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  • Helen English Artist

The portrait process

Talking to someone who knows my work quite well, I realised that much as I assume that the process of my art commissions is obvious, it is not! So I thought I would lay out my process here.


I love painting commissions for people. There are two main reasons that people contact me. Either they want a painting of family member or beloved pet for their walls or, more often, they want to get the commission done for someone else for a special birthday or Mother’s Day or other notable event. There are different ways to contact me. Mostly I receive messages on my Facebook page but sometimes it’s directly through my website or email or in person.


Due to the bespoke nature of a portrait, I listen to what they want me to do and answer a wide variety of questions. I love these questions because it makes sure that the person commissioning has the chance to get something that they are really happy with. I also make sure that they know costs so there are no surprises, and we talk about whether they think they want me to frame the portrait. Usually with overseas commissions, people choose to frame the portrait themselves because of the additional postage cost and fragile nature of the frame’s glass but, if they aren’t sure about framing, I can show them the frames I use and we can look at colours so that they know what to look for when framing. I also make sure that I agree a timeline and stick to it like superglue! It goes into my diary and I work to an earlier timeline than the given one to make sure that I don’t leave my customer waiting.


I work from photos. I could get someone to sit for me for the whole painting process but, even if they are local, it’s a long time to sit still…especially if the sitter is of the canine variety! Also, mostly the picture is a surprise for the person receiving it so photos are essential. In most cases, I work from photos sent to me. The sender will tell me which is their favourite photo, which the portrait will be heavily based on, but the others are essential and some can even be blurry. Think of all of the photographs which have been taken of you and how different each one is, even though they all look like you. It makes for a much more realistic portrait when I can see different aspects of someone (person or dog). This is also true when I meet the subject of the portrait and take my own photos. One turns out to be the main focus but the others give me crucial information.


The next stage is a draft. I produce a sketch, or sketches, so that I can work out where the subject needs to be placed and how my ideas work. Sketches also help me to ‘learn’ about the subject. I painted someone who I know quite well a month ago but as I sketched and then painted her face, I realised how little I knew until that point. Portraits are really an exercise in looking!


Once the commissioner is happy with the draft, I paint. I set up my watercolour paper, mark a soft outline to work within, and go ahead and paint. I find that it works well to do a first pass, which may take up to four hours, leave the painting to dry and breathe, and then return to add more depth and detail. Time between painting allows my brain to become more subjective again so that I can see clearly what I need to do. Once I am absolutely happy, I get the painting scanned so that I can add it to my collection, and also allow the person who has commissioned me to return and ask for prints if someone would like a copy.


Finally, there is the reveal. This is the nerve-wracking point! It doesn’t matter how happy you are with a portrait; it really is not my job to say whether it passes muster. I know the subject less than the person who it is for and they have their own take on the subject. I have, fortunately, never had a disappointed customer but that doesn’t make it much easier.


I am always interested in how other people work so I hope that by sharing, other people also share their process.


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