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Wednesday, 27 September 2017

PORTRAITS IN FILM: Commissions for Tulip Fever

      Unusual commissions are often the most exciting as well as the most challenging, and this was no exception for the Tulip Fever enquiry we received in 2014. The film needed 3-5 large portraits to be painted as the main props for the film, additionally they also wanted a number of preparatory sketches and works ‘in progress’ to be filmed as part of the artist’s sketch book. We put forward Jamie Routley and Rosalie Watkins for the projects, and since the film has been released, they have kindly answered a few questions to provide us with a window into the world of film and what it is like to work on a portrait which has such a different purpose to the commissions they receive more regularly. 

1.)    What film were you commissioned to work on?

JR: Tulip Fever.

RW: Tulip Fever.

(Tulip Fever is a Tom Stoppard adaption of the book written by Deborah Moggach.   Set in 17th century Amsterdam,  Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphaned girl, is pressured into marrying a wealthy merchant,Cornelius (Christoph Waltz), to rescue her from a life of poverty. A painter named Jan (Dane Dehaan), is commissioned by Cornelius to paint the couple, which leads to a passionate affair between Jan and Sophia.)

2.)    Who was the subject of your portrait and what was their role in the film?

JR: I painted a double portrait of Christoph Waltz and Alicia Vikander playing Cornelius and Sophia, which is the main piece of the film.  I also painted Sophia with a Tulip and a Vanitas Still Life of a Semper Augustus Tulip.  (A Vanitas painting is a style of Still Life very popular in the Netherlands during the beginning of 17th century.  They were used to remind viewers of traditional Christian values of earthly life, their own mortality and the futility of worldly pursuits.)
   © Jamie Routley

RW: I was doing drawings and paintings of Alicia Vikander as Sophia, working on figurative sketches which would make up Jan’s sketchbook.

3.)    Had you read the original book beforehand?

JR: I read the script and the book in a weekend.  I enjoyed both and could see how well the book would translate to screen.

RW: Sadly not, filming had already started when I was commissioned and there was a lot of time pressure.  They explained why the work was needed and what it should convey, so I just worked to the brief.

4.)    How were you chosen for the commission?

JR: The production company contacted Fine Art Commissions and outlined what they were looking for.  Fine Art Commissions then put me forward for the project, showed them some of my past works, and it went from there.

RW: The film company approached Fine Art Commissions needing figure and portrait drawings for the film, and I had examples of these in my portfolio from my classical training.  For the film I worked on a lot of quick, intimate studies of Sophia (Alicia Vikander) to demonstrate the artist's obsession with his subject.

5.)    How many sittings were you able to have and how long did they last?

JR: I’d worked out that I would need a minimum of 3 sittings each lasting 3 hours for Christoph and Alicia’s head studies.  I could then work from body doubles for the rest of the portrait.  As it turned out, both Christoph and Alicia were kind enough to give me more time than this which was exceptionally helpful, especially with their busy schedules.

RW: I had one sitting with Alicia and then worked from body doubles and reference photos. It was a fun challenge having to produce a lot of drawings very fast, a different kind of energy to normal commissioned portraiture which is a slower process. 

6.)    Where did the sittings take place?

JR: Mainly in my studio in Battersea, however I had one full day with Christoph in Berlin and also a day on set to paint the floor tiles into the main portrait.

RW: A mixture of my studio, and some brilliant days working at Pinewood on set, and in the props and art department - a really inspiring place to spend time. They are insanely creative and clever with all the materials they work with, and it was really fun seeing them transform some of my drawings and paintings - the works were going to be handled quite a lot on set so they had to reproduce them by putting them onto various pieces of antiquated paper and vellum etc. it was also fun seeing the drawings being treated functionally, as props, rather than fine art, somehow quite liberating!

           © Jamie Routley

7.)    How does the process of painting an actor who is playing a character, differ from painting a normal portrait?

