This is a question I often ponder over. Commissioning a portrait is not a spontaneous decision. It requires an investment of your time and money. It’s not just about recording a likeness, otherwise a photo will do. So why choose to commission an artist to paint your portrait? And is there a serious role for portrait painting in the modern world, or is it just a niche interest – a curious relic from history.
In the past a portrait was a symbol of wealth and status. But that was mainly down to the cost. Nowadays art materials cost a fraction of what they did, and artists are similarly no longer a scarce resource. A painted portrait won’t afford you the status that it would have in the past, so that’s no longer a reason to commission one. However, the good news is that commissioning a portrait is more affordable today than it has ever been.
It’s not just a moment in time
A painted portrait can be so much more than just a snapshot of the sitter – it is a record of the sitting and the entire time spent posing for the artist. But it can also tell a story. It can allude to their past, and even suggest the future. I am sometimes asked to paint a portrait to commemorate a special moment in a relationship. It might be an anniversary or birthday, or even a celebration of surviving an illness. I like to think that the portraits I have painted are more than just records of my brief encounter with the sitter, but are evocations of special moments and memories.
The sitting and the importance of drawing
I find drawing is an essential step in the process of producing a portrait. Even when asked to work from photos, I will never skip the preparatory drawing stage. The act of drawing, of closely observing the subject for two or three hours, reveals qualities and attributes that I would not have noticed otherwise. This close observation enhances my understanding and connection with the subject, which I believe leads to a more intimate and informed representation of the sitter.
What distinguishes portrait painting from photography is the extended process required to produce a painting. I will have to go through the same steps that a portrait photographer will go through (choosing pose, attire, lighting, location) but that will only be the very first step in a longer and sometimes arduous journey. I paint in oil paint. It is an unruly medium: smelly; ruins your clothes and furniture; takes ages to dry, and can be difficult to use. But it is so versatile, and can produce sublime results. I am constantly learning new methods and techniques. I did once dabble with digital art. For a brief moment I was so relieved at not choking on nasty fumes or having to watch for paint splashes and wait for layers to dry, that I stupidly thought it might be the future of painting. But I soon saw that no computer algorithm can recreate the wonderful unpredictability of oil paint. The same things that are so frustrating about this medium are also it’s greatest qualities. When you load a bristle brush with a lump of oil paint and run it along the coarse surface of the canvas, you can’t predict exactly how it will turn out. It will often disappoint, but sometimes the simplest brushstroke can amaze. When you buy a painting, you are buying the product of that struggle between artist and medium.
Is Portrait Painting still relevant?
So those are some of my thoughts on why commissioning a portrait painting is still relevant in this day and age. In the modern world where all the talk is about NFTs and AI, there is a reassuring beauty and appeal about a traditionally painted portrait. It is so much more than just a likeness rendered on canvas. It is the product of a long process. It’s a journey that starts with the subject sitting down in front of the artist.
Available for Commissions
If you’re interested in commissioning a portrait, or would just like more information, please do get in touch via the email address on my Contact Page.
I have written a few case studies of previous commissions. They show you some of the decisions that had to be made in commissioning a portrait: Portrait Case Studies
I often bore people with long conversations about my use of glazes, without realising they don’t know what I’m talking about. So I thought I’d write a post about this wonderful technique, and how it has transformed my art. It’s not complicated. Glazing is applying transparent layers of paint over another dried layer of opaque paint. One benefit is that highlighted areas retain their saturation and luminosity, and don’t turn chalky, as is the case if you mix colours with white. Shadow areas can achieve a depth of colour you can’t achieve with a simple layer of opaque paint. The disadvantage in using this technique is it relies on some forethought in preparing a suitable underpainting, and that underpainting has to be allowed to dry before applying the glazes. This obviously slows down the painting process.
Note: I use oil paints, and everything I say applies to that medium. You can just as easily use glazes with acrylics, but I’m not qualified to advise on which mediums to use.
Traditionally a “grisaille” underpainting was monochrome, but I tend to add a little colour during this earlier stage. I am careful to keep the tonal value in shadow areas fairly light, as glazes will deepen the final tone. The most difficult thing is anticipating how the glazes will look, especially as I might end up with six or more separate layers of glaze, to achieve the desired effect.
How Glazes Transformed my Art
When I studied at art school, there was no instruction in painting techniques. We were left to experiment and find our own means of expression. I embraced speed of execution and painted in an “alla prima” technique – wet paint onto wet paint. It was fine for landscapes (yes, I used to paint landscapes) but I became frustrated that I could not achieve the effects I wanted when painting portraits and figures. It wasn’t until I resumed painting years later, that I took the time to study traditional painting techniques. It was a revelation. Now I had the tools to create the paintings that I wanted, and it has allowed me to explore portraiture and nudes, which have always been my first love.
