Portrait Commission

Today was the first day working on a commission to paint Jonathan Taylor, headmaster of Bootham school in York. The school has a long tradition of commissioning portraits of headmasters dating back to the middle of the 19th century and when finished, this one will hang alongside the others.

Painting away from my studio is a less comfortable experience for me and means that I have to be far more organised than usual – organisation, as anyone who knows me will attest, not being my strong point. I have an old battered suitcase that I used for holidays when a child, stuffed full of tubes of paint. I have my travelling easel, palette, brushes, canvas, jars for turpentine, rags and all sorts of sundry items that I will, or at least might, need. I set these things out in as close approximation of my studio as I can manage and prepare to begin.

Jonathan has placed a chair in front of his bookshelves with a window to his left. The arrangement suits me and I have him concentrate on an object somewhere over my left shoulder so that I he is not square on to me.

Portraiture is a peculiar and complex discipline: it is a visual description of the relationship between artist and sitter; each with a role to play. I like sitters to be comfortable, but never entirely ‘at ease’; I want them to concentrate and forget to concentrate. I like to watch them ‘behaving’ – The person we want to be, often revealing the true self.

The first marks on a canvas are usually drawing in charcoal. This is simply about establishing space or edges and happens quickly. I think for the sitter, these early stages are probably the most interesting as they can see a lot of progress in a relatively short period of time. The next stage is to establish tonality and begin to build volume and weight through the application of fairly thin layers of oil paint. Also, I like to have the canvas covered with paint as soon as possible!

Unfortunately the day is overcast and dark and it is not long before the interior lights begin to take over from what little daylight there has been. we finish the sitting after two hours and though there is a long way to go, I’m quite pleased with the progress so far.