Portraits should reflect the truth, says RBSA President as solo show launches

Robert Neil’s portraits have been shown at the National Portrait Gallery and the Royal Society of Portrait Painters in London.

His work Jeweller was selected for the BP Portrait Award, considered by many to be the Oscars of the art world.

As a largely self-taught artist with a focus on portraiture and figurative painting, Robert firmly believes art is for everyone.

He works hard as President of the RBSA to build new audiences and ensure that the Society continues in its mission to promote wider engagement with the arts.

Robert combines painting from his Worcestershire studio with running a business in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, which is how he first discovered the Society, and how Jeweller came to be painted.

‘I have a day job, but I reached the stage where I wanted art to become a bigger part of my life. So I went into the RBSA and it struck me that the art was instantly more challenging and intriguing than what you might see in other commercial galleries.’

The subject of Jeweller is Philip Blakeman, who works in the same part of town as Robert.

‘Phil has a very distinctive style and manner and I immediately thought he would make a great subject for a portrait. I asked him if he would sit for me at his studio and happily he agreed.


Robert Neil, ‘Jeweller’

‘Originally, I planned a composition involving him surrounded by the tools of his trade, but during a coffee break he leant against the studio wall, and somehow his personality seemed to be caught in this pose.’

Robert tries to paint from life where possible, and stresses the importance of understanding the individual characteristics of each of his sitters.

‘Usually I try to spend a reasonable amount of time with the person so that we get to know each other and we can both relax. I try to observe whether there is anything about their gesture or way of holding a posture which is particular to them, and that family and friends would recognise.

Robert Neil, 'Martin Gee'

Robert Neil, ‘Martin Gee’

‘If time permits, sketches are nice to do and I take some photos, messing about with the composition and pose until I feel I’ve captured something interesting.

‘When I get back to the studio I’ll usually choose an image I like and then do a small oil sketch to help me understand colouring and the likeness. If that goes well I’ll start on the finished painting.’

Robert is aware of the power of a good portrait and its storytelling potential, but also seeks to reflect the truth in his work.

‘In some cases I have a narrative in mind, but in most circumstances I only try to observe the sitter and be truthful about what I see.

‘I think it’s critical not to get hung up on whether the sitter will be flattered because I’ve learned it’s impossible to know how people view themselves – regardless of what they tell you.’

Robert Neil, ‘Janette Kerr PPRWA’

Robert studied at the London Atelier of Representational Art (LARA) and joined the RBSA initially as a Friend.

‘The RBSA is a place where artists can meet and discuss their own challenges. This is the unseen pleasure of being a part of the Society. It’s somewhere you can foster core skills and exhibit your work.’

Having been President for six years now, Robert is keen to get across that the organisation is increasingly diverse.

‘The Society seeks to fully represent the best artists our region has to offer, from all communities and backgrounds, and break down the rather stuffy image Royal Societies have had in the past.

‘It’s also important that we hold true to our core values of championing skills, so we don’t lose contact with our historic disciplines of drawing, painting and sculpture.’

The RBSA holds its own biennial Portrait Prize exhibition, drawing crowds from across the Midlands and beyond.

‘When you see a great portrait it has an additional dimension which gets you a little bit closer to the person.

‘I sometimes wonder whether we enjoy looking at portraits because they give you the right to stare at the sitter in a way that wouldn’t be permissible if you met them in real life.’

You can see Robert Neils’ portraits at his solo show at the RBSA which runs until 14 October.

Join the RBSA

The RBSA has had a Friends scheme since the 1900s. Friends have access to free events and activities, exhibition opportunities, and discounts on exhibition fees and workshops. Join in October for three extra months of 2018 membership.

For more information, see our website.

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