I have a backlog of paintings and works of art that I want to do. I’ve been trying to hone my skills in portraiture, as that is really what I love to do the most. I’ve always wanted to be a portrait artist. Probably because it always been seen as the most difficult thing to do for an artist and so the challenge appealed to me, but also because I happened to find people’s faces really fascinating, and the idea of being able to reproduce them two dimensionally was special to me. I produced my first graphite portrait when I was 11 years old. It was of my Dad. Some 37 years later, I am about to embark on my second portrait of my Dad (hopefully, this one will be a little more impressive).

Last year I painted a lot of portraits. One of which was a birthday gift for my husband, Bill, who had requested a portrait of Elizabeth Taylor. He chose the photo reference, I chose the medium. I’d just finished my first commission portrait in watercolour and wanted to return to working in oil. Oil is challenging in a different way than watercolour, although, over all I would say it is easier and more forgiving, because mistakes can be easily corrected. Both mediums have their inherent qualities, but at the end of the day the result comes down to you as the artist being able to convey whatever it is you see in your subject and being able to represent them in the best possible light. Literally. After all, painting is all about the manipulation of light, and hopefully, subsequent sentiment when viewing the finished work of art.

Dame Elizabeth Rosamund Taylor, 1954 – Oil on Canvas, 16×20 inches, 2021. By Maria Jones-Phillips. Inspired by an original photo of Richard Avedon’s for Look magazine.

Portraits in particular, have to engage the viewer. It isn’t just about gimmicky techniques to wow your public with. There are plenty of artists out there who produce incredible feats of hyperrealism, but few in my opinion know how to capture their subjects and bring them to life. So many of them just don’t get the eyes right. There has to be an element of magic, almost, about the way you use the paint to capture something of the sitter’s/subject’s soul. Therefore, whether the person in the painting looks real or not is almost neither here nor there. The goal, I think, in painting a good portrait is to be able to stop people in their tracks when they look at your work.

Indeed, this was the pursuit of the classical masters going back to Leonardo Da Vinci and likely beyond, who were obsessed with finding the secret magical formula to painting. As a photographer and someone who has a keen interest in how light and the brain works in response to light, I understand that there are a number of tricks that can be employed in a composition that will automatically engage the viewer. We are all hardwired to respond in certain ways to certain sensory stimuli. What the classical painters of old didn’t realise is that all their tricks of the trade were absolutely spot on. There is actual science behind it. The use of the golden section in compositional arrangement, lines of transition that lead you hither and thither throughout a painting, colour theory, scale. All of these things go a long way to create a delightful visual feast for the brain, so that when you look upon them you can’t help but be enthralled in some way. Then of course, there is technique. However, technique alone will not cut it. And as I tentatively suggested above, that sense of ‘realism’ isn’t always what you think it is. In a face therefore, what the brain responds to is shape. Does it look like a face? Then it looks to see if there is life in that face, and how it does that is, it looks for and at the eyes. The brain will also search for stark contrasts, the very light against the very dark and will be drawn to those areas. The area of the eyes is often the darkest part of the face, and so that stark contrast exists between the white of the eye and the iris, and the pupil and the glint of reflected light within them. Tada! Instant life. It’s a heck of a trick though.

Mirror Selfie/Portrait of my son Avery – Watercolour on Not, 18×24 inches, 2022, by Maria Jones-Phillips.

It could be said then, and I am very much of this opinion, that if you get the eyes right in a portrait, then you’ve captured the essence of your subject and subsequently captured your audience. It’s the Elizabeth Taylor effect. Those eyes could stop a Tsunami in its tracks. She was a clever lady, because she realised that her most powerful marketing tool were those violet coloured eyes of hers. Plus she was beautiful. But the eyes and the piercing look are what people remember most about her. The trick then, is to make the eyes come alive, but that requires really careful observation and rendering them accurately and utilising the trick with the stark contrasts. The brain will immediately know when a pair of eyes looks wrong. It’s the downfall of many an artist, no matter how polished their technique is. You have to know exactly what you’re looking at when rendering eyes in order to make them look alive. It’s no easy thing. But it’s bloody effective when you get it right. If you get the eyes right, then it should make you smile instantly.

Portrait of Lesley – Commission – Watercolour on Hot Press Cotton Rag, 11×14 inches, 2021. Original art by Maria Jones-Phillips.

You might argue that in a portrait the eyes aren’t always visible. True. So what happens then? Well, then you have to employ all the other tricks in your artistic arsenal in order to bring it to life, but it still comes down to light and how you contrast the tones in your work in order to draw the eye of the viewer. You have to treat every element within your work of art with the same reverence that you would the eyes in a portrait. This is true no matter what or whom you’re painting, and no matter the style.

You can make a cup look alive just by employing those simple techniques by creating appealing contrasts in light and colour. In my painting below of my son Avery’s espresso cup, those contrasts exist particularly in the highly polished silver spoon and its reflections, and the glint of window light reflecting off of the the rim of the cup and its saucer that inform you of their form in three dimensions.There is a stark contrast between the cup itself and the surface it sits on that helps bring it to life by giving the painting an illusion of depth. If realism were that important in making people fall in love with a work of art, then cartoons and abstract art would go straight out of the window.

The Gift /Avery’s Espresso – Oil on Canvas, 8×8 inches, 2022. By Maria Jones-Phillips.

These principles are what I try to embody in my own work. Although, I am ever aware that there are always far more talented artists than me out there in the world. Also, I’ve only been painting in oils for the last four years. I’m always learning. I’m not an advocate of gimmicky techniques, as beautiful as they might be. What I want to be able to to do is enchant my audience in some way. To bring a bit of that magic to their lives in the same way that many of the master painters have done for me since childhood. I’m still completely enthralled by what can be achieved with paint on a flat surface. It’s just brilliant. And I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of it.

If anyone disagrees with my assessment, well…

Copyright Maria Jones-Phillips 2022
Bunny Grace/Portrait #5 – Watercolour on Not, 18×24 inches, 2022. By Maria Jones-Phillips.

We are all entitled to an opinion, I suppose. Especially my daughter Grace. :p

Ta for reading!



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