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