Poshumous portraits

I’ve not blogged in a while as I’ve been busy creating four posthumous portraits in time for them to be gifted at Christmas.

Posthumous projects are quite common as it is often only once someone has died that family or colleagues decide they’d like to celebrate their life.

So how do you create a portrait that appears full of life, and captures the character of the subject, when you are working only from good quality reference photos and people’s recollections?

As I cannot yet show you my most recent commissions, I thought it might be of interest if I explained how I set about a past posthumous commission and also how I commemorated the lives of my own departed loved ones.

Mum and me portrait in oils by portraitist Stella Tooth

Mum and me

When my mum died I inherited a box of glorious, technicolour ‘60s which brought my childhood recollections vibrantly back to life.  In one my mum stared into the lens of a camera, operated by my dad, on a family picnic.  I could be seen in the background playing in a cardigan and skirt that my mum, like many mums of that period, had made. 

The transparency instantly brought my mum back to me – from the dress she wore that still hung in her wardrobe after she had gone, to the way she lightly backcombed her hair, to the green in the cardigan she favoured that matched her eyes…

Colour is so powerful in evoking memory. It’s something I pay great attention to when talking to loved ones or colleagues about the departed and their choice of reference photo.  What was the colour of their eyes?  Are the colours of the clothes they are wearing in the photo true to life?  People often remember the exact colours of favoured outfits. In three of my lastest commissions of the same subject in different I have united their backgrounds of three pictures of the same subject, destined for three sisters, with green,  a colour that speaks to their mother’s love of the natural world.

With my portrait of ‘Mum and me’, my first action was to crop the photo in a way that favoured storytelling.  By focusing in on mum and me, rather than the scene, I sought to show I felt secure enough back then to set off in search of adventure – and imply that, after mum had gone, that confidence carried me into the future, while mum stays with the viewer in the present.

I then chose to bring the past back to life in oils as I felt I if I had drawn us instead in monochrome it would have firmly positioned the memory in the past, rather than the continuous past. And, as a drawing often provides movement in an image, I turned to oils to create the opposite, the stillness at the heart of the picture that provides room for memory.

The pebble

The pebble was another of my autobiographical portraits that I hope awakes universal memories of childhood in us all.  It certainly did in the buyer who saw in my picture his own grandfather with whom he too used to skim stones in Scotland.

This was Exmouth, one of our family’s favourite holiday spots, where dad and I could spend hours looking in the area's amazing rock pools.  Dad has in his hand a pebble ideal for skimming.  He used to read the water and then let it skim through the air while I counted the times it hit the water on its journey. 

The instant I saw the photo, which I had taken, I felt inspired to paint dad because it captured the way his jaw set when he was displaying quiet determination.  I often talk with commissioners about exactly this type of thing – does this photo capture something of his or her character and expressions that make you say ‘Oh yes, that’s him’ -  or her.’ 

Naples 1948 portrait in oils by Stella Tooth artist

Naples 1946

Naples 1946 is biographical portrait - painted in nostalgic hues - that may spark vivid reminiscences in viewers, as it did my buyer. 

It depicts my mother, before I was born, in 1946 in war-ravaged Naples where love arises from the hate. My father, a British Royal Engineer, is called upon to use his carpentry skills to liberate the keys my mum, an interpreter for a British colonel, has inadvertently locked in her desk. After a romantic courtship, they become one of the first post-war pairs to wed. Then dad is demobbed and sent home and mum must journey by train with the other war brides to be united with him.  Her last day in her home city is the subject of this pathos-filled portrait where she says goodbye to the family, friends and places she knows for a new life abroad.

An important consideration with posthumous commissions is therefore what age and dress best personify the deceased person to the intended audience of the portrait? What was an important time in their lives, oe when did they make an important impact?

 Pat Malkin portrait drawing by Stella Tooth artist

Pat Malkin

When my husband’s Uncle Pat died, I was asked to draw a portrait of him for his wife from a group photograph taken on a sunny day with a blue sky behind him.

The photo appealed to me partly because of the good lighting.  Good lighting is vital for an artist – a single-direction light source and a visible shadow edge that shows the end of the light and reveals the three-dimensional structure of the face.

It also helped hugely that I could picture in my mind’s eye the colour of his skin and his gentle character.  He was always quick to smile with a twinkle in his eye.

His wife Vera tells me the portrait has brought a lot of comfort her as she often speaks to Pat, through the portrait, about her thoughts and the events of the day as she did throughout his life.

One final thought - one of my latest posthumous commissions is of a piano player.  In addition to the reference photo, something that was of huge help in capturing both gesture and pose of him playing the piano was a video.  The video also helped me get sense of the pianist’s expressive moods.  

 George Harrison digital painting by Stella Tooth portrait artist

George Harrison

Over the past two years I have formed a collaboration with Getty rock photographer Solomon N'Jie.  Under the Art & Sol banner, we exhibit Sol's in the moment photographs of '80s music icons and my interpretation of them into digital portraits, using the storytelling technique of colour symbolism.

English singer-songwriter George Harrison embraced Indian culture and fused Indian instruments and Hindu spirituality in The Beatles' work. My portrait unites black, synonymous with The Beatles, and important colours in Indian culture: red representing sensuality and purity, saffron the most sacred colour and blue associated with Lord Krishna.

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