Narrative portraits paintings in oils on canvas by Catharine Kingcome
Catharine Kingcome is a British artist who is working with Belgravia Gallery on a portrait of Jacob, who is 7 years old. In the text below Catharine describes the process for producing the portrait:
"My work can be termed contemporary realism, comprising of figurative, narrative and symbolic paintings. All my paintings are in oils on canvas. I undertake commissioned portrait paintings, also portrait drawings.
Narrative portrait of Jacob
This composition was decided between Jacob, his mum and myself, and is based around what Jacob currently loves best: karate, his Lego Ninjago sword, firedragon, and two small figures. He is standing on his Union Jack rug which has turned into a flying carpet, and is flying with his cat Lily over the house where his grandmother lives. Behind him are forests, mountains and a full moon in the night sky. All of these elements represent his imagination.
How I go about a portrait commission is as follows: After meeting the client / sitter, discussing the composition with them and taking the necessary reference photos, I produce an A3 sized study drawing for the painting, in coloured pencils on paper. I do this so that the client can see, as far as possible, what the finished painting will look like, and make any changes necessary before I start the actual painting. Once the painting is started, no further changes are possible. In this commission, there was a few months delay between doing the drawing and starting the painting, and Jacob had grown and changed a little, so I took new photos of him to use in the painting. Everything else remained the same.
The next stage: I draw a detailed grid on the canvas, with matching, scaled down grids on acetate laid over each of the reference photos. Then I do a detailed drawing on the canvas, square by square. This drawing style is not the same as I would use in a portrait drawing, because it’s a study drawing, a kind of “map” of everything that will be in the painting, in varying degrees of detail as necessary. The grid itself is more detailed in some places ie: faces. In faces, to ensure a perfect likeness, sometimes the mouth and eyes need even finer grid to make sure the likeness is perfect.
Once the drawing is completed, I spray it lightly with retouching varnish to fix the pencil, then apply a transparent brown wash of acrylic paint and water. This takes the whiteness out of the canvas, and makes it easier when painting to get the tonal balance correct.
Now I can start painting. I usually start with the face, head, and body of the sitter, in that order. Then I work from the foreground to the background. The reason is the rule that contrast comes forward, and lack of contrast recedes. To get the contrast balance correct all the way from foreground through mid-ground to background, I find it easiest to start with the area of greatest contrast.
The coloured pencil study drawing is very important as reference throughout the painting process, but especially at the beginning when there is nothing else to compare against to get colours correct, except the brown washed canvas. This painting is set in moonlight, but the reference photos were taken in daylight. Moonlight in real life bleaches out all colour, but this wouldn’t work in a portrait painting, so I have only muted the colours slightly from how they appear in the photos.
Currently I’m working on the Union Jack rug / flying carpet. It’s been challenging for two reasons: Firstly I could only photograph it lying flat and have had to work out how the pattern would work on the curved flying carpet. Secondly, because red, white and blue is a very high contrast and bright combination, and I am struggling to dull it down sufficiently so that it doesn’t detract from Jacob himself, but without losing too much of the depth of colour in the process. This is just one of the many challenges I face in each stage of a painting, I feel I am constantly learning how to paint, and it’s only when I try to explain it to someone else, that I realise how much I actually know, and how complicated it is!"
Catharine describes the process in each photo:
This is the A3 sized , detailed study drawing for the painting, done in coloured pencils on paper. I do this so that the client can see, as far as possible, what the finished painting will look like, and make any changes before I start the actual painting. Once the painting is started, no further changes are possible. In this commission, there was a few months delay between doing the drawing and starting the painting, and Jacob had grown and changed a little, so I took new photos of him to use in the painting. Everything else remained the same.
The first thing I do is draw a detailed grid on the canvas, which matches grids I draw on acetate laid over each of the reference photos I am using in the painting. Then I do a detailed drawing on the canvas. Here I have drawn Jacob and his cat on the flying carpet, so far.
Detail of Jacob's head drawn on the canvas. The grid needs to be more detailed here so I can capture the likeness, as even a couple of millimetres can make a difference.
This is my completed "map" or study drawing on the canvas, over which I put a brown wash to take the whiteness out of the canvas. This makes it easier when painting to get the tonal balance correct.
Jacob is completed. The white of his karate clothes currently don't stand out against the background, but they will when the mountains are painted dark blue & grey.
Detail of Jacob completed.