In 2007 I was awarded the first Bulldog Portrait Bursary by the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. Since then, 2 other people have received the Bulldog Portrait Bursary, and submissions are now open for the 4th bursary. I thought that with this blog(and before too much time has lapsed), it would be a good opportunity to review the year I had in London on the Bursary, and give an insight into what I did in the Bursary year. I have already summarised the year in an article that was published in the 2009  Royal Society of Portrait Painters Annual Exhibition catalogue, but I’d like to make that information available here, where it can generate some discussion.

The basic idea of the bursary is to support an “up & coming” artist, through mentorship provided by members of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters. There is a monetary prize that is provided to help support the winner during the bursary year. Heatherley’s School of Art provide free access to some of their courses, and there is a possibility of renting studio space at the Art Academy, and  accessing their facilities and courses.

When I won the bursary I decided to relocate from Cardiff to London to rent a studio at the Art Academy, as I wanted to be near other figurative artists, and really make use of everything the bursary could offer me. It was quite a big decision for me to make at the time, and it quickly proved to be the right choice.

The Art Academy

There are a number of resident artists at the Art Academy which proved a deciding factor in me taking a studio there, as they were all artists I had admired for a while, mostly through seeing their work in the BP Portrait exhibitions. Among them were Brenden kelly RP, James Lloyd RP, and James Hart Dyke. It was a really inspiring time for me, I got to know Brenden really well, and he became a real support, through his advice and tutelage. I didn’t take part in lots of the courses at the Art Academy, as I was developing my own work independently in the studio, which included commissions received through the RP, however I did make a point of going to Brenden Kelly’s drawing, and anatomy lessons, which I found fascinating and very helpful. I hadn’t experienced this level of tutoring before, and I really think that the advice I received there really helped with my own drawing, and enabled me  to clarify and develop new approaches to painting & drawing. For instance the emphasis Brenden placed in the drawing lessons on “edges”, hard, firm, soft, and lost, really helped in developing my artistic vocabulary.

Mr Tim Wilbur Headmaster of Rossall School. Oil on Canvas(40x30ins) Commission received through the RP, during my bursary year.

By focusing more on this one aspect in my own work, I made advances which in turn fed into my commissioned portraits that I was beginning to receive through the RP. At the same time I was able to go and see work developing in the studios of the other resident artists at the Academy. James Hart Dyke was making work based on his expeditions to the Himalayas, James Lloyd was working on portrait commissions, and his own more personal studio work, and Brenden kelly was creating a colossal painting of the NATO command in Afghanistan, the intricate planning of which probably hasn’t been seen since the Renaissance. A brilliant insight into the planning for this complex painting can be seen on the video on his website.

Heatherley’s School of Art

Heatherley’s I found to be incredibly helpful as well. It was so nice to be able to go to a  purpose built life room with excellent natural light, and free access to the portrait models.

Portrait of Roisin, Oil on Canvas(20x16ins) by Joseph Galvin. Painted at Heatherley’s School of Art

In practice the opportunity was for one day a week attending the Open Studio(but i also managed to attend 2 of the summer courses). Developing work out of a commission situation really gives license to experiment, and this I did on a number of occasions at Heatherley’s. It was a real privilege to have a portrait model sit for me for 4 or 5 sessions, each of about 5 hours, I got a lot out of it.

Visiting the RP Artists

The other aspect to the bursary year were the visits to the RP members. Although I regularly saw Brenden Kelly and James Lloyd at the Art Academy, it was important that I visited other members too. In preparation for the bursary year I began to write to many of the members of the RP to see if they would mind if I visited them to discuss  their practices. Many wrote back and were very happy for me to visit. A small number invited me to observe them painting the sitter from life.

The following is an example of one of my many visits to the RP members,and my observations of that visit. It is a summary of Andrew Festings procedures when painting a portrait.

Andrew Festing (visited on the 8th,9th,&10th October 2007)

The first of these bursary visits was to Andrew Festing, who was then the President of the RP. He arranged for me to watch him paint 3 head studies for a large group portrait at his studio in Nottinghill. This was my first official visit of the bursary.

His studio was a turn of the century purpose built Portrait Painters studio, with tall north facing windows. It was really interesting to see his methods. For instance  how he organised his palette, how he measured the subject before painting, the colour of the priming he used, and the painterly manner in which he realised the head study.

Andrew Festing’s Palette. Note the separate pools of colour which were premixed before beginning painting. There are also 6 or 7 whites placed on the palette to facilitate clean & quick mixing of colours

There was a strong sense of planning in his process,and a full understanding of what was possible in the time  available. Each head study was 6ins in height, a small size, which allowed for sufficient information to be recorded in the 5 or so hours he had for each sitter. It was intended that these studies were then to be used as reference to work from for the large group portrait. It is Andrews method to first establish through measuring the proportions and placement of the subject.This he did using dividers, with arms fully outstretched to get consistent measurements. On a larger portrait this can take a whole day, but in the small studies I observed, he speeded up this part of the process, and in about an hour he had finished taking measurements, and was quickly painting.

