The story of a commission via the Royal Society of Portrait Painters
It all started back in 2015 when The Royal Society of Portrait Painters accepted my portrait of Kate Adie for inclusion in their annual exhibition.
This led to my being put forward, from time to time, for suitable commissions by Annabel Elton Head of Commissions at the Mall Galleries, who specialises in portraiture.
Typically I would be asked if I would like to be put forward for a particular commission alongside two or three other artists and would send along examples of relevant work for the commissioners to see if they liked my style.
Annabel would give me a snapshot of the commission. In this case I learned that the commission was a double portrait of a couple to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary, and that they would like to be portrayed in traditional dress.
This captured my imagination as I live in one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities in London, where the mix of different ethnicities, beliefs and culture enriches my daily life.
So it was that I found myself visiting Chandra and Kasmira at their west London home where they told me about their motivation and hopes for the commission, where it would hang, the size, medium and whether it would be framed. I explained the collaborative way in which I work, the process involved in creating an oil portrait and I took along some of my work for them to see in the frame - a very different experience to viewing work online, primarily due to size and texture. In return, I was shown a previous family portrait they liked.
From the moment I stepped through their front door, I began gathering information - just as they did to decide whether I was the portrait painter for them.
I was welcomed into their house, entered leaving my shoes alongside theirs, and was and taken to a long communal kitchen uniting family households and introduced to members of the wider family who all were in on the commission.
In the sitting room, I was given tea and moreish home made snacks made with gram flour as we discussed Kasmira's disability and how standing or sitting for long periods would be impossible, and how we could work around this by my working from photos instead, taken in their daughter's light-filled home nearby.
Then I waited. And some weeks later learned I had won the commission.
Back at their home now, we discussed the painting process in detail - when the photoshoot would be, what they would wear, the significance of their Indian and British marriage jewellery. I also encouraged them to think of the pose, which we had already determined would be half to three quarter length, providing some images to focus their thoughts. Their daughter Falguni explained that Kasmira provided emotional support for her husband. And now her husband Chandra needed to give her physical support. This, we decided, would be symbolised in the holding of hands - appropriate to hang in the private space of their bedroom, which they later planned to redecorate around the finished portrait.
I showed them my skintone "recipe" book which would help me determine the palette I would use for their painting. And we set a date for photoshoot.
On the day of the photoshoot I arrived with tripod and set up in Fanguni's front room. Her presence, aiding her mother, helped create a relaxed atmosphere as we tried different poses... some with Chandra on the left, others with him on the right, some landscape, some portrait - and all with the sitters connected in different ways.
While the photoshoot was fresh in our minds, we sat down at the kitchen table to make our initial selection over tea and those amazing Indian snacks... Who would know how much preparation goes into Bombay mix?
It soon became obvious to the family how important gesture and a look could be to the portrait. Although there were some lovely images of them smiling with teeth exposed, we kept these as mementos. It's a look that suits photos, which capture a moment in time, better than paintings which seek to capture a life lived up to that moment.
In the studio
Back in my home studio I ordered up the agreed size canvas and waited for them to make two selections of photos for me to work from, that I knew would inspire me. I then provided regular weekly digital updates which I only later discovered the whole family discussed for Chandra to feedback to me. Involving the whole family in this way - children, grandchildren - added to the sense of ownership of the portrait and invested them in its legacy.
Drawing on canvas
Underpainting in monochrome
Introducing colour to the underpainting
Introduction of undiluted oil paint in 'fat over lean' process
Unusually, as a former journalist, I also provided them with a Q&A from which I would tell their stories in words.
Kasmira and Chandra with their double portrait
Eventually, when we agreed that the portrait was complete, I took it to show them in reality, prior to varnishing and framing, in case there were any last minute changes requested. This was their reaction:
Kasmira: "Wow! It's perfect!"
Chandra: "This is our dream. And this will leave a legacy for our children and grandchildren. I didn't expect this. It's so good. More than I expected. And we are thrilled.
"Right from the beginning of seeing the canvas to the end. It's been amazing this whole last few weeks, how we spent on this. Our journey. Something I won't forget. And thanks Stella for that. She has done a fantastic job."
A video of the evolving painting can be found here.