Portraiture: an artist’s perspective with John Davenport RBSA

The RBSA stages a very popular Biennial Portrait Prize attracting entries from across the UK and beyond. In anticipation of the 2019 exhibition, which runs this summer and opens for entries soon, we interviewed artist John Davenport.

John has exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, Birmingham Art Circle and the RBSA and gives frequent workshops and Quick Portrait sessions at the Gallery…


Do you aim to achieve a true likeness, or more the ‘essence’ of the sitter?

I do aim for a likeness, but of greater importance to me is to produce a painting that ‘works’. I am happy, like Lucien Freud, to take liberties if necessary and use the sitter simply as raw material from which to develop the image.

fig 1
An acrylic portrait produced during a live sitting.

What’s your favourite medium?

Acrylic paint is my favourite medium. I have a strong preference for working primarily from life rather than from photographs. My time with a sitter is frequently all too short and acrylics allow me to make the most of a session by working at maximum speed, making unlimited corrections and applying glaze on glaze without waiting for earlier layers of paint to dry.

I also like the fact that I am not exposed to volatile solvents. Acrylics are sometimes criticised because their rapid drying can hinder blending, but if blending is important to the artist it is easily achieved by finishing off a portrait with the relatively new ‘open’ acrylics which have an extended working time.

What are the chief techniques essential to good portraiture?

There are many ways of ‘skinning a cat’ and also of creating good portraiture. My own approach is a mixture of the very traditional and the modern. For example, I use Leonardo da Vinci’s average facial proportions, Rembrandt’s oblique lighting to reveal facial form, a monochrome underpainting to establish tonal relationships and so on.

fig 2
 A monochrome under drawing prior to applying colour.


If a portrait isn’t working for some reason that I cannot identify I supplement my traditional approach with a digital analysis on an iPad of the unfinished painting to help diagnose the problem.

There are times when the only reference that a portrait artist can work from is a photograph, for example children, animals, subjects who do not have the time or who are unavailable for a live sitting.

fig 3
Andy Hamilton, Birmingham jazz saxophonist. Portrait completed from a photograph. Collection of John Shakespeare RBSA.

The most important approach to successful portraiture is of course practice, practice, practice, and to achieve this it is very helpful to join a portrait group such as that run weekly by Paul Bartlett RBSA in St Anne’s Church Hall, Moseley.

What can artists who enter the Portrait Prize expect from being included in the show?

There is a very high standard of entry for this exhibition from all over the UK and from abroad. There is a selection panel of three judges of whom the majority are independent of the RBSA and are themselves successful portrait artists. So, to be selected for this biennial exhibition is a considerable feather in the artist’s hat and is an impressive addition to any CV.

There is also further exposure of selected artists’ works on the RBSA Flickr album and blog. In addition, there is a first prize of £1000 together with a number of other prizes, opportunities to meet other like-minded artists and there is a very enjoyable closing party held at the RBSA Gallery.

Can you take us through the process – for a quick portrait and a more involved commission?

One of the best trainings an aspiring portrait artist can get is to take on a session of quick portraits such as at a school fete, to raise some money for a worthy cause. If each portrait has to be completed in say 10 – 15 minutes, it is best to approach the session rather like a military operation. This can include some warm up sessions a few days before, a careful testing and laying out of a minimum number of materials (charcoal is my favourite because it is so responsive), working strictly to a stop watch, and using a spotlight to reveal facial form.

fig 4
A 10 minute charcoal portrait.

Commissions can be very stimulating and a useful source of income for portrait artists. Some portrait artists really enjoy the process and are good at adapting their work to suit a commission.

However, I personally am not very keen so don’t do them very often. This is because there are opportunities for differences in the aesthetic preferences of the sitter and artist which can create complications. These can arise because of the sitter’s perception of their self-image helped by the fact that they are most used to seeing themselves reversed in a mirror (and as we are all facially asymmetrical that can have a major influence).

I take on commissions occasionally, but tend to be selective. For any artist considering accepting a commission I would strongly recommend agreeing a contract beforehand otherwise it is possible for the artist to put in a considerable amount of work only for the client to change their mind part way through the process, sometimes for trivial reasons. If that does occur the agreed deposit can then be retained by the artist as compensation for the time and effort spent.

Why do you think portraits are enduringly popular?

You only have to pop in to the Annual BP Portrait exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on any day of the week and join the heaving throng of visitors there to realise how popular portraits are.

There are many possible reasons for this. People, on the whole, are very interested in people. Portraits can be a substitute for absent friends and family.

They can make the absent present and the dead seem alive.

They can shine a light on historical figures and events. They can give viewers a thrill when ‘the eyes of the portrait seem to follow the viewer around a room.’ Photorealist portraits enthuse some visitors when they can see every hair and pore and the work ‘looks just like a photo’.

What is their appeal for you as an artist?

Several of the points made above apply to me as well. In addition, I regard portrait painting as an adrenaline sport: it’s very challenging; at certain stages in a portrait’s production it can seem that a single brush stroke can transform a failing work and suddenly make it spring to life; or alternatively wreck a work that was showing promise! Even then it can be a win, win situation – if the work fails it can increase one’s determination to do better next time.

If it succeeds, it can result in such a high that the portraitist can hardly wait for the next portrait opportunity.

For details of all our forthcoming exhibitions and workshops, visit the RBSA website. The 2019 Portrait Prize opens later this year.

By Louise Palfreyman and John Davenport






Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s