From life or photographs?

This is a question about time, as well as approach – your time, as well as the artist’s. Sitting for a portrait, particularly a large oil, is very enjoyable, but it is a large commitment of your time. Artists will need a number of sittings lasting several hours each, to complete a portrait from life.

If you can make the time, it can be a wonderful experience and the relationship you develop with a good painter will be reflected in the result, but it’s not essential. Many portrait painters work equally well from photographs – they have to, as so many sitters cannot spare the time to sit.

Chancellor Vera Pezer
oil on linen - by David Goatley

This is an example of a painting where the central figure and the heads of the students were painted from life - the backgound and garments were painted with the assistance of photos taken by the artist.

Something I do feel strongly about is that a painter should be able to work from life and have had practice doing so, even if they are going to be working from photographs, because working from life teaches observational and interpretive skills no amount of working solely from photographs can.

Almost all modern portrait painters use photographs at some point in their working lives, but the best can also work from life when the opportunity presents itself. A common practice, even when working from life, is to use photographs to help complete clothing and background, for which the sitter does not need to be present.

You won’t get a “better result” by working exclusively from life, the end result may be subtly different but a good artist will give you a great painting whichever way you go.

What is it like to sit?

If your portrait is to be painted from photographs the artist shoots, or from life, there will be at least one sitting, maybe more, and these should be enjoyable. Most sitters find the experience of working with an artist to be very rewarding. A portrait artist will want to get to know you a little, to understand you and to make sure you are comfortable with the way your picture is developing.

Many sitters find the experience very relaxing, enjoying the break from their every-day schedules. Many have told me it made them feel very special.

'Last Speaker of Her Language'
oil on canvas - by David Goatley
This is an example of an oil study from life. Head studies are
often used in conjunction with photo reference.

Even if you are not sure you want your portrait painted and have been pushed into it by colleagues or your partner, you will likely find yourself quickly at ease and engaged in the process. An artist will ask you for your ideas, consider your feeling about how you want to be portrayed, and work with any insecurities or uncertainties you may have.

If you are being painted from life, you will spend a lot of time together and I’ve often found a friendship developing as I’ve worked. But even in the few hours I’ve spent taking photographs with a client, a real rapport is often established. It is a rewarding experience personally for the artist too. Meeting our subjects is one of the things that makes this such a wonderful career for most portrait painters.

I often say everyone should have their portrait painted because I’ve seen the delight it brings almost everyone I’ve worked with and most of my piers would say the same.