Portraiture: an artist’s perspective with John Davenport RBSA

To accompany our popular Portrait Prize Exhibition, a Quick Portraits and Portrait Demonstration is being held at the RBSA Gallery by artist John Davenport.

Visit on 24 August to receive a sketched portrait for a suggested donation of £10. It’s the ideal time to celebrate a special anniversary or birthday, or give a portrait as a gift.

John has exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Birmingham Art Circle and the RBSA. We asked him more about his process…

What are the chief techniques essential to good portraiture?

My own approach is a mixture of the very traditional and the modern. For example, I use Leonardo da Vinci’s average facial proportions, Rembrandt’s oblique lighting to reveal facial form, a monochrome underpainting to establish tonal relationships and so on.

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 A monochrome under drawing prior to applying colour.

If a portrait isn’t working for some reason that I cannot identify I supplement my traditional approach with a digital analysis on an iPad of the unfinished painting to help diagnose the problem.

There are times when the only reference that a portrait artist can work from is a photograph, for example children, animals, subjects who do not have the time or who are unavailable for a live sitting.

Do you aim to achieve a true likeness, or more the ‘essence’ of the sitter?

I do aim for a likeness, but of greater importance to me is to produce a painting that ‘works’. I am happy, like Lucien Freud, to take liberties if necessary and use the sitter simply as raw material from which to develop the image.

fig 1

An acrylic portrait produced during a live sitting.

Can you take us through the process – for a quick portrait and a more involved commission?

One of the best trainings an aspiring portrait artist can get is to take on a session of quick portraits such as at a school fete, to raise some money for a worthy cause. If each portrait has to be completed in say 10 – 15 minutes, it is best to approach the session rather like a military operation. This can include some warm up sessions a few days before, a careful testing and laying out of a minimum number of materials (charcoal is my favourite because it is so responsive), working strictly to a stop watch, and using a spotlight to reveal facial form.

fig 4

A 10 minute charcoal portrait.

I take on commissions occasionally, but tend to be selective. For any artist considering accepting a commission I would strongly recommend agreeing a contract beforehand.

What’s your favourite medium?

Acrylic paint is my favourite medium. I have a strong preference for working primarily from life rather than from photographs. My time with a sitter is frequently all too short and acrylics allow me to make the most of a session by working at maximum speed, making unlimited corrections and applying glaze on glaze without waiting for earlier layers of paint to dry.

I also like the fact that I am not exposed to volatile solvents. Acrylics are sometimes criticised because their rapid drying can hinder blending, but if blending is important to the artist it is easily achieved by finishing off a portrait with the relatively new ‘open’ acrylics which have an extended working time.

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Andy Hamilton, Birmingham jazz saxophonist. Portrait completed from a photograph. Collection of John Shakespeare RBSA.

The most important approach to successful portraiture is of course practice, practice, practice, and to achieve this it is very helpful to join a portrait group such as that run weekly by Paul Bartlett RBSA in St Anne’s Church Hall, Moseley.

What does selection for the RBSA Portrait Prize mean for artists?

There is a very high standard of entry for this exhibition from all over the UK and from abroad. There is a selection panel of three judges of whom the majority are independent of the RBSA and are themselves successful portrait artists. So, to be selected for this biennial exhibition is a considerable feather in the artist’s hat and is an impressive addition to any CV.

There is also further exposure of selected artists’ works on the RBSA Flickr album and blog. In addition, there is a first prize of £1000 together with a number of other prizes, opportunities to meet other like-minded artists and there is a very enjoyable closing party held at the RBSA Gallery.

Why do you think portraits are enduringly popular?

You only have to pop in to the Annual BP Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on any day of the week and join the heaving throng of visitors there to realise how popular portraits are.

There are many possible reasons for this. People, on the whole, are very interested in people. Portraits can be a substitute for absent friends and family.

They can make the absent present and the dead seem alive.

They can shine a light on historical figures and events. They can give viewers a thrill when ‘the eyes of the portrait seem to follow the viewer around a room.’ Photorealist portraits enthuse some visitors when they can see every hair and pore and the work ‘looks just like a photo’.

What is their appeal for you as an artist?

Several of the points made above apply to me as well. In addition, I regard portrait painting as an adrenaline sport: it’s very challenging; at certain stages in a portrait’s production it can seem that a single brush stroke can transform a failing work and suddenly make it spring to life; or alternatively wreck a work that was showing promise! Even then it can be a win, win situation – if the work fails it can increase one’s determination to do better next time.

If it succeeds, it can result in such a high that the portraitist can hardly wait for the next portrait opportunity.

For details of all our forthcoming exhibitions and workshops, visit the RBSA website. Visit on 24 August, 11am-1pm and 2pm – 4pm for a ‘Quick Portrait’.

By Louise Palfreyman and John Davenport

#contemporaryportraiture #Portraits #portraiture #RBSAgallery

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