Earlier this week a recently completed commission I painted of David Nish was unveiled at the head office of Standard Life in Edinburgh. David was the CEO of Standard Life from 2009-2015. Standard Life have a long history of having their CEO's portraits painted for their boardroom. Previous portraits were painted by some very famous scottish portrait painters, Sir James Gunn and Stephen Conroy to name a couple. It was a nice commission for me to take on, not only because my painting would hang in this well-established Scottish art collection, but also because I'm Scottish myself and orginally from Edinburgh.
As I started the development process for the portrait I met David and we chatted about possible routes for the composition. I live and work in London, and not far from my studio is the building in the city of London known as the Gherkin. It's a very tall building and Standard Life have offices at the top. The view over the city of London is amazing and particularly dramatic at night. So I arranged a sitting with a fellow artist to stand-in for David and I came up with 2 possible compositions with a view over the city of London behind. I thought it could be quite a modern looking portrait.
At the same time as developing the 'city at night view' I also had a separate photo sitting with David Nish at my studio. The images in my studio were simpler and focused totally on the sitter with no eye-catching background. I'd describe those images more as character studies and the view over the city image as more of an interesting composition.
One picture stood out from the photo sittings in my studio, it was one you see in the image below on the right. It's very simple and direct.
I compared the 2 images side by side to the scale that the final portrait had to be (70cm x 90cm) and the simpler image on the right had more presence to me. I thought it could be more striking and David would be painted larger than life scale. This image had another advantage over the city view in that I felt I could bring drama to it by using large brushes when I painted it. There is not a lot of detail in it which meant I could concentrate on the brushwork. Broad, direct brushwork I hoped could also communicate or suggest David's sense of energy in the final painting.
So I had a vision of where I wanted to take the portrait, but it's not that simple to just take the idea and execute it on the canvas, I had to do some figuring out, I needed to find a way to bring energy, broad brushwork, drama, and realism to the canvas.
I started first by sketching the portrait on the iPad (Procreate app) to see if it would give me any ideas of how to bring movement to this photo in paint .
I then did a second small study on canvas. I was initially quite loose and rough with this and as I painted it there developed a sweep of movement in the bottom left of the portrait. This I realised could be the starting point for the overall movement in the picture. It was useful to do these little tests because as well as helping unlock interesting ways to paint the final image, it was even more helpful in terms of alerting me to what might be difficult or problematic in the final portrait. They allowed me to confront mistakes and problems without messing up the final painting. This was so useful as it provided me with a lot of insight in terms of how I might paint the final version.
I did some full scale simplified head studies too. These helped me understand the main planes and shapes of David's face prior to painting his head in the final portrait.
A lot of my preparatory work was spent visualising the painting as a whole .
On my mind were the following questions :
What would the general mood or feel of it be?
How would I get all the colours and brushwork to work to communicate this feeling?
How would the directions of various brush marks effect the movement over the whole image?
I wanted it to have drama and energy, but it also had to work within the context of quite a formal boardroom where it was to hang eventually. So you could say a lot of my time early on and mid way through was spent thinking about the fundamental issues of this portrait.
Just as important, was what I thought about towards the end of painting the final picture, and that was 'what could I suggest about David from a psychological point of view?'. The eyes were very important to this portrait , and the picture was painted in such a way as to make the eyes the sharpest and most prominent thing in the picture. A lot of the elements in this picture dissolve away, like the shoulder, the ear, the arm in the background. The dissolving of these elements allows me to paint these sections with dramatic brushwork, but the eyes are clear, steady and focused on the viewer. The eye nearest the viewer takes prominence over everything else in the picture.
The expression was interesting to paint as at one minute he looks contented and humorous , at another glance he has a directness and a seriousness.
The portrait was unveiled in the boardroom of Standard Life on 24th July 2017. Many of David's past colleagues were there as well as his and my family. The drama and energy I'd aimed for was noted, interestingly his family mentioned the humour in the expression, former colleges the serious side.
I find it fascinating to watch how different people respond to portraits. Do they bring their own memories and thoughts when they interpret a face?
If you are interested in finding more about the story behind this portrait and how it was made you can watch the 10 minute video below.