A collection of articles by Scottish artist Timothy Cumming on portrait painting, commissioning and his works

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Painting 'Blue Lady (Retired Heritage Volunteer Pat Wilgress, Person with Parkinsons'

Pat's a charming woman, a mother, wife, a former Marlborough Heritage volunteer and a Parkinson's person. Her stillness and quiet collaboration were striking and after trying a variety of postures, this slightly prayerful pose emerged as the most workable.

When I asked Pat to take her chair in the cooler shadows on this hot day, her blue scarf and jumper just seemed to seep into the blue shadows of our tall hedge. She has a wonderful bone structure and a seated elegance that worked well together in this simple profile portrait. The lift in this work for me though came from the sunlight breaking into the edges of her face, hands and hair.

Many thanks Pat for participating so willingly.

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Painting 'Reclining Carer (Project Manager Simon Wilgress, Parkinsons Carer)'

I wanted to splash out a little with Simon, a Parkinson's carer who looks after his mother. Perhaps because he seemd so young, perhaps because the Parkinsons story can be joyful or playful. Perhaps because he needed a holiday.

Simon agreed to lie down on the grass, with the sun behind him, and immediately I felt bank holiday weekends, ice cream and sunshine. I added an effervescing texture here to give it a sense of release.

Simon, many thanks for all you do, and for sharing your face.

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Painting 'Illuminated Tradesman (Retired Plasterer Graham Maslin, Person with Parkinsons'

When I arrived at Graham's house, I wanted to return to the illuminated portrait. He readily took up the torch I gave him and shone it on his own face, throwing underlit shadows upwards.

Graham is a former plasterer, retired early because of Parkinsons and a man who I believe misses his work. However the playfulness and willingness he showed at my visit were uplifting and even though his smile is physically diminished by the ailment, he was helpful and engaged.

Graham, thank you for lending us all your face.

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Painting 'A Nearby Path (Retired Ambulance Paramedic Viv Styles, Person with Parkinsons)'

Viv is a character. A former ambulance driver who gave up his job because of Parkinsons, there was something solid, benevolent and reliable about him. He came over on a sunny day, and shared some of his ambulance stories with me. Struck me as a well-directed man - knew what he wanted, knew his routes.

So I couldn't resist the path-finder metaphor, and I asked Viv to hold his pose as long as comfortable. I think he went quite a bit further, and we got the painting we needed.

Thanks Viv for your warmth and determination.

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Painting 'The Carer Blessed (Wife and Mother Magda Dunlop, Parkinsons Carer)'

I wanted to include carers in this show, and Magda Dunlop, a Parkinsons carer to her husband Brian, kindly agreed to sit. Magda's face has lovely powerful features, so structurally I wanted to go in close on these, a kind of zoom.

But I also felt she's quite a determined person, positive and hopeful. So I've portayed a hopeful pose, and tried to combine strength with a consistent detail shared between the shadows and light.

Where Parkinsons medical research is headed these days, it's right to be hopeful. Many thanks Magda for sharing that hope.

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Painting 'Interior Designer Outide (Retired Designer Brian Dunlop, Person with Parkinsons)'

I'd been thinking about the sky as a light source for a few days in my Parkinsons portraits - and I've been looking for ways to work in both light and shadow.

When Brian Dunlop, a Parkinson's person, visited my house it was another sunny day, and so I asked him to wander outside into the garden and look upwards. The stark shadows immediately worked visually as he gazed up and I knew I had something workable compositionally.

Brian's a retired Interior Designer and took an interest in my digital painting process, so I've asked him over to visit the studio and soak a bit of it up. Many thanks Brian for lending your face and enthusiasm to this show.

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Painting 'Marlborough Tutor (Retired Teacher Laurence Ellis, Person with Parkinsons)'

I wanted to try out some interesting facial illuminations to emphasise the light and dark and I asked Laurence Ellis to let me light him with Christmas Tree bulbs inside the shadows of the Wharf Theatre.

My third sitter of the day at the theatre, and my first Parkinson's person, I knew I had to step carefully here, not to ask too much of Laurence's restricted movement. After 10 minutes, I feared this one wouldn't work out until Merrily Powell assisted and suspended the lights in a kind of small orbital ring around the Laurence's head. Then the face and expression sprang to life and I knew I had a portrait painting in the making.

