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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?!