Painting a Portrait Miniature

“Punting On The Cam”

By Rosemary Bentley

I often demonstrate the painting of a miniature at my local art society exhibition and one of the most frequent comments made is, “I never realised that people could still paint like that.” I always assure them that there are many of us who do and that the painting of miniatures is still very much alive and well.

Miniature painting has a long history in many parts of the world. Notably India, Iran (Persia) and Russia. But in Europe it is Britain that has kept the art alive and through our worldwide connections it is now very popular in the United States, South Africa, Australia, Tasmania and New Zealand. And The World Federation of Miniaturists holds an exhibition in a different country every four years.

It was on a visit to the Wallace Collection in London that I first became aware of the beauty of miniature paintings and was lucky enough to find a book in our local library, Painting Miniatures by Elizabeth Davys Wood. This gave the information to start me off and where to buy the base materials, and frames. And then it was a case of trial and error, and 25 years I am still learning.

I was about twelve when I decided I wanted to be a portrait painter and was lucky to receive much encouragement from my parents. After leaving school I went to Exeter College of Art which at that time was housed in the City Museum and not far from the birthplace of Nicholas Hilliard. Strangely, this first English artist of note was never mentioned. John Bratby was the preferred choice of inspiration, but sadly I didn’t want to paint poor imitations of John Bratby’s work.

During my second year at art school my mother was taken very ill and I had to give up my art training to be her carer. In a way it was a freedom as Rembrandt, Botticelli, Ingres and Gainsborough became my tutors instead and I was able to paint and draw in my own way. In later years I have broadened my subject matter and as well as portraits I paint still life and flowers.

In the past miniatures were usually painted on either parchment, vellum or ivory. Nicholas Hilliard in his Treatise Concerning the art of Limning advised ‘Take an ordinary playing card, (polish the white side of it); make it even and clean from spots, then cut out a piece of parchment equal to the card, polish it, and make it as smooth as possibly you can and then with fine and clean starch paste it on the card. When the card is dry lay the card parchment side down and polish it well on the reverse’.

Luckily for modern-day miniaturists there are many other options. For many years ivorine, a plastic material similar in colour and thickness to ivory was very popular. It is still used but is now difficult to obtain and polymin is more often the base of choice. This is a translucent surface treated plastic sheet. Vellum, paper, silk, smooth card and board can also be used. In fact any smooth durable surface.

Early miniatures were painted in watercolour or gouache but now oil paints, acrylics, pencil, scraperboard, etchings, enamels and gold on glass are all used with incredible skill to create perfect miniature pictures. Brushes must be of good quality and able to hold their point well or life can become very frustrating. Portraiture is no longer the only subject. Landscape, animals, birds, silhouettes, buildings, interiors and still life are all popular subjects too.

I painted this miniature portrait on white Polymin cut to a slightly larger size than the finished painting. Firstly, I cleaned the Polymin with washing up liquid to remove any grease marks. The brushes I used are Pro Arte series 100. Sizes 00, 0, 1 and 2.

The paints are Winsor and Newton Artists’ quality watercolours.

  • Light Red
  • Cadmium Red
  • Winsor Orange
  • Lemon Yellow
  • Yellow Ochre
  • French Ultramarine
  • Cobalt Blue
  • Sap Green
  • Burnt Sienna
  • Indigo
  • Ivory Black

I paint at a Victorian table desk which slopes at a convenient angle and I use a magnifying visor
for my less than perfect eyesight.

Image 1
I used two photographs as source material and first drew a rough sketch which gave me an idea of how the portrait would sit in the oval frame.
Image 2
I then drew an 8mm square grid on a piece of acetate and a 4mm square on a piece of tracing paper. I placed the larger square grid on top of the source material and transferred the image square by square to the tracing paper.
Image 3
The portrait was then placed on the light box and transferred to the Polymin with a very thin mixture of French Ultra marine and Burnt Sienna and a light wash of the base colours was applied.
Image 4
Using a mixture of Cadmium Red and Lemon Yellow I placed a wash over the face. The hair was a wash of Yellow Ochre for the lights and Burnt Umber for the shadows. The pupils were a mixture of French Ultra marine with a trace of Burnt Sienna and a slightly darker mixture was used for the inside of the collar.
Image 5
I use a pointillist technique and continued to build up the colours on the face, being careful to ensure I didn’t lose the brilliant orange reflection on the chin and ears. I painted a wash of Lemon Yellow mixed with Cobalt Blue on the trees behind the head and a wash of Lemon Yellow over the water and life-jacket. With Winsor Orange I started to fill in the colour of the life-jacket and used Burnt Sienna to paint the back of the seat.
Image 6
With Sap Green I painted the background trees and with a mixture of Lemon Yellow and French Ultra marine plus a little Burnt Sienna I painted the shadow area on the river. At each I stage I continued to build up the colour on the face, adding a little French Ultramarine to the base colour in the shadow areas. I finished the eyes, making sure I kept the highlight unpainted.
Image 7
A mixture of French Ultra marine and a little Burnt Sienna was used for the sleeves and I continued to build up the colour on the life-jacket, carefully adding a line of Ivory Black for the Piping. French Ultra marine was added to the shadow areas in the hair and the nostrils were slightly darkened.
Image 8
I deepened the shadows on the seat and sleeves and finished the hair. The zip was painted in Indigo, edged with Ivory Black, The teeth on the zip were carefully painted round. The logo was painted in Indigo and the lettering tidied up with a very fine damp brush. The clips were also in Indigo with Ivory Black in the shadow areas.
Image 9
Finally, the miniature was checked to remove any specks of dust and then fixed in an oval frame under convex glass.

63 x 49 mm / 2,5 x 2 “

Published with kind permission of the Leisure Painter, UK, Magazine, where the report was included in the August 2018 edition.

© Rosemary Bentley

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