portrait

Why commission a portrait?

I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I can only speak from the perspective of an artist. When I look at the portraits I have painted, I consider them as a record of the time spent with the sitter – whether it was just a single session, or a number of repeat sittings. During that time I was able to familiarise myself with not just the appearance of the sitter, but their overall demeanour and personality. I believe that contributes towards the final artwork being far more than just a record of the sitter in a static pose, frozen in time. The whole process of producing the portrait, from the initial enquiry, through the various stages, is very much a cooperative exercise between artist and sitter.

How to commission a portrait.

  1. Find an artist. It is important to find an artist where you feel a connection with their work. I would have said that art fairs and open studios are a great way to check out lots of artists, but I’m afraid they might not properly resume for quite a while. Thankfully, it is a lot easier now to peruse the work of various artists than it ever was, with most artists having an online presence – whether it’s a website or an Instagram account. Try to find examples of their previous commissions.
  2. Contact the artist. Unless an artist specifies that messages should be directed to their gallery, they will probably welcome enquiries about a prospective commission. Sadly, artists with online presences will attract more than their share of bogus messages and scams, so it might reassure them to give your phone number, or at least your full name, so they can try to verify your identity.
  3. Discuss the brief. An artist cannot provide you with a price unless certain parameters have been decided. The most important will be the size of the finished portrait, and then the type of pose – head and shoulders, half body, full body, two figures. Each adds a level of complexity to the painting, and will incur an additional cost. Even a complicated background, compared to a blocked out colour, will cost a bit more. So it’s a good idea to decide on these things at an early stage. The artist should be able to guide you through the decision making process, and then he will be able to give you a price.
  4. The contract. Some artists will require you to sign a contract and pay a deposit. Others, including myself, may only require that expenses and materials are paid for in advance. However you agree, whether by phone conversation, zoom call or email correspondence, it is important to have that final agreement in writing, to avoid any future misunderstandings. If there’s is completion date, you should make that clear with the initial discussions. Oil paints take time to dry between layers, and some working methods take longer than others.
  5. The sitting. Some artists will work exclusively from life, whereas others will work only from photos. This is something you should consider when first approaching artists (they should make their working methods clear on their website). Can you get to their studio? Is the artist prepared to travel to you? I personally insist on at least one sitting for a portrait painting. I am not happy with painting from supplied photos. I find the initial drawings are an essential element in the process. Apart from getting to know the sitter, the process of looking at the sitter reveals far more about them than a photo can tell me.

So, we’ve arrived at the stage where the artist will commence painting. This is the exciting bit. I find the initial sitting is like preparing the stage for a play. Decisions are made about the background (the setting), and how the performer will present themselves to the audience (the artist, and eventually viewers of the painting). This is the most collaborative stage in the whole process. Sometimes ideas present themselves straight away, and other times it can take take some effort to work them out.

So there are a few tips on the first steps in commissioning a portrait. I can’t pretend that it won’t require an investment of time, but it doesn’t necessarily require a huge investment in money. Of course, the first step is find that artist, and get in touch with them.

New Advice on Commissioning a Portrait

portrait painting of female artist model

In this strange new world of social distancing and face masks, I thought I should write a few words about how it will affect my practice for the foreseeable future.

First, because of the limited space in my new studio, I will be unable to have any sittings there – it will be impossible to maintain anything close to social distancing. As a lot of people prefer to be portrayed in  their own home, I am quite happy to travel to the client’s home to make preparatory drawings and to take reference photos, as long as there is enough space to allow me to do my work at a distance of 2m from the sitter.  As it’s not feasible for me to relocate my studio, I will attempt to limit sittings to a couple of visits, and will complete the painting in my studio, using the sketches and photos.

artist in his studio

I will be writing a post in the coming weeks, to describe the process of commissioning an artwork. I realise that some people are put off approaching an artist because of a lack of clarity regarding prices, and also what is required of the sitter. I hope to redress this.

Open Studio 2018

Well, this years open studio event at Leegate House has been and gone. Many thanks to those that made the journey to this little corner of southeast London. Thankfully the heatwave abated, just for the day, and we didn’t all melt in our studios.

These open studios events are a prerequisite for studio providers to maintain their charitable status – to demonstrate they’re “engaging with the community”. In my experience, many studio providers will only make a token effort, and most artists will see it as an inconvenience.
I’m pleased to say that Bow Arts treated this event with a lot more enthusiasm than some other studio providers I’ve been involved with; as did most of the artists here in Leegate House – it was the most enjoyable open studio that I’ve taken part in. Some of the nicest conversations I had were with local people who’d seen a flyer in the local Sainsburys, and thought “I must go along to that”. I spend most of my time locked away alone in this room on the fifth floor. It’s actually quite nice opening the doors to the public once a year.

Open Studio – Hackney Wick and Fish Island DIY Open Studio weekend.

Well, that was an experience. In the end, 900 people had visited Britannia Works, and most of them made their way up to our studio. Space Studios came good in the end, providing us with everything we needed to make the event happen. From what I heard from visitors, Britannia Works were judged to have put on a good show.

I made a mistake on Saturday, by trying to continue working on my Feast of Venus painting, and having it turned away from visitors. With no place to store it, I was reluctant to show it to people while far from complete. I changed my mind on Sunday, and it worked out well. It gave me an opportunity to discuss the meaning behind the painting, and why I’d spent so much time and money on this particular project.

Although it was a lot of hard work, the weekend was thoroughly enjoyable. It provided a great opportunity to discuss my work, and get feedback on my paintings. I learned a lot. I would like to thank everyone who visited our studio and made the event a success, and a special thank you to all those people who took the time to talk to us.