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Wednesday, 26 April 2017

From the view of a sitter (in the studio of Nicky Philipps)

rom the view of the sitter 

The thought of being painted by one of the world’s leading portrait painters, if not the leading portrait painter, can’t help but raise the question as to whether you quite deserve a place among the great and the good of her past sitters.  However, it is quite apparent when you meet the artist, Nicky Philipps, that she does not share this concern.  It is not the person that intrigues her, although the more the you sit the more she will probe you (without judgement) for your views on current affairs, but more the fresh challenge of capturing the face which sits before her.  Nicky’s technique is methodical and calming, you will become immune to the beady eyes peering at you from behind a thin pair of glasses, and their relationship to the arm which holds the brush and translates each thought.  You will occasionally hear a mutter regarding a particular feature, something like ‘no no, your nose is larger than that…’ ignore it, this isn’t a tactless blunder, rather a statement of fact in relation to the brushstroke which she has just whipped across the canvas.

 Nicky is an artist who practises the same sight-size method as that used by Reynolds, Sargent and Van Dyck, and you will feel that you are in the hands of a similar calibre when sitting for her. She embodies all the right things about an artist, all the natural things.  She puts paint on brush, and brush on canvas and from that manages to conjure a portrait which breathes; a talent modernity is constantly finding ways to crush and easily criticise through photography and ‘air brushing’.

Take advantage of being in a studio that embodies all the great myths of the artist.  Nicky’s is actually incredibly well ordered and tidy; made up of stacked blank canvases primed and ready to go; an immaculate palette of fresh paints, reds, blues and yellows, soon to be mixed and transformed into the natural tones of the skin, a faint smell of turps and the remnants of some eclectic artist’s parties which spontaneously occur in a way only they know how.

There is a refreshing lack of technology in the studio, a computer, iPhone, and radio are the only signs of the time, and none bar the radio are used in Nicky’s painting process.  She paints solely from life.  There is also little to suggest that Nicky has a standard ‘painting routine’ for her portraits.  After all, a new sitter brings a whole new experience, which is equally challenging and enjoyable for her – or at least this is how she tactfully described mine!  You will be amazed how quickly, and with what seems like minimal effort, that a face starts to take shape on the canvas, and it is fascinating to see the blobs of paint from the palette combine to create you.

I cannot speak for all Nicky’s sitters but I imagine the majority of us have stayed beyond our welcome as there is no place quite like her studio and you will not want to leave once you are there.  Another factor may also be that Nicky will not put down her paint brush until physically disarmed, so if you do suddenly find yourself as her muse, do keep half an eye on the time, otherwise you will find that you have whiled away the entire day (including lunch) discussing various political topics and becoming mesmerised by the two-step jig she performs as she lunges back and forth from the canvas.  It is an experience that will be very hard to top.

Finally, my tips for a sitter:

1.)    Try not to envisage what the portrait will look like, the full experience comes from meeting Nicky and seeing what she finds particularly interesting about you.

    If the process interests you, ask questions, you may not find yourself in a studio quite like this as often as you’d hope.  If you get asked to be quiet, it is probably because she is painting your mouth.

    The painting will travel through multiple stages before the final portrait reveals itself, I would therefore advise against showing the portrait to anyone until this stage has been reached.  Photographs distort brushstrokes and pick up on wet paint, consequently making the portrait look completely different on a iPhone and computer to what it will look like in real life.

    Pick a comfortable pose, you’ll be in it for a while and too much fidgeting is at your peril.  If Nicky suggest changing the pose it will probably be for a good reason, so I would go with it (even if you have had a day of sitting already) it is worth getting right.

    The legendary myth regarding artist’s distaste for timings may not be completely without truth.  If you would like to see the fruits of your combined labour then try not to have a rigid timeline for completion.  Relax and enjoy the process, unless you are Her Majesty, or a very lucky person, portraits do not occur too many times in one’s life and should be enjoyed to the full.

    Appreciate the talent of painting a portrait.  We have become relatively spoilt after seeing so many fabulous historical and seem less impressed and quick to judge where we think it could be improved.  Easy to judge, less easy to paint it yourself.

    Try not to fall into the ‘airbrushing’ trap of the 21st Century.  This is not a photograph. The portrait will be a combination of your features and your character, through the eyes of the portrait painter, and this is how it should be appreciated.

    Lastly, in case you’re worried, blemishes do not get featured unless specially requested!