Old-School Selfies. Some Call It A Portrait
Forget your camera phones, the time-honoured portrait is far classier
Call it the backlash against the selfie, the urge to rediscover artistry or simply a wish to put a memory on our walls rather than on our phones—but the art of portrait painting is thriving. Centuries ago, portrait painting used to be the preserve of the aristocracy, tycoons and royalty. Today, everyone’s at it and the desire to immortalise ourselves, our families and even our pets in oil, watercolour or acrylic is greater than ever. “Portrait painting has become incredibly popular,” says Greg Page-Turner, founder of Commission A Portrait in the United Kingdom. “We represent more than 200 artists and I’d say that the volume of business has doubled over the years to about 400 portraits now.”
Page-Turner says the modern concept of portrait painting is light years away from portraiture of the past, where severe-looking lords stared balefully from heavy gilt frames. “In the post-war years, when things were more austere, portrait painting was seen as something ostentatious. Today there is more new wealth and we are more self-confident. Having your portrait painted is seen as acceptable.”
It is also highly fashionable, with mainstream interest fuelled by television shows featuring celebrities being painted by different artists, the success of international portrait competitions, and the rise of interest in international art fairs.
Those sitting for a portrait are spoiled for choice when it comes to the medium. Oils, watercolours, acrylics, holograms and computer-generated images provide an endless range of “sitter interpretation”, whatever the subject. Pet portraits are popular (particularly after a dog or cat bereavement) as are weddings, civil ceremonies and anniversary portraits. Sculptures are also possible, although as Page-Turner points out, “The cost of bronze is very high and most people are quite traditional; Henry Moore abstracts are not particularly popular.”
The agency’s site reveals a cornucopia of artists who have created portraits of Sir Dominic Cadbury, Francis Bacon, Martin Scorsese, Ian Botham, Nick Faldo, Earl Spencer, Jack Dee, Sir John Harvey-Jones, Neil Kinnock, the Prince of Wales and the Queen of England.
The portrait painting process varies according to the sitter. Would-be subjects can browse Page-Turner’s site to search a style, price and artist they like, and then organise a meeting to establish the ground rules. “Sometimes people are too busy and photos have to be taken for artists to work from. More often, a work takes several sittings.”
The majority of portraits are in the region of 30 by 25 inches, head-to-waist images with prices ranging between US$6,000 and US$20,000 on average. For the highly acclaimed Wang Yuqi, expect to pay more than US$100,000 and a long wait for your sitting.
This Is How You See You
For artists working in portraiture, it isn’t just about capturing a person at a certain moment. It is about capturing their essence. “They say the camera doesn’t lie, but the images taken from a camera in a split second are not how you are or how you see yourself,” says artist Lucy McKie, who exhibits with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. “By sitting for a portrait, the painter discusses how you see yourself and what’s important to you. A portrait painter aims to create a warm life-like image capturing character from every millimetre of the face.”
For McKie, the portrait process starts with a preliminary meeting followed by several sittings if time permits. “The important thing for me is to communicate with the client and listen. It’s important to understand how the sitter wants to be perceived. I’m being entrusted with that self-image. It’s precious and it’s important to get it right.”
Most of her clients chose to have their portrait painted to celebrate a landmark event such as an anniversary or birthday. “People are more informal when it comes to portraits these days and they have plenty of online resources to make more educated choices about the artist they choose.”
Has McKie been asked to make a sitter more attractive? “I think people are very conscious of the vanity of what they are doing, so they don’t. Their main concern is that the picture looks like them and it is important to go to great lengths to get that right. This is not about the artist. Painting portraits is all about the client. It’s their image you need to get right, not the artist’s. If artists want free expression, they shouldn’t do portraits.”
McKie believes that the price of a good portrait should start at around US$9,000 and rise to about US$30,000, depending on the quality of the work (her prices are on request). Like anything, you are paying for the quality of the work and the time involved. “A lot of work can go into a big group painting where you have a lot of people to paint, compared to a single sitter, and prices will reflect that.”
Any strange portraiture requests? “Oh! I’ve never painted anything particularly strange. The most challenging portraits for me are of those people who have passed away. Without meeting them, it can be challenging to capture their essence.”
Flicking through the online portfolio of Commission A Portrait, it is evident that most of sitters prefer striking natural poses and looking casually relaxed. Only a minority appear to have forgotten their clothes. “Yes, we do have requests for nudes for both men and women. Sometimes it is a gift to a partner,” says Page-Turner. “These are particularly self-confident people.”
By Andy Round