A Tale of Two Kings

David sketching in Jaipur
The Beginning – Sketching in Jaipur

It’s New Year’s Eve, there is snow outside my window and the lake is still and cold, the kind of marrow chilling grey that makes you appreciate central heating. Half a world away there will be fireworks, colour and music blazing into a night peaking just as my day begins. I was there, in Jaipur, just nine days ago, putting the finishing touches to the second of my Kings. Which just goes to show, you never can tell what a year might bring.

I began 2017 in Jaipur too. I had gone there, ostensibly, to help my good friend Lee Cantelon make a film. I know just enough about such things to be useful in a small way and we had a very small budget – none in fact- so anything I could add would be something. I had packed all my portable art making gear as Lee had suggested shots of me sketching and painting might give our documentary a narrative twist. Our film was intended to highlight a project that brings water, medical care and, above all, education and hope for a future to some of the poorest of the poor in Jaipur’s rag-picker camps and slums. Like all such projects, this one needs funding and the film was intended to help.

Sketching in Jaipur, India

So, it was no great surprise to find myself in a sprawling encampment, crouched in a home assembled from tarps and found objects, sketching an elderly, tattooed, tribal woman bedecked in bangles and blankets, just two hours after stepping off the plane. Nor to be drawing the beautiful faces of the school kids over the coming days, between camera work and planning our next moves. What did come as a surprise was that Jaipur had a new King – His Highness, The Maharaja, Sawai Padmanabh Singh – and that the Christian community in Jaipur had been in touch with the palace and would like to commission me to paint him as a gift bridging the two communities, if I would like to do it.

Like to? Are you kidding? What an incredible honour! Two days later we bundled into a taxi, cameras and light gear in the trunk, on our way to City Palace, Lee now acting as my assistant and a second cameraman along to record the meeting and photoshoot with His Highness in preparation for his historic first official portrait as Maharaja.

With only days to go before I had to leave for home and His Highness for England to begin the polo season (he plays professionally), live sittings were out of the question, so this portrait would have to be made from photographs. We arrived early to set up equipment and experiment with pose and lighting, before His Highness joined us, generously giving us an hour of his time to work with him – a chance to commit as much of him to memory as I could and to get a feel for who he is. You can shoot a great many pictures in an hour, and each of them tells you a little more, each adding vital information for later use in the studio.

The shoot took place in a magnificent room, decorated as only a palace in Jaipur could be – gilded surfaces, floral patterns, marvelous ornaments, historic pictures, golden chairs and a magnificent silver throne, complete with armrests in the form of prowling lions. To compete with such a setting any subject would have to be equally splendid- the Maharaja undoubtedly is – six feet three and movie star handsome, dressed in a magnificent regal uniform and carrying a bejeweled sword, he commanded the room.

His Highness the Maharaja of Jaipur by David Goatley

Back in my studio in Canada, it was time to turn the dream into some sort of reality. I experimented with a standing pose before settling on the seated one you see here, which seemed to say so much more. I drew the whole complex composition loosely in charcoal initially, just to make sure everything would fit, before tightening the drawing in sepia paint. Next, I blocked in the major shapes in colour to develop an overall sense of the whole picture before starting the long process of bringing it into focus piece by piece. You might think you’d leap straight into the head in a portrait, but I need to see it in context- every piece of colour affects not only the thing next to it, but the overall tonality of the picture- you see red more strongly played against green, for example, light sings only in contrast to dark, and so on.

Painting the Maharaja

There is over a week’s work in that throne, days in the jewelry, many, many, hours in the head -to which I returned again and again over the two months it took to complete the portrait. Finally, I felt it was ready, and sent photographs to the palace for approval. A little tweak here, a touch there, and it was ready to ship to take its place in the Royal Collection. I was sorry to see it go, it had been a presence in my studio for a long time and had given me a great deal of pleasure.

Coming back to Jaipur in December I was less sure what the focus would be. Certainly, there would be more work to do at the school, newly made friends to catch up with, possibly more footage to shoot for the project begun months earlier and always more sketches to make, thinking of the exhibition of paintings I have been planning in support of the work there, but working with Lee there are always surprises.

How would you like to paint another king?

