A General Discussion of the Portrait Process

As I’ve said on my website, I believe a portrait is a celebration, of love, of life, or of achievement. Nobody is too unimportant or ordinary to be celebrated,  for we are all valued by those who care for us. To own a portrait is not to be vain, but to acknowledge that the subject matters to those who care for them, whether in a family context or in business.

Reluctant Sitters

If you’re nervous about being the subject of a portrait – don’t be.

Everyone is unique. Each one of us is worth celebrating. No one is not “important” enough to be portrayed or “beautiful” enough. If someone has commissioned a portrait of you its because you are important or beautiful or special to them.

I’ve never had a sitter who did not enjoy the experience looking back, no matter how uncertain they were going in.

To Smile or Not to Smile?

A flashing smile may work in a photograph – it captures 125th of a second, and our eye accepts that – we are used to photographic images. We know a painting represents many hours of work so what we believe in for 125th of a second becomes less believable over hours, weeks or months. It can work, and increasingly portraits include them, but in traditionally its best avoided. That’s not to say you can’t have a hint of a smile or a pleasant expression in a portrait but it should be natural and not forced.

The fact is no one sitting for a portrait from life can hold a toothy smile for hour after hour, this is why you see so few smiling portraits before the age of photography.

It’s definitely not about ego

Portraits are very, very rarely about vanity or ego, very few are commissioned by the subjects themselves, though occasionally a parent commissioning a portrait of their child, or a partner commissioning one of a loved one, can be persuaded to be part of the picture. Portraits are more often about the feelings of someone else for the subject so there is no vanity involved. I have never had someone say “paint me because I am beautiful”.

Of the people who commission portraits of themselves, almost all did so as an enquiry into themselves, a taking stock of who they had become, an exploration or right-of-passage.

Each of us is worth celebrating in this way. We all matter to someone, each of us has a story that deserves to be told. There is no ego in that.

Telling the Story

Often the subject themselves is enough in a portrait – their face tells the story of their lives as eloquently as a novel. The right pose and lighting will bring out that story. Sometimes adding background elements can help say a little more. A landscape for someone who loves the outdoors; a garden for someone who created it; maybe a beautiful home seen in the distance; mementos from a career; or props from a career in progress that help identify the profession of the sitter; or perhaps a part of the institution or office building they work in.

Choosing this setting should be part of the collaboration with the artist.

Keep it simple – don’t clutter a painting with so much that it detracts from the sitter – they are the subject, not the car, the house, the boat, dog, cat, and distant forest.

Anything you include should have meaning and help the picture. If it weakens the image, leave it out.

Depth – A painting should continue speaking to you

Any good portrait should make a viewer feel they know the sitter, that this is a person you’d like to know better. You might have a pose with the subject looking off into a distance or away from the viewer – what are they thinking? What held their interest out of the frame? A little mystery, or a little good humour, is engaging and keeps us coming back for more.

And in years to come, when you look back at when this picture was made, it should take you back to that time, those thoughts, and help you remember who the subject was then and how you felt about them, or to ponder your younger self and reflect on all that you did not know back then and what your dreams were.

The importance of a preparatory sketch

As I have said all through this website, making any portrait is a collaboration between the artist, the subject(s), and the person commissioning it. The best way to be sure everyone is on the same page, before the final painting is begun, is through a compositional sketch. Looking at a preparatory sketch, you will be able to see exactly what your artist has planned, so that there will be no surprises at the end.

A sketch gives everyone a chance to make changes if anything does not feel right, before too much time is put into the painting itself.

If I find I have more than one strong idea of how a painting might work, I often make two sketches, to give my clients a choice of approach. These sketches need not be very finished, but they should give an accurate idea of where everything is going to fit on the final canvas. This is particularly important for a group portrait where there are so many problems to solve, or when working from photographs back at the artist’s studio, where a client will not see the painting process itself (in live sittings the painting is taking shape before your eyes so changes can be made early into the process if necessary).

Once a sketch has been approved the painting should follow its layout so it will look as expected at the end.

Some artists who work exclusively from photographs will assemble the image they are going to work from in Photoshop and show you this image for your approval before they begin.

