Why Portraiture is Making a Comeback

Call it aspirational living or a backlash to selfie culture, portraiture is back in fashion says PENNY McCORMICK. So who are the Irish portrait painters to commission, and what does the process entail?


A flourishing segment of contemporary art, portraiture has its own A-list of artists. Andrew Salgado, Daphne Todd, Gerhard Richter & Co command respect while President Obama’s endorsement of Baroque ‘n’ roll artist Kehinde Wiley and his wife’s choice of Amy Sherald for their official portraits, dispelled the notion that presidential portraits are ho-hum affairs.

Portraiture is no longer stuffy and is without the social boundaries of its aristocratic origins, which some say can be dated to Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait of 1437. Fashion has played an essential role in this – everyone from Prada to Simone Rocha has referenced portraiture in collections, while the popularity of the portrait prize is indicative of a new interest in the genre. In the UK, the BP Portrait Award has thrived for 39 years, launching careers and trends, while at the time of press, we await the results of the Irish Zurich Portrait Prize 2018. Brendan Rooney, Head Curator, National Gallery of Ireland, was one of the judges tasked with whittling down the initial 300-strong entry to a shortlist of 25. What was he looking for? “There is no single quality that defines good portraiture. As portraits are the result of interaction between a sitter and an artist – however animated or understated that interaction might be – a human element is critical. The challenge the artist faces is to respond to this human element and reveal more about their sitter than is immediately discernible.” 

The shortlisted paintings buck the perception that portraiture is formal – the subjects are often family or friends painted casually with photorealist precision – showing a clear evolution from society portraitists Sir John Lavery and Sir William Orpen, or the quiet honesty of Margaret Clarke.

Hollywood actors have always loved hanging their own likenesses. Actor George Hamilton has had his portrait done eight times (presumably in various shades of burnt sienna), quipping that the experience was like sitting through an MRI. Editor and author Joanna Coles found the experience more relaxing. “It’s very mellow. I’d rather do this than sit with a therapist.” Ultimately, commissioning a portrait is about the luxury of time, rather than a narcissistic exercise. Part of its value is that it took both artist and the sitter time, which is unquantifiable; the sitter is both subject and an integral part of the artistic process. Some acclaimed Irish artists tell us how it works …

Colin Davidson’s portrait of HM The Queen was Commissioned in 2016 by Co-operation Ireland, of which she is a patron. A two hour sitting took place in the Drawing Room of Buckingham Palace.

Colin Davidson’s portraits have won international awards and are found in collections from the Smithsonian Museum in Washington to the National Gallery in Ireland. Commissions have included Bill Clinton, Ed Sheeran, Brad Pitt. Time magazine commissioned Davidson to paint Angela Merkel for its “People of the Year” cover. He lives in Co Down.

“A portrait is not a self-indulgent task. It is in fact a discipline to be aware of the balance between craft and likeness. Portraits can take me between six and twelve months as I often have ten to 15 other paintings on the go at the same time. Sometimes I can only meet my sitter once. This depends on their own time commitments. I take what I’m given and often have no choice. I rely mainly on my drawings which record the movement of the face as we chat. The drawings also deal with likeness. The camera is there to record light, tone and hues, which my line drawings can’t record. I use everything back in my studio to build the painting. “I’m never interested in a “pose”. I’m most interested in a sitter when they are seemingly unaware of me being there, when they are least self-aware.”

Blaise Smith’s painting “My Parents” is one of the 25 shortlisted in the Zurich Portrait Prize 2018 at the National Gallery of Ireland.

Blaise Smith describes himself as an all-rounder who enjoys painting landscapes, still life and machinery as much as portraiture. He painted eight women scientists for the Royal Irish Academy Women on Walls campaign, 2016 and says a dream commission would be to paint the Irish Women’s Rugby Team.

“Portraiture is hard: extreme drawing and colour accuracy is required, and more than that – intuition. You’ve got to know when a person has settled into their inner self, their comfort zone, and then try to catch that. 

“I have painted my parents many times – they were great at letting me set up an easel more or less anywhere when I was younger, despite the inconvenience. However, I had never painted them both together. I had “seen” this painting five years ago. I realised they were always sitting like that when I arrived home – cooking up various projects via their laptops. The image stayed with me but it took me years to get around to painting it. I finally did it just after Christmas. My mother pointed out that I didn’t ask her, or my father, about how they wanted to be portrayed. To be honest this is because this portrait is for me. There are also a few painterly decisions I made, like making the inner colours very warm in contrast to the cool colours outside. This conveys the sense of warmth I feel in my parent’s house, which is literally true as my mum likes to keep the heating on full blast all year round.“ My parents like it and they are quietly very pleased with it. It’s obviously a real thrill to be able to have a portrait that you are in on exhibit at the National Gallery. It’s an even bigger thrill to have made the painting, of course, and I am sure this is true for all the shortlisted artists.