JR: Alicia went straight into character from the very first sitting which proved invaluable.  She built Sophia’s character through the sittings, from vulnerable and scared, to more confident towards the end (as she would on set) which allowed me to capture Sophia’s character.  This was accomplished through subtle tweaks in the eyebrow’s and mouth. The final sitting was very important. Alicia came straight from set so I could paint her with full hair and make-up.  The adjustments I made went straight onto the main canvas.

Christoph was also brilliant at staying in character throughout, and he had some good suggestions for the pose which were exactly what I had had in mind.  We decided that his elbow should be pointing out, as this was the classic pose of wealthy merchants painted during that period.  His ruff had not been finished yet, so I had to leave the area blank until it was ready at his last sitting.  This was just before the last day of filming, and the time when I also painted a second sketch documenting his hair and beard which had been grown and styled for filming.

  © Jamie Routley

RW: A lot of the work I was doing was on the figure, and actors are so used to using their body as a language to portray emotions, which makes them really expressive figure models. This was amplified because we had a particular story to tell, which is not something I'd done before, a reason to produce a series based around certain feelings which were fictional and dictated by someone else. Super fun.

8.)  Was this challenging? 

JR:  Definitely different, I had never painted someone acting a character before.  In my normal portrait sittings one of the most important parts is the conversations I have with the sitter, as it lets you get you to know them more and this has a huge impact on the final painting.  With this commission the process was not quite as straight forward!

RW: It was, because there was such a specific criteria to fill and a style to adhere to, that I wasn't even sure of, until we found agreement in it with the production team!  Normally with art you're trying to make something personal from you, so this was the total opposite to that.

9.) Was the portrait filmed in various stages of completion for the film?  If so, why?

JR: The portrait was photographed at different stages of completion by the company Prudence Cuming.  They are experts in art photography and I have used them for many portraits in the past when clients want a copy of a portrait.  The photographs were printed onto canvas, 10 were made for each stage, and these were used in filming takes in case Dane Dehaan wanted to paint straight on the canvas during a scene, they would then spare (if needed) for the next take.

RW: No, the sketches were are all in fairly early stages as they were part of Jan’s sketch book, so in that sense it was quite straightforward as they were all meant to be ‘in progress’.

10.) Did you feature in the film, were any of the detailed shots of the artist in the film painting of you?
      JR: I do not feature in the film but the director, Justin Chadwick, the costume designer, Michael O’Connor and the very gifted Cinematographer, Eigil Bryld did come to my studio to observe the ‘sitting process’ so that it could be accurately represented in the film.  I know that these visits did had an impact on the choreography of the paintings scenes, as well as on Dane, who played Jan.

RW: No, only my drawings and paintings featured.

11.) Were you needed on set to teach the actor how to paint a portrait?

JR: Dane spent a great deal of time in the studio observing me work and learning how to handle paint himself.   I think it was highly beneficial to him to see the amount of work both physically and mentally is required to make a painting.  To get his hand used to applying paint and holding his palette I would have him do things like paint the background on the main painting, the initial layers that is, staying well clear of the portraits! (no offence Dane).  Watching the monitors on set and seeing his character come to life, recognising some of my own mannerisms, the way I hold my palette etc... this was one of those memorable moments in life.

RW: There was a scene where Jan (Dane DeHaan) draws Sophia (Alicia Vikander), and I was an 'art consultant' for the day - showing Dane the drawing technique, how the charcoal would have been held, and how to draw on the page.

12.) Were you asked to advise on framing?

      JR: Not really, I remember discussing it a bit. But they had just recreated 1630's Amsterdam at Pinewood, complete houses inside and out including streets, so I was fairly confident that the set decorators would know exactly what was needed. 

      RW: No, everything was going to be part of Jan’s sketchbook so no framing was needed.

13.) Did you receive feedback from the production company about the portrait?

JR: Yes I did. They had seen the head studies and the work in progress so I knew that they were excited and pleased. The main double portrait was delivered to the studio and installed on set overnight ready for filming at 8am. I received two call's at around 7.30am, one from the Director Justin Chadwick and the other from Simon Elliot the head of Art Production, both expressing their overwhelming appreciation and gratitude for the work. That was a nice moment, I was grateful for the call.   

