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!

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.