Tuesday, 24 May 2016


Olivia aged 3

Oils on linen canvas.
40 cm × 30 cm.

A Private portrait of my daughter. 

This one has taken longer with many stages and drying to wait for. I consider it finished now and it’ll be left for months now before varnishing. There may be the odd bit to touch up, but if I didn’t do anything else to “improve” it, I’d still be happy.

The portrait is of a moment on a camping holiday in Devon in the summer of 2015. Olivia was singing (“For the first time in forever” from Frozen) and running in the meadow and exploring the creatures living in the grasses. She was absorbed in the antics of a ladybird crawling on her hand. My wife took several photos of her, but one formed the basis of the painting and a second one was used because the tilt of her head and the position of her hands was better and less awkward. So it’s really a composite of two similar images. Apart from that, few changes were made as the photos were so good and well composed - as I’d expect from Sarah. A main one is that I've made her fingers slightly shorter than they really are. If I'd copied them as they are people would always think they are too long. Sometimes truthfulness in portraits can be problematic! The sky is more detailed than the photograph as the camera washed out the background a bit. The likeness to my daughter isn’t perfect of course, but I’m happy that it captures her character and the moment. What photographs struggle with is recreating the softness of skin, and shadows are often exaggerated, so I did paint her face and arms as you would really see it in afternoon summer light, rather than as the camera records it.

There are several things that I feel pull this together. There’s foreground and background interest and the composition helps the eye to move around. The yurt in the background gives a story and context. Her skirt and top are in harmony with the sky and of course the summer grass colour complements the blue sky. Her hands are so expressive here and she looks at ease and absorbed. Hands can intimidate, but although left to the very end, they came together much more easily than expected - without needing to paint too realistically. 

The most difficult parts were the hair and grass. I puzzled over the grass for days, building up layers over shadows, scratching, adding negative shapes, highlights and more shadows until it came together. Her hair was even more of a challenge. Painting nearly white blonde hair was a nightmare. Again, many layers and for some shadows there’s ultramarine blue which seems counter-intuitive, but the red end made her look jaundiced. White is often too opaque and can look chalky, so small amounts of light yellow were added which can actually look brighter in sunlight than white.

The rest was pretty straightforward to be honest. The yellow ochre underpainting gives a lovely warm glow to everything (the photograph really doesn’t capture that glow and accuracy in hues). The drawing was done with a grid as accuracy was paramount in this instance, although I have accidentally strayed in her head shape which has taken a little from the likeness. As with any portrait, any tiny deviation in line, shape or form makes a disproportionate difference to accuracy of likeness, but on the whole I’m pretty happy with this one.

Just to say too, that painting on a higher quality linen canvas was a real pleasure. What a difference.

Another portrait to follow in a couple of months time, which may be done in a looser style.

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