Lee had just returned from Nigeria, where he had been persuaded to meet with a Hausa King and his tribal council who were seeking to build bridges with people who might be able to help them develop the resources they so desperately need. It is no secret that there has been a great deal of conflict and uncertainty in the north of the country, some of it fueled by religious extremism, and the meeting was a courageous first step.

The meeting went well, a bond was forged, plans for further talks made, and the King wished to meet Lee again in the new year. The idea of a portrait to give the King as a gift cementing the new friendship was something I readily agreed to.How often do you get to paint a picture that could literally save lives? If we could build a bridge between these two communities, it could be a game changer and the good will generated by this painting could be a real factor in that. Of course, I had to work from Lee’s photographs rather than from personal experience of the man, something I would normally only ever do for a posthumous subject, but the chance to do some real good with a picture was unmissable.

The painting had to be small enough to carry back to Jos over rough roads, tough enough not to damage and done quickly enough to be dry and framed before I left to get back to Canada for Christmas. I decided on an oil sketch on panel and set about finding equipment in the Pink City, having brought only a sketch book and charcoal on this trip. Buying artists materials in a shop stacked from floor to ceiling with thousands of small boxes, many of them unlabeled, was an adventure in itself. Somehow all I needed appeared from the chaos, accompanied by much smiling, it was wonderful. I was in business.

Working at the school I had a constant, enthralled audience of excitable children. The noise was deafening but joyful. Perhaps by watching they learned a little from me – I hope so, I certainly learned a lot from them.

Working small, fast and loose and combining elements from three or four shots I managed to make the picture you see here over a frenetic few days. Of course, I’d have liked more time, of course it should be bigger, of course I would have liked to control the lighting and to have met the man himself, but you play the hand you’re given.

His Highness Sulaiman Yakubu, Sarkin of Miya

In 2017 I was given two kings. It doesn’t get much better than that.

Bhuri’s Painting

Sketching at Nandu’s home

It’s a January morning in Jaipur. The early fog has not yet lifted and whilst it may be warm later, it certainly isn’t now, as we bump down the unmade road into the Garidharipura Slum. The lanes are comparatively empty, just a couple of cyclists and women carrying water. The smoke from breakfast fires mingles with the mist, though many here will go hungry for breakfast, they will all drink tea and the fires provide warmth.

My friend, film maker and photographer Lee Cantelon, and I are going to shoot an interview clip with one of our graduates, Nandu, for the short documentary we are making on the rough-and-ready school that is valiantly trying to educate some 350 kids from slums and squatter camps close by. I’ve been here over a week and my heart is full for these people and their struggles. The School seems an oasis of love in a desert of emptiness and scant hope. Life is very hard for these rag pickers and balloon sellers, these casual day-labourers and sometime beggars and their families. Their Caste and lack of education draw in their horizons and put a limit on dreams. Nandu is a success story in the making. Bright, handsome and personable, he is hoping for a career in the Navy. No one else in his family has ever graduated from any kind of school.

When we reach their home, set in a rubble strewn dip that must run with water in the monsoon, the whole family are waiting, wreathed in smiles. They have pulled a bed frame out into the space in front of the house so that we have something to sit on – they own no other furniture and do not want us to see inside their windowless shack.

Nandu’s mother, Bhuri, wrapped in a vivid pink blanket against the cold, squats by a shallow pit filled with glowing coals, warming both herself and a little girl who can’t be more than 3 years old. Nandu’s father, in a wooly hat and scarf, offers us piping hot chai. Sisters and aunts hover shyly in the background. You can see your breath. Despite this, they are proud we have come to their home, proud of Nandu and his education.

The chai is good, and as Lee films the interview sequence – Nandu talking about all that his education means to him and his family and how God has done a marvelous thing in his life – I draw mother and toddler crouched in the smoke. I am struck again by how these people, who have nothing, want to share their homes, their food and drink with strangers. How quick they are to smile with so little, apparently, to smile about. Bhuri has a smile that could melt a glacier, I catch it in a sly photograph.

