The RBSA is soon holding its popular biennial Portrait Prize exhibition, on from 25 July — 31 August. Portraits are a particularly intimate artform, with many taking the form of commissions. For the uninitiated artist or client, commissioning can appear to be a daunting or confusing process.
Francesca Currie, a figurative artist based in Cheltenham and a member of the RBSA, has produced a video Q&A clarifying the ins and outs of undertaking a portrait painting commission (the transcript of this interview is below).
Francesca Currie, Official Portrait of The Swordbearer of Worcester, Oil
In your experience what makes for a successful artist-client relationship?
To build a successful artist-client relationship I’ll try and build a rapport with the client. I will often meet face-to-face over coffee and have a chat about what it is they want, and then I’ll take notes after this session so that I know everything that was said. It’s really important to keep communication open. If the client isn’t happy I want them to be able to say so, if they are happy obviously that’s ideal.
What are the main details to work out with the client beforehand?
The biggest ones are size and cost. I will generally ask for a ten percent non-refundable deposit upfront in accordance to the size chosen. I have a portfolio which is handy because people can look through it and say if they want it in a certain style. I’ll ask if they’ve got a composition in mind, if there’s a background colour that they would rather use, etc. Generally people will have a clear idea of what they want.
How long does the whole commission process usually take for you?
This one varies, but roughly speaking it’s three to six months. I’ll order the canvas from London, which will take a few weeks, and then I’ll invite the person to come and sit in the studio. I use oil paint which takes a long time to dry, and an even longer time before it can be varnished. If it’s a slightly complicated composition, it might also take longer. So for instance I had the Swordbearer of Worcester come and sit in the studio so I could get to know him, but I also did an in situ with him where I went to the Guildhall and we set it up for the day.
Could you give some tips for a good sitting / photographing session with the subject?
To take a good photograph for a painting you need as much information as possible, so you need a good camera. I will generally create lighting from one side, either with a daylight bulb or with natural light, and regularly take photographs throughout the sitting. You can get certain shadows that look really nice on one side of the face. If you’ve got light coming straight on, I think it takes some of the romance away, although it can still look great.
You’re not wanting to create a lovely photograph; you’re wanting to create something you can work from later. I think especially with photography now it can be quite airbrushed. You don’t want any of that, you want as much detail as possible.
What might be some reasons to commission a portrait painting instead of say a photograph?
To me they’re two different art forms. I think photography can be beautiful and I know many a really good photographer, so that has its own value. For me painting is about the time spent with the person getting to know them, working out which bits of their character to bring out, and trying to make that painting completely ‘them’. And also, spending a long time not just capturing one moment but capturing a length of time and a story. It can be very special to give someone a portrait or to have a portrait done because, with the oils I use, they last forever basically and it can be handed down. I think in today’s day and age where photography is so available, having something really special like that is a unique gift.
Free Associated Event
Don’t miss our quick portrait sessions with John Davenport RBSA, along with a portrait demonstration by Francesca Currie, on 24 August.
To book a 10-minute slot to have your portrait sketched call 0121 236 4353.