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

The Captive

Portraits can be powerful tools. Think of the endlessly reproduced giant faces of Chairman Mao, Stalin or Hitler that were designed to make them seem all seeing and all powerful. Omnipresence through image. Or the portraits of kings and nobles, painted to project majesty and power – or, perhaps, the gentle faces of all those Madonnas or metaphysically detached Christs, designed to be venerated and adored.

Portraits can be part of revolutions too, remember those glorious proletarian banner carriers of Soviet art, or Liberty leading the people in Delacroix’s famous painting? These images are meant to provoke, or encourage, to reinforce some kind of belief, they were never merely beautiful, although some of them undoubtedly are. Sometimes a face can focus us on a cause, can give a recognizable personality to something that seemed impersonal and remote. Putting a human face to an issue can make all the difference in how we engage with it.

Most of the time my own work does not aspire to such lofty ideals, the everyday life of a portrait painter is about celebrating the love or admiration we have for one another, either on a personal level or in recognition of more public achievements, but every now and again I am given the opportunity to paint something that seeks to make a difference. I can look back gratefully at the group portrait I made of Haitian orphans that was part of a fund-raising campaign that rebuilt their orphanage, or the portrait of a Hausa King that has helped open doors to aid and relief work where none was possible before and be glad I could help in some small way.

This past week I was at my studio away from home, in rural Connecticut, when I was asked if I would consider painting Leah Shabiru.

In the Connecticut studio (photo by Lee Cantelon)

Leah is a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl who was kidnapped in a raid by Boko Haram, Nigeria’s terrifying Islamic militant group, back in February of this year. Many other girls were taken with her, but they have all been released. Leah alone remains captive because she refuses to renounce her Christian faith. Unlike every other instance where Boko Haram have seized the headlines by kidnapping girls, this time we have a name. All those other girls, numbering in the hundreds, taken over the past few years and subjected to every imaginable indignity and trauma, remain largely anonymous – especially to the outside world. The suffering of all those girls has been terrible and many of those released have been left physically and mentally scarred for life. Only their families and those who work to bring help to them know who they are. Leah could be the face for all of them – a face to build a campaign around perhaps. But there is only one photograph of her and it does not tell the story that needs to be told. I felt I had to try to make a picture that did.

Looking at that one picture of Leah, taken in happier times, dressed in a white and yellow turban, glasses pushed high on her forehead, and a vivid silk shirt – I saw a snapshot of a pretty girl enjoying life – innocent and lovely. Thankfully it does not hint at her present condition. I did not want to simply copy someone else’s picture of a girl I have never met, but to find a way of portraying a brave girl in an unimaginable situation, a girl whose faith is all she has to cling to.

The first painting underway (photo by Lee Cantelon)

For two days I worked on a small painting in which I changed the colours of her clothes and reimagined a setting, trying to make something new, that would be my own, out of the limited reference available. At the end of the second day I felt that, whilst a picture was taking shape, something was missing, it wasn’t telling the story I needed to tell. I went to bed anxious and uncertain, knowing that Peter Fretheim, the missionary who had hoped I could make this painting, would be here the following evening, eager to see what I had done. It didn’t help that Lee Cantelon, my good friend who had introduced us, had told Peter a picture was taking shape and had emailed pictures of work in progress enthusiastically. It was a night of uneasy dreams.

I awoke early with a clear vision of a very different painting in my head. I hurried over to the studio and looked at the picture I’d spent the last two days on. Could it be altered to fit this new vison? I made a few tentative strokes and realised that last night’s paint was still too wet to take the massive alterations I had planned. I hesitated, there was so little time. I went back into the house and made some tea. What to do? I had a painting that could be completed, but I was now certain it was not the painting I wanted.

I had missed what I was aiming for. I had to trust the vision I had woken with, to try and get what I had seen out and onto a fresh canvas in just a few short hours if I wasn’t going to disappoint everyone, including myself.

Luckily, Leah’s face was now familiar to me. The struggles I’d had with painting her colouring had begun to resolve in the first portrait and I began again with all I had learned in mind, knowing both what to avoid and with a clear idea of where I was going. I painted hard and fast, closing my eyes occasionally to see the painting inside my head more clearly. Three hours later I had the sense to stop. As I sat back I heard the sound of a car pulling up outside. Lee came in moments later. “Did you finish it?” he asked. I pointed to the new painting on the easel. “Wow, you’re kidding me” he said, ‘that wasn’t here this morning. Where did that come from?” I could only point upwards and smile.

Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ

Yes, it is a sketch, it isn’t beautifully finished, and yes, some of the modelling in the face could be further refined, but the painting, loose as it is, tells the story. Leah Shabiru, Captive for Christ.

Peter and his wife Miriam, who know the Shabiru’s, were thrilled. They felt this was an image that they could use widely to raise awareness of Leah’s story and give a face to what is happening in that troubled region. I can only hope it helps make part of the difference they are trying to achieve. I’m just glad to have had a chance to do this, glad that sometimes paintings can make a difference and thankful for the vision that came with the morning.