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Face-to-face. Why do people still commission a portrait?

July 12, 2023 1 Comment

The Colourist blogger for Skylark Galleries Helen Trevisiol Duff

Portrait artists Skylark Galleries

Whimsical, musical, funny and characterful - portraits by Skylark Galleries' artists

I recently visited the new opening of The National Portrait Gallery which has been closed for refurbishment for around three years. I was really impressed with the new layout and design of the rooms. My visit ignited a renewed passion for portraiture.

The gallery is home to the most extensive collection of portraits in the world, from the 8th century to the present day including representational art, fine art prints, sculptures, mixed media art, photographs and oil paintings. The new exhibits include those by David Hockney, a collection of artists reframing the black figure and an exhibition of photography art by Paul McCartney.

I was really taken in by the beautiful door panels which we were told about by the enthusiastic guide. They deserve a closer look on exiting the place with 45 faces of women, drawn by Tracey Emin as part of the astonishing revamp that has turned this once unloved London landmark into a great iconic building.

The gallery tells the story of the nation through its extraordinary people. It made me start questioning why so many artists are drawn to painting faces, sculpting faces or representing the head in so many different ways.

Seeing the work of these talented artists throughout the ages, and now the individual approach to modern day portraiture, got me thinking about the history of depicting the face. Some of the oldest prehistoric portraits were reconstructed human skulls made around 9000 and 6000 BC in the pre pottery Neolithic B period. They represent some of the oldest forms of art in the Middle East, which goes to show that this civilisation took great pride in burying their ancestors.

Most early portraits were of rulers and are idealised in appearance using symmetry to heighten beauty. Individuality was shown in the Egyptian pharaohs but still stylised so it's difficult to know, without being there, whether they were good likenesses.  Or was everyone beautiful?  Roman funeral portraits are almost the only paintings from the classical world to have survived. All are of young people where sitters demanded flattering likenesses.

In the rehung National Portrait Galley everyone is made to feel welcome and much of the existing collections have been refreshed. It now houses a collection of 11,000 portraits, of which 4000 are paintings, sculptures or miniatures, and 7,000 light sensitive works on paper. That's a lot to get through! There's also a collection of 222,000 photographic images and a reference collection of 80,000 prints. The conservation department cares for the entire collection.

Self-portrait became popular in the late middle ages but was also known in Egyptian times when Akhenaten's sculptor Bak carved a representation of himself. Several of our artists at Skylark have worked on self-portraits or, like so many people in the past, take commissions of portraits for their patrons' families, friends or colleagues. Commissioning a portrait artist may seem daunting, but with discussion, understanding, and a style you like, it's a great experience. All our artists at Skylark have impressive skills and a passion for creating something extraordinary. Those that take commissions ensure you get exactly what you want through a deeply enriching experience. A masterpiece that you will cherish for decades and a legacy for the next generation.

Stella Tooth

Florence Gibson with her oil portrait by Stella Tooth portrait artist

Stella is a talented portrait artist has over 10 years' experience in traditional oil painting and also works digitally. She says, “why in the age of photography and video, do I paint portraits? Because a photo captures a moment in time whereas a painting captures a life lived up to that moment as the lens of the artist's eye has been all over it over a period of time. It's why it can be viewed for longer.

"Photography also cannot translate true colour but an approximation of it That's important to me as Im a colourist. That doesn't mean to say I don't work from reference photos. I do, but I'm not copying them, rather using them for inspiration if painting from life is not possible.There's an intimacy in eye to eye contact.”

Stella studied at The Heatherley School of Fine Art in Chelsea and undertakes many private commissions as well as those for the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. She believes everyone has a story to tell, and loves the challenge of capturing that story in a portrait. She works with you to create a beautiful, uplifting, and colourful portrait that tells your story in a way that is both visually stunning and emotionally resonant and will also tell your story in words, if desired, providing additional context and meaning to the piece.

She also portrays performers and is Resident Artist at legendary music venue the Half Moon Putney where she seeks to capture the energy of performing live.  You can buy her musician artwork from the walls, online or explore it in a joint exhibition with fellow portrait and performer artists Susie Nathanson called 'Performers in Paint' running at Putney Library until 15 July as part of the Wandsworth Arts Fringe.  

To find out more about how to commission a portrait from Stella click here. She is happy to work to a budget.

Heather Tobias

Heather Tobias portrait ceramics

Heather worked as an actress all her life and finds herself drawn to groups of characters who interact with themselves and the viewer.

Now as a mixed media artist Heather has been working on a new series of ceramic art in porcelain, 'Singles', the idea being that characters are looking for connections.

Heather says, "I explore characters who engage with the viewer. They can be Elizabethan or modern. Their gaze is the connection. I feel they are either questioning or watching. I have made a series of 'Four thoughtful women' in porcelain using oxides and underglazes which are then fired to a high temperature. The results are never what was originally intended, which is when the magic happens inside the kiln. The characters then appear.”

Heather sees them being displayed as a group, but this isn't always possible in the gallery as they are sold individually. She finds inspiration in the past and the human condition.

She says, “When starting on a new project I never know the outcome as I am led by images that appear and I follow my intuition.”

You can see more of Heather's work on instagram @tobiasheather or click here to visit her website.  Her work can also be found in Skylark Galleries in Gabriel's Wharf on London's south bank.

Jo Hodgen

Jo Hodgen portrait

Jo's paintings are about little moments of joy, be it laughing with friends, running into the sea or people smiling. Jo’s hope is to brighten a day with a smile as she paints textural art with a palette knife creating oil paintings in her London studio.

She says “I paint lighthearted pictures that hope to make the viewer smile. I depict the spirit of the person rather than a true likeness. My paintings are mostly of my friends and family and are intended to be fun."

Jo graduated from Reading University in Fine Art in 1987 and has been painting ever since.

She says, ”I work from photos and am happy to do commissions.''

To contact Jo email Click here to visit her website:

Vivien Phelan

Vivien Phelan ceramic portrait

Vivien you may know as the charismatic ceramicist from the BBC One programme, 'Home Is where the art is.' Artists compete to win a special new commission for one paying homeowner.

Our Skylark Galleries member Viv not only won the commission, which you can see on series 2, episode 11, but has gone from strength-to-strength, receiving many more commissions of her imaginative, whimsical, clay busts representing the life of a person.

She cleverly includes all things dear to the person's life in her commissions. These light-hearted portraits sum up everything in her sitters' life that makes them unique. All their hobbies, interests and likes are creatively created in clay and bring a smile to the viewer's lips in a treasured portrait. 

After retiring from a long and successful nursing career Viv returned to her first love, which was art. Portraiture, and heads made from clay, became her passion. She has a lively sense of humour and enjoys creating a character with the feel of clay on the potter's wheel. She is skilled at reshaping the clay into creative portraits of characters and animals based on the quirkiness of the English language. I've visited her wonderful London studio where her kiln and wheel take centre stage.

Viv says, “As a young girl I wanted to be a portrait artist but my parents thought a placement in a bank was so much better! I began nursing instead. Appearing in the TV programme during lockdown got me concentrating on ceramic portraits."

You can commission Viv by emailing her

A portrait is generally a representation of a person, a likeness in which the face, and its expressions, are predominant. To me a portrait says more than the paint on the canvas or the click of the camera. To me it incorporates the soul of not only the sitter but also the artist.

Helen Trevisiol Duff artist and The Colourist blogger

1 Response


July 27, 2023

Very interesting read

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