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18/04/2011 / jenniferrobsonartist

A wee bit aboot Portraits

Portraiture and Commission work

Commission work can be great to do, I get a lot out of it; meeting people and being challenged to work with them and help them achieve what it is they are after can be very satisfying. I understand how beautiful it can be and how special it is to receive a drawing, because from the minute my nephew was born he was so gorgeous and luscious to look at, I wanted to draw and paint him straight away. A drawing or a painting for me, catches something more of a person, something mysterious and a little magical. When it happens, whilst working on a person it can be the strangest thing. You do something and you are not even sure what you have done, and its like suddenly ‘there they are, that person is on the page and it’s wonderful, because when you think about it its just paint and a paintbrush!

I have had a lot of different commissions, pets, horses and dogs especially, commemorative corporate portraits, families, girlfriends, babies and children. And sometimes people want pictures of themselves, perhaps in a way to remember who they were or celebrate a time when they are at their happiest. Each time I make a commission it is a different learning experience, not only technically but emotionally sometimes, depending on how much of a challenge I have set myself.

What I love about portraiture is, I love skin tones and the way the light hits skin, and how amazing it is to recreate this effect with oil or pencil. The effects of layers of transparent colours reacting to each other as you work on a painting never fails to enthral me. Each time its magical and I learn something new and I think its these epiphanys that keep me doing it. There are so many ways to work, so many marks you can make and slight changes to your methods or mediums can create such wonderful new avenues for your work. For instance using a Costa card to paint with or smudging and blending with your fingers can help add textures and more interesting effects on a painting.

The Process

I sometimes work from photos that people love and try to add my own touch to them, occasionally snapshots people have taken can be amazing because of the moment they have captured. Other times I have made portraits where I would take photos myself, I work hard to create a comfortable environment for sitters to pose for me, and am sensitive to people and enjoy the collaboration and dialogue that goes on between artist and sitter.

I usually take about 100 photos and use them as reference, so I can get a good idea of the form as working from one photo can be deceptive. I sit down with my client and we have a chat about which pose or photo they wish to go for over a coffee. We go through photos I have selected that I think would make a good piece and they choose their favourite. I work in most mediums, from oils, pencil to graphite, watercolour and mixed media. Once all the details are finalised I then get started. Depending on the size and medium it takes from 2 weeks for a drawing to 1 – 6 months to complete an oil painting commission.

If its an oil work, I tend to prefer working on board these days, as it has a better bite and flatter surface to draw line on and I use a lovely gesso primer which is a glorious white fresh surface to work on. I start by drawing straight onto the primed board with oil paint or depending how I am approaching the painting I draw first in charcoal as its east to rub off if you make mistakes.

I block in the main dark areas with an umber/sienna mix and then I get straight into blocking in colours. I tend to exaggerate from the photo the intensity of colour and play around with contrasts, I like the eyes to really stand out as I feel that’s where you communicate most feeling, and so I usually make sure when I am choosing photographs that there is a twinkle in the eye.

Once I have the drawing right its very exciting after that, because I can get right into playing with colour. Working with portraiture can be very different form my own work, due to the limitations placed because of the need to get things right in order for a portrait to look like someone. In the same way it can all go so right by doing something different and being bold and daring – it can also go so very wrong!! I have had portraits with giant noses, cauliflower ears ( as my dad called it) and one missing eyebrow because I made such a mistake I had to wipe the whole eyebrow off and start again! It’s funny now but it’s really not at the time…!!

I need to keep an eye on myself because occasionally you can get carried away or lose concentration and if you work too long on a piece you can overwork it to the point you lose the original drawing. This can be a disaster and add a lot of extra time and stress to the work. I did a commission last year of three children and this happened with one of the pieces of which two of the children took me the estimated amount of hours I thought it would take (which was fab!) but the other one took me triple the time. Very stressful!! But I learned a hard lesson, so it was good in the end.

So, you can understand how wonderful the feeling is when I have completed a commission – after all that. It is like I have won and have beaten it! And there is nothing like the feeling after you have been through all that and your client walks in and starts crying (because they love it of course!!) When you see a person’s face when they walk in and see it, it makes it all worthwhile, it’s fantastic and its lovely to be part of making something that is so meaningful and important to them. It’s just lovely.


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