Bríd Higgins Ní Chinnéide
An Ideal Sitter
My father died one month ago today. The repeated realisation that he is gone and that I’ll never be able to talk to him again is crushing.
I can’t believe it’s only four weeks since he drifted off, leaving his cooling body behind. I keep forgetting it has happened and I catch myself having a fleeting idea that he might like to hear a certain piece of news. Then I have to swat that thought away and circle back to the understanding that it is all over.
Dad was a great support to me in my painting. He always came to my exhibitions and often made embarrassing return visits, when he would linger near my work, hoping to hear compliments from passing viewers. He was also unrestrained in offering pointers on how certain paintings might be improved.
I painted Dad over a couple of months in the early summer. I liked to paint him, but I also thought that the sitting might give us a chance to be together without any pressure to talk. He was already quite sick at the time. I kept dragging out the work, insisting that one more sitting was necessary. I’m glad I did that now.
I painted his portrait 3 times in total. The first time was about 15 years ago. I was at home one summer and I asked him to sit. I had a very rich, formal portrait in mind, and I set up a background of dark velvet clothing draped against a bookcase. As usual, he wore a jacket, shirt and tie and I arranged it as a head-and-shoulders composition with him looking straight at me. My skills weren’t really up to formal portraits at the time, but in many ways this first portrait of dad captured something of his humour. I remember I laboured away at it for a long while and he took on the role of supportive sitter, unstinting in his willingness to collaborate or advise. I didn’t always want the advice.
Later when we got the portrait framed, we hung it in the living room behind Dad’s chair. Perhaps you tempt fate if you sit under your portrait every day. The face in the painting looks out with a twinkle in his eye, while the man in the chair beneath watches the news and grows older and weaker.
Dad was not vain, though. He liked to look well, but he was not self-conscious. If he saw an unflattering photograph, he would recognise a flaw in the photography. Nor was he deluded about his appearance, and often referred to himself as a “stout wee man”.
This lack of appearance anxiety is an ideal quality in a sitter for a portrait. It makes the painter’s job less nerve-wracking when the sitter does not try to scrutinise himself through the eyes or the artist. It also meant that dad was more interested in whether a good painting was being produced, than in how he appeared on the canvas.
The second painting I made of Dad was two years ago when I was preparing for the Sky Portrait Artist of the Year competition. I was looking for volunteers to sit so that I could practice painting 4-hour portraits. Dad volunteered.
I sat opposite him at the kitchen table. He leaned on his threadbare elbows and clasped his hands in front of him characteristically, looking at me straight-on. The blue of his shirt picks up the light in his blue eyes and he looks relaxed and receptive; like a good listener.
He was a great listener. He was a great talker too. Here again he showed ideal “sitter” qualities. He would chat away until I would complain about having to paint figures in motion, and then he would sit contentedly in silence, listening for the next queue. He was totally present in the moment and had no compulsion leave it. I suppose it’s a kind of mindfulness. When a sitter is in this state, you can really get on with the business of painting. The four hour painting is not wonderful - I’m not happy with the hands - but I think I managed to capture him in that moment, and I’ll be glad to keep it.
The last portrait was the one last summer. I hung it in his bedroom while he was sick, so that he would have things to look at. I’m not sure he liked it very much. He looks serious in this one and more passive than the last two pictures. I remember how he sat and looked out across the garden, remarking every so often on how lovely it looked and how the shed was great painted green even though you would never normally think of painting a shed green when the whole garden is green. He was relaxed and happy to be there and he saw himself as doing a service to me and my painting, which he was.
The ideal sitter is generous in giving you their time.The ideal sitter would keep sitting there forever.