And then we are done. Back into the small battered van before too many curious onlookers see our white faces and the cameras. We quickly leave this poverty behind. How blessed we are, with our full bellies, and comfortable homes to think of, and memories of these kind people to take back with us. In a few days I will be back in Canada, safe and secure, feeling the guilt of privilege.

Two weeks later, the email comes. Bhuri is dead, felled by a sudden heart attack. I look at my photographs of her, feel overwhelmingly sorry for her family and the boy, Nandu, who is my friend and immediately begin to paint that smile, what else can I do? When it is done I take it to the post office and mail it with love.

David and Nandu with Bhuri's portrait
David and Nandu with Bhuri’s portrait

Later, in December, Nandu greets me with open arms, his father is with him, they have both come to the small basement church some of the children from the School and their families attend despite opposition from their neighbours. They have brought my portrait of Bhuri with them so we can share it together. Lee takes the photograph you see here of a proud son with his smiling mother. It fills me up, to be here to see it and I’m freshly reminded why painting portraits can be such a great joy.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

Outside the Louvre, Paris
Outside the Louvre, Paris

If you’ve ever been to the Louvre or the Prado, the National Gallery in London or the Met in New York – let alone the Hermitage – you will know these great galleries are vast and packed with mile on mile of treasures. Got an afternoon to spare? Don’t attempt one of these museums – or rather, don’t be rash enough to try to cram all they contain into a few short hours. It is possible to OD on Art, to see so much you stop seeing at all, and stumble out into the daylight overloaded and numb.

You might want to whisper this, but what if you’re not really into Medieval Altar Pieces, or endless Madonnas, or more Saints than you ever knew existed? It’s OK! Many people share your secret. You don’t have to look at them. You can just go straight to the rooms full of the stuff you do want to see – no one will know.

If I have limited time, my first stop is always the gallery book shop. Here you can thumb quickly through the gallery catalogue, discover the things you really must see, consult the guidebook and go straight to them, guilt free! If I’m in London, there are a couple of old friends I have to visit – two Rembrandts and a Caravaggio. I know where they are in the National Gallery and go right to them if I only have a few minutes – admission there is by donation, so I can just pop in and say hello.

The halls of the Louvre
The halls of the Louvre

Of course, if you have more time – the whole day perhaps, or a couple of days so that you can split your visit into manageable chunks – you can try and see it all. Sometimes wandering from room to room in an unfamiliar gallery yields wonderful surprises and not consulting the guide first makes entering each room a voyage of discovery. When I went to the Prado, specifically to see the Velasquez’s, I let the rest of the collection take me by surprise. It was thrilling! To come into a room and stumble on Hieronymus Bosch was a revelation – likewise Roger van de Weyden’s ‘Descent from the Cross’ – masterpieces I have loved for years and yet known only from books, suddenly in front of me – and perfectly preserved, their jewel-like colours as fresh as the day they were painted nearly 500 years ago. Wonderful! A long room full of Raphaels. Rubens for a hundred yards. A fabulous and unexpected Van Dyck. Marvelous Spanish painters that were new to me – and so much more. I was glad, for once, that I had not prepped for this visit, so that the whole thing was an unfolding dream.

My first visit to the Louvre was quite different, we had very little time and company that had a low threshold for artistic exposure, so I picked up the catalogue and we sat down for coffee. We quickly agreed things that we would all like to see and made directly for them. I was happy to see the Rembrandts and Vermeers and Caravaggio’s scandalous and wonderful ‘Death of the Virgin’, Sharon enjoyed a breeze through the Egyptian collection and my daughter’s boyfriend loved the ceilings, so everyone was happy.

In the Louvre viewing The Fortune Teller by Caravaggio
In the Louvre viewing ‘The Fortune Teller’ by Caravaggio

If you have the time and like a challenge, make yourself see the parts of these magnificent galleries you thought you might like to miss. You might stumble on an artist you have never heard of and find you love or discover that, actually, those Medieval Altar painters really knew what they were doing and that their beautifully preserved works are real treasures you’d have hated yourself for missing. And if you want to fall in love with the Madonna, Sassoferato’s simply exquisite portrait in the National Gallery is a great place to begin.

