A Model in the Studio

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For the last two years, I have been in the incredibly fortunate position of having weekly studio sessions with a wonderful model, which have informed a large part of my work.  Phoebe is a beautiful looking person, but she also has a lovely energy and natural grace which (hopefully), comes across in my portraits of her.

An unframed oil painting lies on the floor of an artists studio, against the background of a patterned Turkish rug. The painting is of a girl with blonde hair, sat in a green chair, reading, The Handmaids Tale. She is wearing a white Kimono with blue and gold embroidery. The pattern on the kimono is painted loosely, the girls face is beautiful, she is looking down reading, and holds the book on her lap.
Phoebe Reading The Handmaids Tale
Long ago in a previous life…

Long ago in a previous life, I had a small shop selling vintage and antique textiles in the eclectic Cornish seaside town of Falmouth.  Consequently, I have a large left-over hoard of beautiful clothes and textiles, many of them ‘wounded birds’ that cannot really be worn for any length of time but work beautifully for pictures.  My working life was fuelled by a love of ‘clothes that tell stories’ – there is so much history, personal and social, held in the threads – and a fascination for the way that people decorated themselves. 

Now my admiration is demonstrated in paint.  I love the challenge of painting the textures and patterns of different fabrics, and have used a particular set of three antique traditional Japanese kimono for a number of my ‘Phoebe Paintings’, all in rich silk satins with heavy thread embroidery.  I am in awe of historical portraiture that captures sumptuous velvets or gossamer fine organdies in paint – so beautiful.  So clever.

A photograph of the interior of an artists studio, there is the beginnings of a painted canvas on a wooden paint splattered easel, of the head and shoulders of a girl, she is wearing a bright red kimono, her hair is brown and drawn back from her face, she is looking out of the canvas and to the left. Next to the easel is a chair with a red kimono draped over it, and a pale grey silky background fabric over a frame behind it.
Beginnings of Phoebe in the Red Antique Kimono.
The first stage is usually charcoal

The first stage of these paintings is usually charcoal drawings on brown paper, in order to establish a composition with a hint of tone, then I will map out the image direct with thinned oils onto a canvas, sometimes primed with a colour, sometimes left white, where it feels like the colours zing and the paint can have a lovely drawn quality.  All my Phoebe pictures so far have been painted during in-person afternoon sittings, with all of their magic and frustrations.

I use the North light, which is fairly consistent, but Winter afternoons are short and the light often fails in the studio just as I’m getting into my stride, and I’m useless at painting under electric.  There is also the constant struggle to keep the fire blazing in the really cold months – especially when one of us isn’t moving! 

Summer is a gift though.  I have recently taken a series of photographs to try to work from, mainly of compositions that would be particularly difficult to hold for any length of time, and I’ll be interested to compare the two methods – I’m sure that the photographs will provide a good likeness, but wonder if they will feel as alive?

A preparatory drawing by Nina Packer, in charcoal on brown paper. The style is loose and figurative, of a girl standing, wearing a long vintage dress that is covered with theatrical masks. She is holding onto a chair back for support.
‘Madam Sarlette’

Sadly, my time with Phoebe will come to an end in a couple of months, when she leaves Cornwall to go to university.  There is one special dress that I have been working up to; an original evening gown from the 1930s by court dressmaker, ‘Madame Sarlette’, and the Holy Grail of vintage seekers charity shop finds… The shape is long and languid, with a design of Aztec inspired theatrical masks throughout, woven in fine pink metal threads that glint as they catch the light – it’s a treasure. 

We have started on some composition drawings, including one standing pose inspired by classical portraiture, with a chair back to hold onto, and one ‘resting’.  I will miss her company terribly, but am assured that she will come and sit for again me during the College holidays… 

A photograph of the inside of a artists studio, there is a table covered in pots with brushes and a palette covered in different coloured paint, to the left there is a wooden easel with a painting in progress on it. The painting is of a seated girl in a gold dress with coloured jewels on it, she is sitting in a green chair, her arms rest on the arms. She is looking towards us, slightly off left.
‘Phoebe in the Gold Jewel Dress’, in progress.