Glazing can be spontaneous
Having written about all the methodical preparation required in using this technique, I should add that they can be applied as freely and loosely as you like. The only limitation is the need then to allow each layer to dry. But if use an alkyd medium like liquin, or just add some to a traditional glaze medium, it will speed up drying times considerably. Technically you should only use transparent or semi-transparent paints with glazes (transparency/opacity is marked on every tube of artist oil). You can use the same technique with white or opaque colours, but it will give an entirely different effect. One example would be using a thin glaze with zinc white to paint the bloom on grapes.
If you like the effects achieved with glazes, you will find that all the paintings in my gallery pages have been painted using this technique.
Several years ago I had the pleasure of having a young singer/songwriter by the name of Devon Mayson pose for a portrait sitting. This was just one of a series of portrait sittings I arranged at the time, all with different sitters. They went well, and I recall Devon in particular was fascinating to work with. But at this time I chose instead to concentrate on figure studies and my Relationships Series paintings, so the drawings and photos from these sessions have remained unused. Until now. In the past few years portraiture has become a much more important part of my art practice, and so I have been taking another look at the reference material from these earlier sittings.
This is a portfolio piece, to demonstrate my skills to potential customers, and also to give them ideas for what they can have in their own portraits. This is an example of how the introduction of a landscape in the background can add visual interest to a portrait. It is a device I have used frequently in commissions – the main risk is that it can distract your view from the sitter. It was sometimes used to good effect in Renaissance portraits. Artists like Titian would usually set the sitter within a neutral, abstract space – possibly for economy. However the addition of a window view, as in the examples below, opens up the space and adds an extra meaning to the portrait..
If you are interested in commissioning a portrait, please don’t hesitate to get in touch. My email address is on my Contact page. I have also produced some portrait case studies which might be helpful – they are below this blog post.
The model for this paintings was singer/songwriter Devon Mayson. From her website:
“Devon is a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist whose unique style is shaped by influences from the musical worlds of Country, Folk and Pop”
I have collected some case studies of recent portrait paintings, detailing the decisions that had to be made in planning each painting. I hope they might be useful to anyone thinking about having their own portrait painted.
Portrait Case Study 1. The Blue Dress
Size and pose: This is quite a large portrait, at over 100cm tall. Given that we quickly agreed on a large canvas, it was then a choice of choosing between a full length or 3/4 length pose. We worked through a variety of standing and seated poses, finally agreeing that this seated position looked best. We paid great attention to the placement of the hands – trying to avoid them looking awkward, while also looking interesting in the final painting. Apart from adding greater visual impact, this size canvas does allow for working in greater detail on the whole figure and on the clothing.
Style and clothing: We were limited by the chosen date for the sitting being a blazingly hot summers day, so a loose summer dress seemed the most comfortable option. It wasn’t the first dress pulled from her wardrobe. We considered quite a few options, and in the end agreed that this dress looked nice on her and would add some interest to the painting.
Setting: Ordinarily I liked to have sitters pose in their home environment. Apart from being more comfortable, the decoration and furnishing of a room often says something about the sitter. In this particular case the sitter had just sold their old home and was staying in rented accommodation, awaiting a move to their new home. So this bland Airbnb flat certainly didn’t say much about the sitter, but it was a suitably bright and blank backdrop. I chose to include some of the fire surround just to add some visual interest, and to help set the sitter in space.
Props: The items in the background (shoes, book, flowers) were added later, and weren’t part of the original brief. As I worked on the painting, I felt that there was a lot of dead space in the background that wasn’t doing anything. I also was not fully aware during the sitting what a pivotal time this was in the sitter’s life, and I felt I should include something (spring bulbs) to suggest the fresh start the sitter was experiencing. The boots and book are indicative of her great interests. I could have thrown in lots more, but I did not want the props to distract from the figure.
If you have any questions about commissioning your own portrait, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me. My email is on the Contact page
Portrait Case Study 2. Renaissance Garden
This is not actually a commission, but was painted as a portfolio piece – a painting that I could show to prospective customers and take along to art fares. In the event, it was snapped up by a collector shortly after I finished it, so now I only have the photos to share with you
Canvas Size: I chose a 50cm x 40cm linen canvas for this painting before I even started. It’s quite common to start a commission with a decision about the canvas size. It might be to fit in with your budget (larger paintings will incur more costs), but more often it’s because most people have limited space to display artwork. This particular linen has a very nice surface for portraits; although the weave is still visible, it’s less intrusive than cotton canvas. The smoother surface allows for more detailed work.