Of course, ideas evolve in the making, and a finished painting is more complete than a preparatory sketch. When a painting is complete, there may be one or two small and subtle changes you’d like made. An artist who guarantees their work and your satisfaction will happily make these.

Obviously, it is not reasonable for a client who has a approved a compositional sketch to decide they want a completely different composition when they see the finished picture – the sketch approval process protects everyone including the artist, from this. Small changes, to expression, for example, are reasonable requests.

Timing – The Artist’s Schedule

Most busy artists will be able to tell you when you can reasonably expect your portrait to be completed before they begin. If you have a deadline – an unveiling date for example – in mind, they should be able to arrange their schedule to meet it, or tell you honestly if it will not be possible.

Some artists are booked many months – ever years – in advance, but they will help you plan a completion date for your project.

It is usual for artists to take a deposit, representing a commitment from you as they commit to securing your place in their schedule.

Images of paintings and
photographs by David Goatley
are copyright David Goatley

Premier Jim Prentice Portrait & Unveiling

Waiting for the unveiling – note the balustrade upper right – this is similar to the one I used in the painting.

It was with great anticipation that I picked up the phone to talk to the Hon. Jim Prentice, Alberta’s 16th Premier, about how we might work together to create his official portrait. The Right Hon. Kim Campbell, Canada’s former Prime Minister, had recommended me to him, kindly saying I had helped make sitting for her official Parliamentary portrait an enjoyable experience and that the painting had more than fulfilled her expectations. We talked about how the sittings might work, what his hopes for his portrait were (simple, contemporary, and looking towards the future), and agreed he would come to my studio in autumn.

I hung up feeling elated, really looking forward to spending time with this fascinating man. Sadly, it was not to be. The news of his tragic death in a plane crash followed all too soon.

As his family struggled to deal with their appalling loss, the Government let me know that both they and the family wished to honour Mr. Prentice’s wishes and have me paint the portrait as we had discussed. They would supply photographs and support my liaising with the family.

Initial compositional sketches (not meant to be likenesses) for consideration of poses

People in public life are photographed constantly. At functions, rallies, making speeches, shaking hands, waving to crowds and so on. These photographs are an important part of the public record, but they are rarely taken with the needs of a portrait painter in mind. There were a few I thought I could work with if I perhaps used a body double to help establish a pose and worked carefully to create a suitable setting. Using these, I made 3 entirely different loose compositional sketches incorporating different backgrounds and props. These sketches are not intended to be true likenesses but to begin a dialogue with the family.

Then a new photograph came to light, a shot taken at a family event, Mr. Prentice in a red check shirt gazing into the distance, seen slightly from below. It was just a head and collar shot, but as soon as I saw it I could see how it could work. Imagining him looking off into the future, I saw him leant on the impressive marble balustrade I had noticed when I visited the Alberta Legislature for the unveiling of my portrait of Col. (ret’d) Lt. Governor Don Ethell, with the gleaming marble walls behind him, throwing him into sharp focus.

Compositional sketch that became the basis of the official portrait

I built up a pile of books on the kitchen table and laid a plank across them to create my balustrade and posed a model, of similar build to Mr. Prentice, in a dark suit, lighting the setup carefully to match the head shot I’d chosen and then created a new charcoal sketch, combining all of these elements. The family caught the vision from the sketch and I set to bringing it to life on linen.

The Hon. Jim Prentice, 16thPremier of Alberta oil linen, 48″ x 36″ by David Goatley

I knew it had worked when Mr. Prentice’s sister Jo-Anne visited my studio. She looked at it with tears in her eyes and said “That’s Jim”. Happily the rest of the family agreed.

It was truly moving for me to attend the unveiling on the 4th of February and hear Mrs. Prentice say she liked the painting, how pleased she is about what it captures about her husband, and to say it with such feeling. I had wanted to get it right for her and her daughters and they were so kind it letting me see that I did.

Unveiling of my official portrait of Premier Jim Prentice
at the Alberta Legislature Feb. 4, 2019

The ceremony opened with a haunting song from Chief Tony Alexis, who had worked with Mr. Prentice closely on indigenous issues.

