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

A Question of Identiy

Self Portrait at 60
Self Portrait by David Goatley: “So Many Selves at 60″, Oil on linen, 40″ x 30”

Identity is not fixed. Here I explored the evolution of my own identity over the years, asking “Am I still the person I see in these previous incarnations of myself?”

Identify is often in the news these days, identify politics, gender identity, the ongoing discussion of racial or religious identity, and whether such things should even be noted or discussed.

Portraits, of course, have always been about identity. Who is this person? Who is revealed behind those eyes? Which begs the question – how much of their true self does the sitter reveal? And can an artist hope to discover a truth behind the person the subject appears to be? We all adopt different personas for different situations. We have public and private faces. The person our families know and love may not be the person we are in business. Actors make a profession of convincing us they are other people, but we are all performers to some degree.

Oil painting of a Japanese born Canadian immigrant with cultural symbolism
“Culture Shift” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

Just recently I had the chance to work with a lovely Japanese lady who has been a Canadian for almost as l long as I – an Englishman – have. She kindly modelled for a workshop I gave and I painted a loose demo oil sketch of here there, which set me thinking about a way of portraying here between the two cultures, in the act of becoming Canadian whilst also being Japanese.

It’s something I, as an immigrant, have thought about a lot – I’m proudly Canadian, but undeniably and thoroughly English and, as I get older, my roots call more insistently. I’ve been making paintings that play with this identity question for quite a while. I’d like to talk about a few of these pictures on the eve of an exhibition at the Union Club of British Columbia that will include 4 of them.

Travis is the kind of guy – you might think – who would be scary to get on the wrong side of. Powerfully built, with a shaved head, you might cast him as a bouncer in a gritty TV drama, but appearances are not the whole story; that smile gives it away, far from fearsome, Travis is a gentle giant.

Painting of a strong but gentle man
“The Gentle Giant” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

Yes, he has enormous arms and shoulders from earlier as a fisherman, but he’s a good natured, kind soul who know works as a special effects artist in the video game industry. He’s one of Sharon’s oldest friends and I painted this study from life when he came up from Atlanta to visit recently, using a very simple palette of predominantly earth colours.

Duncan Regehr is an actor with a long stream of TV and movie roles to his credit but he’s also a painter, sculptor and poet. His own paintings have often featured multiple representations of the same person, so I chose to incorporate this idea into my exploration of his multiple identities.

Painting of "Duncan Regehr" by David Goatley: Oil on canvas, 40" x 30"
“Duncan Regehr” by David Goatley: Oil on canvas, 40″ x 30″

Nick is my daughter’s partner and, like many young people, his identity is a work in progress. His own heritage is mixed and he has added another element to that mix by being adopted into one of our First Nations, where he shares proudly in the ritual of the Sundance with his adoptive father.

With his dreadlock and Rastafarian tattoos, the most obvious visual identity he presents is West Indian – his mother’s roots, and yet spiritually he is closer to the people we once called Indians and now recognized as our First Peoples.

Painting of a Sundancer
“Sundancer” by David Goatley: Oil on linen, 36″ x 24″

Hanif Kureishi, CBE, is one of England’s finest contemporary writers, both as a novelist and for theatre and film. You may remember his Oscar nominated movie “My Beautiful Launderette” – and if you haven’t read his novel “The Buddha of Suburbia” you should. Most of Hanif’s work has dealt with questions of identity as his own experience of growing up as the son of an Indian father and English mother in a time of heightened racial tension gave him a unique view of what identity might mean. Here, I’ve captured him at his writing desk gazing out over the streets of Sheppard’s Bush in the London he loves.

"Hanif Kureishi" by David Goatley: Oil on canvas 36" x 24"
“Hanif Kureishi” by David Goatley: Oil on canvas 36″ x 24″


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.