Laurence is a former teacher and tutor of Marlborough College, and I worked in a hint of the college into the background.  Laurance, thank you for participating so willingly.

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Painting 'Interior Dialogue (Actor Paul Snook, Parkinsons Supporter)'

This was my second portrait at the Wharf Theatre. Actor Paul Snook set up a really tight spotlight and just inched into it, casting spectral red light onto his jaw and throat. Superb light and dark - and such a fantastic sculptural head! I couldn't choose between the various poses he struck, so I settled on two, and made my own small moment of theatre, dramatising a composition of opposing almost back-to-back dialogue.

I really wanted something theatrical here - an actor, a theatre and a spotlight, and bless him, Paul Snook gave me all of that. It got me thinking about the way an actor is inside the theatre - how a performance is a part of the theatrical fabric. And how Parkinsons is a part of someone's life.

Paul, a big thankyou for giving your time to the genesis of this project.

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Painting 'Reclining Actress (Stage Director Merrily Powell, Parkinsons Supporter)'

Just finished this, the first of a hundred portraits for Parkinsons. I called the Wharf theatre, my local (not so) amateur theatre and asked if there were any actors available who might be willing to help me establish a visual approach for these portraits - I knew I wanted to paint light and dark, not just representations of the sitters.

So Merrily volunteered first and suggested Paul Snook too. It was a bright sunny day as luck would have it, and so I opened the fire exit door an inch or two, we switched all the lights out and let a band of sharp light fall across the floor. We tried quite a few poses, but when Merrily laid down and put her face into the light, letting its huge streak split her in two in the darkness, I knew I had a start to the show.

Many thanks Merrily - you opened up the whole thing.

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Wiltshire Aviator

I've just finished this painting 'Wiltshire Aviator' - of a remarkable woman who has led a well-travelled life. She has such a wonderful finely-boned face which exudes strength. Relaxed and convivial when I met her, she settled into her favourite arm chair by the window and we chatted as I sketched and photographed.

For many years she was based in the Far East, but it was while in the UK that she learned to fly. For some time she held a pilot's licence, and regularly flew long and short trips. I wanted to capture this bit of her pretty epic past.

So for a pose, I focussed on her skyward gazes, and that reflective expression when she pauses for thought. I used a very wet acrylic for the sky and the figure's grounding, adding drier acrylic with smaller brushes to detail face and ears.

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How to Hang a Portrait

You've unwrapped your lovely new portrait. Just get out the Y clips and pop it up? I'd suggest there's a little more to it. In my opinion, there are three considerations to hanging a portrait. They're similar to other kinds of painting but their personal nature alters the hanging a little.

The Right Room

The default location for most people is 'over the mantlepiece in the lounge'. I think there might be a better place, or at least a more thoughtful approach. Perhaps a subtler location might be a hallway, staircase or landing - seen daily in passing, perhaps the portrait becoming a gentler though frequent reminder of the sitter, or a private space - perhaps a study or a bedroom. Actually I believe much depends on the creative approach taken in the painting.

  • If the theme or personality was about strength, leadership, vitality or energy, the painting may have a motivation or vigour about it, which could usefully dominate a public room, such as a lounge, kitchen or dining room. In this way it becomes a visual talisman for you and maybe others too.
  • If the personality or creative approach is more reflective, considered or insightful, the painting may have an humanity or even vulnerability about it that suggests a private space would be best. In this way, the work has become more personal to you, and perhaps even feels more like private property.
  • If the feel is more humorous or playful - either in its subject or style - then perhaps you have more leeway, and the location might be more flexible.


Your choice of frame is always personal of course. Some favour ornate, some plain, some prefer no visible frame at all. But before you choose where to hang your portrait, it's a good idea to consider the room, and the other paintings in it.