“I am also delighted because one of my all-time favourite paintings – “Portrait of the Artist’s Parents” by Sir William Orpen is in the Gallery’s Collection. I remember this painting from my teens and I think my subconscious gave it a subtle nod in my own painting. It shows Orpen’s parents sitting on either side of a small side table and is beautifully painted with such economy and verve. The National Gallery will be putting it on show soon and I really am looking forward to seeing it again.”

Mick O’Dea painted poet Paula Meehan during the Kilkenny Arts Festival, 2017. Meehan stood on a plinth in the Home Rule Club looking out onto the River Nore, transfixed.

Originally from Co Clare, award-winning portraitist Mick O’Dea, RHA is also inspired by historical subjects. Past subjects include Olwen Fouéré, Colm Tóibín and Marie Heaney. He was also artist in residence at three Kilkenny festivals from 2015 – 2017, painting 36 portraits, some in front of a live audience.

“Whenever I receive a commission, I feel that I have been endorsed. It lifts my spirits and I am determined to get a result for both parties, yet I find it hard to enjoy the process. It’s like asking a surgeon what kind of operations they enjoy most? Each portrait is a challenge that you have been trained to meet. “It is impossible to separate a good likeness from a good painting for an artist. A good likeness is not enough. When I started painting portraits, some people were disappointed with the results, one or two dramatically so. As I became better known, the people who commissioned me were interested in my version of themselves. 

“Many of those I consider my most successful portraits are of people I had never met until I found them sitting before me in a studio for the first time. I get to know them very quickly, even if they are not communicative in the conventional sense. I prefer my subjects not to pose, unless it is deliberately theatrical. They have to find their natural attitude on which I tend to concentrate and therefore all the features come into play in concert. I will facilitate the sitter in whatever way they wish: talking, sharing stories, listening to music or, complete silence.” 

“Rebecca” was commissioned by an old friend of her family, another artist, to celebrate a striking young woman. The top and red background pick up tones in her eyes and mouth.

James Hanley, RHA

“I meet subjects once or twice before the sitting, usually in a social setting so we can have a chat and, while I get a little of their backstory, watch them speaking and moving. How they react and interact in conversation gives me a good sense of their characteristic expressions, and whether the image of them should be a profile, full on or three-quarter view. Both the eyes and the mouth are key to the expressive quality of the face, but I really enjoy capturing a characteristic expression, and I usually paint my sitters looking directly at the viewer, engaging rather than remote. I’m after a balanced, harmonious image that appeals, and tells a story about the subject as well as looking like them.

Sealy was commissioned by a Howth-based couple to paint the view. When Sealy started the work, the suggestion arose that the people themselves, and later, their dog Luc, would be included. “I ended up working on a much larger canvas than intended, which was challenging in the windy conditions. The title “The View Finders” comes from the fact that this view was created in a house that didn’t have one, as well as the many viewpoints discussed during the sittings.”

Based in Howth, Una Sealy, RHA describes her work as a form of visual autobiography. In addition to portraits, she is known for her landscapes and interior scenes which all have a narrative quality.

“My portrait style is informal. I would much rather paint people who are relaxed and casually dressed, than the “lifetime-achievement” style you find in boardrooms.
I particularly like painting teenagers and young people, as their faces are changing so quickly there is sometimes an urgency to capture the moment in time. Lucien Freud is my number one influence and I was lucky enough to study with Benjamin Sullivan [winner of the BP Portrait Award] this summer.

To achieve a likeness is very important to me, but the piece needs to hold its own as a work of art which will outlive the subject. Sometimes it is a shock to see oneself depicted in paint. It is totally unlike a photograph, or the view one usually sees in the mirror. It is much more analytical, and it is never smiling, so this can be interpreted as severe. This can sometimes take a bit of getting used to, but I usually find that people get accustomed to this new version of themselves, and grow to like it. A painting may be intense, but it says more about the subject than a snapshot would. I try to paint a sympathetic portrait but I never engage in flattery and my sitters recognise this.”

Vera Klute’s portrait of Sr Stanislaus Kennedy, founder of the charity Focus, was commissioned by the National Gallery.

Vera Klute

“My style is quite realistic, though personally I like portraits that are more painterly and less accurate than my own. I usually meet the sitter a few times during the course of making the portrait, which can take from one to six months, depending on size. I make sketches and short video clips which give me a more complete image of the person rather than a single photo. I then will work on the image in my home studio. If the commissioner wants a distinct background rather than just a colour, I prefer to pose the sitter in a surrounding that is relevant to them in some way.

“Occasionally I’ve been asked to make changes to portraits. I think people understand it is an artist’s impression or interpretation rather than an exact copy. I enjoy doing self-portraits, as I can be a lot more intuitive about it.”

Penny McCormick

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