RW: There was a lot of dialogue backwards and forwards, I'd do a drawing, send a photo to the art team who would show it to Justin Chadwick (the director), who would then say how to alter the pose... at one stage we were channelling Rembrandt meets Egon Schiele!

14.) Did the subject of your portrait enjoy the sittings?

JR: I like to think so. Alicia was very studious and interested in the painting process, it seemed to me that her antenna was up and she was taking everything in.   Christoph was sceptical at first, however once I stated my case as to why I work the way I do, things could not have been better.  A charming, witty and intelligent man. The conversations were always stimulating and I found his honesty refreshing.  His parents were set and costume designers at a time when you had to be able to draw, they were artists, and I think this added to his interest.

RW: I only had one sitting with Alicia, but I enjoyed it and hope she did.

   © Jamie Routley

15.) Where are the portraits now?

      JR: I own the head studies of Christoph and Alicia, but the film company has the main paintings. I have no idea where they are and will likely never see them again.  The night I had supper with Christoph in Berlin he said the in the end the paintings would be “mere props”, he wasn’t being offensive, but kind, and correct.  This helped me to be less sensitive about where the finished paintings would end up post production.

       RW: I don't think I've got any of the originals… Either in storage with the set .. or in the bin ..?!

16.) Have you stayed in touch with people from the film?

JR: I have remained firm friends with Dane and we are still in touch today.  His work ethic is solid and his hunger to challenge himself is what I think will keep him interesting in years to come.

RW: no, it was a lovely working environment though, and everyone I had contact with was extremely helpful.

17.) Would you like to work on a similar project again?

JR: Absolutely, without question. 

RW: I'd love it, it is a completely different experience to my normal commissioning process, and was inspiring to be amongst all the talented people who work in film.

18.) Is there a story of an artist, or portrait, that you would like to see in film?

JR: Caravaggio stands out as an extreme character who's life would suit the screen. There have been some excellent books, mainly conspiracy theories surrounding his death that I could see making it to the screen. Derek Jarman made a very interesting and beautiful movie called "Caravaggio" although I must point out that this is a fictionalised film that uses Caravaggio and his work, as well as real characters from that period.  Rembrandt has the rags to riches story along with gut wrenching tragedy that could be powerful on screen. The screenplay would have to be a masterpiece to do him justice. Again there has been a movie made in the 1930's called Rembrandt starring Charles Laughton that I am very fond of. 

RW: I'm excited to see the film about Giacometti, I love his work. I find it so special that we could have insights into the lives of artists, their process and stories, I'd find anyone's fascinating.

19.) What are you working on at the moment?

JR: I have a number of portraits and other paintings on the go as well as plans for new paintings. In particular, I am working on two large portraits, both quite different. One is being painted on location, at the moment I have made two studies, a small but precise composition for the final painting and then a life size head study. I am just about to start transferring this information to the large canvas before transporting the canvas to the sitter’s house to finish on site. The other is a very interesting full-length portrait which is being painted in my studio, I can't really go into the narrative of either painting just yet.  I've also been working with some lovely children, as well as painting my young daughter (19 months old); this is a whole different skill set that I am learning but I am enjoying the lesson. 

RW: I'm just finishing two quite large formal portraits, one for Oxford University and one the Institution of Civil Engineers, both handing over this week ..fingers crossed!        

20.) Is there a person you would like to paint that you have not yet had the chance to?

JR: I'm inspired by people I find interesting, more than just an interesting face. So based on that I would say someone like Sam Harris (American author, philosopher and neuroscientist, he has a very important, challenging podcast called "waking up" that I would urge anyone to listen to). Of course there are popular figures, actors etc... I'd be drawn to those whose work I admire. Comedians would make for fascinating studies as well.

RW: So many… Maybe Christopher Walken right now?!

Monday, 21 August 2017

Why Contemporary Portraiture is Important

In a time where social media and electronic communication have become the norm, the idea of commissioning a portrait still seems to be incredibly alluring, and we thought we would offer a few reasons as to why this might be... 