  • If the room is modern, perhaps leaning towards minimal style (eg simple skirting boards, calm flooring, white or pale walls, neglible corner moldings, unfussy curtain patterns) then you might prefer an unframed or simple frame hanging.
  • If the room is already ornate, a simple frame can provide unusual contrast, but often can just look too bare.
  • If the room already contains a jumble of framing styles, why not keep going with diversity? Alternatively, if the frames are consistent, then maintaining that is probably wiser.
  • Oh and don't forget to line up the tops of all works to the same height - it's amazing how it makes the room click.


This one's a bit easier. Get someone to hold your painting up in various locations and see what effect the light has at different times of the day. Some rooms are simply too dark for portraits, and electric light may be your only option. But you may be lucky and have several rooms which have good natural daylight. In which case it's more about times of day...

  • Morning and dusk light is paler but warmer. So does this light change the portrait colours in a way you like at these times? And are these times important to you? For instance do you feel optimistic at the start of the day, and that warmer light lifts the portrait and you with it?
  • Incandescent light changes all painting colours, because it has a yellow orange cast (fluorescent has a green cast, but I'll assume you're not hanging portraits under striplights, if I may!) Electric light will yellow skin tones and grey down blues and greens. Not very flattering.
  • You can of course light the portrait with its own lamp. These give you full control of the colour tone in the evening, and they also lift the appearance of the room. You can find them online at places like hogarthlighting.com or lightinguniverse.com.

These are, of course, just my opinions - please do add your own below. I hope you found this article useful.

There's a great article on the physical hanging process at Chicago Tribune. And there's also quite an amusing article at the Guardian website on hanging on a wide variety of surfaces.

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Why I'm Portraying Sweat and Enterprise

I've recently started a collaboration with Wiltshire photographer Nigel Hudson at WorxId, a specialist in shooting libraries of working people. We're building towards a show in October this year, titled 'True Endeavour' which should comprise around 250 works, plus an online show. Together, I think we've found a solid mutual voice.

True Endeavour - a Wiltshire Exhibition

We're collaborating to create a vivid collection of photography, painting and portraiture, celebrating the diverse skills of the county's contemporary enterprise as an exemplar of the Great British economy. 100 firms will eventually be profiled from a range of service and manufacturing industries. From brewers to bakers, and directors to drivers, the collection reflects the realities, beauty, courage and dedication of its contribution to UK business. 

The show will start online around July 2012, and will culminate in an exhibition of work in October, probably at Swindon Steam Museum or a similar location.

Sweat is Sweet

In earlier works, a collection titled 'Entrepreneur Series', I've paid homage to risk takers in small businesses, and I started a Saatchi Online Collection largely in the winter of 2011/12 to this end. I do love entrepreneurs, they're very much the unsung heroes of our culture.

Many entreprenuers have an unglamorous existence, like the early inventors in their drafty sheds and candle-lit-rooms – today they're in industrial estates and soul-less offices. To me, they're all hereos, whether they fail or succeed – they're what makes our economy, our culture, our country flourish.

Proof of Idea

Nigel and I originally joined forces and went to Great Bedwyn Motors, a lovely oily grimy garage with enthusiastic mechanics, all sweat and boilersuits, and we just plunged into a photographic rampage of closeups, figures, stains, textures and power tools. We took over a thousand shots, and we could almost smell the oil on every one of them.

Working with Nigel in that superb garage really proved an idea we formed - how about a show, based on hard work and entrepreneurs? So we've lined up about twenty companies so far, and we're just revelling in the development of a show which celebrates Wiltshire's role in our nation’s enterprise.

Can You Help?

If you know any of the following, I'd be really grateful to know:

  • firms in the SN postcode that might want to participate - small or large 
  • venues large enough in Swindon for 250 works


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How to Commission a Portrait

Thinking about a giving a portrait as a present, and don't know any artists? Sometimes it's hard to know where to start. I'd say it's easier than it might appear - and I'd suggest that there six elements to commissioning a portrait, only two of which need early thought.

1.The Right Artist

Satisfy yourself that your preferred artist is in-budget and creatively right for you. This means browsing around and comparing artists. If your budget is around £5,000 then you'll see quite a lot of suitable artists on www.therp.co.uk. Stretch to £10,000 or £20,000 and you'll find more there. And if you have a tiny budget, you could start with your nearest art college. But if you're looking for a professional portrait artist at under £1,000, you'll have to scour the internet, using Google (try searching for 'Wiltshire portrait painter £600', that kind of thing). That'll give you the most choice. And of course you'll see portfolio work immediately.