Sassoferato's Madonna in The National Gallery, London
Picture of Sassoferato’s Madonna taken during a visit to The National Gallery, London

Above all, there is no substitute for seeing great paintings in person, it’s a visceral, thrilling experience that no photograph of them can ever match. No matter how familiar you think you are with a work from books, the real thing will always yield surprises, and be so much richer. You will likely be poorer however, especially if you’re like me, because having found all of these new artists, you now have to buy the books!


Portrait of Johnny Jonas by David Goatley

Everyone needs a hero. Not the kind in tights and capes, but someone out in front of them to admire and emulate, somebody who has already achieved the kind of things you are trying to get to. This is certainly true for artists.

When I first began painting I was inspired by Rembrandt, as I’ve said. I didn’t believe I could be Rembrandt – I’m not delusional – but I wanted him out in front of me like some kind of Grail. So, while he remained the unattainable goal to shoot for, I needed to pick someone as a first hero who was doing things I could maybe realistically achieve if I worked hard enough, things I could learn from to help me get started. I was very fortunate in meeting a real live artist – Johnny Jonas – who offered to show me ‘a few tricks’ and who was kind enough to encourage me to believe I could do what he did – even if, as I was to discover – it wasn’t as easy as he made it look. Johnny was my first hero and he remains a dear and valued friend to this day. He became a true mentor as well as a friend. I was lucky.

Portrait of a Woman by Johnny Jonas

What if you are not similarly fortunate in meeting someone like Johnny? Well, there are plenty of ‘how to’ books on portrait painting, some of them a little older now and perhaps not as easy to find in your local store, but they are out there if you search on line. Books by artists like John Howard Sanden, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Tom Coates, Burt Silverman, Chris Saper and so many more who have had wonderful careers and offer great practical tips and advice. If you are keen to develop as an oil painter, Richard Schmid’s book ‘Alla Prima – Everything I know about Oil Painting’ available at: www.RichardSchmid.com is the Bible. Essential on any oil painter’s shelf. These are all terrific representational painters, living in the real world, who are themselves in awe of past masters like Rembrandt, Sargent and Velasquez, so the goals they set can seem more attainable and less impossible to ever reach.

Images of How To books - essential reading for new artists
Essential reading

Many of today’s successful artists offer instructional DVD’s rather than books and these are wonderful tools for learning. On DVD you can actually watch how they work, see them make their first decisions, mix colours and build the foundations of a portrait before bringing it to a wonderful conclusion. Everyone has a subtly different approach, a different choice of palette, prefers different brushes and so on. I find it’s wonderful to see as many as I can and learn from them all. There’s no one way of painting, no single formula, but there are fundamentals of drawing, tone, colour temperature and edge control that all these artists aim for, goals they would all agree on, even if they set out for them by different routes. Find what works for you.

Fortunately for all of us, many of today’s great portraitists offer workshops. These may be expensive to attend, hard to get into, and often far from where you live, but they can make a big difference in discovering the way forward. And how often do you get to be in the same room as a hero? I learned an enormous amount from a week with Burt Silverman when I was already 20 years into my career and would love to spend time in workshops with other of my heroes. There is always so much more to learn.

DVDs and books by portrait artist Burton Silverman
My Burton Silverman collection!

When I first started I looked at work I thought I just might be able to do if I practiced enough. As I got closer to those first targets, I found the goalposts shifted and I was looking at work that was tougher to match, techniques and skill sets that were further into the distance. New heroes. By trying to copy them, by experimenting with their materials, approaches and techniques I discovered things that worked for me and began to grow. I’m still doing it, still looking towards the gods on Mt. Olympus, still scrambling up the slopes, scraping my knees, but the example of those heroes keeps me climbing.

For the past 26 years I’ve also been teaching classes and workshops of my own, passing on all I’ve learned and growing further through the process. That so many people have wanted to learn from me is a big responsibility. Perhaps in my own small way I have may have been a bit of a hero to them and whilst I certainly don’t see myself that way, I am proud to be a part of the chain of learning through doing that goes all the way back through my heroes to the Masters of the past.

If I had said ‘It’s Rembrandt or bust’ right at the outset, I’d have doomed myself to a lifetime of disappointment, but by picking more mortal heroes I have managed to keep learning – and I hope I always will.