This is a portrait of my parents, Maeve and Keith. The location is the kitchen of their home in county Wicklow where I grew up.
I wanted to do a double portrait as a challenge, so I asked my parents to pose. I looked at lots of double portraits such as van Eyck‘s famous Arnolfini portrait, Fantin-Latour‘s Mr and Mrs Edwin Edwards and David‘s Mongez portrait.
But most importantly I looked at Otto Dix‘s painting Die Eltern des Künstlers II. Dix’s portraits of his parents also inspired UK artist Vincent Brown when he painted a portrait of his parents. (He wrote a really great article about his experience entering painting competitions with the same portrait incidentally.)
Similar to Vincent Brown I wanted to paint what I know. My parents had proper jobs and careers which mattered to people. But that isn’t what I know of them particularly. This domestic setting was. I wanted to show my parents as the people they are to me. There are too many things to talk about in that regard, but suffice it to say I owe them a lot and I am very lucky to have them. And what I think both Dix and Brown have in common is they both paint with a mix of physical realism and an understanding of their sitters. This is what I thought I could try with this portrait. (I’m not saying I can paint like either of them for a minute – just that I had that in mind.) Whether that understanding I have of my parents comes across in the work or not is hard to say. But I will say that I was happy with the way the location fitted in well with the two portraits. In my mind these things are strongly linked and that comes across a bit in the painting I think. In previous portraits I had never included so much that was of relevance in the background and, as my first double portrait also, both these elements were new for me.
In terms of execution I wanted to make the heads in the painting life size or at least very close to it in keeping with the principles of painting from life as taught to me. This is why the painting ended up bigger than anything I have worked on before. Another thing I tried to consider was something I noticed when I went to see the Rembrandt show in London. In his portraits Rembrandt always painted one dominant eye with the other more passive – one eye was always more prominent than the other – and I wanted to try to do the same thing in various ways with the two figures. But I also tried to link the two figures together in the composition and in the setting using the light and with the rhythms of the two poses and also with the hands and the two Aga lids. (Yes, the line of the wall on the right is really shaped like that.) Ultimately this painting was an applied formal exercise, but one with personal meaning for me.
I fine painting subjects I know in this way affirming to me. It’d be great if anyone looking at it felt that way too. It’s going to be in this year’s Hennessy Portrait show at the National Gallery which opens on 25 November 2017.