Tag Archives: portrait from life or photographs

Painting a Portrait: Life Sittings or From Photographs?

This is one of the first questions that comes up when someone commissions a portrait. I’d like to share my thoughts on this and illustrate them with the examples of past works.

I especially like painting and drawing from life, but when this is not possible photographs come to my aid.

Portraits from life, in my opinion, carry more immediacy and are very reflective of the experience itself, while working from photographs is invaluable when painting young children or group portraits, or if the subject is unable to come for sittings.

The following are a few examples of past portrait commissions with my brief comments.

I shall start with the portraits painted from life.

Portrait of Sarah Jempson by Marina Kim. Oil on canvas.
Portrait of Sarah Jempson.
Oil on canvas

Painted in 12 sessions of 2 hours each which may sound like a long time to sit still, but it goes quickly. Sarah and I talked about life, children, gardens and lots more… It is never as boring as it sounds to sit for a portrait!

Having as many as 10-12 sessions allows me time to indulge in fine detail and I really appreciate such opportunities.

Mike Eve. Portrait commission by Marina Kim
Portrait of Mike Eve
Oil on canvas

After a long and successful career in Finance Mike Eve now channels his energy into the life of the town of Rye. The 10 sittings for this portrait took place during the building of Rye cinema which is now a huge asset for the local community and area. Mike chaired the committee which made it happen.

Portrait fine art. Commission a portrait by Marina Kim
Portrait study of Bernie Duff
Oil on canvas

More often than not time is a limited resource and this portrait is an example of what can be achieved in as little as four hours.

Bernie Duff is Australian. He stayed in Rye for a few days, visiting extended family. On one of those days we arranged for a single four-hour session to complete this portrait.

Portraits of children. Portraiture artist Marina Kim. Commission a portrait
Portrait of Eva
Oil on canvas

This is my elder daughter at the age of 13.

I portray my two girls every couple of years. Until recently I always worked from photographs, but now they are old enough to be still for a while I insist on life sittings. For them it is an unwelcome chore – note Eva’s expression – but in compensation I had to pay modelling fees for the 5 sessions necessary to complete this portrait!

Now we come to portraits painted from photographs.

Portrait of Christopher Russell in his garden. Acrylic on canvas. Artist Marina Kim
Chris in his Garden
Acrylic on canvas

Suffering from MS, Christopher knew his time was limited and wanted to leave his family with an image of himself as a fun person and an enthusiastic gardener. We had a photo session in Christopher’s garden and, based on the photos, I painted this portrait full of colour and light-heartedness.

Commission corporate style portrait. Retirement gift
Portrait of Nigel Pavey
Oil on canvas

This portrait is a celebration of Nigel’s 35-year career as a structural engineer in a big firm, followed by a successful transition to his own consultancy business. Nigel wanted to illustrate how the tools of his profession have changed over the years, while for his wife Zandra, capturing his warm personality was the priority.

Portraiture fine art. Commission family portrait
Portrait of Neilson Family
Oil on canvas

The Neilsons wanted a large painting depicting the whole family together before the children went their own way. Even at the time of our two photo sessions it was quite a challenge for Fiona, the mother, to get everyone together. Around 350 photos just about suffieced to capture each person in their best light and create a coherent and engaging composition.

The size of the painting was a challenge in itself!

The family didn’t see the portrait until the Big Unveiling and they all loved it when it was finally revealed. Phew! One of the most memorable moments of my career!

When working on a group portrait from photographs, I get the opportunity to play with the composition to create something interesting and different.

Children's Portrait. "Hide and Seek". Acrylic on canvas.
Portrait of Catherine and Rebecca Redmayne
“Hide and Seek”
Acrylic on canvas

Sisters Katherine and Rebecca showed me around their garden during our photo session and of course, being kids, they ran around, played hide-and-seek and clambered on their swings and climbing frame…

I made three mock-up compositions in different settings which we discussed with the family by email. It was not easy to decide which “narrative” to choose. The images went back and forth with comments and small adjustments, until the final decision was reached and I set to work.

Commission a portrait. Boy with a dog. Acrylic painting
Benjie Gurney and Jack in Rye
Acrylic on canvas

Including animals in a portrait is another good reason to resort to photographs, although some of them are good sitters!

This is a portrait of Benjie and Jack. Benjie is the grandchild of John Gurney, a long-standing client and close friend. Last year John and I embarked on a major project: portraying all of his 9 grandchildren – one at a time. So far four portraits have been completed!

Commission portrait portfolio. Watercolour on paper. portraits of children
Arabella at Grandad’s
Watercolour on paper

John and I agreed that the portraits should be different from one another in medium, size or style, but in any case my choices are influenced by the personality of the subject. This makes the task much more exciting and hopefully the family gallery will be more interesting to view when it is completed. This latest portrait is the first watercolour in the series. My aim was to keep the atmosphere of the picture light and fresh.

Portrait commission painting from a photograph
Portrait of John Wenburg
Oil on canvas

This portrait of John Wenburg was commissioned by his friends Mike and Madeline Eve as a surprise present. They provided me with a few photos and a videoclip of John to serve as a reference for the portrait. As John lives in the States, coming for sittings would in any case have been tricky.

The foremost goal in my work is to create an emotional piece. The process leading up to painting helps me to relate to my sitters, to find a narrative for the portrait. When painting someone I have never met personally, I go with the feelings of love and appreciation I sense from their family or friends who commission me.

I hope this tour illuminates a little the process of commissioning a portrait painting. If you have any questions, please contact me and I’ll be very happy to answer them all.

My best wishes,
Marina Kim