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Students master the art of portrait painting

students at UEL

For University of East London fine art student Daumants Brūninš, creating a portrait isn’t simply about capturing the precise outline of a face or finding the right colour for an eye.

“I think you have to feel something and this feeling you have to pass through your brush or painting,” he says.

Daumants offered his thoughts at the end of a long day of painting at London’s National Portrait Gallery. He was among a dozen UEL art students invited by gallery staff to spend a week there studying the techniques of portrait painter John Singer Sargent, who is currently the subject of a special exhibition.

The exclusive opportunity came to UEL through fine art senior lecturer Si Sapsford, a noted artist who has collaborated with the gallery in the past.

“It’s been quite intense and really enjoyable. We’ve seen a lot of development with the students and their work. I know the students have been really inspired by it,” Ms Sapsford said.

Students worked under Rupert Alexander, a celebrated portrait painter whose commissions include the Queen and other members of the Royal Family.

“We wanted to help a new generation of students from the University learn a little about how Sargent approached painting and light and colour and so forth,” Mr Alexander said.

The workshop kicked off with a private tour of Sargent’s paintings led by exhibition curator Richard Ormond. Mr Ormond, who is Sargent’s great-nephew, is considered by many to be the world’s leading authority on the painter.

Mr Alexander then led students through several days of drawing, painting and studying Sargent’s approach to art. The gallery, with funding from an American art organisation, provided the UEL group with easels, paint and other supplies. It also paid for live models to act as subjects for the students.

Throughout the week, students had the added benefit of being able to visit the Sargent exhibit as often as they wished.

“It’s been very inspiring knowing that we can come upstairs and look at particularly Sargent’s work because he was so free and there’s a kind of joy in his work,” said student Jez Prior.

The students practised techniques including the sight-size method, where painting and drawing is done on a one-to-one scale; manipulating shadows to create the impression of light; and mixing colour using a reduced palette.

Some of these are classical approaches to painting that the average art student may not experience during training.

“A lot of these techniques, the schools haven’t taught them. In the past, people would be apprenticed to a master and they would learn the technique from him,” Ms Sapsford explained.

“The sight-size method is not taught, really, at colleges. Now, you may have 15 students around a model. To have that one-to-one with a model and working life size is fairly unheard of these days,” she said.

It’s for reasons like this that workshops and other special opportunities are such an integral part of UEL’s fine art programme offerings, she added.

The students, for their part, found the experience rather exhilarating.

While working with just one or two colours can be incredibly restricting for an artist, it does takes a certain discipline to visually transcribe an image under such limitations, Jez Prior said. 

“That can have a massive effect on you. From now on you can look at everything in that way. It’s brilliant,” he said.

Rupert Alexander said the UEL students had proved themselves quick learners.

“I think they have been very dedicated for the most part. Everyone turned up every day and worked tirelessly. They have got a thousand questions a day which is wonderful for me as a teacher,” he went on.

The workshop culminated with a public exhibition of the students’ work during the gallery’s popular “Late Shift” evening event.

Students praised the overall experience.

“I feel that this week has really given me some of the most fantastic techniques and ways of moving forward,” said second year Marian Monas.

“I realise I’ve just got to go and practice it. I’ve got a lot more confidence in being able to do what I want to do with painting,” she said.

Daumants Brūninš was also positive.

“This opportunity gave me courage to do as much portrait painting as possible to develop my skills, especially in this old school style. I hope after a couple of years I can mix it with the abstract style I like now.”

Notes to Editors

The University of East London (UEL) is a global learning community with students from over 120 countries world-wide. Our vision is to achieve recognition, both nationally and internationally, as a successful and inclusive regional university proud of its diversity, committed to new modes of learning which focus on students and enhance their employability, and renowned for our contribution to social, cultural and economic development, especially through our research and scholarship. We have a strong track-record in widening participation and working with industry.