Before technology began its journey to world domination, portraiture was an invaluable way of documenting historical figures, and transmitting them to the current, and future, generations.  Thomas Lawrence’s portrait of ‘Queen Charlotte’ (image below) may not have delivered him the Queen’s favour but it did show us a side of the monarch which would never have been revealed had Lawrence been more sensitive to his subject’s vanity.  Sadly the painting was not accepted by his sitter, and the painting remained with Lawrence.  From then on he decided to flatter his sitters a little more in order to keep a constant stream of commissions.   

Queen Charlotte, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1789, oil on canvas, 239.5cm x 147cm © National Gallery, London

Today, with the help of an unlikely accomplice in photography, portrait painters are less inclined, or socially bound, to flatter their subjects.  Photography and videos document people daily, and because of this, portraits are naturally compared to photographs of the sitter for verification as to whether the painting is a good likeness.  The artist has more pressure than ever before to paint an accurate representation, or face a rather short-lived career.  


The Dean of Westminster, by Nick Philipps,                    Lady, by Jamie Coreth, oil on canvas, 2016
oil on canvas, 2012

Photography provides a ‘quick-fix’ kind of portrait which can be captured by everyone.  This has actually increased the popularity of painting a portrait from life by highlighting the rare talent needed to do this.  A method adopted by some of history’s greatest portraitists, including Titian, Sargent, Velázquez and Lawrence is the sight-size technique.  The method instructs the artist to place the sitter and the canvas side by side, allowing the artist to view both from a measured distance and translate the sitter onto the canvas, checking proportions and accuracy as they go. The portraits above by Nicky Philipps and Jamie Coreth are two accomplished examples of modern day practitioners of the sight-size technique. Their portraits are accurate, full of depth and have a healthy amount of paint applied to them – another benefit to the method is that the artist gains confidence in using lots of paint making the portraits more sumptuous with full, dominant brushstrokes.  To a sitter, the idea of being painted by an artist using  such a historical technique practised by artists of the past adds more than just an element of romance, it feels like you are also taking a place in history.   With the speed of every day life constantly accelerating, there is also a push toward that which is not instantaneous, and the gentle, organic process of portrait sittings could not embody this more.

Nowadays having a therapist is as normal as having a bath, and a portrait painter is essentially your therapist with a paint brush.  No phones, no gadgets, no internet, just you and another person in a room talking, listening to music, or sitting in silence.  A rare occurrence in our era, but somehow even the most high-powered businessmen obey the ‘no phone rule’ and embrace the peace and quiet for the two hour sessions. 

Two portraits of a man, by Rosalie Watkins, oil on canvas, 2014

Rosalie Watkins painted the two portraits of the client pictured above.  Originally only one portrait was commissioned (the left-hand image) to be a corporate painting for the client’s company.  However during the sittings the client decided to commission an informal portrait to keep for his family.   They are great examples of how one person can be painted from life multiple times and, although both physically resemble the sitter, capture very different sides of his character.  For the corporate portrait the sitter chose to wear office attire and hold work-related documents.  He is in ‘business mode’ and this persona seems to filter into his disposition provoking a more serious facial expression.  The painting style is tighter which again reflects the more guarded personality, which is also emphasised by the pose, clothing and props.  The second portrait has a looser style.  The sitter’s clothing (he is wearing the same shirt as the first portrait, but with an open collar) and the softer expression that hints at a smile, creates a far more informal depiction of the sitter.  He is relaxed, and a warmer side of his character comes through.  The client was happy with both portraits, they each fulfilled the purpose for which they were painted, and serve as fantastic examples of how well portraits can convey personalities.  Rosalie got to know the sitter even more during the second set of sittings and this has allowed her to find a different side of his personality, arguably a more intimate one, very fitting for a portrait which is to hang in his family home. 

