Jamie Routley on portrait painting

Jamie Routley on portrait painting

By Jo Caird 02/04/15

Artist Jamie Routley talks to Jo Caird about his training in the “sight-size” method, how every portrait is a collaboration with the sitter and the impact of winning the BP Portrait Award: Young Artist Prize in 2012...

Why portraiture? 

My father always gave up the time to sit for me when I was in my teens. As a working-class family, all the men of the family worked down in the dockyards in Newport. Portraiture seemed very accessible to us.

They’d take me to art galleries – we’d always be drawn to portraiture in particular and I think that’s something that’s still with me now and the reason why I’m still interested in people and portrait painting. 

Tell us about your training 

I left school at 15 and did a BTEC in art and design, then ended up on an illustration course in Swindon of all places. It was quite early on that I realised that actually I didn’t want to be an illustrator at all – I just wanted to be a painter.

I stumbled across an article about a painter that studied under an American painter called Charles H. Cecil in Florence. It wasn’t so much the work that this painter was producing, it was the idea behind the studio, a thorough training in painting from life, which I found interesting. I’d only really been encouraged to work from photographs. 


Image © Jamie Routley

Tony Lewis, Oil on Canvas, 18” x 49”, 2012 © Jamie Routley


What’s the thinking behind “sight-size”, the method you studied in Florence? 

The term was coined in the 19th century and it means to work from life to the scale of life. One of the principle ideas involves distance so I place my canvas next to the sitter and I stand an appropriate distance back, usually the other side of the studio, and this allows me to see the sitter and the canvas side-by-side to see the whole image.

I make all my decisions from that distance; I don’t look at things close up. And when I’m walking towards the canvas I’m not looking at the sitter any more. I’m interested in how we see things naturally, the things that my eyes choose to focus on – and distance really helps me to evaluate things. 


Images © Jamie Routley

Mother, Oil on Canvas, 42” x 32”, 2014 © Jamie Routley


How does the process of painting someone’s portrait begin?

You try to ascertain whether it’s someone that you can work with, because it requires a time commitment on their behalf. If it’s all positive after you’ve explained the basic things then I’ll generally get them to come to the studio. Or if I think it’s more appropriate, I’ll go to them. If it’s a larger painting, there’s a lot that goes into it before the painting even starts. 

I’m just about to start a painting of a headmaster at a public school – so I went up there just to look around the building and to get a feel for the institution. I went back up there to meet him after I’d had some time to think and to read some books about the place. When I decided on where I was setting him I made a drawing of him and then I worked on sketching the background.

I’ve now come back to the studio. We’re going to paint the head here – we’ll have about five sittings over a month and then we’ll have a few sittings with a body double, which is something I do when I work with someone who’s quite busy. Then I’ll have the painting transported up and I’ll probably paint at the school for two weeks on site, and I’ll only need a few sittings with the headmaster. 

You must spend a lot of time with each sitter – do friendships ever develop?

They become such a huge part of your life. You share that collaboration and you know that as long as the painting doesn’t get destroyed, that time spent together will be there for everyone to see. Painting, to me, is reacting to the subject in front of me – it’s usually something fleeting that you have to rapidly put down. 


Image © Jamie Routley

Inner Dialogue, Oil on Canvas, 48.5” x 40”, 2013 © Jamie Routley


What impact did winning the BP Portrait Award 2012: Young Artist Prize have on your career?

It was two different things: winning the Young Artist Award and then the fact that the following year the painting was chosen to be all over the advertisements, which was very helpful. It was a real boost to my self-esteem and I suppose that the self-portrait [above, which was shortlisted for the prize] in the following year was a direct comment on that – on how difficult it was to be a painter. 

You feel the knock-on effect but it just doesn’t happen as quickly as you think. When they go to the exhibition, people aren’t necessarily in the right place in their life to have a portrait painted, but suddenly when they are they have you in their mind. It’s really tough being a painter – I can’t stress that enough.

Psychologically you have to develop such a thick skin – probably what I work on more than anything else is my own psychology.


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Images © Jamie Routley

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