The Story Behind the Portrait: Sophie Ploeg, ‘Joshua’

My mother gave me an old cigar box of pastels when I was a child.

The pastels had belonged to my grandmother. I love pastel. Although my main medium is oils these days, I still love my favourite medium from my teenage years.

I always want to paint more in pastel than I currently do. There are just never enough hours in the day.

One way of spurring me on was to visit the Jean-Etienne Liotard exhibition at the Royal Academy last year. I never knew much about this artist but am delighted a pastelist got such a major show.

Liotard’s work is just beautiful. He is a true master in depicting textiles such as lace, silk and velvet, and shows a love of people in his friendly and modest portraits.

Whether they are Royal or commoner, children or adults, Liotard’s portraits show the human side of the sitter: a friendly smile, a favourite doll, a cheeky wink or a daring look; these people couldn’t be more human.

The portraits lack the grandiose distance and loftiness so often found in official portraiture. Dress and props are depicted in great detail and with great flair. Colours are lively and vibrant. The exhibition at the Royal Academy was a real treat.

Inspired, I decided to create a portrait based on what I had seen. Most of my works were head and shoulders portraits, and I wanted to create a more lively pose, including a gesture and a prop.

After choosing my youngest son as the most suitable victim, a prop was easily found.

At the time, he was devouring a series of books, and so a book it had to be. I asked him questions about the story, and although he felt a bit awkward at first, he soon started telling me about the characters and the plot.

Sophie Ploeg, ‘Joshua’

I managed to capture some of his gestures and movements during this chat, and incorporated them into the portrait.

I aimed for realism and a distinction between fabric, skin and all the other materials and textures. At the same time, I was keen to keep some painterliness and interest in my mark making. I had to make sure my son was not looking too young, or that the portrait was not too sentimental, otherwise my son would hate it forever, and nor would I like it much.

I aim to portray children as little humans, full of their own developing character, and not just ‘cute’ or ‘pretty’.

I painted this portrait on a full sheet of Colourfix pastel card with Rembrandt pastels. These are a slightly harder soft pastel, and come in a huge range of colours. They are my favourite brand as they are soft enough for painterliness, yet hard enough to create detail.

My son has already changed quite a bit since I created the portrait last year, and it really captures a moment in time that will never come back. He is now ten, and not too embarrassed, I think.

Sophie Ploeg’s Story Behind the Portrait is one in a series promoting the works at the RBSA Portrait Prize exhibition, which runs until August 19.

My works are realistic and atmospheric pieces often inspired by art history or antique textiles such as lace and velvet. I paint portraits, figures and still life in oils or pastel. I studied art & architectural history (MA, Ph.D) in The Netherlands, where I was born (1974) and grew up. I have been in the UK for nearly 20 years and now combine painting and writing with raising my children. I have exhibited my work at the BP Portrait Award, the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, the Pastel Society, the RWA and many other galleries and societies.

Sophie Ploeg

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