Pose: I worked through quite a few different poses with the sitter. She had a wonderful calm demeanour about her, which I wanted to capture in this painting. Having already decided on the canvas size, I was limited in my selection of poses. A full body pose would have meant her face would have been quite small on the canvas. I find this size ideal for a head and shoulders portrait, being large enough that I can introduce quite a lot of detail in the face. We went through different poses with arms crossed, or the model sitting. In the end I chose this standing pose. The model had such excellent posture, and that wonderful poise, that I wanted to try and capture it with the simplest of poses.
Style and clothing: I asked the model to select her own clothing, giving consideration to how she wanted to be portrayed. She arrived wearing a colourful headscarf and loose knit jumper, which suited her well. The jumper provided a nice contrast in textures, which worked well in the finished painting.
Background: I initially planned this portrait with just a plain background, but I quickly realised there was a timeless quality about this model, which got me thinking about Renaissance portraits; where they might sometimes introduce a section of landscape in one of the top corners. This was a useful device to add depth and perspective to the composition, while also adding colour and visual interest to the painting. I was more interested in the latter, and how a serene vista would complement the model’s calm manner. I also wanted to demonstrate how alternative backgrounds can be easily introduced into a commissioned portrait.
Props: No need for props with this portrait. The smaller canvas didn’t lend itself to being cluttered with objects. With similar commissions of this size the sitter has asked that they be painted wearing a particular piece of jewellery, which was of sentimental value.
Painting technique – Glazes and underpainting
The photo above shows the painting at three different stages. I had already worked out the composition on paper, with preparatory drawings. The underpainting is painted with a monochrome or very restricted palette. Once I was happy the tonal values were correct, I introduced colour into my palette. The final photo above shows the painting just before I add the colour glazes. It’s a traditional technique can add a wonderful luminosity to the highlights, and a depth of colour to the shadows that simply cannot be achieved with other techniques.
This was a challenging commission. It taught me a lot about ballet, and also about specific problems in painting “action” poses. I was approached by a ballet teacher who wanted a portrait of herself in a recognisable dance pose. Being a lifelong admirer of Degas’ wonderful paintings of ballet dancers (here’s an example at the Met), it was a commission I couldn’t refuse. I was concerned that my studio would not be big enough. Although fine for portraits, I felt it might feel cramped if she started throwing her arms and legs around. Despite my suggestion to have the sitting at her dance studio, she preferred to come to my studio.
Problems holding a pose.
The first problem I encountered was that it proved difficult to hold any dance pose long enough for me to produce a useful drawing. Gestural charcoal sketches were okay, but the more detailed drawings I like to produce were not possible, and the sitting became quite a challenge for the both of us. I can see why Degas favoured pastels. As soon as I had enough sketches, I suggested my client should run through her repertoire of ballet poses, and I would start taking photos. She looked through the photos every now and again, and we would adjust the poses accordingly. Apart from the different poses, we also tried different outfits. In the beginning the tutu was my least favourite outfit and I couldn’t see it making it to the final painting. By the end of the sitting we had lots of photos of various ballet poses carried out in three different outfits. My client checked through them, pointing out any where the pose was not up to standard, and then I undertook to work up some sketches from the remaining photos, offering some alternative layouts.
A choice between two poses and outfits
I couldn’t find the original sketches, but did manage to find photos of these later oil sketches. We had already eliminated alternative poses, and I offered my client two slight variations of this pose. Although I hadn’t been keen on the tutu at first, by this stage I felt it looked the better outfit, and made for a more balanced composition. Also the pose on the left looks that little bit more dynamic.
What did I learn? Ballet instructors are very demanding about their dance positions being spot on. I got into trouble with some wonky arms in my first sketches. Second, although I’m very happy with how the painting turned out, I still feel that it would have added extra visual interest if it was set in a dance studio. Finally, if I’m presented with a similar dance challenge in future, I would forgo my usual preparatory sketches, and would instead video the sitting while taking photos. I think that would be a more useful record than my charcoal sketches. I have started to use video even with my traditional portrait paintings (especially when the sitter can’t pose in person), as it can sometimes give a better sense of what the sitter really looks like.
If this article has given you the inspiration to commission your own painting, don’t hesitate to get in touch with me – use the email address on my Contact Page.
This is a photo of my latest work in progress. When I moved to Ramsgate I had the idea of painting a series of portraits of Ramsgate artists. I thought it would be a good way of introducing myself to the local artistic community, I could promote my portrait work, and I might find some interesting subjects. So what happened? I had a run of four commissions which seem to have taken as many months to finish. Good for the bank balance, but not so good for this particular project. And then I got covid, which seemed to linger forever. I lost my studio, and then I sold my boat and moved away from Ramsgate. Oh well.
The sitting took place in November last year. Fingers crossed that I can finish it soon 🙂 The sitter was Ramsgate composer and sound artist Emily Peasgood. She is an amazing artist and I was so pleased that she found the time to sit for me. You can check out her work here: emilypeasgood.com