Andrew Festing beginning the portrait study. Note the already established top and bottom limits of the portrait, as indicted by the two horizontal lines on the canvas. Also on the canvas you can see the previous completed head studies

For these studies he favoured an acrylic priming on linen, which was toned with Burnt Sienna,titanium white and a touch of Cobalt blue, to give a mid warm flesh tone on which to work. The priming helped the process, particularly if paint needed to be removed, as the flesh toned priming still harmonised with the painting, so it didn’t put the eye out when revisions needed to be made. His procedure was to work from the large shapes to the small, quickly establishing the large masses of light and shade and then continuing to work into them and refine the shapes, tones, colours, and edges.

This photo montage represents 4 stages in the painting process, from beginning to end, of one of the portrait studies I observed in Andrew Festing’s studio

Andrew stressed the importance of using the right sized brush for the job; to use the largest sized brush appropriate to the area you’re painting. Often in the paining process he would use cotton buds to remove small areas of paint in order to put a new clean brush stroke down, after one or two uses they were quickly dirtied and discarded.

Working in oil paint Andrew uses turps & a little Linseed oil, if necessary, to dilute his paints.His palette includes the following tube colours: Zinc white,Flake White,Cadmium Red,Magenta,Permanent Rose, Naples Yellow,Ultramarine Blue,Cobalt Blue, Viridian Green(occasionally), Burnt Sienna(much used with white, as a basic flesh colour into which warmer and cooler colours can be mixed), Raw Sienna,Raw Umber,Burnt Umber,Vandyke Brown,Ivory Black,Charcoal Grey.

For Andrew Festing an average  full sized single portrait takes about 6 days to complete, 2 1/2 days -3 days from live sittings, then a further 2 to 3 days finishing up and completing the portrait away from the sitter. The method is Alla Prima, if mistakes are made then the paint is wiped off and started again. The Alla Prima method means that when faced with the challenge of a  larger portrait, for instance a full length portrait, Andrews method is to concentrate and finish each section before starting the next. For example after measuring and planning the picture, he would complete the head on day 1, on day 2 complete the painting of the clothes, on day 3 complete painting of the hands. Only doing enough as time allows to fully complete each section at a time. This way the painting remains fresh and the brush stokes retain their vitality.

Andrew Festings Brushwork

Andrews use of brushwork and order of painting is very considered. The basic method is the classical way of working from large to small masses.  Andrew  works in a very painterly way which is evident in his paintings. For example when painting the mouth of a subject, first would be placed the general warm tone of the lips in a very rough manner without too much thought to their actual shape, this would then be shaped and refined, by working the flesh colour around the lips, and finally adding the lights and darks to complete. Again with painting an eye for example there would be an order, starting with painting the iris as a large rough mass, which would then be shaped by adding the whites of the eye, adding the pupil,followed by the the large eye lids, and finally having done the ground work, a single uninterrupted brush stroke to indicate the line created by the eye lashes, and the edges of the eye lids.

A final observation that Andrew showed me about his work, was a method he uses to get colour vibration(the play of warm & cool colours) in the shadows. To do this Andrew will initially lay in the shadow of a face in relatively cooler tone then he intends to finish with, after about an hour has passed he will return to the shadow area, and place a relatively warmer (but same tone)on top of this, in a broken manner, being very careful not to take up or mix too much with the underlying paint, cleaning his brush after each stroke so as not to muddy the colours.The result is a shadow tone that reverberates in colour, more than it would if it were just painted solidly.

Links: Youtube, Andrew Festing talking about Portrait Painting and also Andrew Festing briefly demonstrating his method

(In future, I hope to add some more notes about my visits to the other RP members, which I intend to do by extending this post, to keep it all in one place)

Copyright © Joseph Galvin 2010



Recently I’ve been out and about painting landscapes. Its been really enjoyable after doing the studio work. I get a lot from working in this way, and i intend to develop a lot more in this direction. Got a show on the horizon which is always a good motivation. I’ve posted this image of a study I made on the Usk at a place called Penpont. I’m interested in these hidden views, and feel its a really interesting subject. Painted in two sessions, second session the rain really came down, which adds to the whole experience of developing a connection with the subject!

Under the Bridge/O Dan Y Bont, oil on board(27x34.5cm)

"Male Nude Model" Oil on canvas 1902. Study made by Sir Alfed Munnings. Made at Academie Julian in Paris, a popular atelier where painting & drawing were studied.

“Male Nude Model” Oil on canvas 1902. Study made by Sir Alfed Munnings. Made at Academie Julian in Paris, a popular atelier where painting & drawing from life was taught.