Chief Tony Alexis, Chief of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation

As the last echoes of the song died away, it was followed by heartfelt tributes from Her Hon. the Lt. Governor of Alberta, Premier Rachael Notley, Leader of the Official Opposition and Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel.

Mrs. Karen Prentice closed with a moving tribute to her husband and her hope that his portrait might inspire those children who will see it over future years to dare to imagine that one day, perhaps, they might be a future Premier.

Edmonton Journal short video on the unveiling
Media Scrum!

Colour & Perception – Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma” and Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”

Art is many things to many people. I’ve heard it described as a celebration of beauty, which is a joyous thing. Beauty is something we all need more of in our lives. What we don’t need more of is superficiality – there’s more than enough of that surrounding us already.

Art can be ugly too. It can be difficult, challenging, confrontational, thought provoking, political, religious, irreligious, complex or simple. It can be purely entertaining or deeply profound. It can make an immediate, readily understood impact, or require a major effort of understanding on the part of a viewer. Sometimes the less there is on a canvas, the longer the accompanying label seems to grow.

For me, one way of thinking about art is to understand it as the application of intelligence, technique and creativity to a subject to make you see the truth of it in a new way.  The familiar becomes new. We see something we thought we knew differently and are forced to think about it afresh. Sometimes it can upend our perceptions or make us face something we had not wanted to see. Or it can make us realize that something we barely saw at all is meaningful and worth looking at with new eyes. It seems to me that the best art begins with a strong idea – it is about something.

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and children in a car
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

These thoughts don’t just apply to painting, but to all forms of artistic expression.  I am a painter, but I really love film – for me film was the great artistic medium to emerge in the last century. Obviously, it can be a visual feast, but it can also be highly literary. Great films take us into places we may have never been, bring us alongside other lives in ways that are visceral and real and engage our emotions powerfully just as literature or music does.

I was lucky enough to see two films in the past few days – each using the power of colour artfully to make us see something differently.  Roma, Alfonso Cuaron’s black and white homage to the maid that raised him, is beautiful to look at. Imagine every great photographer you care to think of contributing a little, frame by frame. You could freeze it almost anywhere and simply appreciate the still image.  

Image from the movie Roma by Alfonso Cuaron showing a woman and child lying below a line of laundry
Movie still from Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma. Photo: NETFLIX

Shooting a film in black and white abstracts each moment and makes another, almost nostalgic, reality   of it, forcing you to concentrate on light and composition. It is consciously a look and feel from a time that is past, accentuating that this is art made of memory, in a way.  The performances are powerful too – no wonder this is hotly tipped for an Oscar.  It is available on Netflix.

Image partially colorized from film footage of WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Meanwhile, adding colour to footage that was black white and has left all of us with a collective memory of a black and white war that took place impossibly long ago, when people were grainy and indistinct and moved like marionettes, is a stroke of genius in Peter Jacksons’ “They Shall Not Grow Old”. It brings the reality of a war that is sliding beyond living memory screaming into the present and forces you to confront the living, breathing, humanity of these men and the hell they lived through.

Colorized film footage of WWI men resting behind the lines from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

I remember the old men those young men became, remember talking to my grandfather who went through the entire war and was forever altered by it. It was only yesterday, really, and now they are all gone. This is a film that will show future generations who never knew these men that they were more than characters in a history book.

I can’t quite believe a film of this outstanding quality was screened for just two days, in limited theatres, with almost no advertising. Despite this, the screening we attended in Victoria was sold out and left its audience profoundly moved. Peter Jackson worked with the Imperial War Museum Film and the BBC Sound archives to create a vivid, unforgettable and never before seen telling of the war on the western front by those who were there. The War Museum had asked him to make “something” out of their 100 hour archive of grainy black and white, hand-cranked camera, silent footage. Their only brief was “make it a fitting tribute to the centenary of the war and make it something we haven’t seen before”.

