Oil portraits are available on traditional stretched canvas.
A stretched canvas (where the canvas fabric is tightly stretched over and stapled to a timber frame) is typically either 18-20mm (3/4″) to 38mm (1 1/2″) deep. I offer both, depending on whether you intend to have your painting framed, or hung directly on the wall for a more modern look. When a canvas is framed the thinner option is better so that your frame doesn’t need to be excessively deep in order to hide the sides. With a canvas hung directly on the wall a chunkier frame tends to look better – please see more information on hanging your painting below. I use canvases which are archival and acid-free, with a medium-textured weave .
Above are some examples of stretched canvases, with thin or chunky stretchers. I buy these pre-primed and ready to paint on. You can see how the canvas is pulled tight around the frame and stapled to it. When the canvas is going to be hung on the wall unframed, the staples are put on the back only – this is called a ‘gallery wrap’.
Something to be aware of when commissioning an oil painting is that the paint is usually applied in a number of layers, and each layer can take up to a weeks to dry so if you are ordering a painting for a particular event you’ll need to allow plenty of time. I can let you know how long a painting is likely to take to be completed and fully dry. I like to work in two main layers, and then a layer of final touches on top. If you’re interested to learn about oil painting techniques you can read more in this article.
Below you can see the first and final layers of an oil painting:
commissioning an oil portrait
what size of portrait to choose
On the prices page you’ll find a costs list for some typical sizes – all come in either thin or thick canvases (depending on whether you are framing them or not). Canvases are easily available to buy pre-primed in a large number of different sizes and so I will discuss this with you when you commission your painting – for example if you go for an A4 (small) size and price, you can either have an exactly A4 sized canvas, or something slightly less rectangular (or a square). It may be that depending on your photo reference and the type of portrait you want that one particular shape may seem like it would work better.
If you want a painting with two subjects in it then you’ll need a canvas of at least A3 size, and for three subjects it will need to be at least A2. I generally advise that a small canvas (around A4) is amply big for a painting of a small child, and that in general and unless you want a huge ‘statement’ painting, it’s better not to have your subject’s head larger than it actually is in reality.
UK 'A' sizes diagram
Above is a diagram showing the typical UK ‘A’ sizes. These double in size as the numbers decrease, so A3 is twice the size of A4, and A2 is double that of A3.
what kind of photos I’ll need to work from
For a painting (even more than a pencil drawing) I will almost certainly ask you to take new photos specifically for the portrait as it’s essential that I have close-up pictures taken on a digital camera to work from – those taken on a phone camera of any kind will not be suitable as they too small and don’t capture the tones and colour well enough. Remember that the photo needs to be a substitute for the person (or pet) actually sitting in front of me. To get the best result for your portrait therefore, it’s a good idea to have a little photoshoot with your subject and take some photos specifically with the portrait in mind. If you want a portrait with more than one subject, then it’s really essential to take photo of them together because otherwise it will be hard for me to unify the tones.
On the commissioning info page there are lots of general tips on how to take suitable photos for me (please make sure that you take them in daylight rather than artificial light) and for a painted portrait you’ll also need to think about whether or not you want a background. You can of course just have a plain background of soft complimentary tones, but if you want a detailed background you’ll need to photograph your subject in this particular setting – I can alter and edit this background a little of course, but it’s not a good idea to ‘import’ a background behind them as the tones and lighting will be different. When painting a portrait with a background behind I prefer to keep the sharper detail on the face and to paint the background shapes and colours in softer slightly abstracted strokes – you can see some examples in the gallery.
sending out your portrait
It’s usually advisable to allow your painting to stay with me for a couple of weeks after completion to make sure that the paint layer is fully dry and stable. Once ready, oil portraits are safely sandwiched between two custom sheets of MDF board to fully protect the canvas, before being double wrapped in polythene. I use the Royal Mail Next Day Special Delivery which is a tracked service requiring a signature on delivery and I’ve always found it very reliable. Portraits are also fully insured in the mail however (read more on guarantees in the terms and conditions) The prices page has full delivery information and costs for sending your oil painting out to you. If you live in the London region you are also very welcome to collect your painting from me in person.
framing and looking after your oil portrait
I don’t supply portraits in frames. However I am happy to offer advice on what kind of frame will suit your portrait. The framing a painting page has lots of advice on how to frame a painting (or reasons why you might prefer not to frame it) There’s also information on how to hang and look after an oil painting to ensure it doesn’t suffer any environmental damage.
Oil paint is chemically rather unstable for a number of years, and therefore it’s very important that your painting is kept in stable conditions without excessive heat or damp which may cause rotting to the canvass or movement within the timber frame which may crack the paint.
Above: people often wonder what these little wedges on the back of their canvases are! The answer is that they are called ‘canvas wedges’ and their purpose is to maintain tension in the canvas after the painting is finished, if it should become a little loose and slack.
the varnish question
Oil paintings are traditionally framed without glass, and so whether framed or not you’ll need to decide whether your painting should eventually be varnished to protect it from dirt. Whether varnish should be necessary or not is rather a hotly debated topic and you can read about it in more detail on the framing a painting article. There’s an aesthetic question over varnishing as it produces a shiny effect and alters the quality of the painting, but the main difficulty with it is that oil paint takes a long time to dry – although it will be safe to handle within a few weeks without the paint coming off on your hands, it dries through a process of oxidization rather than evaporation as the oil binder in the paint meets the air. This process takes at least six months for the main chemical changes to have occurred and it isn’t advisable to have your painting varnished before then. If you want your painting to be varnished then I’d suggest arranging for it to be delivered back to me after this time for me to give it a layer of varnish, or you could ask a local painter or restorer to do this for you. However you may decide that it’s not necessary – if you keep your painting in a room well away from any candle or fireplace soot and away from cooking fumes and give it a gentle wipe with a moistened soft cloth regularly then it will probably be fine for at least a generation or two.