2. The Purpose

This is the other major issue to sort before you commission - knowing your own intentions. A portrait gift is easiest - because you're effectively passing the purpose on to the recipient. But if you're commissioning for yourself, spouse or family, then knowing what you want to achieve is useful - for example, 'I'd like to mark my fortieth birthday', 'I want something to pass down to future generations', 'My wife deserves recognition for all her hard work'. This helps the painter know if he's to emphasise looks, youth, occupation, achievement or character for instance. Most of us would say 'all of the above please', but a better painting will probably result from a purity of purpose. And if you have no idea, then talking it through with the painter is a good idea.

3. Personality

Before the commission is confirmed, it's useful to discuss your personality. This of course means opening up a bit, and perhaps you'll feel a little nervous here. Don't worry, a good portrait painter should have social and personality antennae and should be a natural at getting a feel for your personality. But don't be afraid to reveal a little - it always helps the painting.

4. Location

Next it's down to practicals - location being the key - studio, home, workplace or even photos. Placing you in your own environment at home or work is intimate and personal. Lifting you onto hilltops suggests a love of outdoor life and sending you to relevant foreign shores hints at travel or a spiritual home. These are subtle matters, but over time as you live with the painting, you'll be glad of the thorough thought.

5. Symbolism, Backgrounds and Props

The visual treatment of your portrait is next to consider. Are you ok with symbolism? Perhaps you might like a few roofs in the background to symbolise ambition, or a river for life-force. There's an excellent book on 'The Language of Symbols' by David Fontana. As for props, these can be literal - your favourite tool or book in your hands - or they can be symbolic - a butterfly for immortality or a Celtic knot for longevity.

6. Style

Last but not least, choose a painting style. Big brush strokes or small? Vibrant colours or conservative? Near photo realism or more expressive? Some artists can work in classical style, modern style and even bespoke their style to your brief. So it's helpful to research a style you like - perhaps warm and vivid, or solid and conservative.

These are, of course, just my opinions, but I hope you found this article useful. Do add your own thoughts below.

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Painting 'The Rabbit Breeder'

'Rabbit Breeder' holds the subject's gaze on a seaside horizon. This girl's a calm and unhurried individual. I wanted to combine her contentedness with her self-confidence, and her frequent gazes at the sea were a gift.

It's a speculative portrait, one of six, each a member of the same family portrayed while out walking. It's based on a series of photos, which I cut up to make a composite model, before painting. The location is East Pier, Howth Harbour in Dublin. It was a breezy and cloudy day, the light milky and flat, which prompted me to inject more colour. Turned out to be a gift – I pushed them way further than normal, and that encouraged me to think of the subject's youth and happiness as a key to colour.

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Painting 'The Dublin Linguist'

'Dublin Linguist' finds the subject out at the seaside, the cold pinching her shoulders slightly. This girl's empathetic and mature for her age, and I wanted to combine her convivial expression with a sense of her open, unjudging awareness.

It's a speculative portrait, one of six, each a member of the same family portrayed while out walking. It's based on a series of photos, which I cut up to make a composite model, before painting. The location is East Pier, Howth Harbour in Dublin. It was a breezy and cloudy day, the light milky and flat, which prompted me to inject more colour. It turned out to be a gift – I pushed them further than normal, and that encouraged me to think of this subject's warmth and energy as a pointer for colour.

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Painting 'The Dublin Playwright'

'Dublin Playwright' captures a woman out in fresh air, relaxed and enjoying good company. She's gregarious and social, and participating in the unseen family ramble. I wanted to capture both her social face and observing eye, the subject's natural state.

It's a speculative portrait, one of six, each a member of the same family portrayed while out walking. It's based on a series of photos, which I cut up to make a composite model, before painting. The location is East Pier, Howth Harbour in Dublin. It was a breezy and cloudy day, the light milky and flat, which prompted me to inject more colour. It turned out to be a gift – I pushed them further than normal, and that encouraged me to think of this subject's vitality as a pointer for colour.

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