As a largely self taught painter, I have developed a keen interest in methods of teaching observation based painting & drawing. There are aren’t many places these days, where people can receive good instruction in traditional painting & drawing skills. For the purpose of this post I make a distinction here between subject matter in art, and the skills by which an artist creates his/her work. In this post I refer specifically to the acquisition of skills by which a drawing or painting is constructed, and not the subject matter.

Main stream art colleges have for some time now moved away from teaching traditional skills of draughtsmanship, and in its place provide for a more conceptually based curriculum, which allows for expression through many different means. This democratizing of art is good & healthy,however it doesn’t provide for those who wish to learn to use the more traditional skills of drawing & painting. Truth be told, to do this well, it is necessary to study drawing & painting for many years,and there isn’t the time on a 3 year degree course to teach these skills sufficiently, as well as the rest of the curriculum.

In the past when there was still a continued strong tradition of painting & drawing in art colleges,students would study drawing & painting for 5, 7, and even 10 years before considered to have acquired sufficient skill. This tradition is commonly seen as falling into decline after the end of the First World War.

Today in the UK there are only a handful of independent Art Schools that provide for the teaching of drawing & painting from life.However there are also other strategies for learning. For those who wish to acquire these skills I would recommend the following:

  • Self initiated learning. Practice as much as you can and learn to be a masterful & an honest critique of your own progress. Paint & draw as much as you can from life. Find good books on the subject of drawing & painting, and look to examples of art you find inspirational.Try to understand how they were made, and why they work. Making copies of these paintings can be helpful.
  • Find an accomplished  artist willing to teach you.
  • Enrol in one of the few Independent art schools which prioritise the acquisition of drawing & painting skills .In the UK there are a few schools that I know of. They happen to all be in London. These are, The Art Academy, Heatherley’s School of Art, The Prince’s Drawing School, The London Atelier of Representational Art(LARA), and Lavenderhill Studios.It has since come to attention that there is a new school in Edinburgh that teaches traditional painting & drawing, Academy of Realist Art
  • Some Foundation course’s in art will provide a very basic introduction to painting & drawing, find one that has the option of a life Class if you can. Then use this as your spring board to continue developing your painting and drawing skills from life, after you have completed your course. It may be helpful in your development as an artist to go on and complete a degree in fine art, but don’t expect practical help with painting & drawing skills.
  • Short courses in painting & drawing  can also be helpful in putting you on the right track. Consider evening classes.

It may be that you decide on a combination of the above. My own route began with a year Foundation course in Art & Design, where I was lucky to attend life classes.It was here & not on my subsequent degree course, where I was able to pick up an understanding & enthusiasm for drawing & painting from life. Although I enjoyed my time on my degree course(it motivated & challenged me in many ways), It was conceptually led, with very little practical instruction regarding painting & drawing skills. Fundamentally the tutors on my degree course had insufficient knowledge regarding painting & drawing, as there own expertise was in other areas.It was after graduating that I began to really identify, and focus my ambitions as an artist.I proceeded to start from the beginning, & taught myself the necessary fundamental lessons in drawing & painting from life. Its a continuing process full of revelations & a lot of enjoyment.If you have the desire it is well worth the effort.

In future posts I intend to further this discussion with a more in depth look at strategies for teaching painting & drawing.

Welcome to my first blog!

First off a brief introduction to what you’ll likely find here in the future… I’d like use this blog to share some of my thoughts & ideas on contemporary painting practice. I’d also like to share ideas I’m developing in my own practice as an artist & portrait painter, mostly from a practical point of view. I hope this blog will develop into something useful for readers with an interest in contemporary figurative art practice.

I’m nearing the end of a portrait commission. As with most of my work, I like to feel that I’m pushing the boundaries in some way, and learning something new that will help me get a little bit better for the next time. Sometimes(quite often) these personal discoveries are very simple alterations to my artistic practice, but have much wider implications to the work I’m able to produce.

Yesterday I made one of these changes. I made a large palette from a sheet of glass(something I’ve seen many artists use, but have not until now tried it for myself).

The surface is fantastic for mixing on, its easily cleaned(without using spirits), and placing a warm grey mid toned paper underneath gives an excellent neutral colour to judge mixes against. The feel of the brushes against the glass surface is good, & helps engender a feel of sensitivity to brushwork when painting.

Glass palette mounted onto cut piece of MDF board, with toned paper underneath

Glass palette mounted onto cut piece of MDF board, with toned paper underneath

It immediately made a very significant difference to my colour mixing, I was much better able to judge the subtle shifts in colour on the new palette. compared to the previous hand held wooden palette I was used to using. Think I might find a way to paint my wooden palettes a similar neutral colour.The small change makes a big difference.

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