‘Celebrity’ has taken on a whole new meaning in the last century, there are so many of them, all written about and photographed constantly, yet we still have an insatiable hunger to know more about them, and portraits provide this.  Johnathan Yeo’s series on Cara Delevingne in 2016, which was displayed at The Museum of National History at Frederiksborg Castle, in Denmark, portrays the actress in a variety of poses with different props and outfits.  The paintings allude to the current fascination with ‘the selfie’ and how obscuring or revealing different parts of the sitter can manipulate the way in which they are viewed.  Yeo’s choice of a young, upcoming actress who is constantly in the media brought welcome attention to the world of portraiture and gave it a refreshing, modern feel which appeals to the younger generations looking to buy, and commission, works of art.

Three of the nine paintings of Cara Delevingne, by Jonathan Yeo, 2016 © Jonathan Yeo

Our last explanation for the increasing interest in contemporary portraiture is the simple theory that people like to spend their money on a painting of someone that means something to them.   It is two presents in one – a present for oneself, as well as a present in the form of an experience, for the sitter.   Contemporary portraits rebuff the notion that they are celebrating ancestry.  They shed the sometimes ‘dour’ image which this idea conjures and embrace everything that is vibrant and expressive about modern painting, while still maintaining the physical likeness of the sitter. The static stiffness of many past portraits is replaced by exciting new ones which experiment with different techniques and breathe life into the sitter, while still creating beautiful works of art.

Man, by Sam Wadsworth, oil on canvas, 2015 

Thursday, 13 July 2017

BP Portraits Awards: What to look for....

The BP Portrait Awards never fails to create a buzz, with lengthy debates on the how the year’s exhibition compares to its predecessor’s, and the inevitable discussion on which style is preferred, who ‘in my opinion’ should have won, what an odd subject matter etc. etc. The list goes on… As you wander around you will hear projected comments dissecting style, subject and helpfully suggesting ways in how the portrait could have been improved, usually by people (like me) who cannot draw a circle but as a viewer have been given the right to critique.

The culprits of these comments should read The Evening Standard’s interview with the Senior Curator of the National Portrait Gallery, Sarah Howgate.  She broadly summarises what the judging panel of the BP Portrait Awards 2017 were looking for when choosing the shortlist of this year’s exhibition. Emphasis was put on the stories surrounding the portrait; what does the work tell us?  Is it about the sitter, the artist or both?  Will it evoke emotion?  What is the style of painting?..  From this interview it seems that narrative plays a significant part in the panel’s decision, as well the style and skill of painting. This then prompted thoughts as to what we, at Fine Art Commissions, look for when perusing the walls of the NPG’s most established exhibition and why they might differ from those of the judging panel…

The BP Portrait Awards competition has been running since 1979 and has been sponsored by BP for the last twenty-eight years.   One of the most impressive accolades of the exhibition is its international reach with this year’s competition seeing 2,580 artists entering portraits from 87 countries.  Only the 50 shortlisted paintings make it through to the annual exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery.  The competition pulls in visitors from as many countries as the entrants, in 2015 over 320,000 people walked through the doors to see the array of works on display.  As an artist the chance to display your work at the finest Portrait Gallery in the world, to such a vast audience, does go a long way to explaining the number of submissions.  There is also the added bonus of the £30,000 prize money and a commission from the NPG which will hang in their permanent collection to whet the appetite further. 

Would Fine Art Commissions have been working to the same criteria when judging the entrants?  Yes, in general terms of style and painting skill, but the narrative is where the roads part.  As a commissioning agency we guide and advise clients through the process of choosing an artist for a particular project.  Because of this we need our artists to be accurate in their depiction, consistent with their style and palette, and imaginative in their compositions.  We need to know that the previous portraits which we show to a client clearly represent their current painting style, while also showing that the artist will not just recreate an old composition with a different sitter.   The narrative is important but unlike many BP Portrait entries, it is not chosen by the artist beforehand with a specific audience in mind.  It is developed simultaneously with the portrait, as the artist learns more about the sitter.

Both criterias, for the BP Portrait judging panel and for FAC, have their limitations.  For FAC it can mean we are less gung-ho in taking a chance on an artist who has produced one phenomenal painting but has little else to their name, as we cannot be sure they will deliver to clients.  We focus on technical ability so that we are confident that the artist has all the tools they need to capture the sitter’s physical likeness and create a fantastic portrait.  Creativeness is something we encourage once an artist has the fundamentals.

