Commissioning a portrait

Initial contact

I like to chat through all ideas when someone first contacts me regarding a possible commission. At this stage there is no commitment from the client and I invite them either to come to my studio, where they can view many examples of my work, or I can visit them, where the portrait might be painted. This first meeting with the sitter (and any other parties involved) is very important. Any questions they might have regarding the commission can be discussed and I can explain how I go about creating the portrait. We talk through all the possibilities: What style of portrait? What medium? How many sittings? Where? When and how I paint?

What style of portrait?

Deciding on the style involves considering the pose, the medium, the type of clothes and the background. Is the person going to be relaxed in a chair, or sitting upright? Are they going to be looking out at the viewer, or is it to be a three-quarters profile with their eyes looking into the distance? The style of clothes is an important aspect of the painting and makes a difference to the feel of the portrait. Some people decide to wear their favourite everyday clothes, whilst others decide on a more formal look.

Lighting is also important to think about. I prefer daylight, although if this is not possible, I can paint in artificial light.

The background is very much part of the portrait. For some clients it’s important that I include a number of different elements. Perhaps a year’s presidency of a magnificent building – see Isobel Pollock. Or a landscape that they love – see Sally Mears. Or a plain background in a small portrait like Nicholas or Ann Claire, just showing the essential features of the sitter.

What medium and how many sittings?

The medium determines how long the portrait will take. I work in charcoal, pastel and oil. Drawings take less time than an oil portrait. A charcoal drawing will take two sittings of two hours, although if the subject is a young child, I can make do with two shorter sittings. A portrait in oil will take four sittings of two hours each. Before commencing an oil portrait I like to complete a detailed drawing taking two two-hour sittings


The sitter is usually most comfortable in familiar surroundings, such as their own home or at their workplace. If the sittings are to be held where they work, I’m not troubled by occasional interruptions and telephone calls, but I prefer the sessions to be one-to-one if possible.


If the sittings are to be held during the day, I like each sitting to be at the same time of day to avoid fluctuations of daylight. I am flexible about the spacing-out of the sittings; some people prefer to sit once a week but I am also happy to paint the portrait in two sessions over a few days.

How I paint?

I paint on linen, which I size with traditional rabbit skin glue and then prime. I begin by laying on a base coat of thinly diluted oil paint over the entire surface of the canvas When I’m happy with the layout, I then paint into this wet coat, sketching in the figure and begin to define some features. I continue with thin layers of paint, gradually building and moulding the image. I like to show the portrait to the sitter and any other interested parties after each sitting, and always welcome their comments on its progress. I find these discussions help shape the portrait. I take photos of the portrait at different stages en route, and often the sitter is so intrigued that I’m asked to supply copies of these after the sittings have finished.


Although framing is not included in the fee, I am very happy to advise and can also arrange for this to be done. The style of frame is very personal, as it has to sit well with other paintings and furnishings in the room.

I firmly believe that a bad frame can diminish a painting enormously, whereas a good frame should almost be unnoticeable, enhancing the work but not dominating it.

If you would like to discuss your ideas for a portrait, please feel free to email or ring me on 020 7924 4279

Sir Mark Walport portrait en route