Group portrait painting

group portrait commission by contemporary british portrait painter and artist Matt Harvey

Portrait of a family, oil and acrylic on board, 150 x 110 cm

This is a recent portrait commission, which I really enjoyed painting! Particularly, organising the group composition was a great challenge. I started with a photoshoot, taking a lot of photos of everyone relaxing together and interacting as a family. Obviously we could spend days doing this, going through many combinations and settings, making sketches etc. But this can also be achieved in a relatively short time over a morning or afternoon. At the time the sitters and artist selected some of the best photos to use as references to and later in the studio I organised the painting, working out the composition by sketching various configurations. Usually the photos chosen initially concern how the image captures the likeness and character of the individual sitters. Using these as a starting point I then found ways to combine those images with others where the poses of the figures worked in terms of an overall whole. My aim was to lead the eye of the viewer around the canvas and so hopefully the composition flows naturally through various echos and parallels in the sitters poses.

Working out the composition of a group portrait is a collaboration between the client and artist, where the client can see the photos, offer criticism and request certain photos to use. They may make suggestions based on each person’s character, or that a particular setting or viewpoint is desirable. Who is the portrait commission for? Is it a gift, and if the recipient will be in the portrait painting how do they want to be situated? Do they have a favourite chair or room where the painting will be set? The artist then takes these decisions as a starting point, and then attempts to bring all these diverse elements together. Here I wanted to create a harmonious unified composition, one that brings out all of the sitters characters without being overly formal or rigid. Working with the images already provided, and these images are primarily decided based on how they are felt to give a good likeness and sense of the sitter, the artist might then use other references with different poses, ones that will help the overall composition. The finished painting is a combination of all these many different elements, the space, the furniture, each individual and their relationship to each other. Sometimes the image references can be many for even an individual sitter; the image for their face was initially decided, but then their pose may be from a different reference, their hands another, another for their chair and how they then relate to the space around them and the other sitters..

From my original training as a sculptor, and one who was interested in abstract sculpture and carving, I can’t help see a painting in terms of its abstract qualities. How the forms create a sense of space and movement around them, how the eye is led around the picture surface, and how the colour palette is balanced across the painted surface.  A portrait is a painting first and foremost, not a copy of reality. Its an invention. This moment in time did not actually happen, but the painting is a combination of many small moments, interactions, pauses, light reflecting and shadows passing. All of these moments are compressed and gathered by the artist, and then united into a single pictorial ‘conceit’. It is not a photograph, although for convenience photos were used for a reference. This painting is oil mixed with pigment and brushed onto wood board. But it is also a true reflection of the lives of the sitters, achieved through likeness painted by the artist’s brush.

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