Process of a painting

Early last year Kay Kane, the current President of The Royal Queensland Art Society (RQAS) made a proposal to its members to reinstate a tradition celebrating their previous Presidents. A commissioned portrait of the most recent and seminal President, Glen Gillard, would pick up the old thread. Artists such as Glen give so much of their time and energy in the role, and the commission would in a small way acknowledge their importance. The painting would become a part of the RQAS art collection.  

I was proposed and accepted for the job.

The final painting (below) was presented on 30th March, unveiled to the RQAS from behind a very fancy purple silk curtain. After the unveiling, there was opportunity for me to talk to the attendees about the process that the project took, from beginning to end. This blog summarises the presentation made that day.


The work for the portrait started with a few sneaky sketchbook drawings of Glen at a meeting. These kinds of situations are great because subjects are absorbed in what they're doing and we can be voyeurs, studying them all that we like.

In a second meeting situation Glen was busy describing his Kokoda track experiences, and his paintings which led from that. Its this drawing on the right which most captures his character and physicality, of all the ones I made. The position of Glen's head at profile helped me later to figure out drawing issues when painting from the studies.

From this point on studies were made in Glens studio, which gave us a lot of control with lighting and set up. The pen drawings below were experiments just to see around Glen's face, while trying to be open to a possible position or image, for the final work.

The next biro study is not a very sympathetic version of Glen- he is much friendlier than this! Still, somehow the likeness and characterisation in the drawing are still fairly good. This drawing became a model for a few more ideas discussed below.

By using chalk I had a chance to model form in a more immediate and fluid way. Its a little more unpredictable as a medium, but its those kind of graphic discoveries that make the drawing process a more exciting one. The drawing on the left distorts proportions to dramatise the below vantage point. The next chalk study uses the pose and position of the earlier biro study, whose design of verticals and horizontals I thought could help make a stronger image. These drawings were fun, though the later one was pushed too far when I took it away from the model. It was destroyed by my tinkering on it with other media, trying to add more features to the page and making a huge mess.

In these quick, small thumbnail compositions the internal design of Glen's features extends into the whole format. In the first study (above left) Glen's shoulder moves upward, and I thought it could implicitly complete a square that is not yet enclosed, its three quarters made up by Glen and his shadow. The next idea was an attempt to repeat but distort his features, echoing the profile behind him. There could be - I thought, a pulsing movement possible between the resolved smaller head and the abstraction of it behind. These were ideas that didn't go anywhere, they were just little experiements.

It was this study that changed things, focusing the preparation for the final painting. To be honest the likeness is way off, the head and nose are much too long. However as a drawing its one of the more successful. The modelling achieved by graining and hatching was satisfying, and along with the more graphic treatment in the neck and collar the rendering mix works. It was the design within the bust that was memorable at the time, and which was developed further through the final painting. Specifically the design involves the horizontal base, a movement backwards as the A-shape of the collar, which then interlocks with the neck. The upward and outward movement continues, through the horizons of the face creating a deep V-shape, concluding with the dome of his cranium. The relationship of the neck to head was exaggerated in the final painting so this design was clearer. 

There is a raising and opening movement to the image by these means, which might convey something spritely and outgoing in Glen's character.

Feeling very clear about the direction to take, a few small colour studies from life would assist light and colour choices later. The vessels behind Glen's head, which repeat his neck-head shape were a possible addition. Though fairly perpendicular, the atmosphere between them and Glen could have been fun- though subtle to paint. Finally I decided they were distracting as well as awkward in the way they sit upon his shoulders. The second study here is more fluid, and the features more integrated as subforms.

There were a few major things I tried to develop in the final painting. The first was an idea to enjoy a tight cropping. With the head awkwardly close to the top, I thought it would be an opportunity to find a way out of that situation- emphasising elsewhere in order to make the head placement work. The scale is also above life size, which gave me room to work with some thicker paint, scumbling for much of the modelling. The mix of the viewer positioned close to the subject, plus Glen filling the format and additionally the subject physically over life size make the painting (in person) more engaging, to me, and monumental.

The central dark shape behind Glen's nose was a feature to exploit.  I tried to keep it isolated limiting the modelling in the shadow. However by leading in and out of it by modelling the surrounding surfaces it became more intergrated.

As mentioned previously, the design was the most interesting aspect in the making process. By making all kinds of diagrammatic studies to explore the diagonal, C and S-curve systems etc. through the image, the parts felt more cohesive. As painters know, all these trials sensitise us, so the actual painting process becomes more confident and nuanced.

These really quick before and after studies helped to decide how to start the final painting. They show what colours could be achived as glazes in the shadows, and how the light areas can start to quickly built texture for a more rugged sense of form yet with a transperancy to the skin. Unlike the colour sketches from life, there were no Cadmiums used in this study or the finished painting. 

So with this reference pool the final painting began! Working totally from these studies helped me to focus on those initial ideas, and not get distracted by new data. Towards the end a few photos came in as reference, mostly to help understand Glen's features in the round, as well as to help refine the likeness and deal with the beard.

Neatly, the above photoshopped series explains how the background was painted. Starting with a neutral ground I painted two dot series of pinks and greens, mixed with Permanent Rose and Viridian colours. This was all planned very clearly in mind, and the results were pretty close to the original idea. Bizarre maybe, but I was confident it would work. The transition from bottom to top biased a higher chroma green above, which would balance the green jumper that the subject was wearing. At the final stage a glaze of Mars Black was layed on and wiped off again and again. This continued until the layering selectively revealed the dots underneath to enhance the original design idea. Even my initials were painted on the earlier dot layers and rubbed through.

The project ended up being a great excuse to paint flesh, trying to push the materials a little further than I previously had.

Thanks to the RQAS, its members, Kay Kane and Glen Gillard. It was a great opportunity to be entrusted with. 

Ryan Daffurn

Nick Leavey