Colorized film footage of a trench in WWI from the movie They Shall Not Grow Old. Credit: Warner Bros. Entertainment
Photo: Warner Bros. Entertainment

Working with his digital processing and effects people in NZ. He first of all took that aging and deteriorating footage and cleaned it up, then corrected all the various shooting speeds to a believable 24 frames a second, before colouring it, so that it lives like never before.  Of course, the original film is silent, so he had actors read the words – captured by lip readers – of those seen speaking and authentic sounds added, so that the mud squelches, the shells whine and explode and the guns chatter and the soldiers laugh and joke with us.  The result brings these men gloriously alive and makes their deaths freshly poignant and senseless…

The film is voiced by a carefully edited commentary from around 100 British soldiers, telling it like it was, the horrors and the humour, the everyday realities, the dreams and nightmares, the camaraderie, the loss, the inability to ever share it all with civilians when they came home. I don’t think there can have been a dry eye in the house. It is a simply stunning achievement and will surely become the definitive telling of what it was like to be a part of that war as an ordinary soldier. There is no history of battles, no attempt to explain what it was all about, no Generals, no tactics, just those voices reminiscing, often with good humour or great sadness – what it was like to join up, train, then live and fight in trenches.  This is how it was. I’ve read a great deal about that war and have a vivid imagination, but this put you on the spot and confronted you like no reading can.

This is art. A masterpiece. See it if you can.

Now, how to make art with a brush that speaks like these films? What a challenge!

Painting an Old Friend

Beckenham, South London, when we were growing up

Looking back is sometimes more fulfilling as we get older – there’s just so much more to look back on. Garnet and I grew up a few streets apart, went to the same primary school and shared many friends in common. We spent a fair bit of time together in our late teens and early 20’s. We discovered life drawing in the same evening class, led by the wonderful Harvey St. Clair. It was Harvey who convinced me to accept a place at Camberwell School of Art, whilst Garnet opted not to go to Art School. I remember Garnet’s distinctive, powerful drawings, and his gifts with a paint brush, which he went on to use in so many ways, as a muralist, faux finisher, and occasional painter.

Whilst the rest of us became wrapped up in trying to launch careers, Garnet chose to avoid the competitive rat race and opted for a simpler, alternative, lifestyle. I remember him running the café in the park, doing trompe-l’oeil commissions for local homes, and evenings of song around the piano in his rambling Victorian flat. He was always a great story teller and bon-vivant. Later, when I moved, first to Sussex then on to Canada, we lost touch, but I never forgot him. Images of him singing, in a tattered evening jacket with a version of the Palm Court Orchestra, would occasionally flip through my mind.

A few years ago I decided to Google him to try and catch up and was surprised to see someone had made a film about him – “Garnet’s Gold” – which was premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival, and there he was, large as life, talking about it on YouTube. The next time I was back in South London I decided to try and find him. I wandered in to the pub we used to frequent, just on the off-chance, and asked if he ever came in, never thinking he might, all these years later.

“Garnet? Oh yes. Most days. He’ll be here around 4:00, he usually sits there.” I left a note and said I’d be back. In a world where so much has changed, it gave me a warm feeling to discover that I might still find and old friend in a familiar spot, when so much else has gone.

And so, soon after 4:00, I walked back in and there he was, as promised, seated at the bar puzzling over The Times crossword. It was a wonderful reunion, he’d barely changed at all, and 30 years fell away as though the last time we had met were yesterday. I felt the occasion deserved preserving so I took photos with my phone.

“The Regular” by David Goatley, oil on linen, 24″ x 30″

Later, back at my Studio, I felt, with a few changes, it might make a painting and “The Regular” was born. I made the pub walls red, as I remembered them rather than the white they are now, removed the gaming machines and simplified the background leaving just enough clutter to convey the atmosphere of the pub. Garnet himself makes a terrific subject, the warm of the character of his face draws you in to the picture. I did change the colour of his coat to Barber Green, rather than black, as it added to the colour harmony of the painting.

The film, “Garnets Gold” (produced by Ed Perkins) is well worth seeing if a little difficult to find online. I found a version on YouTube, now renamed “The Lost Gold of the Highlands” – published by BBC Four’s Storyville (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zw_IEV3vLSw), and thoroughly enjoyed it. It is a bittersweet glimpse into the life of a warm and wistful eccentric, a loveable character I am proud to call an old friend.

Garnet reading his poem “I Nearly” from The Lost Gold of the Highlands

The Lost Gold of the Highlands may be seen at: