Commission: family portrait

A lovely friend from the BBC is the first to commission me to do a whole family portrait. 

A portrait to capture a family before children leave the nest

Her three children are of an age that two are either preparing, or soon will be, to leave home, and she wanted a portrait of them with her and her husband that reminded them all of the happy times they spent together as the children were growing up. 

She told me that, every year in France, they had a family photo taken on a bench, which came both to chart the passing of years and provide a memory of annual holidays together. The latest, unfortunately, did not include their oldest son, who had been unable to join them.  In the photo - in the diffused Mediterranean light - they all looked suntanned and relaxed, and I noted the dad was wearing a hat, something I always love painting.  It was clear that I wouldn’t be able to use the photo, with the son missing and no shot of him that year, at that age, and in that light. 

An image in the present evoking memories of the past

So I suggested recreating the feel of it in their beautiful garden, where they also had a bench.  As it was winter, we decided to wait till around Easter time and pick a sunny day for a single sitting where we would discuss the pose and background, and I would photograph them against it and take down their colours individually. We decided that they would wear clothes similar to those they wore on the French holidays - including that hat.  And I asked them to think about coordinating their colours and explained that red near the centre would help draw the eye.  I asked them to avoid black, as it could easily change the mood. 

Family commissioned portrait in oils on canvas artwork by Stella Tooth.

Painting studies

On the day it was bright and sunny - but very cold.  As it’s difficult to assemble a family that age together we decided to go ahead with my taking colours which took about 1/2 hour for each person outside.  I was very happy to have brought my gloves, and the many cups of tea I was supplied with did a great job of helping keeping my fingers thawed! 

In a group portrait, you have to think of the way everyone fits together and choose a photo to work from where everyone looks at their best.  So we sat down at the kitchen table and chose about five photos for them to select from and I emailed them to them so they could make their choice at leisure. 

Monochrome underpainting

Back in my studio, I began with a monochrome underpainting, which I sent them for comment, and then established the background in colour and worked on each person in turn, inviting comment along the way.  Then I unified the picture, making sure that I worked all over it to refresh it, and make sure it hung together.


The family were thrilled with the result - and asked if they could unveil it, once framed and hung in the space we had decided on, with me there to answer any questions.  I readily agreed, as it was an opportunity to see my work through others’ eyes, and it was kind of them to ask me to take along some of my busker and musician art in a browser, for guests to leaf through, which resulted in welcome sales!  All in all a fantastic experience for me, and I hope for this lovely family. 

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