In contrast, the BP’s judging panel can choose an artist based on just one flair portrait.  No previous works are needed and it gives an artist the confidence to progress further in their career.  However they are dictated by their audience and need to make sure the exhibition will appeal to the public.  This may explain the competition’s interest this year, in the narratives of the portraits.  As you may have noticed the general public are currently fascinated by other people’s life stories (look at the ratings for ITV’s Love Island…).  Narratives do add an additional allure to a portrait, everyone enjoys a story, but it can also mean the painterly elements of a portrait are overlooked.  A technically brilliant painting with a mundane choice of sitter, may mean the artist loses out to a celebrity portrait. This is not saying this has happened at the BP Awards, but more to say that it is important to realise that the final destination of a portrait can determine how a painting, and an artist, are judged both privately and publicly.  If you are lucky enough to go to the BP Portrait Awards this year, keep Sarah Howgate’s guidelines in your mind as you amble through the NPG’s halls, as they might help you learn more about the works, and why they were chosen.  They certainly did for us!


Huge congratulations to the winner of this year’s BP Portrait Awards, Benjamin Sullivan, His winning portrait ‘Breech!’ delivered in all manners (no pun intended).  The painting connects the sitter, the artist and the viewer, altogether, in an incredibly intimate manner.  The portrait depicts his wife, gazing at their eight-month-old daughter while she breastfeeds her.  We (as the viewer) take the position of Sullivan looking on at the scene and immediately become involved.  There is also a rousing story surrounding the painting, not in the least from the suggestive title ‘Breech!’.  The portrait is well painted, the combination of the limited pallet and painting style may not be to everyone’s taste, but it does draws attention to Sullivan’s wonderful handling of light and the detailed skin tones.  After 13 years of being shortlisted (a current record) and third prize last year, Sullivan is a deserved winner.

Image result for ben sullivan breech
Breech!, by Benjamin Sullivan,82cm x 40cm, oil on canvas, 2017

The BP Portrait Awards 2017 will be on display at the National Portrait Gallery, London, until 24th September 2017.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

Arts Council England - Funding Announcement

Today at 10.30am the Arts Council England will be announcing the funding plans for their National Portfolio for arts and culture organisations during 2018 to 2022.

The Arts Council England is an organisation, which through investment, supports and develops new artistic and cultural experiences across the country.  To provide an idea of the scale of these projects, between 2015 and 2018 they will have invested £1.1 billion of public money from government, plus £700 million raised by the National Lottery to create and support art and culture, and bring it do those who do not have it. 

During his interview with Nick Robinson on Radio 4 this morning Sir Nicholas Serota, the new Chair of the Arts Council England, outlined what the funding for the next period will focus on.  The total funding will be £170,000,000, and this will be used to raise the current number of organisations funded from 700 to 831, including 72 museums and 7 libraries. 

The Arts Council England will be looking to bring art and culture to areas outside of London, areas which are not currently recognised or visited for the arts including; Bradford, Stoke, Luton and Tees Valley.  The organisations which will be funded are smaller ones, and ones that reflect the diversity of the country, as Mr Serota put it the ‘Green shoots’.  The projects which need financial support to get started.  As their mantra dictates, the Arts Council England are continuing to bring great art to everyone, especially focusing on those who do not currently have access to it.

One of the larger projects which will benefit from the Arts Council funding is The Factory in Manchester.  The building has been designed by Dutch architect Rem Koolhaas and will be located at the site of a the former Granada TV studios. The planned opening is in 2020 and the project will cost a total of £110 million. £78 million has been pledged by the Arts Council England as well as £78 million vowed by George Osborne in his 2015 budget for his Northern Powerhouse vision.  All forms of art will be displayed and performed at the venue, bringing international recognition to the north and cementing it as a cultural hub.

We shall be waiting to hear more about the exciting projects planned by the Arts Council England at 10.30am, and will look forward to keeping you updated with more specific details in the months to come. 

Image result for the factory manchester
                                     The Factory in Manchester ©OMA